Tara and Easter

Tara and Easter
"Aw, mom"

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Horse Ghost Town

We drove down the winding road in the shade of oak tree hammocks with spanish moss dangling overhead.  We were on our way to Dunnellon, Florida to pick up a couple of turkey chicks.  The route passed through the legendary Ocala, FL.  The home of so many famous racing stud farms.  It is Lexington, KY with palm trees.  Or, at least, it used to be.

I have traveled this route before.  The first time was back in 2005, when I was still in the US Navy.  I drooled over the scenic pastures with double fencing and stunningly beautiful horses munching happily.  Broodmares with round bellies full of hope and promise.

This morning was a much different experience.  As we passed through town, I saw overgrown pastures and many "For Sale" or "For Lease" signs.  Irish Acres is being sold off into 0.9 acre parcels to build "your dream home".  Many of the big stud farms are just gone.  The expensive signs have been taken down and the fences are falling into disrepair.  What startled me most, however, was the waste of it all.  All that valuable pasture land with nothing to eat it.  Meanwhile, people are auctioning off their horses for less than $50.  Ads on Craigslist for free horses, some in deplorable condition, on empty lots without a blade of grass.  If only we could rescue horses and have them use that valuable pasture this summer.  With slick shiny coats, perhaps they'd have an easier time finding good homes.  Of course, it would never work, but the irony is appalling. 

I think I'll stick to the highway next time.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Emails home from deployment: USS Normandy, AUG 2005


            I watched carefully as the linehandlers heaved on the mooring line. Burnt, sweaty, faces grimaced as they did what sailors have done for hundred of years. The ship closed the gap between herself and the pier through the brute force and determination of the men and women on deck. I was present as the Officer-in-Charge of the fantail linehandling teams. While waiting to snug the lines up again, we looked out on our new surroundings.

            Through the thick humidity and blinding haze of the African sun, we looked at the rundown pier that would be our ship's home for a few days. No wonder she was resisting. The air reeked of livestock from the sheep transport across the pier from us. Every vehicle kicked up little dust storms as they passed. The buildings were made from cement and corrugated metal. The lack of closed windows, (or any windows at all), indicated an equal lack of air conditioning. It was the kind of unbearable mid-day heat that made one want to seek out a shady spot and move as little as possible. Even the flies that greeted us were lazy from the heat and dust. We had been taking malaria pills for several days now and were each wondering if it was worth the port visit. We had been warned about the mosquitoes, and for the men; the astronomically high rate of HIV among the 'available' women. "If the bugs don't get you, the women will", was the popular saying among the male sailors. But wait, it isn't always about visiting fun ports. We were putting money into the local economy by visiting, which helped the locals and demonstrated our gratitude to a people that had opened up to us despite the possible political ramifications. And not only did we already have a new base established here for the war on terrorism, but the French Foreign Legion had been based here for very long time. Their language was known by all Djiboutians. Despite initial impressions, I decided to give Djibouti, and it's people, a chance.

            It was late afternoon and several of us junior officers made our way to the dusty, little bus waiting on the pier. The lethargic flies found us as soon as we sat down. The open windows gave us a clear view of this new, old world. One cannot judge a country from it's piers. Such places are made for commerce and movement of materials, not sightseeing. Nor can one judge the neighborhood immediately surrounding the piers. As we traveled down the rather well-maintained road leading us from the piers, we passed what first appeared to be a scattered dump. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized that these were homes. Collections of materials from various sources bound together into walls and a roof. Jugs were nearby for the fetching of water. Children played in the dirt around the homes and goats wandered while seeking something to nibble. A Sally Struthers commercial came to mind, but these children didn't have the sad faces, blank staring eyes, and fly-crawling-by-mouth appearance of those hiding in the shadow of an overfed actress. These kids were doing what kids do. On a sunny day and in the safe presence of their families. Most adults were under some kind of shade, but some were on makeshift stools with lines in the waters of an inlet. Smiling and showing off a freshly caught fish. Waving shyly at the dusty bus full of Westerners. Women walking in small groups wearing colorful head coverings and laughing quietly behind raised hands. Some people were on the corners selling khat leaves, (pronounced like 'cot'). This is a mild stimulant, similar to the beetlenut used by locals in Guam. Folks also gathered in front of stores with worn signs written in French. This was simply how they lived their lives.

            We arrived at the local American military base. It was built in the spirit of an old western fort. The Army Corps of Engineers created amazing temporary, permanent structures using a mixture of wood, canvas, cement, and of coure, painted white rocks to line the streets.  The place smelled of freshly cut lumber and reminded me of a khaki version of the old M.A.S.H. tv show. We visited the base store and relaxed at the cantina for awhile. Did you know that Burger King can come in a trailer? And it actually did taste like Burger King. The cantina was plastic furniture, a stage, and a bar nestled under a huge canopy. We gathered and enjoyed each other's company for awhile. The soldiers fed us information about the country and it's people. We were encouraged to use their gym but signs warned us not to run on the trail after dark. Hyenas like to chase humans silly enough to run. For in Africa, if you are running: you must be prey. I saw some steely eyes and lithe shapes around the edges of the Camp, but decided against closing in for a closer look. I also spotted African wild dogs at dusk trotting easily through an area with fresh garbage, no doubt hoping for a stray edible.

            The drive back to ship was pleasant. Djiboutians were all out and strolling in the cool night. Drivers had to be extra careful because cars were stopped in traffic lanes and families were sitting, sometimes actually in the road, enjoying a picnic. It was a lively time of night with a quiet, relaxed feeling. Couples strolled together. Children played and older folks gathered to talk. I did notice that everyone seemed to stay where there was light. And people. And safety from whatever creatures were strolling as well. Habits formed by a culture that remembers when the local animals were larger and more ferocious. A few wild, strange calls broke the general quiet talk made by locals. A man pushed an ancient Coke wagon along the street talking to folks more than actually peddling. We arrived back at the ship in time to accept an invitation to the German frigate on the neighboring pier.

            The German Navy is a frequent visitor to Djibouti and invited the enlisted folks over for a social one night and the officers the following night. Their frigate had assisted us with the Somalians but this was the first time we were actually able to meet the German sailors that we had been working with. The beer they served was light and flavorful and their company was welcoming. We exchanged stories and compared navies. I found their engineers who promptly offered me a tour of their engine rooms. To my surprise, they had the same gas turbine engines as we do. And diesel propulsion as well. I was fascinated with how they use their diesels at lower speeds and then switch to their gas turbines at higher speeds. We joked about topsiders, (non-engineers), and swapped stories before returning to the wardroom. By this time, an english-speaking, drunk, German pilot was singing loud guttural German songs while wearing WWI era aviation mask and goggles. "Are you the Red Baron?" I asked. "No", he giggled, "I'm Snoopy!". He took a few of us on a tour of his helo and proudly showed me that they were named after the Blues Brothers. Yes, the names Jake and Elwood, along with pictures, were painted on the sides of the German helos. He also explained to our Commanding Officer, and a few of us, how they made themselves a hot tub out of the inside of their small boat. At the end of the night, we left with a new appreciation for German ingenuity.

Miss you all,

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Trip to Virginia and two new additions

Has anyone ever thought to themselves, "Gee, I would like to grab my spouse, strap my toddler into his car seat, load up two cows, and drive over 650 miles?"  Really?  Never?  Well, if the wild urge ever strikes you, may I suggest either repeatedly slamming your hand in a car door or perhaps driving a few nails with your forehead.

We had a promising new baby bull to pick up in Church Roads, Virginia and two of our cows were being leased to Maymont Park in Richmond, Virginia.  After discussing all options, we decided to do our first family road trip.  Note: we do not own a minivan with any sort of entertainment center and sound-proof barrier.  No, there was no way to lull our offspring into a Disney-induced, eyes glazed over, DVD coma.  We left armed with some feeble toys, lots of wipes, Kleenex, snacks, water, and access to both hubby's and my I-tunes, all within easy reach during the drive.  And, I thought, naively, that I was well-prepared.

John has many talents.  One of which is to yell for miles on end when we do not play his favorite song 37 times in a row.  In fact, I do believe the back seat of a 3/4 ton pick-up truck actually magnifies young voices so when his 37th request was refused, his wails were actually louder than stepping on the toes of 40 cats, blasting 15 trumpets, and a Blue Angels flyover all simultaneously.

I am happy to report, however, that while John had his moments, I did bring one magical toy that made the trip bearable: a soccer ball.  At every stop for gas or sanity, we took John out to a grassy spot to kick the ball around and get rid of pent up energy.

Meanwhile, the cows, Erin, and Arnold, were quite well-behaved.  The first night, we stopped at Mistletoe Farms in Varnville, SC.  Erin and Arnold were unloaded and placed into a large 14x14 foot stall to rest.  The barn was cool and dark in the June heat.  We toured the miniature horse farm with the owners of the quaint little Bed and Breakfast.  John was a bundle of energy after the long drive so the walk did him some good.  Then, we dropped the trailer and headed into town for dinner.  We ended up at a local diner sitting next to the grumpiest old sheriff's deputy I have ever seen in my life.  He had to work hard at being that grumpy.  The small town of Hampton, SC surely could not have had the murder rate to make that cop so bitter towards his fellow man that his face was masked in a permanent scowl.  I truly believe he would make NYC homicide detectives cry.  Even John inquisitively peering at him over the back of our bench did nothing to break his mask (as we hurriedly sat our child back down lest Mr. Robocop reached for his taser).

Erin and Arnold at the B&B.

Although still concerned that we might be arrested for smiling too much, we had to let John run around a bit before heading back to the B&B.  Thankfully, Mr. Grumpy had urgent business elsewhere (no doubt stamping out excess mirth in some other sector of town).  It was nice to return to the B&B to relax and check on the cows before bed.  By early evening, there was a cool breeze flowing through the paddocks so we moved the cows outside to spend the night.

The cows loaded easily the next morning for our drive to Virginia.  It was a long day and we didn't reach Maymont until after the park had closed to the public.  Erin and Arnold didn't seem at all fazed by the new surroundings.  The pastures were lush and spacious as was their own private paddock, complete with a shelter.  We tied them up and brushed them with their new caretakers and then unloaded their hay, feed, treats and buckets.  We left their halters with them as well.  It was hard to leave them since I had known them since the day they were born, but they are in very good hands.

We noticed a problem with one of the trailer tires and fortunately, the baby bull's owner was able to direct us to a tire repair service the following morning.  After that little adventure, we were off to Paradise Farm to pick up Armstrong.  We had a chance to meet the bull's sire and dam as well as may others in Mr. Bowen's herd.  Very impressive animals.  Armstrong was coaxed into the trailer and we were off to South Carolina once again.  We arrived late at night so we left Armstrong in the trailer and dragged ourselves off to bed.  

The following morning began early again and we packed up and readied ourselves for another lovely breakfast.  As we stepped out of the door, the B&B owner was watching a skinny Golden Retriever cross walk around his yard.  The dog came right up to us with his tail wagging.  He was subdued and dirty but very friendly.  No collar or tags and the farm owner had never seen him before.  He and his wife had three dogs, two of which were aggressive towards other dogs (though perfectly lovely towards people) so he told us that he would have to take the dog to the local pound.  He also mentioned in passing that the pound didn't have much luck finding new homes for dogs (you see where this is going).  At that point, I decided to be aloof towards the dog and let hubby be the one to decide if we would get involved in this poor scrawny dog's future.  As if sensing exactly whom he would have to charm, the dog walked right up to hubby and sat down while giving him 'the look'.  You know the one.  A mixture of "I am a loving dog that will be your devoted friend for life" and "I am a poor starving, desperate beast".  Well, it was well played because hubby started asking about whether or not the dog could ride in the tack room.  The clincher for us both was how gentle and sweet the dog was to John.  At that point, it was out of our hands because John was walking with the dog saying "My dog!  My dog!"  I fixed up the tack room with a towel from the B&B owner (who was so delighted that we were taking the dog home) and tied a rope around his neck so we could walk him when we stopped for gas.  We packed up, fed and watered Armstrong, and set off for home.  We were a little concerned about passing the Agriculture Inspection Station with a stray dog but they asked me no questions and I told them no lies.

Poor Miles when we first came home.

I unloaded Armstrong into a pasture adjacent to his cow herd and he was neither intimidated nor afraid of our cow herd so after a brief introduction through the fence, I turned him out with the cows.  After some initial nosing and sniffing, he set about to checking his girls like a seasoned bull.  Quite impressive for an 8 month old.  Dexters can be quite precocious.

Armstrong in his new pasture.

Meanwhile, the new dog was introduced briefly to the farm and fed and watered separate from our two dogs.  I bathed him and treated him for fleas as well.  He was nothing but skin and bones underneath his golden fur.  It was also alarming how much he just wanted to sleep.  I looked at his teeth and he seemed to be a young dog.  The following morning (now Monday) we took him to our vet and he was treated for extensive parasites, vaccinated, neutered and bathed twice more.  He will have to go back to the vet when he is stronger to get a more complete heartworm treatment (he was a strong positive for infection).  After only a few good meals, he was much more alert and hyper.  His eyes shone with delight and joy as he bounced around.  He had no manners, but he is catching on fast to life on a farm and how to be an inside dog as well.  Our dogs have really warmed up to him these past few weeks and I can see he is becoming part of the family.  We named him Miles in honor of our long trip as well as his.  He was also found near Miles Road.  He has gained weight very well and plays with the other dogs now.  Amazingly enough, he has no food aggression type behaviors.  He looks so much more alive now and he's a good dog.

Amazing difference after only three days of good meals.