Resting in Peace. Or Not.

cemetery rabbit pays respects 2017--5-28

Several times this week I’ve walked on a high, windy hill a few miles north of my ranch, smiling and talking to people no one else could have seen, if anyone else had been there.

I was alone with our community’s dead.

Hello, Mary. I remember you so well. You would walk into the schoolyard, a tiny woman with a long black skirt, ankle-high black boots and wearing a black shawl wrapped around your head and shoulders. When the teachers shooed you away from us, you’d flutter a tiny hand in front of your lips and mumble.

Carrying a couple of trash bags, I went to Highland Park Cemetery near Hermosa to tidy the grounds for Memorial Day.cemetery Highland Park sign 2017--5-28

You died in 1976; I hadn’t remembered that, but I wasn’t living here at the time. And here’s your family. I remember my father telling me that they died of the disease that deafened and deformed you. What was it? Measles? Diphtheria, maybe.

No one else appeared as I walked each quarter of the grounds, but I know that on Memorial Day the narrow gravel roads will be crowded with cars. Neighbors who haven’t been here for years will stroll the aisles, decorating the graves of their own dead. And they’ll notice, and comment, on graves that have not been spruced up.

A man’s name reminds me how his wife used to roll his wheeled bed between the displays in one of the buildings at the county fairgrounds. I never knew what put him into that bed, but I shuddered every time I saw his pale face propped on the pillows.

I stuffed into my bags battered Christmas wreaths, shredded plastic and cloth flowers, broken crosses and flags smeared with mud.

A little square tombstone has fallen backward. Oh yes, they were neighbors on the east side of our ranch; we met them occasionally when we were all fixing fence. My dad would lean on a post talking while I wandered down the fence line reattaching staples. I try to set the stone upright, but it’s too heavy.

cemetery gumbo on shoe 2017--5-28Blades of brome grass are woven through some fallen bouquets, indicating that whoever placed them on these graves hasn’t been back since last year. Recent rains have turned the yellow gumbo into glue that clings to my shoes, sucking me downward.

I once wrote in a poem that nothing but buffalo grass and graves thrive on this hill, “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil.”

My folks always called it “Decoration Day.” Originally, relatives adorned the graves of armed services members with flags, wreaths and flowers. First widely observed on May 30, 1868, Decoration Day was created to honor both Union and Confederate Dead. As the custom of visiting the cemetery on the last Monday in May developed, so did the practice of decorating all the graves. In 1971, an Act of Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday.

When my folks were alive, we visited the cemetery before Memorial Day every year. We didn’t clean up the whole cemetery, just worked on the graves of the folks related to us. My father always insisted on turning over the sod on each grave, and working the weeds out of the tangle. I thought it was gruesome to make each grave look fresh. Once I had to dig out six alfalfa plants from the grave of the grandfather I never knew. He worked so hard to grow hay for his cattle that I felt terrible destroying those plants. My poem continued:

                               I’ll leave the spade
against Martha’s rock, try the hoe, hack
at the stubborn roots worked deep in clay.
The shock moves up my arm, down the hoe,
drumming to bones I’ll never see, deep
in the earth, deep inside my flesh.

Though I never knew my father’s parents, nor am I their blood relation, I feel connected to them through our ties to the land.

Untangling a plastic vase holding blue fabric flowers from the mesh of grasses, I looked them over. These looked fairly fresh, and lay between two graves, so I propped them against a headstone belonging to someone who died long ago and who probably has no living relatives in the area.

“That’s Eddie; he was my half-brother, from my mother’s first marriage,” my dad would explain. “And over here is his brother Archie.”cemetery Archie 2017--5-28

Archie’s stone, beside his mother’s, holds no message but the years of his birth and death. A cedar tree with a trunk thick as my thigh grows out of the grave’s heart. His brother Eddie, a few paces uphill, is identified as William Edward Callahan, a Sergeant in the 335th Field Artillery, 87th Division. Their photographs in the local history tome show them as brawny young men who marched off to World War I and survived.

Not long ago I found a box of letters Eddie wrote to his mother when he was in boot camp preparing for his overseas service in 1917 and 1918.

“I’m sure glad you had a good year because you need it want to get an Auto this fall so I can have a few joy rides when I come home next year I’ve been gone nearly a year now, haven’t I seems like a long time. . . . I’m still drilling rookies we’ve sure got a tough bunch. . . . part of them are in the guard house and the other half are ready to hit you with a knife every time you look around.”

Eddie later wrote that he didn’t believe he could ever settle down in one place after being in the service, but would travel the world. Instead, he married a local girl and settled down on the ranch with his parents. On March 29, 1942, his horse fell with him in one of our pastures. No one has ever shown me where he died. I picture his handsome, square-jawed face as I tuck a stray bouquet against his small white headstone.

Sorry I never knew you, Eddie; my dad never stopped talking about you and Archie. He grew up skinny and tall, a shriveled arm from the scarlet fever; he must have wanted so much to be sturdy and as handsome as you two.

cemetery tall marble 2017--5-28I pick up a wad of crumpled newspaper, a plastic bag holding the remains of a French fry container, and a beer bottle from the grass beside a tall, elaborately carved headstone, and pause to read the name and dates. The stone has begun to sink into the gumbo on one side.

My father would gesture to this grave and say, “They used to be big wheels in this county. They used to BE somebody. Now the whole family is here. There’s no one left.”

I’m tucking a bouquet beside a square red stone when I realize it says “Bender.” Of course! My dad always called one of our pastures “the Bender place,” keeping these folks I never met alive in my mind and memory. Now I know that’s probably where some of the family originally homesteaded.

My bag is nearly full but I follow the trail of trash to the far west side of the cemetery. Here, overlooked by the dark slope of the distant Black Hills, are the joined graves of a young couple who had planned to marry before they were killed by a drunken driver. Marriage brings uncertainties, trials, but these two will truly be together forever.

Dragging my bag to my car, I pass the graves of several Civil War veterans, identified by standard military headstones. A.G. Fout served in Company F of the 40th Ohio Infantry, and a local historian has learned that Anderson G. Fout fought in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, as well as surviving the carnage at Shiloh. Harrison Adams, Company F of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, participated in the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain at Lynchburg, TN, and in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, among others. He and then his widow received Civil War pensions. Official lists indicate at least 16 Civil War veterans are buried here, men who probably came west for the land promised by the Homestead Act. The simple white headstones bear only their names, with no indication of wives or children. Since only Union soldiers were considered veterans, we may never know if Confederate soldiers are entombed here.

AnnaLindsayBeside John and Anna Lindsay’s plot, I pause to recall their faces and the stories they told of struggling to make a living in blizzards, prairie fires, grasshoppers, beetles, dry weather, dust storms, hail storms and low prices. Anna said they went without sugar, gas and tires for years. Their only daughter was born during the famous Blizzard of 1949. During lean years, including two world wars and the Depression, both of them took turns working in town. Anna worked for the local telephone company for 25 years.

“Now remember,” my father cautioned as he handed me the telephone receiver. I was in high school, just beginning to get calls from boys. “Remember,” he repeated strongly, “Don’t say anything on the telephone that you don’t want the whole neighborhood to know.”

I nodded, knowing what he meant.

Lindsays sold their place to the Hasselstroms about the time my father married my mother and we moved to the ranch. Whenever we sorted cattle in their corrals, I usually seized the chance to explore their empty house or the cellar where they’d left a few discarded canning jars. When we tore down the old house, we moved the kitchen to our place to serve as a bunkhouse; later it became my office and now it’s my garden shed. The last linoleum Anna bought is still on the floor, and their round wood stove is ready to provide heat. Anna also read widely and enjoyed reciting these often-published lines:

I wish I were on yonder hill,
A’basking in the sun
With all the things I have to do
DONE.

She got her wish. The sun shines brightly on their plot, and their stones feel warm to the touch.

cemetery small black stone 2017--5-28A little lower on the hill, a headstone made of slate a half-inch thick is so difficult to read that I kneel in the grass and trace the delicately-carved letters. The baby who is buried here was nine months old, and died in 1892, not long after this cemetery was established. Surely the slate was collected in the nearby Hills. Several other markers, many of them dated to the harsh years of the 1930s, were probably made at home by relatives, of concrete set with quartz and other decorative stones.

At one time, the people buried in a nearby plot were important enough to be memorialized with an elaborately carved marble cross taller than I am. Now the weeping angel draped over the cross presides over nothing but weeds.

I am admiring an immaculate grave covered in red lava rock with a white quartz cross in the center when I realize it is the resting place of Homer and Lillian Hansen. Some days when the school bus stopped at their store, I was able to spend a hoarded dime for a candy bar. I introduce myself to the woman working there, their granddaughter, Joann.

“I’m visiting my future,” my father said each Memorial Day as he walked among the graves.

In a double plot lies William, born in 1927, dead in 1998, and still waiting for Ruth, whose birth date is engraved on the stone beside him. Tulips that may have been planted on a grave dug in 1975 are still blooming in cheery tones of red and yellow beside the frilly white blossoms of native death camas in the buffalo grass. A few sturdy thistles are budding between graves.

A piece of sandstone no larger than a piece of typing paper is nearly buried in the grass. I can’t see or feel any engraved letters. A broken cross, weathered gray, leans against it.

Not far away is the gravestone of the folks for whom a county road south of my place is named. I remember only the last one alive, an elderly spinster who died while I was in high school.

cemetery carved stone 2017--5-28

“Hanson” announces a great gray stone, and I can hear my father talking about these neighbors, Swedes who had come west with his father.

“The last one, Christine, got so she’d hide in the cellar when people came to visit. If they drove up from the east, they’d see her running across the yard toward the entrance.”

On our way to our east pasture, we passed their disintegrating corrals and house, and the collapsed cellar. Once I’m home, I turn to Our Yesterdays, a magnificent 920 pages of local history, hoping to find out more information. Sadly, I find that the Hansons, like many of the people my father knew when he was a child, were apparently all gone from the community before Anna Lindsay and her crew started collecting information for the book.

Nearly buried in lilacs is a stone labeled “Pelter,” and I hear my father’s voice again.

“Finn Pelter and his wife were headed to town with their new baby when the team bolted. Finn didn’t hesitate for a second.” My father shakes his head, laughing. “He grabbed the baby from his wife, handed her the reins of the horses, and jumped off the wagon.”

I am likely to be the only living person who remembers that story and can see the logic of it. Finn knew that the horses would eventually stop. He must have believed he could protect the baby better by jumping off rather than risk injury if the wagon tipped over. Finn’s mother, LuVisa, after whom his daughter was named, is buried beside the couple. Her tombstone reads, “She hath done what she could.” Finn just did what he could to save his child.

The name Upham catches my eye, another family that figured in my father’s stories. I see by the tombstone that he was only 10 or 11 years old when the last one died. Was he reciting stories he’d heard his parents tell? I find the same contradiction when I look at several other stones: they died when my father was a child. But he was always a good listener, and he had a phenomenal memory, so he recalled details that he may have heard from his father. I doubt anyone else remembers those tales, and why didn’t I write them down? I was scribbling notes from the time I was nine years old.

cemetery double hearts 2017--5-28

Here’s the grave of the girl who was killed in a collision just below cemetery hill, at the crossroads I can see when I straighten up. The stone on her grave has three parts; her parents’ birth dates are engraved beside the dates of her short life.

Chiseled on the back of the three joined stones is a statement signed with her name: “Love is caring enough not to hold on tightly. 1981.”

Eventually, I come to the small plot that holds my husband, George. I’ve clipped away the grass so the iris plants will show, along with the memorial plaque identifying him as an Air Force veteran. Today I see a small plastic box tucked against the headstone. Inside is a note from someone whose name I don’t recognize: “I tied these flies for you, George.”  This little gift has given me back a vivid memory, in almost-living color, and I nestle it against the headstone again.

I can see you hooking these flies into your hatband, George, smiling that half smile that shows your gold tooth, stripping line and stepping into rippling water that gleams with sunshine.

cemetery iris grass 2017--5-28Beside George lie my parents’ low stones. I’ve clipped the invasive grass short enough so the iris I planted here might get enough sunshine to bloom in time for Memorial Day. Beside my mother’s stone I’ve nurtured a lush collection of flax with deep blue blooms, just the color of her eyes when she was young.

In the newer part of the cemetery, where George is buried, many of the names are unfamiliar to me. Strangers. People for whom my mind supplies no memories. Yet this is their place too, and the people who were my neighbors are strangers to them.

Still, I continue to pick up litter and prop used bouquets close to the headstones. Behind me, I hear the roar of the riding mower operated by a man hired by the Cemetery Board to trim between the graves. He maneuvers his big machine carefully, bending over the side to be sure he doesn’t nick a stone.

Several rows of graves below me, a woman is wielding long clippers, lopping off branches from some of the huge lilac bushes that have grown over and around many graves. From a distance, these bushes look beautiful, bursts of green and purple on the pale prairie grass of the hillside. But on graves, they are a menace. Nothing hampers their growth; they cover entire graves and even topple large stones.

cemetery lilacs encroaching 2017--5-28

Taking a break, I walk down to where Terri is working and we lean against her pickup looking at the masses of lilac bushes left to cut back.

“I’m going to spend the summer doing this,” she says. “It has to be done, and no one else is doing it. Some of these people don’t have any living relatives.” Her grandson and niece drag lilac branches to her truck as we talk.

Guiltily, I look at the lilacs dominating the graves of my grandparents, Charley and Ida Hasselstrom. I know them only through my father’s memories and photographs. The first picture that comes to my mind is always the first one I saw of them, both seated on the weathered steps of the old house. I wrote about them in my poem, “Rancher: 1864-1928:”

A broad-shouldered man with a mustache and serious eyes,
he poses beside his wife seated on the porch.

Their first pregnancy bulges
despite the bulky dress and the hot day.

Her first three children are seated
steplike at his left,

with a collection of nieces and nephews behind him,
as if the entire pyramid of flesh

rested
upon his shoulders.

Charley Hasselstrom married the widow Ida Sanders Callahan and indeed took responsibility for the whole tribe of her relatives. Now I’m responsible for the graves of those who stayed in this area and died here. Time to go get the big clippers from the garage and start hacking those bushes.

Terri’s grandson crawls out from under a lilac bush shouting, “I found a dead guy in there!”

Bending down, I see the tunnel carved into a tangle of lilacs, and at the end, a crude concrete cross studded with fist-sized chunks of rose quartz. I’ve read that in ancient times pink quartz was believed to symbolize love. Did the survivors of this man know that symbolism, or only choose the most beautiful rocks they could find?

LMHcemetery09

Perched on the concrete border around the graves below the stone marked HASSELSTROM, I look south, to the hayfields where Charley Hasselstrom drove his teams of horses collecting hay for his cattle for the winter: “Fannie and Queen and Betts and Beauty.” He wrote their names in his journal. “Katy, Martha and Ester and Mary and May and Dolly.” He made his sons dig graves for the horses.

work horses feeding hay to cattle“I don’t want them to just lie there and rot and be eaten by coyotes, boys. They did a lot of work for us.”

I could find those graves in the hayfield. I’m the last one who knows.

To the southeast, past the town of Hermosa where subdivisions are beginning to crawl up the hills and ooze into those rich hayfields, I can see the high plateau where Charley and Ida homesteaded and raised their family.

I look north, where I own five burial plots surrounding George and my parents. I’ve provided room enough for me, for Jerry, and for anyone else we might invite to join us. There we’ll rest, and gradually those who knew us will cease to be.

Who will care for the family graves then? “Mitakuye oyasin” say the Lakota, “We are all related.” May some of our relatives take responsibility for all who lie in Highland Park.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Cemetery rabbit resident 2017--5-28Author’s note: Some of the names have been changed to protect individual privacy.

My intent was to post this blog in advance of Memorial Day. However, my Internet service, which has always been less than satisfactory, has failed again. I’m not sure what the company is calling itself this week; it seems to change business names frequently and one must wonder why. Most recently, our service has been Exede which used to be Hughesnet which became WireFree USA and which I’m told is now called Rapid Choice. I have been waiting a week for my Internet service to be resumed and I’m told I may not be able to connect for several more days.

*  *  *

I quoted from two of my poems in this essay—

The first poem, with the lines “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil” as well as “drumming to bones I’ll never see” is “Memorial Day” from Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993)

The second poem, beginning “A broad-shouldered man,” is “Rancher: 1864-1928” from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991; new edition 2008)

*  *  *

All of the cemetery photos were taken at Highland Park Cemetery, Hermosa, South Dakota. The stones pictured– other than Archie Callahan’s, the Hasselstrom family marker, and the iris blooming on my mother’s grave– do not necessarily correspond with the stories in the essay.

The photo of Anna Lindsay at her telephone switchboard is from the local history book Our Yesterdays.

*  *  *

Through the magic of some internet searching I learned that the poem Anna Lindsay often quoted, which was once thought to be her own composition, is apparently the work of another.

“Ambition” by E.C. Richardson was published in The Saturday Evening Post on November 19, 1932.

Ambition

I would I were beneath a tree
A-sleeping in the shade,
With all the bills I’ve got to pay
PAID

I would I were on yonder hill
A-basking in the sun,
With all the work I’ve got to do
DONE.

I would I were beside the sea
Or sailing in a boat,
With all the things I’ve got to write
WROTE.

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Feeding South Dakota: Empty Bowls

Fighting HungerRecently I contributed to the local Empty Bowls project, and I urge everyone to do so. This project helps feed hungry children in the local area– including my hometown of Hermosa. The project that helps local folks the most is the BackPack Program, which provides bags of nutritious and easy-to-prepare food for children who otherwise would not get enough to eat on the weekend. Nationwide, this 15-year-old program feeds more than 450,000 children on weekends.

Proper nutrition is critical to a child’s development mentally and physically; hunger reduces academic achievement and even future economic prosperity. A hungry child will never achieve full potential. In the U.S. today, 15 million children are hungry– that’s one in five. Contribute locally to improve the future of our nation.

My contribution this year was modest: I painted a bowl that will be part of the Celebrity Auction at the local Empty Bowls event.

Bowl painted by Linda 2016

My painted bowl, which proves that I am no artist, will be sold at silent auction along with a signed copy of my most popular book, Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, at the Empty Bowls luncheon March 23 at the Surbeck Center at the S.D. School of Mines. This photograph was taken before the bowl was fired, so the colors should be more vivid.

In 2009, at the invitation of Ruby Wilson, I drove to Brookings, S.D., for an Empty Bowls fundraiser sponsored by the United Church of Christ, to benefit Heifer International. (Heifer International is one of my favorite charitable organizations, and yes, they give cows to people to help them become self-supporting– also pigs, chickens, turkeys and other critters that translate into more long-term help than one meal.) I read a new poem dedicated to the event, and the poem was first published on a poster advertising the fundraiser. “Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers” subsequently appeared in my book Dirt Songs, with Twyla M. Hansen.

Here’s how you can help this year:

March 23, 2016
11-12pm, 12:30-1:30pm, 5:30-6:30pm
SDSMT Surbeck Ballroom

Leadership Rapid City Class of 2013 invites you to participate in the 4th Annual Empty Bowls Luncheon benefiting the BackPack Program of Feeding South Dakota.

Empty Bowls is an international project to fight hunger. The premise of the Empty Bowls Project is straightforward. Patrons are served a simple meal of soup and bread. At the end of the event, guests choose a ceramic bowl (crafted by artists and community participants) to keep. The Empty Bowls are a reminder of the many bowls we have filled, and the bowls we still need to fill to provide nourishment and food to the hungry.

Empty Bowls began in Michigan in the spring of 1991. Due to the tremendous success of the project and the work of thousands of participants, Empty Bowls projects now occur many times throughout the year, all over the world, raising millions of dollars to fight hunger.

There are many different ways to get involved and participate in the message of the Empty Bowls Luncheon. Here are just a few ways to help make this event a success:

Become an Empty Bowls Sponsor. Consider sponsoring the Empty Bowls Luncheon as a business, a local organization, or as an individual. Various levels are available from a BackPack Buddy Partner of $150 to a major sponsorship of $10,000. We would love to partner with your business or organization!

Create and Donate a Bowl. You don’t have to be a professional artist to participate! Leadership Rapid City and Feeding South Dakota have teamed up with Pottery 2 Paint so that individuals and groups of all ages and skill levels can take part and share in the fun. Individuals can paint a bowl and purchase at ticket to the luncheon for just $15!

More than 21 million children qualify for free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program. For many of these children, school meals may be the only meals they eat. What happens when they go home over the weekend?

For more than 15 years, the Feeding America BackPack Program has been helping children get the nutritious and easy-to-prepare food they need to get enough to eat on the weekends. Today, bags of food are assembled at more than 160 local food banks and then distributed to more than 450,000 children at the end of the week. With your help, we can provide more food to more children in need.

*  *  *

I was just informed of another fine event to help the Hermosa BackPack Program:

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Hermosa United Church of Christ
Spaghetti Dinner to benefit the Hermosa BackPack Program.
 
The Hermosa School operates on a 4-day week, so each weekend is three days long. Currently, forty six children (out of approximately 180 total, Kindergarten through 8th grade) are furnished foods for breakfast, lunch and snacks for three days. Funds are running low and two months of school remain. The spaghetti dinner will be served from 11:00 – 1:00 on April 3 in the Fellowship Room. There will be a free will donation. The youth of the church will be helping to host this event.  A business meeting for the Fairburn-Hermosa Community Food Bank will follow at 1:30. All interested volunteers are welcome.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

# # #

For more information:
http://www.feedingamerica.org/

For information on the Rapid City event:
http://www.feedingsouthdakota.org/news-events/events/rapid-city-empty-bowls/

For the history of the Empty Bowls program:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empty_Bowls

To learn more about Heifer International:
http://www.heifer.org/

 

A Simple Act

No matter what time of day or night the phone rings, the voice that summons me sounds tired and desperate.

But that’s not the only reason I go. I’m known there, so I seldom wait long before someone comes for me, leads me into the little room, closes the door, asks to see my ID card.

This time it’s a young black woman who taps a few keys, looks at the computer screen and says, “You’ve done this before.”

“A few times,” I reply. She props my card on the desktop, enters some codes, glances at my bare arms, strikes a key or two.

Then she straightens the papers on the desk and picks up her pen to begin the questioning.

If I am nervous, she may become suspicious and uneasy, so I fold my hands loosely in my lap, place my feet flat.

She clears her throat, begins reading the first question.

My scars prove I’ve done this dozens of times, but my mouth is dry and my voice squeaky.

She glances at the computer monitor, perhaps checking to see if my answer matches the one I gave the last time I was in this claustrophobic little office.

The screen is tilted away from me, so I can’t tell what additional information she may have. My only chance is to tell the truth as I remember it and hope that the answers I gave last time were recorded correctly.

She reads each question quickly, not looking at me. I remind myself that I chose to answer that telephoned summons to come here.

Her questions grow more complicated every time she opens her mouth. I choose to reveal these intimate details of my past. I can leave anytime; the door is not locked. She has no power to hold me here.

She asks another question. Have I ever  .  .  . ?

I tell myself this facility promises confidentiality, and in twenty-five years I have had no reason to doubt it.

No, I tell her. I haven’t.

The truth is important here. In our world, some people are casual about the distinction between truth and falsehood; others get rich from telling lies.

But in this room, the difference between truth and a lie may be, in the old cliche, a matter of life and death. Not mine, but someone who will never know me if I am not truthful.

Do I know anyone, she asks, who has . . .

No, I say. Faces of my friends flash before my eyes. I resist the urge to cross my fingers. I’ve known people who might not have been able to answer that question honestly and remain in this room. But years have passed; I’ve lost track of them.

Have I been, she asks, in any of the following countries since 1977: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo: the list goes on, countries of which I know nothing. Her voice has no particular inflection; she’s probably never been any of those places either.

She takes a deep breath. Have I traded sex for money or drugs since 1977?

I tuck a hank of gray hair behind my ear and think about 1977. She probably wasn’t born yet.

I was 34 and had just read an authoritative article insisting that I was more likely to be raped and murdered than to marry again. I was poor, but I did have a job, an old car, an apartment. Even then, I wasn’t tempted to trade sex for money or drugs.

In fact, most of my experiences with drugs had occurred a decade earlier, in the 1960s, when I was often in the presence of sex and drugs in some combination. Money usually wasn’t involved, since none of us had any.

I decide that attempting to joke about these memories with this serious young woman would not be prudent.

I answer quietly, honestly. Soon she drops her pen, clicks a few keys on the computer, and leads me to a couch under a glass ceiling.

I show the technician my arms, and she swabs the left one with iodine, chatting about the weather and suggesting I look away. But I watch as she slips the needle deftly into a fat blue vein. The spot feels briefly as though a match had touched it, and then a richly red stream begins to flow through the tube and into the bag rocking beside me.

UBS logoLying back, I watch birds fly across the windows and think of healing for whoever receives this transfusion.

I love cows, eat meat, carry a pistol, and have strong and specific political viewpoints. My blood may pour into the veins of someone who opposes everything I believe in.

That’s exactly the reason to do this. Blood donors can’t impose their will on the people whose lives they may save.

When I’m depressed about anything in my world– and these days that feeling sweeps over me fairly often– I find relief with United Blood Services.

Here the only thing that matters is giving freely that another shall receive.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2006, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Afterword:

This blog is posted in honor of National Heart Month (February) and National Blood Donor Month (January).  If you are able, consider becoming a blood donor in your community.

This essay was originally published by Writers on the Range, October 2, 2006.

Writers on the Range is a weekly syndication of op-ed pieces offered by High Country News.  The writing selected comes from a diverse group of writers, all of whom are deeply concerned about the West.

For more information: http://www.hcn.org/

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Crotch Rocket Ride

No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn back.
–– Turkish proverb

 

ZZI ZZZZZZI ZZI ZZI ZZI ZI Z I ZI ZIZIZIZIZI

WYoHouse with dogs

[Our house in Cheyenne, WY, where this story takes place.]

It’s Valentine’s Day, often a frigid holiday on the Western plains. Some of us throw ourselves into heart-warming celebrations in an attempt to counteract the chill outside. Or maybe the revelry is intended to combat stress, as solemn newspaper articles usually report. Single people are “stressed” because they aren’t married, and married people are worried because they aren’t single.

This year, the unnaturally warm weather has brought out a few residents who usually stay hidden a little longer: a couple of flies bumble across the ceiling. Sparrows chirp in the trellis on the front porch. Some of the kids from the high school across the street walk resolutely over to this side to smoke their cigarettes, wearing only tee-shirts and holding themselves very rigid so they won’t shiver.

ZZI ZZZZZZIZZIZZI ZZIZIZIZIZIZI ZIZIZI

And, around midnight on this warm Valentine’s night, I hear the Crotch Rocket Boys coming. Until this moment, I have failed to give thanks for the icy weather that has kept them away from our neighborhood. I make up for my inattention with a quiet thanks, and brace myself.

ZIIIIIZ

IZIZIZIZIZIZI

ZZZIIIIIIIZIZIZ

ZIIIIIIIAAAA ZAZAZAZAZAZA

There they go, sixty miles an hour on this residential street where the speed limit is thirty-five.

Crotch Rocket redI live right in the middle of a ten-block stretch of street between stop lights. If they go fast enough, they can probably make it through two green lights, one at either end of the run. Then it’s eight more blocks to a third light, followed by a stretch of pavement beside the airport where the legal speed limit is forty miles an hour. At that point, only two more lights stand between them and Interstate 25, where they can ride– legally– at seventy-five, and even blue-haired ladies drive eighty.

Sometimes, I curse the makers of these buzz-saw Japanese motorcycles, these mosquitoes on steroids. Sometimes I hope Crotch Rockets rip through their neighborhoods twenty-four hours a day– but they probably love the noise. They probably say, “Sounds like money.”

zzzzzz

Perhaps the Rocketeers see themselves as road warriors, brave and independent, beholden to no one, part of no community, no group. They use defiant noise to proclaim themselves outlaws, outside the rules most of us follow. They are blowing a giant raspberry for the police who often park on the side streets in this area to catch speeders.

I’ll bet the Crotch Rocket Boys live near one another, or even room together, in one of the new apartment complexes built cheap and fast to appeal to young folks working away from home for the first time. Certainly the four of them form a community; I’m tempted to use the more judgmental terms. Mob. Pack. Gang.

ZZZZZZ

I can see that they are young, probably in their twenties, all Caucasian. They are probably in the same income bracket. That is, they can afford– on credit says my censorious mind– to run more than one vehicle. I never see them riding past at a sedate speed, or riding during the morning rush to work. The Rockets are toys. The Boys can afford Toys. They are probably single. During the week I’ll bet they drive those new yuppy pickups with a two-foot cargo space, four doors, and a row of fancy lights on top. They probably threw away the tailgates because they never haul anything. Except maybe a dog, trying to hold on. My prejudices are showing.

ZZZZZZZZZZZIIZIZIZIZIIZZZII

In daylight, they laugh when they spot old fogy homeowners working in our yards on quiet Saturday afternoons. They see themselves as so different from us, free, riding in the sun, with the wind blowing through the hair on their heads and legs– because they sure aren’t wearing protective pants or helmets. Another reason I think they are unmarried.

ZEEEEZEZEZEZEZEZEEEEZZZZEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

Of course, I am generalizing wildly; I have no idea what they think, only that they, like their bikes, are identical. Well, the colors are different, yellow, red, black, orange. In their spare time, they may all volunteer to teach reading to disadvantaged children, or help elderly people across the street.

But even if they are all studying for the ministry, does that give them license to disturb the tranquility of our Saturday and Sunday afternoons, or our sleep at midnight? Does a little good behavior justify disruption of community in other ways?

ZZZZZZZZEEEEEEEZZZZZZUUUUUUMMMMMMMM

“Threat posture” in animals, I recall, involves making loud noises, trying to look larger to frighten away predators. Many animals adopt a threat posture when they are most terrified: roar, pound their chests, flare their nostrils and neck hair, stand taller and inhale. So I tell myself to feel pity for these crotch rocket menaces. They think they are having fun, but I hear rage in their sound, just as I do all day long when the students of the alternative high school across the street arrive or leave the parking lot. Every time, they wind up the engines of their cheap little cars to make them scream, making the tinny parts clash against one another, glancing covertly up at the windows of the school as they bend over the engines. They roar onto the street, wasting gasoline, wearing out tires, throwing away money as surely as if they were tossing bills on the street. Noise, like fear, has always been part of aggression; the berserkers shrieked as they galloped naked into battle, defending their families and their private parts. Modern armies sometimes broadcast hideous music to beat their enemies into submission or torture prisoners.

They are all afraid, I tell myself: of bosses, perhaps, or impotence or boredom or nuclear war, hair loss, cancer, the heartbreak of psoriasis. I can sympathize with them, at least in theory. With what I believe to be sudden insight, I realize that maybe the folks who drive big SUVs are only afraid of running out of gasoline: “I’ll get mine first!”

I’m not suggesting that the police should chase and arrest them. In any town, the law has more important work than arresting guys on tin gas-guzzling noise-makers. If they hit anything–- a squirrel, even a bottle cap–- the lesson will be serious, possibly permanent. I just hope they don’t hit a child. I hope they have insurance so I don’t pay for their medical bills. But I’m not going to bet on it.

I might be more sympathetic if I didn’t know that they are aware of the community they are disturbing, and enjoy making it less pleasant. They laugh and point when they fly by. They don’t see the future, any more than they see themselves in my slightly overweight partner, sweating as he mows the lawn. Or in my startled neighbor two houses down, shaking his fist at them as he balances on a ladder cutting a dead tree limb. I wish them long memories.

Sometimes I indulge myself in a few moments’ fantasy. I recall the stories my father told about the local sheriff when I was growing up. We didn’t have enough population for a town policeman, so the sheriff patrolled everywhere. He was a calm, stern man with a twinkle in his eye. When I shook his hand, I was perhaps ten years old, but I still remember looking at those eyes, that smile, and understanding that if I broke the law while he was sheriff, he would find me, and I would be sorry.

What if these fun-loving lads had ridden their mobile chain saws three times the speed limit through the streets of our little town? He would never have given them the satisfaction of a chase with sirens. He’d have identified them, and then gone to see their parents, knowing that in some circumstances parental punishment was a lot more effective, and cheaper for our county. If that didn’t work, he’d have found another way, but he would have stopped them, I’m sure.

Have we changed so much as a society that no one can enforce community preferences without also enforcing community laws? Do we have to either pursue and punish these idiots, or wait until they or some innocent bystander is injured by their behavior?

I think The Boys are flaunting their disrespect for community. I suspect they ride more sedately near their homes, where someone might identify them. They behave themselves as they pass through downtown because the police station is only a couple of blocks off our street, and if they started speeding and making that racket just a little sooner, some feisty young police officer who loves speed as much as they do could be in hot pursuit by the time they screamed past here. They may have no consideration for our quiet neighborhood, but they understand self-interest.

ZZUM ZZUM ZZZZUMMM ZZUZ MZAM ZAM ZAM ZAM ZZYYYYYAAAAMMMMM

WYflowers

[Our yard with extensive flower gardens in Cheyenne, across the street from the school.]

Sometimes when I am working in the garden, I hear the boys coming and stand, hose in hand, watching them. When they see several people working in our yards, they sometimes slow down a little, and rev their motors, and laugh. They look back over their shoulders to yell at each other over the roar, and watch us out of the corners of their eyes. Their speed is hazardous enough in these quiet streets with children and old people on foot, bicyclists, and wheel chairs. Squirrels and rabbits dart over from the schoolyard where they live to eat my flowers. Loose cats and dogs chase each other across the lawns.

Sometimes, still speeding, the Crotches do wheelies, pop their clutches, make the bikes lurch and lay hot rubber. Wearing shorts and tank tops, the riders speed up the street with the bikes spinning only on their back wheels, screaming with excitement.

ZZZZZZ ZZZZZ WHINE ZZZZZZZZZZZ WHIIIIIINE ZZZZ ZZ Z ZZZZZ ZZZZ ZZZZZ

With the hose in my hand, I reflect on what might happen if they hit a patch of wet pavement, or a few drops of oil, or even a very small cat. My partner, who was very careful when he rode his 800-pound Harley Road King, was hit broadside by a driver who didn’t bother to stop as instructed by the red sign. The driver was only going thirty five, as was my partner, who was wearing a helmet, t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. The wreck damaged every part of Jerry’s body, though his head was injured least. Seventeen broken ribs, a broken collar bone, cracked ankle– well, you get the picture. His shoulders, back, arms, and legs suffered what bravo riders call “road rash,” resulting from being scraped against asphalt. Very colorful; very painful. Four days in intensive care, ten days in the hospital, months of recovery, surgery, more recovery. Some damages will be with him for the rest of his life. I breathe deeply, proving to myself that I can stand this, too.

ZZZZZZZzzzzzz SCREECH zzzzzzz zzzzzzz zzzz  zzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzz

Lying rigid in the dark, I grit my teeth, listening carefully as the buzz dies away, knowing I’ll hear the sound begin to swell again in fifteen minutes, again in a half hour, an hour. As the wind moves the cottonwood leaves on the old tree hanging over my bedroom, I imagine the rustling to be the quiet rage of the people trying to sleep in hot upstairs rooms on this street. The asphalt is still scorching with the heat of summer and the rage of hurrying drivers. The riders are attacking the soft, quiet night and all who sleep in her peace. They believe themselves to be declaring with mechanical howls their hatred of calm and quiet and cool breezes and sleep, but we hear their terror as well.

If I imitate their fury, I’ll damage mostly myself-– ulcers, high blood pressure. So I pull the night around me, draw it in, breathe out calm and contentment.

In my kinder moments, I visualize a likely and charitable future for the boys. Thirty or forty years in the future, they will be lying in bed, sleeping soundly, their fears wrapped around their shoulders.

zzzzz zzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzZZZZZZ ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ ZZZZZZ

They will be awakened by the sound of crotch rockets, rousing them as they realize that their teenage children are not home yet. Their jaw muscles will clench as the sound builds:

ZZZZZZZZ

And then I hope, as they mumble about needing their sleep, they will remember.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Perhaps they will blush in the darkness.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Hope, you will recall, is the thing with feathers. Nice quiet feathers.

 

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tinyBookNPLHAfterword:

This essay was written when I lived in Cheyenne, WY.

I intended it to be published in No Place Like Home, University of Nevada Press, 2009, but removed it to shorten the book.

 

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

 

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

 

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The Day After

Yesterday we were remembering.

Wage-Peace-buttonToday, after re-reading Judyth Hill’s poem “Wage Peace,” written on 9/11/2001 (www.judythhill.com), I am following her example, replacing thoughts of mayhem by finding grace everywhere.

Last night I participated in a community celebration of Patriot Day with other members of the Hermosa Arts and History Association (www.hermosahistory.org), and witnessed community in action. The American Legion Hall in Hermosa filled with folks from the surrounding area, both old-time residents and those who have arrived more recently. Many elements of the widely-spread out Custer County community support us with their free will donations. We also welcomed many couples from the SD State Square Dance Festival (www.blackhillsdosido.org) taking place this weekend in the Hermosa School gym. Soon everyone was visiting back and forth across the patriotically-decorated tables as HAHA volunteers served hamburgers from local grassfed beef with appropriate accompaniments. Amazing how we all moved into the chain of service, switching jobs smoothly as one person went to replenish the lemonade and another stepped in to serve burgers.

And I overheard another exchange that spoke to me of the way community should function: “Do you know anyone who would like a used washer/dryer?” asked one member.

“Why yes,” said another, “My assistant told me this morning that her daughter’s washer/dryer had broken down and her husband is in Afghanistan.”

“Tell her I’ll be happy to deliver it.”

That mutually beneficial transaction took thirty seconds.

A half hour before sunrise, while the light was still silvery over the dam, three Great Blue Herons lifted like smoke off the water and flew low to the narrower part before settling down to watch for frogs.

In the windbreak trees, fifty yards from our house, we found the largest coyote scat we’ve ever seen, which makes us nervous for our Westies. But the scat was filled with vole fur, a good sign.

Plants below the water on the dam are reasserting themselves as thousands of gallons of water evaporates each day: Western sloughgrass and Baltic rush and Dudley, fox sedge and fescue sedge, all reaching up and bursting through into the sunlight.

Thai pepper harvest 2015A day or two ago Jerry harvested what will probably be his entire crop of Thai peppers from the plant in the greenhouse. They are arranged on the lower screen of my homemade food dryer (www.dryit.com) to be prepared for winter storage. We collected some potatoes and onions from the basement of the retreat house.

I opened windows wide there to let in the fall air and sunshine, knowing that a retreat guest was waking up in a campground somewhere south of here, packing up while thinking about her retreat starting today. And now that I’ve prepared myself for a serious writing retreat by writing something, it’s time for me to turn again to making comments on her writing to make her trip worthwhile.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

Pruning Tomatoes and Unwise Growth

Pruning Tomatoes group

Marigolds bloom; wasps sip the dogs’ water; temperatures break records: Nature’s telling me it’s time to prune the tomatoes.

Fifty years as a gardener has taught me to respect nature’s demands. My mouth waters, anticipating the flavor of the tomato each blossom might become– but I am resolute. I whack off a stem carrying a dozen yellow star-shaped blossoms. Inhaling the peppery fragrance, I amputate branches with no green fruit larger than my thumb.

Branches are the plant’s energy transportation corridors. Distance makes the plant work harder to send nutrients to blossoms remote from the main stem. Every inch increases the energy required for the tomato to turn a flower into fruit. Removing the most flowers dangling at the end of spindly stems concentrates the plant’s energy, keeps it centered on ripening larger fruit.

Tomato Map DevelopmentI picture the tomato’s fattest stems as highways, leading to narrower tributary roads, dwindling to dirt and gravel trails where the signs say “Ranchettes for Sale.” Travel down an expressway is eased by the golden arches of commerce. Fast food, fast gas, fast expenses and speedy satisfactions distract us from traffic and noise. But you can’t grow tomatoes on asphalt.

Just as the tomato plant works harder to ripen distant fruit, each mile increases the expense of supporting a country community. We all pay those expenses. Every other citizen, no matter where we live, is taxed by groups living away from the center where energy is produced.

I’ve already eaten three tomatoes, cynically calculating their cost at about eight bucks each. Judicious pruning now will increase my delicious revenues, and may make my investment worthwhile. Gardening success is biting into the sun-warm flesh of an Early Girl as juice runs down my arm.

Planting those tomatoes makes me responsible for understanding the tomato’s natural behavior, and controlling its desire for growth wisely, so it will produce my food. Each cluster of blossoms is bright as a new subdivision, and each subdivision bears in every cell of its being the desire to grow, to become a city. The desire is logical: transportation costs are lower when they are shared; a city accumulates many needs which are cheaper to satisfy if everyone sticks together.

I empathize with the tomato plants, and with the inhabitants of the subdivisions. Yet each blossom uses resources that must support us all. And that is the business of everyone. If we are not all to lose clean air and water and space, we must set our priorities, and act on them.

The late-summer sun bakes my shoulders, but at sunset tendrils of cold air lick my ankles. Sweat runs down my face, but I feel winter massing and muttering beyond the northern horizon. Recalling ancient times, we celebrate the death of the sun king, and hover between hope and fear for the time of cold.

Argiope2Kneeling as the sharp-smelling branches pile up around me, I come nose to pedipalp with a warrior queen who guards my harvest: Argiope aruntia, the black and yellow orb-weaving spider. Big as my thumb, she creates broad webs with zig-zag bands in the center.

Can I compare the spiders’ prey– flies, grasshoppers, cutworms– to the developers and real estate agents who are unable to understand the negative impacts of growth? Following their own survival instincts, they head for the best forage, the purest country air, the biggest tomato, gobbling resources for their own purposes. Without control they will feed their offspring today by cutting a plant that might feed us all tomorrow. They chew and spit just as I do, but their dark juices can ruin the gardener’s work.

Following their nature, developers are motivated by the desire for expansion, often honestly believing that bigger is better. Ed Abbey called growth “the ideology of the cancer cell,” and meant that the rest of us must keep it in check. So the spider’s instinct to wrap her prey in silk and hang them from her web for future meals is natural, and necessary.

Working delicately around spider webs, I fantasize about a giant orb-weaver to patrol the plains, a Master Gardener to prune unwise growth.

If allowed to follow its instinct, each subdivision will require more resources than it can produce. Water from dwindling reservoirs evaporates on alien lawns and trees; taxpayers struggle to provide for widely-scattered citizens schools, police officers, garbage collection, and fire protection.

We need spiders– laws and lawmakers to be sure the garden feeds us all, not just a few. Nature tries– with wildfires, floods, blizzards, and other natural tools– to control poisonous growth, but She needs help if we are to have real communities. Each of us must be vigilant, wielding our pruning knives– our vigilance and our ability to vote– in our own back yards.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2010

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Afterword

I wrote this piece in 2010 and published it on the blog on my website (www.windbreakhouse.com), but it’s even more true today than it was then.

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