Thursday, August 27, 2015


Opening a drawer I found a fat mouse who'd shredded my gift wrap and done numbers one and two on a year's worth of greeting and birthday cards. I think only moms-to-be would be so sneaky, persistent, and destructive. They chewed through particle board into a cabinet, left piles of sunflower-seed hulls and dried beans on the mantel and in my shoes, and turds in my apron pockets. I wept. With weather cooler than normal for August I thought to bake a cake, light and not too sweet, and share it like a good Missourian, and opening the oven where pans are kept I saw enthroned in my cake pan a mouse nest clawed out of oven insulation with, fortunately, no mice in it. After my nausea passed (instead of baking, I hosed down all the pans and set the dishwasher on "sanitize"), I sent the landlord a photo and demanded he address in all seriousness the plague of mice I've had since spring. One or two in winter is normal in a country house. But five or ten in late summer, openly running along the baseboards: no. Worst in 14 years. So bad I stopped feeding the birds.

Enter Tim the handyman with the familiar blue Tomcat poison saying, "You just gotta hope they die outside," and when he set eight of these new kind of traps I wailed that these mice were too smart for traps, and he joked, "You just gotta get out the ol' .22." They're baited with a dollop of black gel -- the mice have been so bad I have two peanut butter jars, one for my mousetraps and one for me!! -- and one got caught along a major mouse thruway. With these I needn't touch the dead ones. Outside along the foundation Tim placed larger traps containing immense cakes of poison and said to refill them in two weeks. I said, there must be a hole there, why don't you find it and patch it up? Guess whose job that's gonna be.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ride Through a Lifetime

An antique car stirs hearts like nothing else. While Dwight drove us around in his grandfather's Chevrolet 3100 "Thriftmaster" half-ton pickup truck, bought new in December 1948 for about $1000, we stopped at a light and an older man in a car beside us stared in wonder and then, teary-eyed, rolled down his window and said he remembered Ford pickups just like it. This one hauled grain, about 45 bushels per load, and silage, and everything else on Dwight's family's Kansas farm. It's always been garaged. The original's cracked engine block was replaced in the 1960s with the engine from a '53 or '54 Chevrolet. The truck was spiffed up in the 1970s, with yellow-orange shag carpeting beneath the pedals placed by Dwight's brother. Not long ago a man saw it in Dwight's driveway, stopped, and offered to trade his Cadillac Escalade for it. Dwight refused. He shared the truck's photo on Facebook and I was so delighted I asked for a ride, and hopped in to find no seatbelts, the driver using hand signals to turn left, a Kansas plate that says "Antique," a four-on-the-floor that is nothing but a stick in the floor, and a roaring engine. This bulbous old dark-green machine had personality, charisma. People stared and pointed. See how you like it (12 seconds):
Dwight said his very frugal Mennonite grandfather would never have ordered the custom cab with opera windows; it was likely the last pickup truck on the lot for that model year and Grandpa wangled a deal. Years later, the family let Dwight use it to go to college; a bookish boy lacking the the ability to fix things, essential for farming, he left the farm for the city, made it big, and his family was skeptical when years later he said he wanted the truck.

I just had to show you and let you hear its horn. The only thing hard to believe about it was that carpet.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Doing the Deeds: Father Dunne's Camp

This property I live on was owned for 45 years by the Father Dunne’s Newsboys Home and Protectorate, a St. Louis Catholic charity that prefigured the more famous Boys Town. Dunne’s boys lived in the city but had a summer camp of 100 acres here. Dorm and dining facilities now in disrepair were dedicated in 1957, but exactly when the camp started, and who gave the land, was a mystery that sent me to the Jefferson County assessor’s office this morning, where I did the deeds, finally, after 14 years living here.

At the Registrar of Deeds, I found that the Father Dunne Newsboys Home and Protectorate’s camp had been sold for one dollar to the current landlord on 21 January 1986; the digitized records went back no farther. The older, oversized, weighty books of legal records, handwritten or typed, bound together by year, were in the archive. That room is chilly, and after the clerk copied me the 1986 deed, she pulled up on a monitor the digitized microfilm of all the Jefferson County deeds back to the 1860s and showed me how for each year I should search all the entries that began with the letter “F.”

She’d worked with many historians and seekers. “People get cold in here, so if you need a sweater,” she said, then pointed to the coat rack where a lone cardigan hung, “use that one. That’s the ‘house’ sweater.” Only in Missouri.

The "house sweater" in case historians get cold.
Father Peter Dunne, an orphan who became a parish priest, sheltered his first homeless newsboy in 1906 and the shelter was running full tilt when Father Dunne died in 1939. “Old Newsboys Day,” Father Dunne’s fundraiser, is still held annually in St. Louis. Pat O’Brien starred in the RKO bio-pic Fighting Father Dunne (1948). Can’t find the movie. But I did find facts today about this 100-acre property:

-The house I rent was built circa 1935. It is 1070 square feet. The second house on the property was built circa 1960. There was a dorm-like building on this property in 1954, according to an Army Map Service topographic map.

-On March 31, 1941, Herman H. and Lillie M. Oberhaus sold 67.19 acres to Father Dunne’s Newsboys Home and Protectorate for $100. It would have been 80 acres total, but in April 1937 the Oberhauses had sold 12.81 acres of it to James R. and Gladys Murphy for $800. The price suggests that the Murphys bought a house on that property. In November 1938 a 15-foot easement was granted to Union Electric for electrification and tree-cutting.
-On June 26, 1942, William D. and Marie B. Walsh sold 40 acres to the Father Dunne Newsboys Home and Protectorate for $100.

As of June 1942 the Protectorate owned 107 contiguous acres and maybe established the camp then, but that doesn't explain the 1935 log cabin, built for summer residency. Perhaps the camp rented.

The property records are kept here.
The land was cheap because it’s good for nothing but a camp. Terrain is rocky, with dropoffs and steep-sided ravines and beneath an inch of soil is clay on sandstone. It’s so difficult that to this day AT&T refuses to extend its cable here.

Before today I knew only “lore” passed down through two previous tenants of my house (1986-91, 1991-2001), saying it was built around 1930 as the camp gatekeeper’s house. The keeper held the keys to the dorm, dining hall, and the gate, to which I held the key until it was dynamited for road widening in 2002. The camp closed in the 1970s, it is said because lots of little black orphan campers caused nearby residents to complain. Or maybe it was cost-prohibitive to remove the asbestos or bring the wiring up to code. Priests still used the camp’s pool as a vacation getaway in the 1980s; the first lease I signed required me to maintain the pool, covered and abandoned years before. The newer house on the property, my neighbor’s, is nicknamed “the monsignor’s house” and I need other records to learn who lived there.

Coincidentally, a friend had been a Father Dunne’s (later Catholic Charities) charge, living in the shelter downtown, and camped here in the summer of 1962; he was 12. Their baseball diamond was on LaBarque Creek floodplain now grown over, its backstop having collapsed completely about five years ago.

One day a man drove up saying he added the bedroom to the house in 1969. (It looks very 1969.) Another day an older priest drove up and wanted to revisit the property, if I said okay.

When the Jeff County assessor’s staff learned I was unraveling the story of my adorable house, they came forward with old files and photos that helped me more, plus the names of local historians, and which library held the books most likely to be helpful.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Notes on Barbecue

  • My favorite barbecue place is Super Smokers and I'm so satisfied with their pulled pork with the applesauce side I never order anything else. I sauce it with Texas Hot.
  • Texas Hot is their only sauce not available in stores.
  • My personal sauce recipe: half Hunt's (and only Hunt's) bottled barbecue sauce, and half medium salsa. Hunt's because it is the least sugary of the commercial sauces. I don't understand Maull's or Pappy's or Kansas-City-style any other bottled sauce. I don't want corn syrup on my barbecue.
  • I never ate barbecue until I moved to Missouri. In Wisconsin and in upstate New York "to barbecue" meant "to cook on the grill" weenies, bratwurst, and hamburgers.
  • I buy a half-pound or pound of pulled pork, sauce it and heat it up a bit, and toss it in green salad.
  • I'll settle for barbecued chicken if that's all there is, but it's only good until you peel the skin off. After that it's not barbecue.
  • Invite me to a barbecue.
  • Don't buy the ready-to-eat pulled pork that's in the supermarket meat case. The meat's tough and fatty.
  • I took two really classy Perry-Ellis shoes-made-in-Paris Cafe-Napoli-in-Clayton Ph.D. friends for barbecue, and they loved it, proving everyone can love it.
  • Bandana's, once a favorite, has gone downhill.
  • I don't, myself, make and serve barbecue, believing it's best left to professionals.
  • Re the bumper sticker: radio station KPIG in California plays rock, country, and bluegrass.

Friday, August 14, 2015

I Don't Miss T.V.

I love TV and I owe it for all the Three Stooges, Mighty Mouse, Red Skelton, Dave Clark Five, Monkees, Partridge Family, America's Most Wanted (my favorite program for 11 years!), and Beavis and Butt-head it's given me. And Judge Judy. For the last three years hers has been the only show I DVR'd or sat down to watch. I pay only for local channels; no HBO or Comedy Channel, so I never saw Stephen what's his name or the Jon guy who just retired, or binge-watched anything, nor have I ever seen Downton Abbey or Orange is the New Black, or watched anyone beheaded, so have no water-cooler talk whatsoever. Even this little thread-end of satellite service cost me $36 monthly.

Furthermore I heard someone say CNN stood for "Constant Negative News." Called the Dish people and "suspended" my service. That costs $12 a month and after 3 months it goes back on full blast.

In the surprise of the century, fearing withdrawal symptoms, within a day I lived just fine without it. The days have more hours. I wake earlier. When I see TV at the gym -- often tuned to a "house hunting" show -- it looks and sounds absurd. Glimpses of dramas show me lots of dead bodies. Maybe breaking a habit that stretches back at least 55 years -- almost back to the dawn of television itself; I never knew a world without it --was so painless because it's summer. I ordered some books. I'm trying new habits of thought. TV was filler. No one ever died wishing they'd watched more TV.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Mushroom Farm

This real mushroom farm, Earth Angel in Pacific, shipping 400 or more pounds of mushrooms daily, is an old warehouse with four rooms: the first one for starting oyster and shiitake mushrooms from clones, using slices of mushroom, because spores won't work for commercial growing -- in a sterilized "clean room" in sterilized growing media: sterilized compressed blocks of sawdust pellets or sterilized cottonseed hulls in a plastic bag. Then the bags are shelved in a room kept at around 70 degrees to encourage mycelium, or threads of pre-mushroom, to grow. In the photo you can see mycelium, the brown stuff, at its most developed in the bags on the top shelf, while the other bags are in process. It has to be organized.

In the cold-and-humid room, ceiling pipes dripping chilly condensation, the mycelia bear fruit: oyster and shiitake mushrooms. Shiitakes are on shelving. Standing in columns are the oyster mushrooms, pictured, growing out of pinpricks in the bags, multiplying dementedly. Imagine a 20x40-foot room full of mushrooms.
They're harvested here. The fourth room is for packaging.

How to learn to grow mushrooms on this scale? The owner cheerfully answered, "Failure." Any grower must experiment dozens or even hundreds of times and waste tons of materials before he gets mushrooms -- shiitakes, especially, are very difficult to grow. I personally asked him, "Do you like cooking and eating mushrooms?" He said yes, but if he had a pound of mushrooms he'd rather sell them than eat them. This eye-opening tour was arranged by the Missouri Mycological Society.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Afterglow

Toward sunset on a simmering-hot day, a day or two ago, a storm came. According to radar it was a big 'un. Violent. So I put on shoes, rounded up my purse and crucial belongings such as earrings, phone and charger, and hid in the the only room without windows, the bathroom. (Cabin is built on a concrete slab, no basement.) Yet the storm just skirted here and didn't even knock the power out. So I crept out and saw, in the east where the storm was heading, the strangest orange sky. Glowing orange with a touch of gray. Tried photographing it, to capture the color. And in the photograph I saw a ring thing (lens glare, I thought). I looked up higher in the actual sky and saw layered onto this eerie orange background, a rainbow. From hearing reports, I learned it was seen all over the area.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Terra Nova

Newfoundland -- first mapped as "Terra Nova" -- and Labrador, named for a Portuguese sailor, meaning "landowner" -- look cool on the map of North America, and because they're huge, mostly roadless, difficult to access, and nobody I know has been there, and I was seeking myself because I'd lost myself--that much I knew, but not how or when--after four years of yearning to do it I chose to spend 12 days in the province in northeastern Canada that seemed to mirror me.

Towns such as L'ans Amor ("Love Cove"; formerly named L'ans a Mort, "Cove of Death," but I'm told tourists like sweeter names), with a population of 6, are common. The words for this land are "pristine" and "extreme." The green and blue ocean is clear to its bottom; icebergs and whales swan by. Winters are abrupt, long, and bitter; no fruits, vegetables, or grains grow there; except for fish there's no farming or processing; all other products must be shipped in. You eat seafood and potatoes, and pay $2.50 for an orange. Polar bears ride into tiny towns on icebergs from Greenland and ransack houses. Jacques Cartier called it "the land that God gave Cain." Yet in June, July, and August pointed black and white fir trees cover the coasts, and lakes, rivers, mountains, and wildflowers; just now the wild irises are blooming. In Labrador it was 55 degrees and fleece was my best friend.

The road in the photo, in western Newfoundland near the Gros Morne ("Big Sad One") National Park, looks nice, but half of it is under construction, impossible at any other time of year. We didn't get to Blow Me Down Provincial Park on the west side of the island. The roads in Labrador, on the other hand, are terrible, all of them, every inch, period; the partially paved Trans-Labrador Highway breaks the suspensions and axles of buses. Awesome. Extreme. With trackless sea and stone and fjords and icebergs and timber you get a sense of the entire planet. And I got a sense of my place in it and that there might be more to the story of my life.