gradual ruination and quick impoverishment
Sunday, April 3 2011
location: five miles south of Staunton, rural Augusta County, Virginia
Back in the late 1980s, my brother Don was making frequent pedestrian forays into and out of Staunton via Middlebrook Road. At some point one his high school classmates named Josh Furr befriended him, apparently entranced by Don's radical oddness. In those days Josh's father owned the Furr Cattle Stockyard that would later be buried beneath the southern loop interchange, and Josh worked mostly as a truck driver, transporting live cows to their doom. By the early 1990s, Josh and I were getting together regularly to share our mutual interest in cheap beer, marijuana, trucker porn, and thrash metal, which we would attempt to play with musical instruments (him on drums, me on guitar). (I was never actually all that interested in Josh's trucker porn, though he couldn't imagine anyone not loving it.) Years have passed since those days, and I've moved through several stages of life in different places while Josh has stayed in Staunton, had a few run-ins with the law, and ultimately settled into a stable career as a non-unionized garbage man. (He also gets to drive snowplows when that's in season.)
These days when I drive down south to visit my childhood home, I can count on at least one visit from Josh. He's pretty much the same as ever, though without being drunk on cheap beer (he no longer drinks) I can find the conversation a bit tedious and repetitive. Josh still is also still cursed with a form of paranoia that tends to free-associate and make connections between entities that would have no common interests and would be unlikely to exchange information.
Today was a warmish day and Josh drove out on his motorcycle. I offered him some coffee (which he, oddly, attempted to pay for), and we sat out on Creekside's front deck talking some about my old man at the nursing home. Josh had already visited him several times, in at least one instance staying over two hours. The other big topic of conversation was a deer stand that had been found on our property this past hunting season. Once my mother had become aware of it, she'd called the game warden, who had attempted to catch the bastard (who had been baiting deer with corn). But before long the matter had greatly escalated and something like nine law enforcement officers appeared on the scene, including the FBI. There were all parked up and down on both sides of Stingy Hollow Road, looking like a scene from one of Gretchen's crime dramas (but as played by an all-white, all-male acting troop of land whales). Josh Furr had come upon this scene while driving out to the house. Cresting the hill and looking down on all those ominous law enforcement vehicles, you can imagine the firings and misfirings within the substantial part of Josh's brain dedicated to conspiracy and paranoia. In the end, it turned out that the hunter in that hunting stand had taken a shot at the game warden, which is precisely the kind of thing one does if one wants to bring down the full force of the local and regional constabulatory.
All of this had happened back in November or early December, and as far as we knew, the hunting stand was still up there on Pileated Peak (a 20 acre parcel my parents had bought in 1978). Josh described it to me as involving pegs screwed into a tree trunk to make it climbable and then some sort of camouflaged tractor seat bolted onto branches way up in a tree. It being a nice day, I said we should go up there and tear the fucking tthe tools we might need: a pipe wrench, a pair of tin snips, and, for want of a sledge hammer, a splitting maul.
I'd thought Josh knew exactly where the hunting stand was; supposedly he'd been the one who discovered it. But Josh seemed to be having a problem both with the mental image of what he'd found and geographical facts in his head. Unlike me, Josh lacks the detailed (though somewhat dated) mental map of Pileated Peak. Terms like "the meadow," "thieve's trail," "the sinkhole," and "Horizon Field" mean nothing to him, and when he's in one part of Pileated Peak, it looks pretty much the same as any other part. Hoagie had said that the the stand was just above "the meadow," so that's where we began our search. (I led us there, since Josh didn't know what that place name meant; it dated to a time when there was a clearly-demarcated field containing a few ancient apple trees between the upland hardwoods and the pines of the reforesting lower slope.) But all we could find were some no hunting signs that Hoagie had had her plumber tack up (I think she allows him to hunt on the land in exchange for discount plumbing, which is a good deal for her considering the old and complicated nature of the triplex household system comprised of separate pipe networks for hot cistern water, cold cistern water, and stream water). Josh and I fanned out and kept looking high in the trees for any evidence of human-made structures, but there was nothing. When we reconvened, Josh said something about it being above a steep dropoff. Thinking that implied the sinkhole, I walked hundreds of feet off to the north to see if there was anything there. But there was nothing.
At some point were just casting about all over the property, with Josh seeming to suspect every tree, no matter how far afield, of being the one. It was absurd. So eventually we went and got Hoagie, who, at 74, was a bit winded by the climb to the meadow. But she led us directly to the tree, a large Black Walnut. It was one that the plumber had tacked a no-hunting sign to. The stand itself had been removed, but there was still some climbing hardware screwed into the trunk. But most of that had been removed as well because the tree was impossible to climb.
Even after finding the tree, Josh wasn't convinced that this was the tree stand he'd remembered seeing, and he kept searching around a steep ravine to the south. There is a little bit of crazy in both Josh and Hoagie, but at this particular moment I was finding Hoagie's considerably more tolerable.
Once Josh shows up at your place, he just hangs around. If you're not paying attention to him, he just sits there like a lump, something he can do for hours. Sometimes he goes out on the front stoop and waves at passing cars. It's a necessary personality trait for a happy career as a prison guard. Or as a cranky old man dissolving into vinegar in a nursing home.
My eject button for this particular experience was to say I needed to go visit my old man in Staunton.
On the drive in, I found myself thinking about the forces of entropy eating at the edges of my childhood home, which (at some level of my subconsciousness) is the tattered physical artifact of my childhood itself, coexisting in the world somehow with me as a middle-aged adult. The first big assault on that artifact was the Stingy Hollow highway widening project, which VDOT rammed through despite our objections in 1990. Since then, my mother's hoarding impulses have worsened and, since I've been away, there's been no regular program to clean. Gradually the house has turned into a dusty, cobweb-festooned hovel.
Meanwhile my father has gradually truncated his geographic range. As recently as 9/11/2001, he was going into the nearby National Forests to perform biological surveys (which he was doing when he learned of the events of that fateful day). Soon thereafter he gave up driving for good. He didn't come to my wedding in the Spring of 2003, and by 2007 he'd restricted his range to the yard immediately around the house. After his first nursing home tour this past summer, he pretty much stopped leaving the house entirely. Now he complains when he has to go through the effort of going to the bathroom.
While we age and the things around us decay, new life is continually being dispersed into our environment. This life starts out strong but poor, which places it in natural opposition to those of us who are weak and rich. One manifestation of that conflict was the hunter stand, a case where younger man had taken de facto possession of territory the old had grown too weak to defend, and had even defended it violently against law enforcement. There's been a similar encroachment in the form of various feral cats that have either moved in or been dumped into the warren of thickets in the front yard. My parents are kindhearted and have taken pity on these new residents except (in the case of an orange and white Tom cat) when they've try to evict the other inhabitants.
About the only form of gradual ruination that cheers me is the reforestation of the yard: over the years seedlings have become saplings and then turned into honeysuckle-smothered trees. Vines have reached up the sides of the house and along the ceiling planks of the porch. Old yellow paint that I applied in the early 1980s is peeling off in dollar-sized flakes and the galvanized second roof (installed in 1985) is rusting in the places where wood smoke has poisoned the zinc. Lichens has spread across the roof of the woodshed and even some of the painted masonry. It doesn't sadden me that some day my childhood home will be a vine-choked ruin; I'm just skeeved out about all the undigestable plastic and broken glass that ruin will contain. I foresee a lot of back-breaking work involving huge dumpsters and smouldering mountains of glossy magazines.
I bought two cups of coffee to go at Catskill Mountain Coffee (the less-hip coffee shop I used to go to in the Staunton Wharf district) and took them with me into the King's Daughters nursing home. Coffee is one of the very few things that my father still finds pleasurable.
Our conversation took a turn for the unpleasant today when my father started fretting again about the cost of long term nursing care. I told him that it didn't seem right that Hoagie should have to be impoverished before he would qualify for state financial assistance. At this point my father asked if there was any way I might help financially. The question was, of course, absurd, because nobody who is not authentically wealthy could do much to support the costs of a person in a nursing home. The way our "best in the world" exceptionalist American system works is that when you enter a nursing home, you quickly spend down all your accumulated savings (what exactly was the point of that frugality?), sell off your assets, and, once fully impoverished, you qualify for state assistance in the form of Medicaid. Outside contributors have no role to play, since only the person in the nursing home (and perhaps a spouse) needs to be impoverished for the Medicaid threshold to be crossed. I think I've explained this pretty clearly here, but such complexities of explanation are beyond my father's current ability to process, so I simply said, in reply to his question about whether I could help financially, "No." He acted a little like I was being ungrateful for not to wanting to be sucked down his financial black hole, pointing out all the "things" he'd done for me "through the years." At this point in my life I've compared notes with enough other people to know that my parents had been unusually ungenerous during my childhood, not that I'm especially ungrateful. But all I could do was sigh and try to explain a complexity he could not fully comprehend.
Eventually, though, the coffee seemed to perk him up, but by the time I left I felt really sad. Dying in the prime of life is underrated.
Back at the house, I managed to cobble together something of a WiFi-based intranet connecting my brother's Hitler-packed desktop, my netbook, the desktop in the Shaque, and an old Toshiba laptop I'd brought for my father to use should he ever get out of the nursing home. I'd set up such a WiFi intranet before, but this time it seemed to be functioning better, perhaps because the WiFi hardware I was using was more powerful than the stuff I'd used last time. I also managed to get internet sharing to work on the Shaque computer, which gave me access to the internet on my netbook. Since it had to go through dialup, it was incredibly slow The modern web expects much more bandwidth than dialup can supply. Interestingly, though, Facebook seems to work really well over dialup.
This evening I made a multi-ethnic noodle stir fry. It was mostly Asian in character (though indistinctly so, having both soy sauce and curry powder), yet the noodles were Italian rotini. It also contained cauliflower, broccoli, mushrooms, and snow peas. In the absence of a convenient soy-based protein, I dumped in a can of black-eyed peas. It was all a little too veggie-rich for my brother Don, so only Hoagie joined me for dinner. Gretchen would have been horrified by how geographically unfocused it was, but what mattered was the flavor: it was delicious.
Josh just before Hoagie joined us on the search for the deer stand.
Hoagie joins us with Maple the Dog to search for the deer stand.
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