Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

My father wasn’t a seer or prophet or anything like that but he did have a boatload of commonsense. He also had a different way of looking at things. For instance, his two favorite stories was the parable of the ant and the grasshopper and the story of Joseph from the Bible. He believed things were preordained yet that God gave us a great deal of control if we paid attention and did our best.

I suppose some people would have called him a survivalist but not the weird, anti-social, freaky kind. He wasn’t shy about telling people his beliefs when he was younger, at least according to Momma, but by the time I was old enough to notice he’d changed as a result of how people reacted to what they thought they knew about him. He didn’t like being laughed or ridiculed anymore than the next person. People would tell him he watched too many disaster movies or read too much science fiction. Something I remember him saying a lot when I was a kid was, “Isn’t it interesting that the same people who laugh at science fiction listen to weather forecasts and economists?” He said it was a quote but I never learned by whom.

When I was little Dad moved our family out of the city where we lived, where he’d met Momma, and into a house outside the rural community where he had grown up in. It was a nice little house, nothing spectacular, but something he got at a really good price because real estate prices had fallen dramatically during that time. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, an attic, a basement, and a large kitchen where I grew up helping my mother preserve the food from our family-sized garden, the fruit orchard, and the field crops Dad grew when he wasn’t operating his forge and welding equipment.

Dad would give a tenth of his field crops to the local community pantry, sell half of what was left to cover taxes and insurance and then told every all of the remaining grain was used as animal feed. However, that wasn’t true in the strictest sense. Although I suppose the argument about people being animals is supported by the way a lot of them act.

One of the main reasons Dad and Momma picked the particular location that they did was because it backed up to some public lands my dad was very familiar with. As a boy, Dad had traipsed all through the area and had run across an ancient sink hole right outside the public lands.

One day Dad swiped a watermelon from the farmer’s field that owned the land that the sink hole was on and he put it to cool in the spring that ran right beside the sink. As boys sometimes do he wasn’t paying enough attention to what he was doing and his brand new canteen that he’d just gotten for his birthday began to float away and then slide down into the sink. Dad climbed down into the sink, foolish and dangerous though it was considering all of the junk that people had thrown down in it like old cars, refrigerators, etc. On his way down he fell through a curtain of kudzu and discovered a crevice in the granite landscape that turned out to be a full blown cave.

The cave turned into his home away from home; a place where he could escape the drama of a father who drank, an older brother who soon did the same, divorce, remarriage, the death of his biological father and then the death of his stepfather. Then Dad started dating and the cave was less important than his need for a car. The cave didn’t stand a chance against the need to work and his new interest in girls.

After graduation Dad had to move to find a job. A good man decided to take a chance on the nearly homeless young man and hired him and Dad discovered he was pretty good at fixing things, especially metal things. After discovering what he was good at Dad discovered the boss’ daughter. Granddaddy was a good man but a stickler; if Dad wanted to see Momma he would have to come to church with them. Dad never could decide what was kinder, Granddaddy giving him a chance at a job or Granddaddy introducing him to a life so different from the one he grew up in. Dad and Momma married right after she graduated highschool and they had a pretty old-fashioned relationship which mirrored Momma’s parents.

Things were going well and soon I came along followed four years later by my brother. Then Momma’s mother died unexpectedly of cancer after only a very short illness followed by Granddaddy a year later of a heart attack. That’s when things got difficult.

Momma inherited her father’s share of the business but her uncles tried to force her out. They started by trying to fire Dad but then had to take that back when a lot of the customers found out and wouldn’t do business with them over it. Then they tried to make it seem like Granddaddy owed the business a lot of money which records show that he did not. Dad finally had to get a lawyer involved and the judge told her uncles to either knock it off and buy her out in an equal share or he’d dissolve the partnership and liquidate the business and distribute her share that way. Right when all of that was being settled Dad’s mom died.

To put it bluntly the “ties that bind” broke. No one in Momma’s family was speaking to us so Dad just decided to move us back to where he grew up and start his own business. Dad’s siblings agreed to let us live in my grandmother’s house rent free so long as Dad fixed it up so that it could be sold. This gave Dad and Momma time to look for their dream home. Dad remembered the cave and providentially the land that the cave was hidden on was up for sale. Dad now had two houses that he had to work on but just as soon as the house outside of town was liveable we moved into it and the house in town was sold at auction. The proceeds were split between Dad and his siblings and everyone went their separate ways except for the yearly Christmas card.

Dad had learned things growing up about being self sufficient and he helped Momma to deal with her own family turning on her and her unexpected loneliness because of it. I started school that year so I think that is why it appeared that she lavished an unusual bit of attention on my brother. Of course my brother needed the attention.

The older my brother got the more apparent it became that he was … different. In school they used to call it exceptional. To me he was just my little brother. To the pediatrician he was autistic. He was what they called “very high functioning.” Some people didn’t even notice, but he definitely had his own way of doing things and sometimes people just didn’t get that. He was very smart and there wasn’t a lot about a computer or electronic gizmo that he could figure out by osmosis. He had some issues … no tags in his clothing, no polyester at all, Dad was the only one allowed to cut his hair, he hated socks and mittens, and he could only handle certain foods if he was allowed to eat them from a different dish separate from everything else on his plate. But none of that was insurmountable.

Where my brother had the greatest deficit was in his social interactions. When he was real little he would do stuff just to see what the reaction would be but then he would fall into a loop and do the same action/reaction activity over and over and over again, almost like a compulsion. He outgrew that for the most part but objects were a lot easier for him to deal with than people. He was really sweet and nice 99.9% of the time but when he flipped that .1% seemed to overshadow everything else. He also had a very difficult time recognizing facial and voice clues.

He was also the most literal person I’ve ever met in my life. The only joke he really understood were the really old ones like “Why did the chicken cross the road?” He didn’t get sarcasm, cynicism, or any of the subtle emotions. That was a huge block that many people couldn’t get passed but for those that were able to, my brother was a really neat kid to know.

This as much as my father’s own background growing up meant that our family tended to keep to ourselves. I mean we weren’t hermits – we attended a medium sized church, went to the fair, and stuff like that – we just were more thoughtful and careful about where we went, what we did, and more aware of things for my brother’s sake.

The doctors said that it was a strong possibility that my brother would be able to lead a “normal” life and maybe even have a family of his own; he’d just be a late bloomer when his brain got around to hardwiring itself. On the other hand my Dad liked to plan for just in case.

As I said, my Dad had learned things growing up about being self sufficient. He learned more from my Granddaddy and yet more from the circumstances of his death. He vowed he’d never worry again about how he’d feed his family or where’d they lay their heads at night. He also wanted to make sure that my brother was always taken care of just on the off chance the doctors were wrong.

The cave and what it had meant to him as a boy symbolized how he felt as a man. It was an open secret under our roof. It was a closely guarded one otherwise and even my brother understood that.

Dad cleaned out the sink that most had just considered another gully out in the woods that they could use like a dump, only without the environmental rules. Then he cleaned the cave out, even more challenging in its own way given its location and that he was trying to keep it hidden at the same time. When he cleaned the cave he found it stretched further back than he had realized. After that the cave went from being a storm shelter of sorts to being a storehouse slash hidden cabin.

To further disguise the location he ran thick cables across the opening of the sink like a spider web and then let grape vines grow along the cables. This was stealthy and productive as Momma said the grapes that grew there were some of the best she’d ever eaten or canned with. Dad’s friends said that he made some of the best homemade wine they’d ever had the pleasure of drinking.

Dad was smart. He knew that most people resented other folks who had something they didn’t so he his most of what he did in plain sight. Under the guise of creating streams of income he would make trips to the closest big city and make bulk purchases of barrels. Some of the barrels used to hold things like pickles, banana peppers, soda syrup, sorghum and stuff like that; but by the time they got to us they just stank and it was one of my chores to clean them out since my brother tended to heave at the worst moments.

Many of these barrels he would turn into compost tumblers or rain barrels to sell at flea markets and craft fairs. Some of them however he used to hold bulk grains like wheat, rye, and corn that he grew in our fields. He would also collect metal drums, some of which he would turn into smokers and BBQ grills to sell, but others he used to make things to outfit the cave like a rustic cabin.

Dad also had a thing for alternate energy. He’d gotten bit by the bug after one summer storm where they lost the power lines to the house and subsequently lost everything in one of the freezer that was kept on the back porch when Momma couldn’t get everything canned or salted in time to save it.

Dad didn’t like generators. They were too noisy and temperamental and they used fuel that he worried he wouldn’t have enough of. Generators also drew people. And if he’d needed any other reason, the noise generators made was one of the few things that really set my brother off into the stratosphere.

Instead we went solar for most everything and wind for things like the cattle watering trough. There was an externally vented room down in the basement that was used to hold a whole bank of batteries for the lights in the barn and house and the surge capacity when the electric lines went down completely, a frequent occurrence in the country. Even the cave got solar power though nothing as nice as the house. The house PV panels were on the back of the roof and most people thought they just helped with the hot water bill. The PV panels for the cave were disguised so that even the few stray forestry personnel that occasionally wandered across the BLM boundary didn’t realize they weren’t government property or some sort of testing station.

The September after I turned thirteen, right as school was starting, Dad set my brother and I down and explained that our cousin Jeff was coming to live with us. He was the only child of Dad’s brother who had been killed when the designated driver turned out to be as high as his friends were drunk. I’d grown up hearing how wild my uncle was which didn’t leave me too confident of the sudden change but Jeff turned out to be very cool.

Jeff was seventeen and only waiting until he could get his highschool diploma to join the military. He was a big help to my dad and even made my own school life easier once the bullies found out I had someone on my side that wasn’t shy about knocking the heads of guys that picked on girls and little kids (my brother). I enjoyed having a “big brother” instead of having to be the oldest one for a change.

Jeff melded into our family surprisingly well all things considered. He filled a spot in my life I hadn’t even realized existed. Even though things were getting more difficult economically it felt that our family life was actually getting better.

Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went. They were a slim celebration if judged by the amount of money spent but in other aspects they were rich beyond measure. We celebrated bumper harvests in the field crops – potato, corn, tomatoes, soybeans, and the winter wheat was looking really good. Daddy had planted enough tobacco to sell for “medicinal” purposes without getting into trouble and he socked it all into stuff for the cave. He had planned to use it to top off our supply of junk silver but the government had changed their rules yet again to make it so that ANY precious metal purchase , not just so much for the year, had to be reported to the IRS.

That forced a change in my Dad’s financial prepping. So did the fact that Momma had to close her roadside fruit and vegetable stand when the government stopped issuing seasonal licensing for that type of small business. We weren’t the only ones hurting from the new rules. A lot of people were calling it a disaster, even more was saying that the worst hadn’t even started happening yet.

I remember Dad and some of his friends sitting around discussing whether the disaster they saw coming would happen slowly or quickly and without warning. One man was thoroughly convinced that it would be both; that we had already experienced the slow build and set up for the inevitable, that it was only a matter of time before the tipping point was reached. Things would go into free fall with little to no warning at that point, the pot would boil over, and all of the rules of modern civilization that we lived by would get chucked out the window like the proverbial baby with the bath water.

For whatever reason Dad held firm to his belief in the continuing slow build scenario, that our family would meet the challenges as they presented themselves and that no matter how bad things got hard work, perseverance, and faith would get us through. And it might have if we had been left alone.

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