Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Same Santa, Second Verse

It's no coincidence that I've written about Callahan Christmas nearly every year since I started writing Dispatches From the Ranch; it might be my favorite December outing.  The setting is in an old historic Grange building with walls as thick as Fort Knox's.  The cast of characters who attend represent what I love about this valley: hippies, cowboys, loggers, commune dwellers, and everyone in-between, all together, chatting and breaking bread.  The food is always a big traditional turkey and, even though I recently wrote about my normally unenthusiastic response to giant-chicken, this bird is the exception.  Plus, it's paired with potluck food, which is my favorite style of eating (food + surprises, what could be better?).  Send me to a restaurant with "family-style" seating and I'll probably stab you with my fork, but in Callahan, sitting at the long picnic tables is just part of the fun.

And then there's Santa.  Previous Saint Nicks have included a 25-year old dude, tiny frail men, cousins, and the super-legit reining Santa Champion, who had been there the last several years.  Sadly, that one passed away last year (pour a little egg nog out for Callahan Santa).  And even though the new Santa's beard and silver hair were clearly fake (the old Santa walked the walk year round), he did all the required holiday things: he was cheerful, inquisitive, and posed well for pictures.

Once the stockings get dolled out and the kids start terrorizing the Grange Hall, the adults retire to the upstairs to hang out by the wood stove.  Bottles of wine and beer emerge and stories about the past hunting season are told.  We duck the nerf footballs that the kids huck around and when the first rugrat collides with the wood pile, we gather up our salads and desserts and say our goodbyes.

Best of all, we're home before 9:00.  It's the perfect holiday tradition.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Comin' in Hot

The month of December rockets in like a couple of bogeys hot on Goose's tail.  Just when I feel like I finally digested the last piece of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, Freddy Fender starts yelling that he Wants To Wish Me A Merry Christmas, and I start getting pumped up (because that's the best holiday song ever).  Mostly, because I need all 24 days prior to Christmas to get prepared.  Admittedly, I gave myself a Christmas head start this year and went out on Black Friday.  What a mistake.  Twenty minutes in, and after my third lap around Cabela's, I put everything in my basket back on the shelves and curled up in a ball somewhere between the ammo and archery aisles and muttered, Why? Why? until Regina found me.  People.  Shopping.  Hunting Gear.  All things that, in theory, I think I like, but in practice, nope.

With the Thanksgiving buzz finally worn off, we were ready for Christmas, so we spent last weekend in full holiday spirit.  We hit Etna's Christmas Party, where Main Street gets blocked off to traffic and the downtown stores open up for holiday goodies.  Santa's at the hair salon, some dude (Greg) is giving holiday tattoos at the hardware store, and so on.  It's all the crowds and anxiety of Black Friday shopping, but with more candy and beer.

On Sunday, we went full Christmas.  We drove up the mountain until we hit snow, and then hiked a mile to find a tree.  We lunched in an abandoned barn and drank hot chocolate and caroled.  Ok, we didn't sing, but Regina and I did drink wine while the kids filled up on cocoa and checked for bear tracks down at the creek.  When we got home, we decorated the house.  Dylan was in charge of setting out our 57 nativity scenes while I dragged/squeezed a 12 foot tree in through the front door.  Grady hung the cat-proof ornaments on the low lying branches.  Regina mostly swept up forest chaff.  Stockings were hung.

We are as decorated as we are going to get, and we're still three weeks away from Christmas.  I guess I'll have plenty of time to hit those late season sales at the mall ... or I'll just stay put with an egg nog. That's probably better for everyone.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thankful for Button

Sunny Eugene
We spent our Thanksgiving in Eugene, or, more specifically, Crow, with the in-laws.  What can I say about giving thanks on a year that's been pretty rough?  I'm not sure, but I'm an optimist, so I can at least name a few things, generic as they may sound.  It's the usual suspects, the family-friends-health that everyone mentions before they dive into a twenty pound bird.  Enough said.

What I love about hanging with Peter and Vovo is the blend of traditional and non- that comes together during the holidays.  And let's face it, Thanksgiving is pretty blah on the holiday scale.  There's pie, sure, but no one comes to your door begging for candy and there aren't any cool decorations (don't count your lame cornucopia, Nancy).  No lights are strewn and no one goes wassailing.  The highlights are a bird no one eats 364 days a year and a day of fistfightshopping the day after.  So Lucy mixes the day up with Brasilian dishes (Pudim de Leite), American dishes, and straight up country dishes (goat).

My Dad -- forgive the digression -- was notorious for buying horses.  Good, bad, ugly, he bought them all.  He gave a second (or third) chance to a lot of ponies that were destined for the dog food factory.  One was named Chicken, because he was saved from becoming chicken food (he didn't last).  One broke his hand, another his ankle.  A few tore apart the hitching post until he had a steel one built, then they just broke lead ropes and halters.  But more often they were great.  Boy and Cody.  Mars and Pete.  So-so was paid for with his first Social Security check and was a good one.  Dylan now rides a gentle paint named Romeo, Dad's last horse.  The list of good ones goes on.

So the highlight of Thanksgiving break, for me, was we bought a horse.  Specifically, we got a little cream colored gelding from my in-laws that I've liked since they picked him up at an auction a couple of years ago.  His name is Button and I've only been on him for less than a half hour, and that was over a year ago.  But I liked him then, so we bought him now.

And I know Dad would have been thrilled that I was horse trading over the holidays.  My gut tells me he's a good one.  I've had my teeth kicked in when my gut's been wrong, but hey, I'm an optimist.  I think this one will work out fine.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Yard Friends

Dylan's terrified.  Grady grabbed his BB gun.
Dylan, who usually doesn't get frantic, was frantic.  "Dad, there's a snake outside.  I think it's a rattlesnake."
"Hold on a second, Sean," I said to my buddy on the other end of the line.
"Sounds serious," he said.
"I doubt it," I replied.
"It's a rattler, Dad," she repeated.  So doubtful I was of her claims -- I mean, come on, we've lived here nearly 18 years with hardly a Garter snake in the petunias -- that I went outside in my bare feet.

And there it was.  A genuine rattler.  In the yard.  And a big one, too, mad and buzzing away.  "Oh, shit," I thought.  Our pets are so unfamiliar with venomous snakes that the cat crouched on one side of it, ready to pounce, and the dumb dog lay on the other, ready to ... who knows.  Bite the dog, I whispered.  "Huh?" asked Grady.  "Nothing," I mumbled and went inside for the shotgun.

This bastard was big.  His belly was lime green and he was as big around as a beer can from stem to stern.  His rattles were broken off so it was hard to guess his age, but after I dispatched it with a 12-gauge, I flopped him over the yard fence and it touched the ground on both sides.  The shotgun did quite a number on it.  I never did find the head and I later wished I'd just killed it with a shovel so I could have skinned him out for an awesome, I don't know, sash (?) for Regina.  Plus, I've been on an Eat-Whatever-I-Shoot kick (minus ground squirrels), but there wasn't enough left in terms of edible meat.  But then again, there was no way in hell I was getting close enough to kill it with a shovel, so really the shotgun was a good choice.

It's not uncommon to have rattlesnakes on Hartstrand.  Hell, my brother has found them curled up in the shoes he left on the porch, but just not at our house. So, for the rest of the summer we played outside with our shoes on and always let the dumb dog take a lap around the yard first, before we ventured out.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Eat Every Bean, and Pea on Your Plate

We try to be good role models and instill values like kindness, wisdom, and courage in our children, but when it comes to Dylan and Grady, the one constant is this: they're good eaters.  They might not always exhibit empathy or completely grasp what it means to be courageous, but cleaning their plates is something they totally get.  Is a healthy appetite a value?  Probably not, but one could make a weak argument that it's at least a virtue.

Our kids like pizza.  Freaks.
Our kids eat what we eat, but we've been lucky because they've never been picky.  In preschool, the most common comment we received when we'd pick them up was, "Wow, Dylan/Grady ate all her/his lunch!"  We were probably hoping for accolades for their bitchin' finger painting skills, or praise for really hitting the high notes on the ABCs song, but we were pretty proud of empty lunch pails too.  Recently, the kids have actually expanded my palate.  It was Dylan who encouraged me to save the heart from a buck I'd shot because she'd read a grilled heart recipe.  You know what?  It turned out to be our favorite cut of venison.  Now she wants me to save the tongue from the next deer I get, and is eager to try kidneys and head cheese if I ever make it.

Guess who loves carousel sushi?
My buddy shot a black bear this year and generously gave me a chunk of backstrap from it.  I've only tried bear meat once before and it was horrid.  I wanted to give it another shot, and besides, Grady was really psyched to eat a bear.  So, I grilled it up and the four of us sat down for Sunday dinner and dissected its flavors like a bunch of Top Chef judges.  Was it good?  That doesn't matter, but I'll tell you that we ate the entire cut, and saved only one slice so Dylan could bring a bear sandwich to school the next day.  (And yes, it was good.)

I know what you're thinking, we're ranchers, do our kids eat mountain oysters?  The answer's No.  We're adventurous in our eating, but we're also not on Fear Factor.  I'll catch hell for saying this, but any food that has to be fried to be edible is really just a bullshit food.  Besides, my brothers did the, "Open your mouth and close your eyes, I'm going to give you a big surprise," trick on me when I was 8.  I was expecting chocolate, I got a pickled testicle.  I've never gotten over that.

I'm just happy that our kids are down for trying just about anything we put on their plates.  Dylan's drawn a soft line against onions, but I think only because she felt like she had to have something she didn't like.  Grady hates tapioca pudding, which I don't get, but I think it's a texture thing for him.  We'll see what happens when I mash up a cube of head cheese.   Hate it or love it, at least I know they'll try it.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Life at the Orphanage

Ranch kids get cool holidays.  No, they aren't federally or state recognized, but they are, in most rural areas, excusable absences from school.  There's National Castration Week, Shipping Day (not to be confused with Boxing Day), Horseback Holiday, and Preg Check Fridays.  When our kids roll in to school a few hours late with speckles of fresh cow shit on their boots, the school secretary just nods as she checks them in and notes "ranch school" on her tardy slips.

Skipping school for the "big" ranch jobs is generally a reward for the hours of chores they're generally stuck with.  In the summer, I drag the kids along with me to irrigate, cut and bale hay, and check cows.  They're pretty good little helpers -- they can chauffeur me around on the 4-wheeler while we're changing pipes, and both are getting good enough on their horses to help gather cattle.

Last week was our first shipping day of the fall and we sent a couple loads of steers to a feedlot in Nebraska.  Dylan brushed up on her addition by recording the weights and number of steers that went through the scales.  She learned about net and gross weights and probably learned a few good swear words too.  While we loaded the trucks, Grady brushed up on his swordsmanship skills with a cattle sorting stick.  He and Dylan squared off and jousted; I finally stopped them when I overheard one of the truck drivers tell the other, "That's not going to end well."

And now, as part of their morning chores -- which already includes feeding dogs, cats, chickens, and goats -- we've added three orphan calves.  Yep, Shakey, Spooky, and Sugar are our newest projects.  Because there are three, I help feed them and it's like tossing chum off a boat and watching sharks swarm.  They knock their bottles to the ground, they nurse each other's ears, the bawl and slobber and shit and run.  It's a blast and usually when I come in from work the kids, and Lardo, are out rolling around in their pen.

Academics keep our monkeys pretty busy and I don't feed bad pulling on the reins now and then to let them peel away and enjoy the fun side of ranch life.  Besides, if you come to class late, you'd better be able to impress your teacher with newfound practical match skills like: 144 nuts = 72 (ex) bull calves.  Where else are you going to learn that?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

16 Homes

Fig. 1
Halloween started early this year.  No, we aren't the goths of Eastside who get so excited about October 31st that we decorate in September so a month later the jack-o-lanterns have transformed into grotesque mold-droolers that leer at you with droopy eyes.  If fact, we just carved ours Sunday (see fig. 1).  It's just that Tuesday Halloweens tend to prolong the holiday to ensure adults get plenty of proper boozy time on the weekend.

I took Grady, Dylan, and Dylan's friend, Mickala, to a haunted house in Yreka on Friday.  I knew, absolutely, Grady wouldn't go through it, besides, it was billed as 12 and older so I was hesitant bringing two 10-year old girls.  They both informed me, after I bought their entry tickets, that they were terrified of haunted houses.  Mickala, especially, didn't want to go.  At all.  The young lady taking tickets at the door finally had to abandon her post and walk through it with them.  The girls gripped her arm so tightly they gave her bruises.  Oh, and Mickala wore her jacket backwards, with her hood up like a mask, through the entire house (see fig. 2).  I treated them to McFlurrys for their valor.
Fig. 2

By Tuesday, the excitement of Halloween had built so much that Dylan woke up a half hour early so Regina could curl her hair and apply her witch's makeup.  I smeared camo face paint on Grady as he walked out the door.  They did the Etna loop for the traditional elementary school parade (best parade of the year) and then, that evening we hit the road.  That's right, it's that country here.  You either 1) go to town to trick-or-treat, or 2) drive around the Eastside.  We've always done the latter.  Hell, I did the same loop, and stopped at the same houses, when I was a young goblin.  Everyone knows Grady is gluten-free and makes him his own treats and I can pretty much tell you what treat each house will give out.  I can count the houses we stop at (16), and we all go in at every stop so we can chat, watch a little baseball, grab a beer, and then pile back in the truck to drive another mile or so down the road to do the same at the next house.  It takes the better part of 3 hours to do the loop and our kids get as much candy at those 16 stops as the "city" kids do at 50 houses, so they don't miss out on anything.

This year I realized that we hold on to our Halloween traditions more tightly than any other holiday, which just might make Halloween my favorite holiday.  So watch out, next year I just might start carving out those pumpkins in September.