I finished up a small post and beam project that I had been working on for the past couple of weeks. The following day the temperatures, which had been hovering around zero all week, suddenly rose with a front bringing a hard day of mid winter rain with it. The ground was frozen and the water, unable to percolate, gathered in pools and ran in streams down every hill and gully. I decided to take a day and pull my shop back into shape, to maintain the tools and equipment that I had been using and return them to their rightful place. My oldest son had been working on a boat and took the rain day to give me a hand. And so, after we finished chores we went into the garage barn and set to work. No matter how often I try to maintain some sense of order and discipline with the various aspects of the farm, things get out of hand and I have to devote a full day just to get back to a starting point. There are always extra five gallon buckets — we use them for everything from picking up slops from local restaurants to storage for lengths of chain, extra nails from a split box, used baling twine, rock salt for the ice, potting soil mix, etc. Their utility is exceeded only by their ubiquity and in virtually every corner of the barn we pull the buckets to the center of the room and dump them, one by one of their contents and file through the mix of hardware and brushes, tools and electrical parts, winnowing out the garbage and cast offs from the useful and the utile. My son takes charge of organizing the chain saw room under the stairs, lining up the bar chain oil totes and fuel cans, the accessories and kevlar armor we wear hung on their hooks, sharpening the chains to a razor edge and sheathing each bar before returning them to the shelves. The helmets hang next to the choker chains and peaveys, the old military ammo cans with their water tight seals filled with coiled rope and cable, files and keels in coffee cans on the in their cubbies and the extra bars and chains hung by size on hooks. If you had to you could find what you need in the dark when he’s done and we secure the ancient brass latch, a worn and aged American flag tacked taut on the front of the closed door. I take each power tool and blow off the dust and debris with the compressor and change blades and belts and discs as needed, oil and grease the fittings and adjustments and return them one at a time to their carrying cases and stow them in their cabinet; power saws, belt sanders, disc grinder, sawzall, palm sander, planer, impact driver, rotary hammer drill, zero clearance multi-tool, drills, jig saw and worm drive. We hang the galvanized wash tubs we used recently when we slaughtered back up on their wooden wall pegs, scrubbed and sanitized until the next time they’d be needed, probably when the first greens are harvested. We leave the big center door pulled open on its track and listen to the sound of the rain falling in a steady downpour all morning and afternoon, relentless, melting the last of the remaining snow into desultory piles of icy remnants piled along the edges of the fence lines and roadway. My son hijacked my radio, usually set to a talk station or public radio from the next town, so that he can play his music from a device he carries with him everywhere. His taste in music echoes my own in many ways and when it doesn’t I find myself asking questions about his discoveries and mention the influences I hear. We both are fans of older, classic rock, like Pink Floyd and The Beatles and I have swayed him to listen to some of my favorite lesser known artists like Brand X, Jeff Beck, Chet Baker and Vanilla Fudge. He has introduced me to his favorites, like Cake, Earl Sweatshirt and Beirut. We’ve both agreed on Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane, Genesis as long as it’s early stuff and Johnny Cash — especially the later work. He listens to some things I can’t take and when those cuts come on I’ll say so and he’ll jump to another, mostly punk sounding songs without much to them and I have learned that he’s never going to appreciate Pat Methany the way I do so I skip those when he’s around. It’s oddly calming to sort through a hundred different types of things trying to find a place for them with someone else, talking only in snatches about a wide variety of things as they come to mind, the last novel we’ve each read, our mutual pleasure in punking political pollsters when they call, his upcoming walkabout around America and the places he wants to see and the things he wants to do.
My son is leaving. I saw this day coming for some time now, probably long before he did. He’s finishing up his first year as an adult on his own, he’s established himself as a dependable worker with people outside of our family by doing everything from furniture moving to house painting and landscaping. He’s moved from project to project, week by week earning his own income, doing his own shopping and laundry, paying his way and making rent promptly each month by the efforts and diligence he practiced over the years under our roof. His free time has been spent in the company of his friends, or sleeping in, his favorite pastime, but he has also been available to us as well, stopping by every week or so and lending a helping hand. He talks with his brother and sister in the same snarky tone he used before he left, but there is an almost nostalgic warmth in it these days and he makes sure to tell them he loves them every time he leaves and you can see in their eyes the respect he has earned over the years from always being on their side, even when they were at each other’s throats. For the last month he has been spending a few hours working with me on projects like the one we worked on in the garage barn, not because I needed a hand so much as he wanted to give it. He’s been planning his trip across the country a little bit at a time, building a camping kit so he can make his way as inexpensively as possible out of New England and in a circuitous route that will take him to places like Asheville and Zion, White Sands and Glacier National Park. He plans on stopping to see family in New Jersey and Virginia, friends in Florida and New Mexico and after a traverse of what we figure to be a little over five thousand miles in three months, to wind up in the one place that has captured his imagination for about as long as I can remember, the Pacific Northwest. My son likes rain and overcast skies and it suits his demeanor. He has always been an exceptionally funny and intelligent observer of people and things, but his character is one of quiet deliberation. He is the soul of probity. I’ve told him everything I could remember of my visits to places like Portland and Seattle but I remind him that twenty years is a long time in America and it has likely changed a great deal. He’d probably learn more from watching a few episodes of Portlandia than listen to me recount my stories of doing hell gigs in Tacoma and Corvallis. We make lists together on blank sheets of paper; regional foods he’d love to try, like the handmade tamales I bought from a Pueblo woman at an empty crossroads near Four Corners that tasted better than any restaurant dish I have ever eaten in my life. There are scenic things he has on his mind that he wants to catch firsthand, the Grand Canyon, Rushmore, the St. Louis Arch, Biltmore and Pompey’s Pillar. He wants to make 100 miles a day, camp out if the weather is good and stay in cheap hotels or the back of his truck if it’s not. I’ve shown him the kinds of equipment I traveled with when I was doing stand-up, the two man pop up tent and a decent sleeping bag, a two quart pot, a cast iron pan and a stainless steel wire refrigerator shelf to serve as an ad hoc grill to cook whatever local produce or meat he can rustle up. He’ll take fishing tackle and rain gear, plenty of staples from the farm like maple syrup and dried fruit and there are lists of the kinds of things he’ll want to do when he’s not alone, hooking up with friends who’ve gone off to college, meeting my old agent and trying his hand on stage at a comedy club in the Midwest, visiting an old friend from up here who retired to try his hand at amateur archaeology. He’s worked out a prudent budget and I’ve clued him in on taking advantage of things like Church Suppers in small towns and regional events that most people have never heard of, like the Miles City Roundup in Montana, the shad run on the Delaware River, watching for UFO’s over the Great Sand Dunes National Park. I’ve made my own list for him, contacts from over forty years, former Army buddies, old classmates who’ve moved on to points north, south, east and west, a professional glass blower, a forest service firefighter, stand-up comics and Amish farmers I’ve come to know over the years. He can stop or drive by, but at least he will have some points of contact should he need them and people who will open their homes to him and maybe point out some things he might not want to miss. His mother is, of course, concerned. She believes he should have a plan, as if the things he’s been doing do not qualify. She believes that he should at minimum have employment waiting when he reaches his destination, work on WWOOF farm, attend a writing program at a college, something concrete. I’ve told him that if his plan is to experience the world so that he can become a better writer, his current passion, he should have a blog that he can post on and share his journey if with no one else, his family back home. I’ve asked him to either call or text his mother daily so that she will worry just a little less than if we hear from him when the mood strikes. I have explained to him that the road can be an anesthetic, a means to forget the world and the life you’ve lived in order to create something new of yourself, a means of becoming someone else. That is a siren that is hard to resist, but one that sings to everyone.
We piled cans and bins and bags and containers filled with every kind of mismatched and unused accessory and hardware known to man on the big work table in the center of the shop and began to sort through one piece at a time. Screws and nails of fifty different lengths and types, galvanized 10d finish nails, tapcons and GRKs, steel cut square nails, electrical staples, fence staples, airgun nail strips, shear bolts and anchors. We build little piles of each, discard the bent or stripped ones and then refill the containers and cans on the hardware shelf. We sweep the floor, consolidate the stocks of fiberglass fence stakes in their racks, electrical items in one cabinet, plumbing in another. I came across a cookie tin filled with old hand forged iron nails that someone on this farm had fashioned into eye hooks a hundred year ago or more. I’d dug them out of the corner of an old foundation and thrown them together in the hopes of one day making a display. Since we were in the shop I cut a piece of rock maple and sanded it down, then glued the nail hooks in rows across the face of it. I did the same with a half dozen arrowheads and when the panels had dried I hung them on the front of the cabinet doors. We sharpened chisels and wire brushed and oiled anything that had a tough of rust. I located a bucket of barn door hardware I salvaged from the fire, enough to hang the doors on the new hay barn once I wire brushed and painted them. There were old tools we’d discovered over the last few years in an old barrel, scythe blades, worn out ax heads, hay forks and ice cutting tools. I organized a shelf full of shop manuals and instruction booklets for the welder, the table saw and the sandblaster. We wiped down and coiled the hoses and extension cords and hung them back in place. The shovels and picks, rakes and hoes, pry bars and wrecking bars were all stowed back on their hooks and the garbage cans and their lids were washed and dried then placed back in their bins next to the canisters of dog chow and cat food. The husbandry equipment, harnesses and feeding bottles, waters and feed bins were all cleaned out and organized in their own closet, tack hanging on the hooks. By late afternoon we’d done all that there was to do and the shop looked as organized and well ordered as it had ever been. As my son began to pack up some of his finds in the back of his truck the back end of the front had moved on, the sky a startling lavender color like you see in an N.C. Wyeth painting. I filled a small box with frozen sausages and ground beef and gave it to my son and he thanked me. I told him that he could always count on food from us, could always count on us no matter what and we gave each other the kind of half hug that the men in our family are known to give each other and I stood in the dooryard with the dogs watching him drive away, his hand raised and waving until he disappeared around the bend.
There is an order in the world that finds itself with or without our involvement and it is the human condition to try and copy it, like an apprentice mimics the master or the child his parent. There is something profoundly comforting in a world where everything is in its place and something exciting when it’s not and we travel through our lives pulled by these opposing forces like the tides. There exists, I think, an immutable force that binds us to the rituals of creation and destruction, of creating hearth and home and then leaving it all behind. Watching my oldest son prepare to leave is a perfect completion of the cycle that led me to set down our roots. We leave so that we can come back and we start all over again. I imagine that in the upcoming year as so many people try and make the choices that will best benefit them they will choose one extreme or the other, tear down or try and build back up. In the world where people raise their families most of these bigger issues will hardly be noticed as they prepare meals, tuck children in at night, make plans for when they leave. The roar of the daily weather in both nature and human terms is leveled by the longer movements of social and planetary climate and things will, no matter what, find order in the things we do.