I need to address an oversight

The last piece I wrote was about my black raspberries. Today, I was reminded that I had not told the whole story behind them. That reminder came from my ‘supervisor’, also known as Silly the cat.

You will please note that I do not refer to Silly as my pet, or even my house cat. No, she is no one’s cat, at least that is the impression I get from her. She arrived at my house several years ago, having found an opening in a storage shed that allowed her to enter and use the space to give birth to a litter of kittens. She was, however, a terrible mother, losing all of that brood, and one more that followed it. I, being the soft-hearted (or soft-headed) fool that I am, had given her food in hopes that she would stay around and take better care of her kittens. At that point, she would quickly slink away whenever I came anywhere near, only eating when I was not in sight. Later, she became bolder, eating when I was watching, but still staying well away from me.

After she lost her second batch of kittens, I managed to borrow a ‘safe’ trap, one of those box-like contraptions that has a spring-loaded door hooked to a balance plate. The principle is simple, but effective: food is placed at the closed end of the box, beyond the balance plate, and the only way for the animal to reach the food is to step on the plate. Once that happens, the trap is tripped, the door slams shut and is fixed in place well enough that the animal inside can’t get out. Silly, as I had begun to call her for her willingness to let me feed her but not approach, took only a day to step into the trap and get caught.

To say that she was not amused would be a huge understatement. When I approached the trap the next day, she hissed at me and glared, her message clear: “Let me out of here so I can climb up your face with my claws out!” For my part, my goal was simple: I had contacted a local rescue shelter that had indicated they would take her in, ‘fix’ her so she’d never get pregnant again, and put her up for adoption. Unfortunately, when I contacted them after trapping her, they indicated that they’d happily ‘fix’ her…but that they’d recently taken in several other animals and could not keep her long enough to allow her to be adopted.

So, after a few days, she was returned to me, still in her trap, and still very pissed off. I took her out to the storage shed, got on the far end of the trap, and opened the door. She made a speedy exit, and for the next few days, I would see her glaring at me from time to time from some spot in the yard, and the food I would put out for her would disappear, but she would come no where near me. After about a month, she began to go back to her old habit of eating while I was nearby, but she would still move away if I approached her. So I adopted a slow-but-sure strategy on approaching her: each day, I would move off a little less and wait for her to come to eat. Eventually, she got to the point where I would only take a step away from her food and wait for her to come out. On one of those days, as she was face-down eating her fill, I slowly bent down to try to touch her. She must have seen or sensed me, as she moved away and stayed away until I had left.

The next day, though, I repeated the process, and this time, I managed to run my hand over her back. She gave me a glare, but then thinking of the food, she subsided and went back to eating. I gave her another stroke, and while she shied away a little, she didn’t glare. Over the next few days, she got more comfortable with me touching her, and within a month, she had gotten to the point where her back would arch and she would give one of her odd little ‘cooing’ purrs at my touch.

Now, years later, she still lives outside (she refuses all attempts to entice her into the house…she still has her claws, and I would rather attempt to wrestle a bobcat buck-naked than try to pick her up), but as soon as I emerge from the house, there she is, looking for attention. I no longer think of her as a stray, but as a ‘hang-around-the-house’ cat. Her favorite form of attention, beyond the obvious having her back stroked, is to be scratched-yes, right there stupid human!-behind her ears. She has also come to enjoy rubbing against my legs, as any other cat will, but she also tends to follow me around, much as if she were a lost pup (and for comparing her to one of those ‘things’, I have no doubt she will glare at me). Sometimes, when I go for a walk, she will follow me for considerable distances, usually ending with her picking a convenient spot to wait for my return…whereupon she escorts me home again (I obviously being too much of a stupid human to know how to find home).

During berry season, her main joy is ‘supervising’ me. And just like every supervisor I have ever dealt with, she is constantly underfoot, always in the way, and often demanding my attention. One of her favorite tactics for getting more attention is to lay down a short way from where I’m picking, always in the direction I’m working(no, she is not a stupid cat, just a silly one). Sometimes this will get her a scratch, maybe a quick pet, but often it will earn her a nudge in the posterior from my boot. This gets me a glare, usually followed by what can only be described as a huffy walk away, followed by her going to great lengths to let me know that she is not interested in what I am doing. She will occasionally be distracted, especially if the dragonflies are mating, or even fluttering around among the canes. Then, she goes full-on hunter, crouching low and watching her ‘prey’ intently, waiting for the moment when she can pounce and triumph over her fearsome target (like I said, she’s a silly cat).

Many people will no doubt fault me for not forcing her into my house, for not asking the shelter to de-claw her so she would no longer be as fierce as she still is. I would respond that she seems to be quite happy with her life, and I have arranged a straw-lined shelter for her use in winters, and is not the happiness of the animals we take into our lives the most important thing of all?

So there you have, it, my whole berry-picking team: me stretching, stooping and bleeding to harvest the berries, and Silly there to keep an eye on me, make sure I get the job done right and occasionally give me a moment’s respite while I laugh at her (and get glared at for not respecting Herself, of course).


I have berries! Seriously!

I have black raspberries.

You will note I do not say “I grow black raspberries” or “I raise black raspberries”. No, I have black raspberries. When I was growing up, my family would go out along the back roads and find the places in the fence rows where farmers had left wild raspberries grow. They were often hard to get to, as being wild there was no organization to the ‘bramble’ (as a stand of berry canes is known), so we were often forced to stick our arms far into thorny spaces to reach the ripe berries. More years ago than I care to remember, possessed by a fit of nostalgia while looking through a seed catalog, I decided to buy some canes to start my own bramble. I don’t remember precisely how many canes it was I bought, probably no more than a dozen, but I had a spot in the yard already selected, an open spot between my and the neighbor’s yard where the bramble could both grow and serve as a hedge. I still remember the advertising in the catalog, and how it spoke of the canes I was buying as being “sensitive” and that they would need constant care. That first year, I didn’t harvest any berries, as the life cycle of a raspberry cane is that they grow one year, then flower and produce berries. After bearing fruit, they die, but along with producing fruit, they also put out new canes that will bear fruit the next year.

Those botanical facts aside, my first crop was small, but those initial canes produced a large number of new canes, and each year, the number of canes increased. Within a few years, the gap I had hoped to close was not only closed, but the berries where threatening to spread into areas where I did not want them to grow.

Now, each year brings a new thrust by my bramble to take over part of my yard, and I become more and more convinced that my “sensitive” canes could survive anything short of a direct hit by a multi-megaton H-bomb. The bramble now looks very much like the ones I used to stalk in my youth, with canes growing every direction and many of those in the center too far away for even my long arms to reach. Mind you, I get lots of berries, far more than I really need, far more than I even pick any more. Those in the center I regard as my contribution to the local wild life, and I seem to have a lot of it around. I have cardinals, blue jays and several song birds that congregate in and around it during the summer, and one of the joys of an early morning picking session is listening to their voices.

The ‘berry year’ starts, usually, in late May, when the canes start putting out their flower buds. They, in turn, open sometime in the early part of June, and the berries begin to form shortly afterwards. All of these dates are flexible, as is the time between the opening of the raspberry flowers and the beginning of the harvest. A cool late spring can push everything back several weeks. Another thing affected by the weather is berry size. A wet spring will bring a crop of large berries, while a dry one can result in a huge crop of tiny berries. Dry weather can also lead to what I call ‘caviar’ berries, berries that are made up of loosely bound together berries that will literally fall apart when you attempt to pick them, leaving nothing but the individual blackish-purple seed packets that make up a berry.

The harvest will start with a handful of ‘early’ berries, most often coming from canes in sheltered/extra-sunny locations that ripen before those around them. Once the harvest starts, the number of berries climbs daily until it peaks in what I usually refer to as the ‘black tidal wave. A peak day can yield one to two quarts of berries, which will take as much as two hours of steady picking. That’s two hours of stooping, stretching and reaching into the thorny interior of the bramble. I dress as well as I can, a well-worn ‘campaign hat’ to shade my head, a long-sleeved work shirts and jeans, and old pair of work boots that rise over my ankles. All of that serves two purposes: the first to protect my arms and legs from thorns (not always successfully), the second is to offer partial protection from the insect life that thrives around my bramble. I have yet to encounter any ticks (something I am quite grateful for, btw), but that most ubiquitous of all insects in northern Illinois, the mosquito, is always well represented. Some days, especially during a hot, wet summer, I can see them hovering around like an annoying, blood-thirsty cloud. I have tried any number of ‘solutions’ to keeping them away from me, but it is a fact of life that if I go out to pick berries at any time they are active, I will be contributing to their continued survival in the form of blood extracted from numerous bites on virtually every part of my body.

Once the picking is done, the real work starts: cleaning the berries can take as long (or longer) than picking them. I usually carry a plastic bowl while I’m picking, something sized to be easy to handle while I’m working, but large enough to hold enough berries that I’m not forced to constantly cycle between picking and taking the berries into the house. Once the picking is done, I use a large plastic bowl to ‘float’ the berries. To do this, I will empty the picking bowl into the larger bowl, then fill it to the rim with cold water. Once this is done, I will allow the berries to set for an hour or two. This is intended to do two things: get rid of any dirt, leaves and ‘grit’ (left over from the berry forming process, like seeds that didn’t have a nutrient sack form around them) and to ‘encourage’ and bugs that might have fallen into the picking bowl to get out. After the soak, I’ll pour the water out, then fill the ‘float’ bowl with water again, but leave a trickle coming into the berries. This helps separate all of the detritus from the berries, allowing me to steer it through the berries towards the rim where the water is slowly leaving the bowl. After finding what can be seen on the surface, I will empty the bowl, paying attention to remove any crud sticking to the inside.

Three cycles of float/clean/empty is sufficient to get most of the stuff out of the berries (though some ‘grit’ can make its way through even three such cleaning operations), then comes the decision as to what to do with the berries. If I’m just planning on giving them to my neighbors (which is what usually happens), I’ll just take the ‘float’ bowl to the neighbor I’ve targeted…errr…decided to gift with some berries and offer them the contents. They will find a bowl of their own, empty mine, and bring it back. A few will find their way into a freezer bag, usually a quart-sized one, then into an empty corner of the freezer. Last year, thinking they might sell at my town’s farmer’s market, I froze about a dozen quart bags worth of berries, and took them to the market. I managed to make my costs back….barely, and the bags I couldn’t sell were donated to the local food pantry. So someone hopefully someone benefited from my berries.

That’s what’s happening here now, though this year the neighbors will be seeing me on their doorsteps instead of crowding the freezer. Anybody living nearby want some berries? Anyone?

The day my Dad became a Democrat

If you ask most folks about Democrats in Illinois, most of them will start talking about Chicago, as if that were the only place in the state where they existed.

That isn’t entirely true. They’re scattered over pretty much every part of the Land of Lincoln, including the small town my Dad hailed from. Of course, his family were about the only Democrats in town, and how that happened is an interesting tale.

Dad grew up in the Depression, and he had an intimate knowledge of hard times. But for all the struggles and all the hardships he and his family went through, they were ‘rock-ribbed Republicans’ who had little use for FDR.

Then WWII happened.

Dad wasn’t old enough in 1941 to enlist, or be drafted, so he stayed in school, finishing his high school education and entered the service shortly after graduation. As a fresh high school student from a small town in the middle of farm country, he didn’t have a lot of options. The Army was glad to have him, though, and the skills he had picked up working part-time on local farms was enough to convince them that he would be a good fit for the Corp of Engineers.

These days, when you say “Army Corp of Engineers”, people think of dams and locks, flood protection, and other large-scale civil works. For Dad, it was a very different organization. With his skill at driving heavy machinery in a straight line, he ended up being assigned to drive an earth mover, a machine that scraped the ground level in preparation for building things like air strips. His first assignment after entering the service was to go into the Philippines to build air strips to support the recapture of that island nation. One of the air bases he worked on later became know as Clark Field.

It was in the Philippines that Dad learned why the Army insisted that someone driving an earth mover know how to use a rifle. He only spoke once about that night when he and every other member of his unit was called to defensive line to fight off a final, suicidal ‘banzai’ charge by several hundred Japanese stragglers, and the few details he shared where clearly not things he wanted to remember.

For that and other hard service, Dad was made the driver for his unit commander. He was doing that duty when the war ended and his unit was transferred to a then-unknown little country call Korea that the Japanese had just handed over to America and the USSR. With no more people trying to shoot him as he worked, Dad probably felt his only worry was whether he’d die of boredom before he earned enough ‘points’ to be discharged. The wheels of fate, however, were far from done with him.

Dad was doing his duty, driving his commander to a meeting, when their vehicle became stuck behind a traffic jam on a narrow dirt track. As they waited, a truck pulled up behind them, an ubiquitous ‘duce-and-a-half’.

Then, as they saying goes, all hell broke loose.

Another vehicle approached the stalled vehicles at high speed, and it’s driver made no attempt to decrease his speed. Maybe the vehicle behind Dad’s was sitting there out of gear. Maybe it was just the fact that the jeep that hit it was traveling far faster than it ever should have been driven. Whatever the reason, the jeep slammed into the rear of ‘duce’ behind them, ramming it forward and sandwiching Dad’s jeep between it and the ‘duce’ in front of them. Dad survived, luckily, with minor injuries. His commander, however, died on the spot.

The driver who caused the accident was uninjured and clearly drunk. He was arrested and charged with causing the accident that resulted in death. Then, things got interesting. The drunk, it turned out, had a father who was very influential, and he proceeded to pull every string he could to get his son cleared. So, needing someone to blame for what happened, the Army said my Dad was at fault and arrested him. His court martial was swift, and the verdict came back quickly: my father had caused an accident that resulted in the death of a fellow service member, and he would serve a term to be determined in an Army stockade.

He was fortunate in that he was allowed to write letters home, so his parents learned of his fate as quickly as the military post system could forward his letters to the USPS. My paternal grandparents, bless them, trusted that their son’s claim of innocence was true and did what any parents in a similar situation would do: they contacted their congressman. He, in turn…did nothing. Nor would their Senator. Both of these gentlemen were Republicans, people they had voted for, and as you can imagine, they were far from happy that the folks who were supposedly representing them weren’t willing to stir themselves to do anything for their son. So they bypassed them and contacted the America Red Cross, which dealt with prisoners, both of war and otherwise. The Red Cross, in turn, investigated on their own and found witnesses to the accident who testified that my Dad hadn’t been the person who caused the accident. But if the people who should carry this into the byzantine judicial system of the military wouldn’t act, who would?

As it turned out, there was one man who was willing to listen to them, a man who’d seen service in the Army and knew it’s good side and it’s bad: Harry S. Truman.

The Red Cross contacted the president, who reviewed their findings, and as commander-in-chief, ordered my Dad released.

That was the day my Dad, and every member of his family, became died-in-the-wool Democrats, a political conviction that my dad held until his dying day.