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Monday, 1 August 2011

Why Can't Americans Make Tea?

No question about it: this heat is debilitating. Yesterday it was 97; today they’re forecasting 100 – with added humidity. It’s 0645 right now and the thermometer is already registering 74.

It’s all relative, though. When I walked out to make a phone call yesterday there was enough wind to keep me fairly comfortable. I generally feel worse indoors, as when sitting here at the kitchen table with the sweat running down over my ribs – or of my bare arms slipping and sliding on the wet table, a problem I’ve solved for the moment by laying a towel between me and the keyboard. More unpleasant is the feel of warm upholstery against my bare back every time I slump in the recliner. However, a few days ago I brought an oscillating fan from upstairs. That helps.

So does the river. I went down there yesterday evening – ran down, in fact, before the deer flies could get me properly in their sights – and spent a happy half-hour cooling off, cheering on the massed ranks of dragon-flies as they roamed the skies like a fleet of helicopters, seeking out mosquitoes.

I read some more of my old journals yesterday. I was skimming through the record of my bike-ride across Nebraska. I’d got as far as North Platte and the temperature was up in the mid-90s. This was mid-September. I spent two nights there, camping in an RV park on the edge of town, just over the fence from the marshalling yards. I needed a  rest day, and was particularly interested in looking at the old Buffalo Bill ranch-house. I wanted to find out whether they had any records that related to his voyages to Europe. I had long entertained the notion that I had a connection to the old scout – and I do, but I’ll come to that later.

At North Platte there’s a rather special museum – and I really wish I could remember what it’s called. They have a number of restored buildings from earlier times: a Union Pacific depot, a caboose, a school house, a Lutheran church, a two-storey log house dating from 1899, an army post, also of logs, built in the 1860s at Fort McPherson, and a whole street of little shops from the nineteenth century. There’s also a wonderful exhibit on the North Platte canteen, an ad hoc sort of refreshment station set up by volunteers in the early 1940s to offer drinks, food and cigarettes to servicemen, many thousand of whom came through by train, en route to the Pacific or European wars. Even as I wandered through that exhibit I met one or two veterans who had benefited from that hospitality, all laid on by volunteers at no charge to the fighting men.

The item that most captured my attention, however, was the unpublished memoir of one Cecil Calhoun, who homesteaded in a sod-house some 45 miles to the north of town. I can’t quite remember, but I think it was a typed, rather than a hand-written record. It’s not a happy tale and, topically, it involves insect pests.

“Right here,” he says, “the fable of the cowboy riding the range, his pony and faithful dog his companions, a guitar slung across his shoulder, a song on his lips that brought maidens swooning at his feet, must be shoved under the bed with the filthy underwear and fleas. There were no effective fly-killers; millions of these pests swarmed into the shacks & contested for every bite of corn flakes or fried potatoes. Who got the hog’s share was a toss-up and many a fly lost as they landed in the milk glass or greasy skillet. At night the fleas and bed-bugs took over…. It became man against nature and many times we admitted defeat and taking a quilt would flee to some distant hillside to spend the night.”

He goes on to record that right into the late 1920s they were still using ‘surface coal’ (cow chips). It produced “a quick heat that burned out in minutes and left a cold stove. In the spring the rainy season left the pile a sodden mass of garden fertiliser.”

One wet season, he writes, his wife and kids cut out pictures of a meal from Good Housekeeping, and laid them on the plates at dinner-time as a hint that he should get some stove-wood.

Things got worse as the Great Depression hit. In 1929 rye was fetching $1.96 a bushel. After the crash it was 21 cents.

In 1934 he gave it up and went west to look for better prospects. He took a grubstake of $50. Gas was 16.5 cents, a motel room $1, good meals 25 cents. After a 2000-mile trip he was back. He’d seen an opportunity in Twin Falls and decided to take it. He’d met a man who was willing to trade 40 acres of good land, with a dairy, a henhouse, 150 birds, some machinery and furniture, for their 1280 acres in the Sandhills (which suggests that he had been a Kinkaider). Of this deal he writes, “The man’s wife said, ‘Ray wants to try ranching and he might as well git it out of his system.’ They stayed ten months.”

Eloquent testimony – and it makes you wonder how many other stories like that are untold, or undiscovered.

Today looks like another day of damage limitation – by which I mean trying to stay comfortable. I suppose it would help if I didn’t yield to the occasional impulse to attack the sand-burs. Trouble is, I hate them with a passion, and they are encroaching on the various paths I take across the yard. So I’m out there two or three times a day swinging my hoe and raising dust. All I really want is to be able to walk out and back without collecting several dozen of them on my socks, boot-laces or trouser bottoms. But my goodness it’s hot work.