The Curiosity Shop

Stanley (and Steve) Knee Deep

Last weekend I spent a good part of the weekend trimming many of our trees out in the backyard and thinning out the shrubbery growing along the creek. Because tree growth is relatively slow measured in day-to-day terms we tend not to really notice the growth until it gets out of hand and then we scratch our heads and wonder how did it all happen without our noticing it along the way. This process took me many years, and many trees in my various backyards, to learn... but learn I did and now I do annual trimming so as not to let it get out of hand. And in the case of our current back yard, out of hand could easily become overwhelming as we have a large number of trees doing their thing.

As I finished each tree I picked up, pulled, or wheel-barrowed the branches to a central pile and by the end of Sunday the heap was perhaps thirty feet in length, fifteen feet wide, and three or four feet tall.

So, this past Friday afternoon I headed home from work a bit early... put on my outdoors type work clothes and set about burning my pile of brush. It was a pleasant exercise in that it involved a lot of physical work and almost no mental work... something I have just not gotten enough of over the past year.

The weather Friday afternoon was glorious... sunny, not a cloud in the sky, fairly cool, maybe the mid fifties but when you are manually moving that much brush AND you have a good sized fire burning the mid-fifties can be quite pleasant.

And so it was... I spent the remaining part of the afternoon and into the early evening tending my fire, occasionally singeing the hair on various parts of my body because I wasn't paying quite the attention I should have been paying, listening to and watching the birds, exercising muscles that hadn't been exercised in too long a time... and letting my mind wander unfettered, unfocused to wherever it wanted to go.

Turns out, it went to your Dad. Perhaps it was no more than because I was working out in the back yard and that was something I did many times while at your home in Castro Valley. Or maybe it was because of the type of work itself... mostly physical. Much of the work I did for your dad was of this sort... particularly the tractor work where I spent hours slowly plying a field of its weeds or turning the ground over with roto-tiller or disc. That work for me was really not work at all so much as it was opportunities for something akin to meditation... simply being quiet and slow and allowing the mind to become quiet and, of course, my mind desperately needed quieting in those days.

At any rate, once I had the fire burning well on its own, the work became an exercise in watching it consume itself to a certain point then adding more brush to the mix and letting it flare up again. In between the flares was when my mind wandered and I called up images, moments, events, and stories of your Dad. For one reason or another, one multi-day event kept returning to my mind and so I just let it play itself out... letting it cycle through its memory each time picking up greater detail than previous. It was fun recollection and I thought I would try and capture its essence for you... and for me.

So here goes...

It must have been mid to late Spring. The weather had already turned inviting and your Dad and I had finished building the retaining wall... laying down the railroad ties on the slope of ground to the right of your swimming pool. Your Mom throughout the previous year had been asking your Dad to build her a garden area, a good sized garden area... as she was increasingly in the mood to plant all sorts of vegetables.

This became a recurring topic at the dinner table, your Mom making the request and your dad agreeing that, yes, he would get to it pretty soon... but pretty soon always seemed to get pushed off to the side as more and more roto-tilling, landscaping, or weed abatement jobs came in or your Dad found his next newest bargain buy of distressed tools, equipment, or lumber.

In mid-winter he came across a fairly large pile of used railroad ties near the Alameda Naval Air Station... he had managed to secure the owner's phone number, and he called inquiring whether or not they might be for sale. They weren't.

Not to be denied by something so trivial as an owner unwilling to sell, he made it point of... in uniform... regularly stopping by the that pile of railroad ties several times until he met the owner. On meeting, your Dad introduced himself, showed the fellow his badge, and explained to him that he had one heck of a fire hazard on site... all that creosote soaked wood could be mighty dangerous... and that he needed to do something about it. The eventual outcome was their mutual agreement that Stan would make the necessary arrangements to have it all hauled away.

I don't know all of the details of that conversation... but as your Dad and I drove the truck and trailer down to retrieve those ties your Dad explained to me the basic tenets of the story just in case the guy happened to ask me any questions. Fortunately no questions were asked and, from my perspective, the fellow seemed genuinely happy that the fire hazard was being eliminated.

Those railroad ties sat up in your backyard for about a month and then one day your Dad came home with a large bundle of... maybe several hundred... bars of 16 foot three-quarter inch rebar and a three-quarter inch drill. I don'' know where he got the rebar but he had just purchased the used drill from an acquaintance and he was ready for business. For the next week or so he spent time out in the carport with his blow torch cutting the rebar into one and two foot lengths and, between cuttings, he drilled 13/16 inch holes near each end of the railroad ties. His plan was to use the rebar to nail or bolt the ties together to keep them from slipping. As I recall, about the time he neared the finish of his drilling, he burned out the drill from over use coupled with a somewhat dulled bit.

Shortly thereafter, he and I built the retaining wall on the slope and, once the slope was filled in with dirt, the area would become your Mom's garden area. To your Mom's annoyance, we didn't fill the slope for several months.

And then one mid to late Spring day your Dad stuck his head into your bedroom... I was doing homework... and he said with great excitement and enthusiasm, "Boy oh boy, you should see what I found! I need your help."

As a general rule, whenever your Dad made one of his "you should see what I found" type pronouncements I was either eventually amazed, dumbfounded, or both. And on this particular day, I was in a mood not to be doing homework... I was in a mood to tag along with your Dad because such tag alongs often proved to be good diversions for my intensities of the moment, insightful, or just plain entertaining.

He instructed me to hook the trailer up to the truck, which I set about doing, I brought the truck and trailer down from the back area into the drive way and then went inside to get your Dad. Typically, on journeys such as this, he and I would go through a dance-like dialog, "Do you want to drive... doesn't make any difference to me... whatever you want... either way is ok by me... you make the decision... I don't feel like making the decision, you make the decision... I made the decision last time... no you didn't, I did... no, I'm pretty sure I made the decision so this time you make the decision..." and, usually, whoever just happened to be nearest the passenger side door got in first leaving the other to drive.

He beat me to the passenger seat on this one and, together, we headed off in search of "Guess what I found."

We drove down Norbridge Avenue towards Redwood Road, turned left towards Castro Valley Boulevard and, at that point, he told me we were headed out Crow Canyon Road. I asked him what it was that he had found but he was tight lipped about it... he told me it would be a big surprise... and I began imagining that he might have bought another tractor or maybe even a bull-dozer because he had been off and on talking about getting one during that time.

I asked him if he had found a tractor. He said, "You'll see." I asked if he had found a dozer. He replied, "You'll see." All the while, though, he had a big grin about him like he was really excited about what he had found and equally excited about showing it to me.

We turned down Crow Canyon Road, drove past Canyon High School, and he said that it was near the far end... closer to the San Ramon side than Castro Valley. It was a nice drive, we chatted, I kept prying him with questions, he kept evading what I was looking for, and finally he pointed forward and said to "turn in there."

I pulled into a horse ranch.

My first thought was that he HAD found another tractor or a dozer as there were a number of them around the place. As we bounced over the dirt and gravel roadway your Dad reached over to the steering wheel and gave the horn a couple good, quick, sharp blasts and motioned for me to pull over where he was pointing. I followed his lead, slowed the truck, to a halt, turned it off and was ready to get out when he said to me, "Well, what do you think?"

"What do I think about what," I asked him.

"What I found," he said.

I couldn't for the life of me figure out what he was referring to and the only thing that was really occupying our field of vision was this huge, gargantuan pile of accumulated horse manure.

"What did you find?," I asked him with a growing fear of what his answer might prove to be.

"That," he said pointing at the horse manure pile. "It's free... and we can have as much as we want." He was very excited about the whole thing and about that time one of the ranch hands appeared driving a tractor with a front end loader.

You Dad got out and the two began talking like they had been friends for life and your Dad introduced me as his helper and said that I would be coming back for, "Gee, I don't know how many more loads... but a lot."

"As much as you want," the ranch hand said, "and when you come in, just honk the horn and I'll come out and load you up."

You Dad drew me into many jobs this way... come see what I found... I tagged along... and next thing I knew I was doing the work... kind of like the way Huck Finn drew Tom Sawyer into whitewashing the fence.

"Stan, I asked, "what are we going to use 'Gee, I don't know how many more loads, but a lot,' for?"

"Carol's garden," he said. "We're going to fill the slope with half dirt and half horse manure and she's going to have the best garden dirt around."

I asked him if he wasn't worried about maybe putting too much manure in the garden and set up a situation where the mixture was too rich thus burning Carol's plantings... the possibility of such a thing happening, at least in my eyes, wasn't beyond your Dad's doing.

"Nope," he said, "won't happen because this is aged manure." I felt like I was being set up for some kind of straight faced deadpan kind of joke that your Dad liked to pull on people.

But he was serious and he proceeded to tell me more about the value of horse manure in gardens than I ever wanted to know. To him, this pile before our eyes was like manna from heaven and, best of all, we could have all we wanted... and FOR FREE.

I took it all at face value... the ranch hand loaded up the trailer and we drove home... I took the truck and trailer up into the far part of the back yard... we unloaded it... and then went back for more.

"How many loads are we going to get," I asked your Dad.

"I don't know," he said, "probably twenty or thirty."

"Twenty or thirty," I shot back incredulously, "what are you going to do, take the whole pile?"

"I might he said," with a big grin, "sometimes you just can't get enough of that stuff when you really need it." We both laughed and for the next week or so, in between other tractor jobs for your Dad and my schoolwork, I drove out Crow Canyon Road, loaded up the trailer with horse manure, drove home, and added it to the growing pile in the back yard.

Once we had a good thirty or so yards of the stuff piled up in the back your Dad put the ground rippers on the back of the tractor and ripped up a fair portion of the yard... his plan was to simply scrape away the top foot all over and mix it with the manure... which he did with what I would best describe as wild abandon. He scraped, dug, pushed, and roto-tilled the manure and dirt together like a kid in a sandbox. He kept telling me that Carol would have the best darn garden dirt around. And, literally, when the dust finally settled, she did.

Your Dad and I spent all one day filling in the dirt-manure mixture behind that retaining wall he built. It was a hot and dirty day, we took turns driving the tractor with the front end loader while the other stood in garden area spreading with shovel and rake the ever filling mixture into the nooks, crannies, and corners of the hole we were transforming into farmland.

At the end of the day, sweating like dogs, dirty and dusty like the pig-pen character in the Peanut's cartoon strip, I walked across your patio and your Mom had a coke ready for me and a large glass of ice water for your Dad... I took the drinks back to the garden area and we sat ourselves down and enjoyed what we had created. Your Mom joined us... she was real happy and was already describing where the corn would go... the tomatoes... the lettuce... the zucchini... and your Dad turned to me saying as he was wiping the sweat off his brow and sipping on the ice water, "This is the life, isn't it?"

I remember thinking that I wasn't quite certain if I would describe what I just went through as, "the life," but I did know that I was happy in the moment and, in those days, I don't think I could have asked for anything more.

It wasn't long before your Mom had her garden growing full bloom, it looked to me like it could grace the cover of a magazine like Organic Growing or maybe an add for the Troy-Bilt Roto-tillers and just as I had gotten roped in to hauling all that manure for your Dad I somehow ended up with the daily chore of venturing into your Mom's tomato patch and ridding the plants of those big green horny tomato worms. I was never quite sure how I drew that responsibility... but I did it willingly and your Mom had the best darn garden around.


Sunday, March 10, 2002.