Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot – Episode 5
The Second Big Bang
When I moved to the farm, I figured most of our amusement in that isolated community would come from the antics of the livestock, animals being such curious and uninhibited creatures. In the end, I would have to admit that ratio, between animals and people, for both glorious and inane acts, was about fifty-fifty. Our movie theater was fifty-five miles away, the local tavern forty, so the responsibility for entertaining ourselves fell primarily in our jurisdiction. Needless to say, we were never left wanting.
What is it about men and their fascination with sharp, pointy things or things that go bam, blam or boom? To most women, it is unfathomable, something we relegate to the ‘whatever’ file in life, sighing audibly and adult-like when confronted with it. We shake our heads, eyes raised skyward and go do another load of wash. Now it’s one thing to possess a fascination for these instruments of destruction, and quite another to have an addiction to them. I came to understand that distinction one Sunday afternoon as I was kneading bread dough on the little table that served as our dining area in the one of three rooms our cabin hosted. I chose that spot because I could look out over the barnyard and past it to the lake to the east. The scene was as tranquil as one could imagine, until the explosion. One minute I was pushing the heels of my hands against the soft bread to be, and the next minute I had pushed my hands right through the sticky mass up to my elbow, when the sticks and mud of a small beaver dam on the creek twenty yards to the south blew sky high. No forewarning allowed me to prepare for the ear shattering force that almost blew the glass panes right out of the windows of our cabin. It also moved the entire barnyard population straight up in the air in one unified vault, sending them stampeding far to the north of where previously they had been contentedly cudding and napping. This was all as a result of our neighbor’s desire to rid the tiny creek of a beaver dam, long since deserted by its creators.
I was new to the area. Fred had a historic knowledge about our neighbor’s proclivity, being related to some, but hadn’t bothered to pass it on to me. On that particular Sunday afternoon, I too became included in the cluster of fellow neighbors who were the first to admit that Elwood had a wee bit of a problem when it came to explosives. As I investigated further at coffee one evening, a quick tally of the community placed Elwood anywhere between three bricks short of a load to no load at all where dynamite was concerned. This was a bit unsettling, as he occupied the farm next to ours.
Elwood was delighted by dynamite. Its power captivated him. Its potential inspired him. Possessing it owned him. Sometime in the pre-dawn of explosives’ licensing, he managed to get one. None of us could imagine, even in those free-wheeling times, how that could have happened, but happened it had. And twenty years later, it still permitted him to blow things up.
It took me about a week to get over my jitters. Slamming screen doors and backfiring tractors set off proverbial trauma flashbacks in me. It was like living in enemy territory. I never knew when the next attack might hit. Fred thought I was being a tad over-reactive, but he hadn’t been there the day the remains of the beaver dam rained down on our roof. Besides, there seemed to be some sort of male camaraderie around this dynamite thing. Elwood wasn’t someone Fred normally supported. Especially since the time we said we’d build a concrete block addition onto his house, masonry being our trade before farming. Elwood insisted on making the footings, a practice we’d rarely agree to, except with neighbors. Since Elwood wanted a sloped roof on this addition, he decided that where the slope should originate was from the footings. In the eight feet of the block wall in which we had to eliminate that slope, I distinctly remember Fred connecting every swear word he knew with Elwood’s name. So this dynamite thing was an arena unto itself. And to say that unnerved me even more was definitely an understatement.
It wasn’t two weeks later that I got a call from Elwood offering his services to help us with the water well we’d been unsuccessful drilling. He had a notion about how he could blast us a well that would solve all our problems. His jaunty discussion of the process left me almost speechless. The well we were drilling was about ten feet from our cabin. Without even shutting my eyes, I could see the whole scenario before me, our cabin raining down on where the old beaver dam used to be. I wouldn’t have been so concerned about this possibility, if it hadn’t been for one of the stories I collected when I began to investigate our neighbor’s attraction to explosives. The incident took place at that little general store you’ve already come to know.
The store served our tiny community, as well as the needs of holiday visitors to the lake. Being part of Walter and Joyce’s house, the store was fronted by an expanse of neatly kept green lawn that stretched to the wharf and the lake beyond. Joyce, like so many area Ukrainians, had a wondrously green thumb, decorating her yard with colorful flowers and shrubs. In that same patch, a shoulder high craggy chunk of granite protruded from the earth like a monolith, a strange formation in our low-lying lake country. Joyce liked that rock, and as if it were a shrine, she planted a carefully tended garden around it.
Elwood, on the other hand, had always considered the rock the way a lumberman values a stump. In his most imaginative dreams, he could not conceive of why someone would want that in their yard. Elwood was generous of spirit. He’d give you anything you’d ask for and some things you didn’t. Joyce never asked to have that rock removed, but Elwood did it anyway. His was a gesture of neighborliness. Joyce, however, didn’t see it that way when the pre-dawn detonation sent her rock high into the sky, with one large chunk crashing back to earth through her living room ceiling. The blast woke her from a sound sleep with an exaggerated suddenness. Her mind was quick, and it took only but a second for her to discern what had happened. Luckily she didn’t grab the shotgun propped up by the door. She grabbed the broom instead. And in her fuzzy, pink chenille slippers, flannel night-gown and foam curlers, she chased Elwood down the dirt road with a vengeance and a fury. To this day, if Elwood runs out of supplies, he has to do without until he has time to drive the fifty miles to Wetaskiwin. When Joyce screeched at him that he was never to set foot on her property again, she meant in perpetuity.
For many nights during the time of our well drilling venture, I slept poorly. One morning, between fatigue and fear, I snapped.
“Fred, Elwood was over yesterday eyeing up the well sight again. You’ve got to do whatever it takes to make it clear to him there’s to be no blasting.”
“Christina, you’re blowing this thing out of all proportion.”
“Great choice of words, Fred.”
“Elwood’s not going to do anything here.”
“You don’t have one shred of evidence to make that statement. And I have strong evidence to the contrary. What’s it going to take to make a believer out of you?”
“Okay, okay, I’ll talk with him. I need to get a few sticks off him anyway, to blow that big beaver dam up on the hill. I’ll talk with him then.”
The conversation in no way succored me. I feared they might even form some irrational holy alliance for all I knew. Fred and I had always been very close. But in this one area, it was like I didn’t even know him. Normally, he was a sober, sensible man, but talk about blowing things up and a worrisome half-crazed look of awe would glaze across his face too.
Two days later, Fred stopped at Elwood’s to chat and purchase some dynamite. When he returned, he looked wan and weak-kneed. I put the coffee pot on, and he collapsed in the chair by the table.
Fred didn’t answer right away. I turned and stared at him, curious. In a half whisper, he finally said with a faraway look on his face, “He’s got that shit everywhere.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Dynamite. Dynamite! He’s got it stashed everywhere and doesn’t even remember exactly where. You know that big equipment shed of his?”
“The big steel one that looks like you could easily fit a football field inside it?”
“That’s the one. He’s got sticks in old ammo boxes, in hoppers of old combines, under tractor seats, in seed boxes of old drills and those were only the ones we located. He’s even got it in the side door of one of those ancient threshing machines he has out in the yard.”
As Fred talked, more color drained out of him. His response frightened me more than anything I had fantasized to date. It was tough to alarm Fred and seeing him like this meant we had more than a simple problem.
“What’s that mean, Fred?” I was almost afraid to ask.
“It means that if he decides to work on a piece of equipment that he’s forgotten he’s stashed those sticks in, we could find ourselves in Saskatchewan, in pieces.”
“Oh.” That was all I could muster. This problem was bigger than both of us, and I busily tried to keep my fear in check. With a sense of rationality I’d cultivated for just such situations, it occurred that if such a disaster happened, I would be the pieces that someone else had to clean up, so why worry about it.
That was not the end of it; however, as our neighbor to the west had something left to learn about the appropriate use of dynamite. Danny had a large stump in a pasture he wanted to plow and reseed. He removed all his dairy cows from that area and called Elwood to dispense with the stump. Elwood arrived, his eyes on fire, his smile a ghastly sneer. Danny should have twigged on that excessive enthusiasm, but he, like Fred prior to his experience with Elwood, still saw little harm in Elwood’s quirks, even when Elwood sprinkled a bit of nitrogen fertilizer around the dynamite sticks he packed into the stump. He then ran a fuse from the dynamite across the field about fifty yards toward Danny’s pickup, which they’d used to carry the supplies. Elwood lit the fuse and both men watched as the sparkly little flash travelled down the line.
Out of the corner of his eye, Danny saw something moving where the pasture bordered a small acreage of bush. It took him a second to draw his eyes away from the mesmerizing travels of the sparking fuse. When he did, he saw his best dairy cow, Bessie Babe ambling out of the bush. Danny panicked, jumped up, and began waving his arms at her to shoo her away. His actions didn’t scare her; rather they inadvertently focused Bessie Babe’s attention in his direction allowing her to catch sight of that strange sparky thing traveling along the ground. She immediately picked up her pace, nose low to the ground like a bloodhound on a scent. When she reached the burning fuse, she was but ten yards from the stump. Danny began running toward her, then seeing how far the distance and how close to the stump she was, he turned and ran back toward the vehicle. He clapped his hands over his ears, thanked Bessie for all her lovely calves and dove under the pick-up not one second too soon. Bess was last spotted with her muzzle stuck right down in the rotten core of that old tree, still seemingly trying to figure out what that tiny mobile light was.
The explosion was enormous. Dirt, rocks, and pieces of stump rained down on the pickup and into the cab, as the windshield had been blown out by the blast. Danny wouldn’t allow himself to imagine any of what was falling from the sky might be Bessie Babe. He was a kind-hearted soul and took good care of his livestock. In fact, he continued to lay under the truck even after Elwood had crawled out, loathe to look at what he feared he’d see. When he did, he first saw Elwood dancing on the spot in delight. Then, unable to wait another moment, he took a quick glance over his shoulder in the stump’s direction, holding his breath. Had he been a religious man, he may have thought he was having a sacred vision. He took another big breath and slowly turned around, his eyes seeing what his mind could not yet fathom. There was Bessie Babe sitting on her butt, moving her head very slowly from side-to-side bawling, but otherwise fine.
She continued living for many years with the only indication of her miraculous survival being that she was stone deaf from that day forward. She probably had a wracking headache for a while, worse than any hangover headache Danny or Fred had known, but those specific details are hard to get from a cow. It is said that those at the center of a blast are the safest as the shock wave goes out, not up. Bessie Babe was a living testament to that theory.
Elwood, however, was off the invitation list of those who got together each weekend for coffee and tales of the week’s happenings. Besides, auction season had just started and Elwood’s other addiction was buying whatever at auctions, often not even remembering what he’d bought or where. However, it did keep his mind off explosives, and the community could rest easy, for a while anyway.
Watch for Episode 6: Lamb Dancing. If you would like to receive these stories in your email along with other blogs I write, just do what the subscription box to your right says. You are most welcome in our growing community of readers. Some days we ponder together, some days reminisce, and other days we just laugh. The only thing we can’t seem to do is get together for coffee.
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