Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fall fires and burning leaves

For the first time since back in the spring, the roaring fire of the burn pile Monday felt pretty good on these old bones.  It was tough to take when the daytime temps back in late June and and in July were in the high 80s; you had to stand off a ways to even keep an eye on our endless piles of old locust trunks and oak stumps and laurel deadfalls that our wood seem to produce on a regular schedule. Those news pictures this summer of huge forest fires out West got us thinking about all the fuel lying about on our forest floors, and since then we've hauled about 32 wagon loads down to the burn pile by the creek, where there's a water supply if things get out of hand.

But these days are crisp and gorgeous during daylight hours -- high 40s as I write, and yesterday Martha took note of a 37-degree mark when she rode down into town.  The leaves have been changing for a while, starting to burn red and gold, and everyday there are more of them cluttering the gravel of our driveway. The ferns are going brown and the wind brings a reminder: if you go out, take a jacket.

Our correspondents in the field, Don and Barbara Stringfellow, send word that birds are on the move: "The Broadwing hawks and Monarch butterflies have started migrating,"" Don e-mailed a few days ago. "Barbara and I were up on the Parkway this morning and in about 10 minutes time we saw a couple of hundred hawks. One Kettle had about 50 in it. Should be quite a show for the next couple of weeks."

My old friend Bill Howell, who lives in France these days but who in the 1960s was my co-partner in a boyhood enterprise of building treehouses and forts in the woods and at least one raft that never quite floated and plumbing the mysteries of a '49 Plymouth, or maybe it was a Chrysler, is in town for a visit.  We've been roofing the new shop porch and cleaning out the garden and, just yesterday afternoon, stacking oak and locust firewood under shelter for the first of the season's fires in the soapstone woodstove.  It's not cold enough yet to keep one going, or even to start the first one, but I'm guessing it won't be long.  I've split boxes of kindling from the legions of pine and spruce cutoffs from one building project or other over the years, and we've shifted from taking old newspapers to the recycling point to keeping them around for starting the new fires that will take off the chill and keep the house warm as the days grow shorter.

 Last winter was a mild one and probably spoiled us for one of those Patrick County winters that longtime residents recall, when the snow flies early and the hawk is out every day, beating the air into gusts that rattle the metal roof and remind you that the thought of a roaring bonfire blast furnace in the burn pile in July seems like a pretty good idea after all.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fall chores

The 10-day forecast called for nighttime temps in the high 30s one night next week, and while it still feels deliciously warm most days with just the faintest edge of crisp at night, I hauled out the wood-splitter and commenced to doing fall chores.   Split a truckload of that seasoned locust we cut and stacked in early summer -- most of it standing deadwood, but some of it gone over to the ants and thrown onto the wagon for the burn pile down in the bottom.

Cleaned out the cucumber bed and pulled dead leaves off the tomatoes, stacked the empty cages and pulled more weeds.  I thought the tomatoes would give out entire weeks ago, but we still have a few yet to ripen on the vine.  Amazing tomato year -- ate some fried for breakfast this morning.

We're pronouncing the raised bed garden a smashing success.  Could be that stuff we added from Jim Harrison's barn. I thanked him for the horse manure and he said something like, "Shoot, that wasn't horse manure, that was mule poop."  Well, ok, he didn't exactly say poop. Whatever it was, it made the growing season a great one in our first try with the raised beds.  We replanted greens in the boxes that earlier this season produced potatoes, onions and zuchini. Rabbits got the first bunch, but we took anti-rabbit steps that so far have kept the critters back in the tall weeds. We picked some of the new lettuce yesterday as well as a potful of spinach.  The broccoli has yet to produce anything other than nice big leaves, but we're keeping an eye on it.

Fall projects are underway. Our son John was here for a few days and we made trusses for the new porch roof over the wide doors to the workshop, and put up a framework to hold them. Ran out of those little twisty hurricane ties, so it's off to the hardware store for more.  Killed the rest of a long week by restacking siding meant for the new garden shed and laid over the foundation down by the creek. The family has used the old house in the bottom for storage for years, but it won't last out this decade, I'm thinking. The new shed will have a storage area, a short covered porch for getting out of the rain and a gravity fed outside wooden sink to tidy up the vegetables.  We'll use some leftover treated decking for the foundation stringers, if the carpenter ants have left us any usable stuff.  

We drove by a fellow's house just yesterday and marveled that his apple tree seemed to be full of something that looks like Golden Delicious fruit. Our old trees here have no sign of the apples that some seasons glow like Christmas lights in the afternoon sun.  We think that bad hailstorm back in the spring knocked off the buds and took care of the blueberries, too, but so it goes in these hills.  Some years a good apple year, some years a great tomato year.  All in all, I'm one happy tomato farmer.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Update: Early riders on the Tour de Chuck

Update: Our correspondent in the saddle Diane Flynt reports in Monday:

The 3rd annual Chuck Flynt Birthday Ride was just about perfect—a cool early fall day, plenty of sun and low humidity. The Quesenberry sisters drove the SAG truck full of energy bars, fruit, trail mix and fluids of various colors. A record 11 Big Dog riders rode the full 72 miles, include Kyra Bishop, the first woman to rock the Big Dogs. Another six riders traveled the southern 40 mile leg, and some even beyond. We promise to furnish maps next year.

Riders rode a total of 1005 miles, and the Flynts donated $1005 to the Floyd County Library. Next year we hope for more riders, more miles and more good times. Remember, younger by the mile!

Every year, Chuck Flynt and friends take a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway to celebrate his birthday and raise a little money for the library in Floyd.  Chuck donates a buck for every mile ridden, and the Big Dogs -- who left Mabry Mill at 7:30 a.m. this morning -- were planning on 72-mile rides.

 There are 36-mile stints for those not as young as Chuck -- see, he's 72, so each year the deal for the Big Dogs is to ride a mile for every year -- and on down to a mere 10 miles.

More to follow as news reports come in, but here's how the Big Dog crowd looked early:

Chuck Flynt, happy to be up early

Dan Sweeney, just plain happy
Buz Waitzkin, tee shirtier and legal counsel

Yellow was quite popular

Fall colors were out

Around Milepost 174
Diane Flynt in the lede, breaking the sound barrier near Round Meadow
Jack Russell, after 36 miles
South of Meadows of Dan
Coming through

The Big Curve near the winery


Sunday, September 2, 2012

The 'Skunk Works' bass

My career as a bass fiddle player has been only slightly more successful than my career as a pitcher in the big leagues.  Which is to say, I would have starved to death during the Johnson Administration if we had depended on either one of them to put food on the table, although I played a whole lot more bass in  my youth than I ever threw in organized baseball. I pretty much gave up on the baseball thing at about age 10 or 12, when I could throw a blazing fastball that nobody every knew, including me, where it was going. I once walked a fellow on a fourth pitch that went over the backstop in a sandlot game.  I think they're still looking for the ball.

But for years, after falling in love with the bass sound while playing an old brass Sousaphone in the band at Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro, I fooled around with a bass fiddle.  In high school days a bunch of us got up a folk music group and decided we'd be the next Kingston Trio.  I borrowed an old, beat-up, dark-brown aluminum bass fiddle from the father of a friend and we played all over Greensboro and sometimes as far away as Danville, VA.  We entered a big contest where the prize was an appearance on the Arthur Smith Television Show down in Charlotte, knowing we'd win. (I recently mentioned this to a friend who, unbeknownst to me, had grown up in Greensboro, and he said, "Wait a minute, did you guys have on wide-striped shirts?" We did. He saw us that day long ago, 1963 I guess, up on a tractor trailer bandstand. And so he also saw us not win the thing, not go on to the bigtime in the Queen City, not go on to great fame and fortune in the entertainment business.)
The Villagers in 2004, Cane Creek Valley, Buncombe County

But we kept playing, despite the fact I couldn't read a lick of music, didn't know how to figure out what key some sheet music was in, didn't even know proper technique. See, I thought the beauty of the bass fiddle was you just listened to what other folks were playing and pick out about three pairs of notes and figure out real quick how you could do a little walk up or down the strings.  And that beat-to-a-pulp old aluminum bass sounded pretty dadgum good.

Years later, when I got a big raise one year, I bought a 1946 Kay double bass, nicked and gouged and cracked in places, and played it for decades with my high school buddies, a band called the Villagers. Thought about that old aluminum bass from time to time, but not much. I figured some sheet-metal genius somewhere had made a one-off version of the traditional spruce bass.  Sometimes I'd tell somebody about it, and they'd say something like, "You're kidding! Aluminum? No way."

A couple years ago my '46 Kay, made the same year I was, burned in a house fire. I've been looking for a good replacement ever since. Played an inexpensive late model substitute for about 18 months, but the other day drove up the Shenandoah Valley on a mission to Jerry Fretwell's bass shop in downtown Staunton, VA. He and his wife Mary Jane have a great website (www.fretwellbass.com) where you can see all these old basses he has -- a bunch of Kays, dating to the 1930s, and a rare Gibson bass, one of 85 that company made, and some other brands of old basses as well.  Jerry also buys new Engelhardts, which bought up the old Kay brand, and customizes them for folks who want a fancier new one.  I had my eye on a 1940 Kay and a 1952 Kay that I had spotted on his website. They were in pretty good shape and sounded great, but I fell for a 1959 Kay with a blonde finish, a new bridge and a set of Super Silver strings that Jerry installed as I watched.  Soooooo much easier to play that the metal-wound strings I had on my interim base.  I'm taking lessons now from Mike Mitchell over in Floyd VA (http://www.mitchellmusicco.com/) -- and learning things I should have known, oh, about 50 years ago. It's a revelation.

But the thing that really knocked me out was what I saw in Fretwell's front window: an aluminum bass, painted to look just like wood grain.  In fact, it was one of three aluminum basses in the windows -- one of them flat white, and another off to the side in a bright shiny silver.  They were made in the late 1920s and 1930s, all aluminum, and they were part of a collection the Fretwells have.
Here's a photo from the Fretwell website:
Aluminum basses, every one.

Turns out there was quite a production of aluminum basses in this country, starting in the late 19th century and championed, for at least a little while, by the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). I found a website that said the first ALCOA bases were turned out in the company's "skunk works" in Buffalo, where the company would fashion experimental products from aluminum.  Eventually the company made 500 of those aluminum basses, each selling in the $200 to $240 range when new.  There were other brands as well in the aluminum bass business.

The website http://kaybassrepair.com/aluminium-instruments/ notes, "The faux natural wood was well done; the top had graining and color close to that of a dark varnished tight grain spruce and the back / ribs have a faux curly figured grain patterning. AlCoA  had a fifty step patented process for creating this finish. From the distance of a bandstand or stage, you’ll have trouble identifying it from a wooden instrument."

I have no clue whether that old brown-painted tin bass I borrowed in Greensboro all these years ago was an ALCOA bass or an Aluminum Musical Instrument or even one of the G.A. Pfretzschner basses, but I do know that that it looked every bit like what you'd think of when you hear the term "skunk factory."  But beat up as it was, it would make a joyful noise.