Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 29—Ed Hobart and the Patrons of Husbandry

Ed was driving at night, a thing he had sworn he would not do. Tonight’s presentation was before assembled Future Farmers of America at the Little Falls Grange—Cutworms and Cabbage Maggots: What to Do and When to Do It. The glare from oncoming traffic blinded him, and he’d had some close calls over the past year. He wasn’t that old—in his forties, way too young for cataracts or that other thing—what was it when old folks had their eyes dry out? Macular degeneration, that was it. At the optometrist’s Doc Giddens had rolled back his chair from the large expensive equipment that allowed him to look inside Ed’s eyes. “Maybe a torn retina, but it looks like it’s healed. Cataracts maybe, but unlikely at your age.” He withdrew a mechanical pencil from a plastic pocket protector and dug inside his ear with it. Ed stared. “Your vision hasn’t changed—about the same prescription as last year, but…” Ed’s jaw hung loose as he watched the pencil slip in and out of the optometrist’s ear. “Uh, yes...” said Doc Giddens. He examined the end of his pencil, clicked it a few times as if checking in with his answering service and replaced it in his white lab coat. “You should see Dr. Ostermeyer. The ophthalmologist?” Ed pocketed the card, meaning to staple it to the office calendar in a month far from the then and there, say October, far enough on in the agricultural year to be well mulched—then he would make the call. If he remembered to look for it.

He had the radio on and his gaze riveted to the glistening titanium white line on the passenger’s side. The white line was in lieu of a bond issue for maintaining culverts and ditches—fair warning that there was no shoulder, no guard rail, just a drop-off. The state repainted the yellow center line every ten years.

Detour.

Detour? Now who put that there? Ed was sure the sign wasn’t there last week.

Detour.

Ed swerved; he had missed the turnoff by 20 yards. He put the government truck into reverse and ran backwards through a freshly tamped diagonal of gravel fill. A throbbing blue light appeared in the rearview as a trooper pulled his cruiser out from behind a zebra-striped black and yellow sawhorse barricade. Sam Jennings. Ed knew him from the Machias barracks.

“Hi Ed. Big date tonight?”

“Sam. Future Farmers at the Patrons of Husbandry.”

“Sure you’re driving sober? Myself, I’d get pretty loose for the FFA. Nothing personal; just saying.” Sam waved him through with a big smile. Twelve miles further on, a Dept. Hwys. sign pointed left to a gravel road. “Little Falls Grange 5 mi.,” the sign said. The detour was gravel and winding, a private road commandeered by the state during construction. The road passed by boarded-up summer cottages and hunting camps. Styrofoam takeout trays and beer empties proclaimed this as a popular teen makeout location.

Detour. Narrow.

The scream of a compressed air horn. An oncoming vehicle with its high beams on—a truck? I’m blind. Painful halos bloomed inside his eyes like looking at an eclipse without sunglasses, staring into the sound of a fog horn, up close. He could only see concentric circles, cooling from hot white to a pumpkin orange afterglow. Ed came down hard on the brakes. A logging truck tore by with scant inches to spare. As his sight returned, Ed Hobart crept forward. Wait! There’s something in the road. Two eyes, two tiny green eyes—a raccoon, a bear, a confused moose maddened by tick bites—and he and they were on a collision course. Ed veered sharp right, the steering wheel tight in his hands, and headed for the ditch. A Thump! as its suspension bottomed out and the little truck entered empty air. The steering wheel spun out of Ed’s death-grip, taking the skin off two of his knuckles. The truck began driving itself along a spongy basin of loose gravel left behind by the road graders, and careened into the swamp. Bump bump bump. As it attempted to right itself, the passenger’s side tires dropped into a gully. Hit the brakes, damn it! His foot slammed on the accelerator instead. He had gone off the road and was now stuck, spinning a hailstorm of gravel into the air. The pickup jolted, then shot forward as its tires hit bottom. The engine bucked and the spinning ceased. There was a rattling as though he had a big box of loose parts strapped under the cab. “Popped a strut assembly. Shit.” Ed pulled ahead onto a mowed hayfield and killed the ignition.

Through a smudge of fried hydrocarbons, he headed up to inspect the damage. It was most likely a raccoon; still he’d better have a look-see. Shit, if he’d hit a moose he’d be dead. In his flashlight’s beam two curious eyes regarded him from the center line. Not too close. Rabies season all year long, he had the pamphlet. “Shoo,” he said climbing out of the ditch waving his arms. Show over. The raccoon turned its back and continued on to the other side.

Ed clambered back down to the truck to survey the damage. The Extension’s old chariot appeared to have come away from its ditch-dive unscathed. The loose parts. Ed climbed in the cab and cranked the engine. A cloud of blue exhaust as it started and failed. He tried again and it caught—OK, so far so good. He engaged the clutch and inched forward. Well, he wasn’t stuck at any rate. Fine. He backed into the hayfield stubble for an uphill run at the road. Rattle rattle rattle. Thunk, and he was back on Route #1.

Up on the road, idling on a level surface, the loose parts sound subsided. Ed breathed a sigh of relief. Putting on the emergency flashers, he looked for the computer and his worse fears were realized. The university laptop and its extremely expensive projector were gone, knocked out of the passenger’s seat by his raccoon detour. They were jammed up front against the firewall end of the passenger’s foot well. “They’re broke. Shit. But I saved a raccoon. Maybe she was going to be a mother.” Ed did not question why motherhood should enhance the karmic value of a potential road hit. Reflex—that was it. He found himself rehearsing his story for the inevitable Q and A with the dean. The xenon lamps on his old slide carousels had been a pain in the ass. They popped a filament if you looked at them funny—no jiggling necessary. The brave new world of PowerPoint was slick, as advertised by the IT guys at the University, but the projectors cost a bunch of money, more than the laptop.

Ed picked up the computer and shook it. No loose parts here. He trusted that was a good sign. Then the projector. Huh—no rattles here. He replaced them on the seat, then checked behind the driver’s seat. Jammed into the minimal utility well, stuffed in so tight that it would have taken an earthquake to dislodge them, were cartons of literature. “Next time,” said Ed. If there was a next time he would put the laptop and projector back there and wedge them in with blankets.

*  *  *

Cars lined the sides of the road and filled the yard. Cutworms and Cabbage Maggots had pulled him a full house tonight. Ed felt a thrill of apprehension. Stage fright. He got the jitters even when standing up in front a small knot of farmers. They would be courteous and disinterested, then go home to keep on doing things the way they always had. These were farmers who scratched out a hand-to-mouth subsistence and supported their families with full-time jobs at the paper mill. Ed’s vehicle limped into the parking area and pulled around to the back where a green dumpster blocked the fire exit. A squeal of feedback poured through the walls of the Grange hall and a country-tinged voice bellowed, “Well, that’s it for tonight, kids. We gotta clear out for the worm man.” A chorus of disappointed howls greeted the statement. The eighth grade dance. “Worm man,” thought Ed Hobart, “That’s me.” He squared his shoulders and, clutching the computer and projector tightly against his chest, headed for the door.

A knot of teenagers opened up with nervous laughs to let him past. Ed smelled liquor. The eighth grade had come primed for a long evening. They were leaving under duress.

The back door opened and a crowd of boys and girls spilled forth, baggy pants out at the knees for the boys, heavily applied makeup and pushup bras for the girls. They joined the group of out-of-doors imbibers and headed for their cars. Ed heard “Worm man,” repeated several times to boisterous laughter. One girl looked back at him and made a face and flipped him a middle finger farewell. Another squeal from the loudspeakers inside and then silence. The cars were gone within two minutes, leaving the Patrons of Husbandry with an empty lot. Serenades of courting crickets welled up to fill the empty night. Bugs fucking. No Future Farmers, no farmers. Just him and the crickets. Ed decided to wait it out for any possible attendees. A van pulled in and honked. It was Cliff James, the last remaining dairy farmer in the county. The van’s side doors slid open and the James boys piled out. Red hair and freckles to a man, they lined up like stair-steps for their father’s inspection. “Hiya, Mr. Hobart.” There were five of them; they ranged in age from nine to sixteen.

“Hiya James gang,” said Ed. “Got any more Future Farmers in there, Cliff?”

“Nope. Freddy Llewelyn’s down with the flu. Barbara’s bringing a covered dish. She and Wilma should be inside. I dropped them off this afternoon.”

“Good spread, then.” Ed smiled. Chicken à la king with biscuits and gravy, the usual. Domestic fowl in all its permutations was a mainstay of these presentations. “Thanks for coming.”

“You’re a good guy, Ed. Hate to see you have to spend an evening alone with Pilly Hennicott and the Missus.” Pillsbury Hennicott, known as Pilly, was a county commissioner and showed up at any- and every-thing county related from a visiting rodeo to monster truck rallies. As it turned out, tonight Pilly Hennicott would take a pass on the cabbage maggots and stay home to watch Superstars of Wrestling on channel fifty-six.

“I turned over some pasture to put it in a silage crop. Thought the boys and I might get educated.” Cliff James was being generous. A fifth generation farmer, he knew more about Ed’s specialty than Ed did. A weary soccer mom with a look of many miles yet to go that night pulled in with a second van and parked next to Cliff’s. Across the doors was stenciled in old English script Thunderbelly. Painted on its sides were stylized musical notes and clef signs with a cartoon figure of a 1950s hepcat jiver in a zoot suit. He wore shaded glasses and a looping watch chain. The faded hipster snapped his fingers. The woman honked. The James boys looked longingly at the band—a trio not much older than they—as they loaded their amps and instrument cases. Ed’s talk on cabbage maggots had done them out of going to the dance.

Cliff waved the kids ahead. “Don’t like the look of those clouds, Ed. It’s comin’ on cold. Gonna get us a nor’easter knocks us shit-west by daybreak.” Ed had looked in at the National Weather Service website before he left. Clear skies tonight, sunny tomorrow. But he was not about to tell an old-time Maine farmer that he had made a bad call on the weather. Cliff was most likely right.

As the Jameses clustered around their respective wife and mother Ed pulled down the projection screen the Patrons kept at the ready. The place smelled of soft drinks and Italian food. Wilma James catered all the affairs at the Patrons of Husbandry and had sold pizza for the eighth grade dance. Wilma indicated a casserole. “Pizza’s gone, Ed. Hope you like chicken.” Ed granted that he did. A thin, sallow white-faced man cleared his throat. The caretaker, Bob Barnes, stood at the side of a plywood lectern. A gooseneck microphone and a halogen reading lamp decorated the slanted top. “Anywhere, Bob. We’ll have a small group,” said Ed. Figuring right where it was was fine, Bob plugged in the lectern at a wall outlet and tapped the microphone. “Testing, testing. One, two, three testing.”

All heads turned. This was Bob’s moment of glory. Ed was quick to pry him away from the lectern. “That’s just fine, Bob, but I don’t think we’ll need any amplification.” Looking disappointed, Bob unplugged the lectern. The light went out. “But I do need the light,” said Ed.

Ed stepped to the podium. Bob Barnes slapped at a switch near the back of the hall and went outside for a smoke.

“Cutworms are characterized as surface, climbing, army or subterranean. In Maine cutworms have only one generation per year, although some can produce two generations.” Ed leaned over and tapped the computer’s Return key. A fresh slide popped up, five seconds later, another.

“The easiest way to control cutworms is to avoid planting in soil that was sod-covered in the previous year and keep your patch as weed free as possible, especially in September, October and in spring. They love to lay their eggs in weedy, overgrown gardens before spring planting.”

The PowerPoint slide show was changing without him. Ed ignored the screen and read from his notes. “Remember the cutworm is the larval stage of a moth. They arrive airborne.”

“We kill ’em, right boys?” Cliff James. Five eager heads nodded agreement and turned to Ed Hobart for the government position on the best line of attack.

“You have two non-invasive choices—and we’re talking pesticides—poisons—here. Pesticides kill bees too, and we don’t want that, do we?” Eager heads bobbed in unison. “Put collars around the stems of your young plants, and push ’em down into the soil—about an inch will do the trick. Or you can wrap the stems with aluminum foil”

“Like a casserole,” offered Wilma.

At that moment the final slide popped onto the screen then faded to black. The Patrons of Husbandry went into total blackout. “Lights, please,” Ed called. Henry, the eldest James found the switch.

After a quick hit on the casserole, Ed made his farewells and started to pack up. “Suppose me and the kids give you a hand with that?” asked Cliff.

“Thanks a bunch.” Ed welcomed the extra hands.

By the time the James gang had shuffled in and out, ferrying totes and cartons of pest control brochures to the truck, it was raining sideways—a mix of sleet and rain come driving in off the open ocean, a nor’easter that stung the skin and made you walk backwards into the wind, eyes in a squint against the force of the rain.

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