Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer - Part 1

I admit it. I am a product of the baby boom. Not quite a boom myself, being more of an acoustic anomaly off to one side. At least I was making a noise. I was born in the nineteen fifties, which puts me pretty much in the middle of that noisy clutch of booming babies. I don’t quite remember Howdy Doody, but I do remember the Kennedy assassination and the original run of Star Trek. And, of course, I saw the Beatles’ first performance on the Ed Sullivan show. Didn’t everybody?

Not only that, but we were suburbanites. I grew up in the state of Connecticut. For you in the bio fuel ready Midwest, we are one of those little states on the east coast. You know, the ones that look like pixilated bad guys in news videos? Not quite as small as Rhode Island, which is normally used as a cartographical unit of measure (as in, “That iceberg is the size of Rhode Island.”, or “An asteroid the size of Rhode Island (in 3-D, presumably) struck France last week.”) but not as big as Massachusetts, either. Connecticut is comfortably known for very little in the popular vernacular. Where I live is known for even less.

I live in the eastern half of the state, affectionately known as ‘The Other Connecticut.’ ‘Other’ as in, ‘Not the one where Paul Neumann and Mia Farrow live.’ That half of the state, the rich half, is pretty much the cork screw on the Swiss Army Knife which is New England. Our purpose in the Appalachia of the northeast is to serve as a counterweight, I suppose. Or a first line of defense should Rhode Island, with their cartographical superiority, decide to invade. We would absorb the blows while ‘The Primary Connecticut’ was annexed by New York. At least we would not have to put tomatoes in our clam chowder.

A lot is said about what baby boomers do and don’t do and what we are and aren’t. How unlike the previous and the current generations we are, for good or ill, how selfish or iconoclastic we are, etc, etc. Personally, I don’t think we baby boomers are any different than anybody else. A little less mercury in our environment growing up, perhaps, and a little more mercurial in personality, but then again we still had lead in the gasoline, so the assault on our neurotransmitters was just as robust. And anyway, with all of the random geology found in Connecticut, I think the water was naturally effervescent with radon gas. It is great with scotch. All in all, we were just brought up in an environment where the expectations were different than they are today, that’s all.

My father was a WWII vet. He joined the navy during the depression because, what else is a farm boy from Kansas to do when the farm belongs to the bank now? My mother worked in NYC during the same time, getting “Fifteen dollars a week, and that was good money!” as she told us later. During the war my aunt worked on a rationing board, and you couldn’t get an extra stick of butter out of her, no matter how much flattery you applied to the problem. My mother went to work for a defense contractor for the war effort. Though she did not get a chance to sling any hot rivets around, she did work in the office. Rosie the Filer. They also serve who stand and clerk.

We all have/had certain expectations in our lives. We in the post Sputnik era grew up with different expectations. I remember the 1965 World’s Fair in New York. I did not recognize it for the post modern, post art deco circus that it was. I actually believed all of the propaganda about houses of the future and talking Mr. Lincoln. And I’m still waiting for my flying car and electricity too cheap to meter. Our children are growing up with even different expectations, mostly to do with computerized gadgets that will save or rule the world, I can’t remember which. Maybe both. Who will be more disappointed, I wonder? Well, the computers won’t be disappointed, that’s for sure.

My mother’s parents owned a farm out in the country. ‘Country’ defined by Connecticut standards, that is. So it was small and had some vegetable gardens, dairy cows, pigs, chickens and used to have horses at one time in its past. No longer self sufficient, in other words. They were already retired when I came on the scene, having gained consciousness some time in the sixties, but they still retained some of the old routines out of habit, I suppose. These were a few quaint things that came with them from the Old Country and didn’t quite catch on here. What may be of interest to the Peak Oil brigade is that they, even back then, already grew their own bio fuel. Yes they did. It grew right out of the ground without the need of natural gas based fertilizers or diesel powered irrigation booms like those crop circles you see out in the Midwest. It just grew right out of the ground all by itself.

Two or three times during the summer, we would help my grandfather in the processing and storing of this miracle bio fuel. (By the way, when I refer to myself as ‘helping’, by that I mean running around with my other younger cousins trying not to get run over by a truck or chopped into silage by the sickle bar on the tractor. And yes, we used some fossil fueled vehicles for harvesting and transportation, but surely that was mitigated by the enormous quantities of bio fuel gathered in the process.)

We would gather the hay, I mean bio fuel, and load it onto a big flat bed truck. We would then drive it to the barn which was set into the side of a hill not too far from the farmhouse. Barns were always set into the sides of hills, the reason for which will become obvious to anybody who has stood on the down hill side of a cow. Someone would back the truck into the barn between the enormous lofts on either side. Then my grandfather would climb up onto the mound of hay, I mean bio fuel, and set this huge metal fork deep into it.

We used to call it the Devil’s fork and only my grandfather was allowed to work it. He would set it into the hay, I mean-Oh, never mind. He had to open the fork with both arms stretched out fully like Batman about to plunge over Gotham City. Instead, he just plunged the tines of the fork deep into the hay. He signaled a group of men by the entrance to the barn. A length of rope followed a complicated path from one side of the loft to the ceiling down to the fork then back up to the ceiling and over somewhere else. Eventually, it came down from the very top of the barn and went through a pulley set in the floor by the entrance. Rupp Goldberg would be bewildered.

I always found this amusing. Here was an old wooden pulley on the ground with a rope going through it extending all the way up to the ceiling of the barn and disappearing into one of the lofts. The free end of the rope was tied to a tractor, or sometimes even a car, which was driven slowly away from the barn, gently lifting the Devil’s fork along with its wad of hay up to the very apex of the roof. Some times the hay would all fall out and the forks would swing together, empty and dangerous. Those tines could pierce your head and meet in the middle, should your head get in the way. In the case of fork failure, my grandfather would shout down and have the car back up and start over again, resetting the fork into the jumble of hay. He was skilled enough so that, more often than not, he managed to get a thick misshapen lump of hay firmly set in the tines of the fork.

When it reached the top of the barn he would signal to the four men standing at the entrance of the barn by that hysterical pulley in the floor. They would pick up the rope and pull as quickly as they could, four men frantically pulling for all their might. This caused the Devil’s fork, which was already at the apex of the roof, to catch a trolley hanging in a rail, unlock it and fly left or right along the ridge of the roof, depending on how it had been set up. The fork brought the hay all the way to the edge of one of the hay lofts. My grandfather, who was holding a thin piece of clothesline, gave it a tug. It went all the way up to the roof and over to the fork, releasing it and dumping the hay into the loft.

A couple of good harvests and the help of sons in law and grandchildren and the barn was full. Hay was all they stored by the sixties. They used to keep a higher quality bio fuel in a storage tank called a ‘silo’, but the hurricane of 1938 turned that into wood planks, which were then used to build a porch around the house. Anyway, they didn’t need nearly as much home grown silage or fodder by then. You could just buy it, you know.

The hay was used as fodder for the three or four cows they still kept into the nineteen sixties. By then my grandparents were in their eighties so they were slowing down quite a bit. It’s bound to happen to the best of them. You try living into your late eighties and working hard the whole time. I’d rather not, thank you.

Looking at it this way puts some things into perspective. If it takes this much work and this much land to produce enough vegetative matter to keep a few cows going for a year (and cows don’t exactly have to run an Indy 500), then how much would be needed to power a horse? A horse conveniently produces one horse power of work, so the math is easy. Scale that up to your several hundred horsepower suburban tractor and I think you will agree that a tremendous amount to vegetation equivalent is required. At this point you may be tempted to say, “Oh, but we’ll use oily things like rape seeds and sunflower seeds and leftover grease from Elvis impersonators’ hair. This all has much more energy than hay. Much!” I would point out that oil contains slightly more than twice the energy of an equal weight of carbohydrate. This means that, instead of keeping four cows, we could have kept nine, assuming they could eat nothing by Brylcreem. I’m not exactly sure how many horse power we could count on, though. As a unit of comparison it serves to show just how much work you can expect to get out of a certain amount of roughage. There’s that concept again: expectations.

I don’t know what went first, the chickens, the cows or the pigs, but eventually they got rid of all of them. No more staying with the grandparents over a few days, getting up early with my grandfather and watching him feed and milk the cows at five in the morning. No more removing the loose plank in the barn and hoeing the manure down into the pit in the hill bottom foundation of the barn. No more pails of milk in the separator, spinning out every grade of dairy from sinfully heavy cream to barely palatable skim milk. We had an aunt who demanded that the milk be pasteurized. They didn’t really know how to do it properly, so they tended to overheat it. That made the milk taste scorched, but we went along with it, anyway. Science, you know.

At the end of a visit we would go back to our home, watch Walter Cronkite and the latest escapades of Colonel Hogan and his heroes. See the latest goings on in Disneyland (I was convinced that Walter Cronkite and Walt Disney were brothers. They had the same name and looked alike, after all.) Our own expectations for the future were that we would grow up, go to college and get a job making-get this-ten thousand dollars a year! And that would be good money! That was expected to set us for life. A life of luxury, no less.

My expectations didn’t work out quite that way. Now I think things like, “How frugal will I have to become in the future?”, “Should I be thinking about getting a second job some day?” and “How is my daughter going to make out in her future?” I think about putting solar panels on my house and have resuscitated a garden in my back yard that my daughter and I used to play around with when she was young and the garden was not necessary. I am proud to say that I can, throughout an entire growing season, produce enough food to feed myself for about a week (provided I buy something for the main course, of course.) Next I’ll work on feeding cows and horses.

If the absolute worst happens, then we are all toast, unless you happen to live high up in the mountains of Peru and don’t have a word for ‘petroleum’ or ‘hideous collapse’ in your native language and are already feeding yourself and your animals with bio fuel. Those who successfully avoided the Christian missionaries (or just ate them) may have the last laugh after all, though it may be less of a laugh and more of a, ‘Just what was that, anyway?’

I don’t know how I would answer that question.

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