Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 20) The Conclusion!

This is part 20 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

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My friend Laura Coburn is a talented and successful graphic designer. One day she was telling me about a job she had when she was younger. It didn’t go well and she was greatly disappointed. Her mother consoled her with these words of wisdom:

”No experience is ever lost.”

Laura’s mother told her that more than once over the years. The point being, we can all learn and grow from our experiences, even the failures (perhaps especially the failures). No experience is ever lost. They all figure into the equation; into the orchestration of events that make up our lives, and lead us to where we end up. That is what I think about when I reflect back on this past series of essays about “Finding My Way.”

As a teenager I was not particularly outgoing. I was unsure about what to do with my life. I was anxious about finding my place in the work world. My self-esteem was pretty low. My opportunities seemed few. I just couldn’t imagine how I would ever fit in and get ahead. I struggled with that. My wife, Marlene, knew me at the time and she remembers my angst. But it all worked out.

It all worked out for several reasons:

1. I was blessed with a stable home and good parents. I did not get a lot of direction from my parents. There was sometimes friction between my stepfather and I. But I was accepted and loved and, except for time spent away at school, I lived at home until I got married at age 22.

2. I was blessed with grandparents who loved me and were a positive influence in my life through their personal example and their financial giving at critical times.

3. I was blessed with a healthy body, sound mind, natural curiosity, and a desire to craft and create with my hands.

4. When I wanted to learn how to do something, I read and practiced and worked to teach myself how it was done.

5. Whenever I had work to do, I did it with enthusiasm and effort. I have never been a lazy person. Closely related to that, I recognized that greater opportunities naturally come when lesser opportunities are embraced and pursued with responsibility and seriousness.

6. I understood and accepted the concept that many good things in life come with time, and patience, and self-discipline. There is a time and a place for everything. Delayed gratification is not bad.

7. Last but not least, my Christian faith has been central in my life since I was in the 7th grade. It has instructed me, restrained me, and sustained me. Truly, Providence has guided and protected me. Everything good or positive that I have received or achieved or enjoyed in my life has been the result of God’s grace and mercy manifested towards me. This truth has become much clearer to me as I’ve gotten older.

Reflecting back like this usually begs the question: “At 50 years old, what would you have done differently if you had to do it all over again?”

Would you have gotten a college degree? Would you have become a white collar professional? Would you have traveled more widely to find your way? Would you have done something easier and more profitable? Well, no to all of those things.

I don’t regret choosing a vigorous, hard-working, lower-class career. I don’t regret not making a lot of money. At one time I did. But I have learned to be content with less and grateful to the Lord for everything.

I do regret that, for several years, while vainly focusing on so-called “success,” I neglected to be the father I should have been to my children. And I regret that I deliberately chose not to have more than three children. I was selfish. In the final analysis, faith and family are far more important than material prosperity. Though I would have agreed with that statement as a younger man, I did not truly accept and understand it until I was around 40 years old. Better late than never, eh?

And so, this series about “Getting Started & Finding My Way” has come to a close. My hope is that someday my children, or grandchildren, will read this and derive some wisdom from it. Beyond that, perhaps my story, humble and ordinary as it is, will serve to help some young person who reads it. Whatever the case, I would like to conclude with a couple of quotations from the greatest “success” book ever written:


"Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths"
Proverbs 3:5



“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 19)

This is part 19 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

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It was the spring of 1980. I was 22 years old, living at home, working on the Badman family dairy farm, and wishing I was doing carpentry work. Down the road from the farm where I worked lived a man who did carpentry work. His name was Clancy Edmonds. The Badman’s told Clancy about me and recommended me as a good person to hire. Then they told me I should go ask Clancy for a job. That’s what I did, and he hired me.

Clancy was a unique person. He had been an industrial arts teacher in New Jersey for many years. But his lifelong dream was to have a farm. He couldn’t afford a farm in New Jersey, so he looked in upstate New York. He ended up buying the old Freeman farm down the road from the Badmans. Crop farming (mostly hay) was his passion, but it was only a part-time vocation. The rest of the time Clancy worked at his own small business doing carpentry work around the area.

“Clancy’s Carpentry” consisted of him and one helper. Beginning in the spring of 1980, and stretching on for the next five years, I was his helper. On occasion, there would be additional help, but I was his right-hand-man.

Those were good years. Clancy was very talented. He could do anything, and I don’t think he ever turned down a job. We did a lot of work for farmers, fixing barns and building barns. We also did a lot of repair and remodeling of camps along Skaneateles Lake. We put additions on houses. We replaced roofs. We replaced foundations. We did it all, and I learned the different trades. In addition to carpentry and remodeling, I learned electrical and plumbing. It was an incredibly well-rounded, hands-on educational work experience. And in the summer, when it was time to make hay, I honed my skills with the hay hooks.

I continued to clean chimneys on weekends during the chimney cleaning seasons. In all, I worked my chimney cleaning business for five or six years before hanging up my top hat and tails. It had been a good business for me, but I didn’t carry insurance, couldn’t justify the cost, and was getting concerned about liability.

1980 (in November) was also the year Marlene and I got married. She worked as a medical office assistant for a doctor in town and we lived in a two-room apartment on a side street.

When I landed that job with Clancy’s Carpentry in the spring of 1980, I had finally found my way. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was doing work that I liked. It was work that suited me. I was learning and developing skills. I was using my hands and tools and my mind to build and repair. I was doing work that needed to be done--work that was appreciated. I was beginning to establish a reputation as a skilled craftsman. I was satisfied. I had found my groove.

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In 1985, I decided to leave Clancy’s Carpentry to work for another local contractor. I wanted to do more finish work like kitchen & bathroom remodeling and interior trim carpentry. And I wanted to make more money. I worked for that contractor for four years and left in 1989, a year after my first child was born, to start my own remodeling business, which I ran for the next ten years.

Today, I am out of the work of construction and remodeling completely. I work within a government bureaucracy (you can read about it HERE). I miss the freedom of self-employment and the satisfaction of building and remodeling. But I do not miss the time-consuming nature of running a remodeling business, of forever working on estimates and trying to line up the next job, and the next one. I no longer have the drive and physical stamina that it takes to properly run such a business. I still love to do carpentry work, but not to have to make a serious living at it.

To be continued.....
Click HERE to go to Part 20 (The Conclusion) of this series

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 18)

This is part 18 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

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In September of 1978 I went to Alfred State University in Alfred, New York for the Building Trades program. The school was a few hours from my home. On weekends in the fall I drove home to clean chimneys.

The building trades program was worthwhile. It introduced me to the fundamentals of carpentry and residential construction by way of classroom discussion and actual work experience. Our class built a ranch house in a nearby subdivision.

It was a two-year program but I decided one year was enough. My finances were getting low and I wanted to get to work. So, once again, I went to school but never got a diploma. It didn’t matter. I didn’t go to get a diploma. I went to learn useful skills.

When school was out in the spring of 1979 I returned home and attempted to drum up more chimney cleaning business. I started to do more than just clean chimneys. I also repaired chimneys and repointed crumbling brickwork—things I had learned about in school. I looked around for a job in construction but not too seriously. I was really trying to make my chimney cleaning business succeed. But I came to realize the business was seasonal. Some people would have their chimney cleaned in the summer but most people waited until fall. I was busy in the fall.

In the winter of 1979-80 I went back to work on the Badman family’s dairy farm where I had worked for the winter of 1977-78. Then, in the early spring of 1980, knowing that I really wanted to get into carpentry work, the Badmans told me I should go ask their neighbor, Clarence Edmonds, for a job.

To be continued.....
Click HERE to go to Part 19 of this series.

Catching a Glimpse of the Future... In the Past

I grew up in the Middle Ages. Well, not the Middle Ages exactly, but in Kentucky, which is close, and with a father who believed that if you didn't have garden soil under your nails, you just weren't working hard enough. We lived in the middle of town, but he was determined his girls would have as much good, wholesome farm experience as he could contrive to give us. We grew berries and vegetables, canned tomatoes and made jam, chopped wood and spread mulch; and when I wasn't imagining I was really a princess in exile amongst the surly serfs, I gained an appreciation for the timeliness of growing things.


So begins an internet article titled, The Medieval Agricultural Year by Rachel Hartman. It is an introduction that makes you want to read more. And that is what I did. The article describes agricultural as it was practiced for approximately 1,000 years in Middle Ages Europe.

The fascinating thing to me is that Medeival agriculture was much the same as agriculture in this country up to until the early to mid 1800s. As in Medieval Europe, the vast majority of people in this nation were closely involved in the work and customs of the agrarian culture. We were an Agrarian Nation back then.

Prior to the Civil War, agriculture in this country started to undergo revolutionary changes. Horsedrawn mechanical reapers and mowers, and a host of other clever devices came on the scene.

Some historians question whether the Northern states could have won the war if it were not for Cyrus Hall McCormick’s famous reaper. Such mechanization allowed for greater productivity with less manpower, which is what was needed at the time.

It’s worth noting that such mechanization did not result in greater productivity per acre of land. It just allowed for less farmers to farm more land.

So what happened to all the farmers? Well, tens of thousands of them were killed in the war. Many of the survivors never returned to the farm way of life. They found work in manufacturing and business. Major wars typically lead to significant cultural changes, and the Civil War was certainly no exception.

A few decades later, along came steam powered farm machinery, followed by motorized tractors and other gasoline (or diesel) powered farm equipment. Horsedrawn machines were replaced by engine-driven machines, and even less manpower was needed to farm.

The whole concept of fertilizing the soil to grow crops also underwent radical change with the rise of the petroleum industry. Before agriculture became so dependent on synthetic, oil-derived fertilizers, farmers used natural minerals and composted manures to fertilize their fields.

Today, modern agriculture is harnessed to oil—a lot of oil. But oil dependence may well prove to be a Trojan Horse. Oil is a finite resource. Different factors are working together to create a scarcity of oil supply. Prices continue to rise. I recently heard that gasoline will cost $4.00 a gallon by summer. Someday, in the not too distant future, we may look back longingly at gasoline for only $4.00 a gallon.

As oil prices rise, agriculture as we have known it will become less and less sustainable. As food prices rise dramatically, people will go hungry, and greater geopolitical problems will develop. I heard on the news that worldwide wheat reserves are at a seventy year low. Lower income people in less industrialized nations are already suffering. If you buy wheat flour you know the price has more than doubled in recent months. I bought a freshly baked bagel at a grocery store the other day and it cost seventy cents. Last time I bought a bagel at that store it was fifty-five cents.

Productive land is being diverted to grow crops for alternative biofuels, and this also serves to drive food prices higher. Is there relief in sight? I’ll answer that... No. There is no magic bullet solution to the multiple, interconnected, problems of supply, and demand, and production, in this waning age of industrialism.

It seems that we are entering a new historical era. The industrial age will probably give way to a period of time when the dependent masses try in vain to hold on to a lifestyle of ease and priviledge. Perhaps that is beginning now. Of course, money and the economy figures prominently into all of this.

Then will come a New Agrarian Era.

Moderns will laugh at such an assertion. "A New Agrarian Era?" You’ve got to be kidding me. Mankind is moving ahead. Science and Technology will come to our rescue. They always have.

I beg to differ. Science doesn’t have a good track record. That said here’s an interesting quote from the book, Angels in the Architecture

If we think in terms of centuries and millennia, few other disciplines turn inside-out so flippantly and quickly as the natural sciences. Nothing can take the puff out of the scientific chest more than a study of it’s history. Perhaps that’s why it’s so rare to find science departments requiring courses in the history of science. The history of science provides great strength to the inductive inference that, at any point in its history, that day’s science will almost certainly be deemed false, if not laughable within a century (often in much less time). As the saying goes, if you marry the science of today, you will be a widow tomorrow.


Same goes for Technology. Unrestrained technology in the hands of corporate-industrial-government interests has killed more people and destroyed more natural resources than any force in the history of the world.

If you look at the span of world history, you will see that oil-dependent modern civilization, with its attendant modern technology, is a relatively short anomaly. When the free flow of cheap oil can no longer sustain, the civilization that depends on it must undergo change. Civilization will revert back to the “default setting,” which is agrarianism.

Think of an abandoned factory. If it is no longer worked, no longer maintained, what happens? It will decay and crumble as natural elements slowly but surely do their work. Vegetation will move in and overtake the factory. Given enough time, the factory will be leveled and overgrown. A forest may envelop it, like some ancient Incan ruin. In other words, it will revert back to the default setting.

If you want a glimpse of the future, look to the past. The future will surely not look just like the past. It will not be exactly the same. But as I come to a better understand history, and consider the realities of the here and now, I find myself drawn more and more to the conclusion that the future will be far more agrarian than it will be industrial.

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My newest blog Old Farm Almanacs takes a look at American agricultural and agrarian culture of the 1800s through the agricultural almanacs of the day. America was undergoing significant change in those years and it is reflected in the farm almanacs. But, even with the changes, we were still primarily an agrarian nation with agrarian values back then. I invite you to visit Old Farm Almanacs and learn not only about our nation's agrarian past, but maybe a little about our agrarian future............

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 17)

This is part 17 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

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In the early summer of 1978 I was 20 years old. I was living at home, working full-time on a dairy farm, and had, over the course of ten months, saved enough money to buy my first car. My Grandmother Kimball had also just given me $4,000. It was money from a savings account that my grandfather had started for me when I was born. Some of the money would pay for college tuition in the fall. But there was quite a bit left over.

One of my goals in life was to go into business for myself. I had considered a lot of different ideas but, after reading an article in Mother Earth News magazine, I was convinced that chimney cleaning was the right business for me. With the money from my grandmother and my new car, I had what I needed to get into the business.

The man featured in the Mother Earth News article used a chimney cleaning “system” sold by the August West company in Westport Connecticut. I decided to motor on down there and check it out.

I ended up paying $1,385 for a complete August West chimney cleaning system. It consisted of a big red “Soot Sweeper” vacuum cleaner, flexible, fiberglass, snap-together poles, an assortment of different wire brushes, and other sundry items, including a very nice black top hat. There was an instruction manual too.

My Chevelle sedan served as my work vehicle. The big Soot Sweeper just fit in the back seat. Brushes and poles and drop cloths and such fit in the trunk. I bought a 32ft aluminum extension ladder and a 6ft step ladder and they were tied down on wood roof racks with suction cup feet.

I went to buy liability insurance but chimney sweeping was so new that there was no classification for it. The insurance company quoted me a price for a steeplejack. It was far more money than I ever imagined. So I didn’t have any insurance. All in all, I had around two thousand dollars invested in my new business.

I put an ad in the local “Pennysaver” newspaper. The phone started ringing. I had customers calling! I charged $29 to clean a woodstove chimney and $35 to clean a fireplace. I was driving all over the countryside, meeting all kinds of different people, and dealing with all kinds of different chimney cleaning situations. Every job was an unknown. Every job was a challenge. Every job was a learning experience.

When my town had its annual Fillmore Days celebration (Millard Fillmore, 13th president of the U.S., was a local boy), I walked up and down Main Street in a black tuxedo and top hat, holding a chimney cleaning pole and brush. I think I had a sign on my back. I handed out some business cards.

Another of my ideas to drum up business was to drive to a nice neighborhood in the suburbs and go door to door in my “uniform” handing out a business card and brochure about my services. Unlike my experience selling Shaklee (as explained in a previous part in this series), I actually knocked on a lot of doors and talked to a lot of people.

Chimney sweeps were few and far between back then, and a lot of people were heating with wood. I didn’t get as much business as I had hoped for at the start. But around about August business really picked up. I was setting my own schedule and making what I thought was pretty good money. When I didn’t have a job scheduled, I sometimes helped the Badman’s with hay.

Unlike the previous year, when I was in such a quandary about finding a job and knowing my place, I now had my own business. It would succeed or fail based on what I put into it, and I put a LOT of effort into it. Cleaning chimneys was dirty and often dangerous work and I did the work alone. What I had learned from the summer after high school graduation, spray painting barns, using ropes and ladders, came in real handy.

Once a chimney was cleaned, I usually stayed and talked to my customers for awhile. Many of them were older and I would end up visiting with them for some time. I was making new friends along the way.

So I was free from the drudgery of taking care of cows. I was not worried about how I would pay for college in the fall. I was experiencing the independence that a car brings. I had my own business. I was performing a service that was needed and appreciated. The independence of self-employment was very satisfying to me. Life was good.

To be continued.....
Click HERE to go to Part 18 of theis series

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 16)

This is part 16 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

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I was born in January of 1958. Twelve days later, my grandfather Kimball (who I am named after) opened a passbook savings account for me at the First National Bank of Fort Fairfield, in Fort Fairfield, Maine. He started the account with a deposit of one dollar. Here’s a picture of the passbook and entry:

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Over the years my grandfather Kimball made numerous small deposits in the account. In October of 1964 he made two deposits of $500 each. In December of 1965 the deposits end. He died in January of 1966.  In 1968 the account was closed. My grandmother moved it to another interest bearing account, but she saved the old passbook.

In the spring of 1978 I was 20 years old. I had worked ten months on a dairy farm, managed to save enough to buy my first car, and then my Grandmother Kimball sent me the money from the savings account my grandfather had started. I don’t recall the exact amount but it was around four thousand dollars. It was mine to spend as I wanted.

That much money would easily pay my tuition to the building trades program at Alfred State College in the fall. So that was a big load off my mind. A fair amount of money remained. What would I do with it?

Well, I knew exactly what I wouldn’t do with it. When I was in school in Vermont I knew a kid who, near the end of the school year, turned 18 and came into some money. It must have been far more than $4,000. He bought a pickup truck and all kinds of other stuff. I remember he took hundred dollar bills and ripped them in half and gave one half to some of his friends. The idea being, the next time they got together after school was out, they would have a party.

I wanted to be wiser with my Grandfather's legacy to me. With that in mind, I decided to start a business.

To be continued.....

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 15)

This is part 15 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

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When I was in high school and was about to get my driver’s license, I asked my stepfather if he would buy me a car. I told him that other kids in my class had cars that their parents bought them.

He told me that even if he could afford to buy me a car, he wouldn’t. He said I would have to earn the money and buy my own car. So I did.

When I was 18 years old and working at New Hope Mills (as discussed previously in this series) I bought a Plymouth Fury from the parents of a guy I worked with. It cost me two hundred bucks. I drove it home one Friday night, unlicensed, over back roads.

The next morning my father wanted to know where the car in the driveway came from. I told him I bought it. I’ll never forget his response:

“Take it back.”

I told him it was a good car and a good deal.

”Take it back. You can’t afford a car.”

So I took the car back. I didn’t even own it 24 hours.

But in the spring of 1978, after working ten months full-time on a nearby dairy farm I had saved enough money to finally buy myself a car, and pay my own auto insurance.

Saving money wasn’t hard during those months. I lived at home. I had no expenses. I took a simple lunch of sandwiches to work. I drank water from the milkhouse sink. When I got home from work each evening, all I wanted to do was go to bed and sleep. Then I got up the next day and repeated the process. Sundays were my day off. Marlene and I would get together and do something on Sundays. I was, like the farmers I worked for, pretty much wedded to the work of the farm for those months. You can save a lot of money when all you do is work and sleep and hardly ever go to town.

With enough money saved to pay cash for a decent car, I went to Ames Chevrolet in Cortland New York. The salesman steered me into a 1976 Chevelle sedan. It was not one of those sporty Chevelles. It was a big, four-door boat of a car. Here’s a picture of my first car. It looked like the model on the bottom (same color too) but it had a white top.

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I’ll never forget how wonderful it felt to drive my "new" car home from Ames Chevrolet on a sunny spring day. I had worked very hard for that car. Things were looking up. Delayed gratification is a sweet thing.

The Chevelle proved to be a great car. Having my own wheels opened up a whole new world of options for me. But something else happened in the spring of 1978 that opened up more options and opportunities.

To be continued....
Click HERE to go to Part 16 of this series

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P.S. My wife, Marlene, saved to buy her first car too. During high school she worked in the kitchen of a local nursing home after school and during summer vacations. She needed a car to get back & forth to community college and bought a Chevy Nova (another great car) the summer after high school graduation--two years before I got my car.

My oldest son is now 20 years old. When he was old enough to drive, I told him the only way he was going to get a car of his own was to work and save to get it. I got him a job at a local lumberyard. He worked part time for awhile as he went to school, then full time for a summer. He saved his money and was able to buy an old but reliable Honda Accord. But I paid his auto insurance (and, Wow, that's expensive!) My other two sons understand that they will have to earn their cars too. My stepfather was right thirty years ago when he said I couldn't afford that $100 Plymouth Fury, and I think he was right to tell me I had to earn my first car.

What was your first car? And did you have to earn the money to buy it?
Click HERE to go to Part 16 of this series

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 14)

This is part 14 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

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I had landed myself a full-time job on the Badman family dairy farm when I was 19-years-old. I worked there long hours, six days a week for maybe ten months. There is no lack of work on a diary farm. When I wasn’t helping with chores morning and evening, there were so many other things to be doing, no matter what the weather (they made sure they got their money’s worth out of me).

In the fall there was the corn to pick and put into corn cribs. I remember it was a wet season and the pull-behind corn picker could not get to some sections of the corn fields. So we hand picked a portion of the crop. The Badmans did not let anything go to waste.

Fall was also the season to chop green corn and blow it up into the silo to make silage. One of my most memorable farm experiences occurred during this time. It was my job to climb up the side of the silo every morning and fork silage down a chute to the barn floor below. Then it would be forked into a cart and fed out to the cows.

One autumn morning I climbed about halfway up the silo and inside was a soft spongy layer of fresh green corn that we had put there the day before. The fresh material would be easier than older, hard-packed silage to fork up and throw down the chute. But when I stabbed my fork into the mix, I got the surprise of my life. Unbeknownst to me, a mass of rats was directly under the surface of the silage, right where I plunged my fork in.

In an instant, the whole pile of them erupted out from around my fork. I stepped back in surprise and shock. The rats were screaming. Their high-pitched shrieks echoed in the cavernous silo. A rat was impaled on the end of my fork, squirming and squealing. Rats were running around me and between my legs. It was pandemonium. I was yelling at the top of my lungs and spinning and stabbing to keep the creatures away from me. It was a nightmare.

After a short time, the rats huddled together against the wall as far from me as they could get. And I was as far away from them as I could get. I was at the hatch, the ladder down was right behind me. Without turning my back to them, and ready to go into battle again should they attack, I slowly made may way out of the silo, then quickly down the ladder.

I went directly to Mr. Badman and told him what happened. He looked at me with bemusement. I got the feeling he didn’t believe me. “Didn’t you hear me yelling?” I asked. He said no. I told him I just couldn’t bring myself to go back up there.

So Mr. Badman climbed up the ladder and forked down the feed while I stood below and listened. When he came down I asked if he had seen any rats. He hadn’t seen one. I couldn’t believe it.

I went back to the routine of forking silage the next day. But I was always very careful and expected the worst after that experience.

Prior to getting a full-time job on the farm, I thought to myself that I might like to be a farmer. But working on a real dairy farm cured me of that aspiration. I loved working outside, driving tractors, and all of that. But I didn’t like the drudgery of caring for so many cows—every day. Were the farm my own, I would have thought differently. But it wasn’t, and I realized I would never be able to afford to be a farmer.

To be continued.....
Click HERE to go to Part 15 of this series

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 13)

This is part 13 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.
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In the early fall of 1977, having worked the summer months helping to restore an old building in Vermont, I knew I wanted to be a carpenter. With that in mind, I decided that I should go to the State University of New York at Alfred for their building trades program. But it was too late in the year to get in, and I didn’t have enough money for tuition.

So I was back home in New York, thinking about what to do next. My stepfather told me that a local farmer we knew needed a hired hand. The farmer’s name was Mr. Badman. We knew the Badman family from a local church we had once attended (read The Sermon I’ll Never Forget) and I had helped them in the past during summer haying. Mr. Badman and two of his sons ran their dairy and crop farm. But one son had taken a job in a factory. Thus, they needed some help and I got myself a full-time job on their farm.

Mr. Badman had grown up on the farm and took the operation over from his father. His elderly mother still lived in the house by the dairy barn, while Mr. Badman’s family lived a couple of stone throws down and across the road. They milked around 60 cows.

The Badman’s were the thriftiest farmers I’ve ever known. I don’t think they borrowed money. In 1977 they had two pickup trucks. One was a 1940’s era Dodge that Mr. Badman’s father had bought new. The other was a 1960’s era Chevy. They had several old Farmall H tractors that they put to good use. Mr. Badman’s oldest son is maybe six years older than I am and he bought a good-size, nearby farm of his own when he was still in high school. Today, their operation appears to be no larger than it was 30 years ago, and it supports three families. Most other small-scale dairy farmers in the area have gone out of business.

The Badman’s were the hardest working people I had ever known. They were up early in the morning and worked long days, six days a week. Sundays they did only the necessary chores and milking. I never knew them to have any interests outside the farm, except church. They were at church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night Bible Study, and on other special occasions. Otherwise, they were wedded to the never-ending work of their farm.

As for me, I worked six days a week. Sundays were my day off. The farm was a couple miles from my house. When the weather was good, I rode my bike to work and home. When the winter snow came, I walked. I’ll never forget walking to work in the early darkness on cold, winter mornings. And I walked home in total darkness on snow-drifted roads many times. No matter how bad the snow was, I walked. Sometimes, in the winter, when the town snow plow went by, the driver would stop and give me a ride most of the way home.

My job was to help with chores. I fed the calves. I got hay bales down from the barn and fed them to the cows. I climbed the silo every morning and forked down silage to feed the cows. I fed the dry cows in another barn. And then there was the manure. Cows make a lot of manure.

Each day the gutter behind the cows had to be emptied. A chain-drive gutter cleaner would slowly move the contents outside and into a manure spreader. But an addition on the end of the barn housed maybe 16 more cows and there was no gutter cleaner there. So I was the gutter cleaner.

Every morning after milking I would fork the sopping wet waste into a wheelbarrow and wheel it into the main barn where I dumped it into the gutter with the cleaner. It amounted to several heaping wheelbarrow loads, and then I would use a narrow scoop shovel to lift out as much of the remaining urine in the bottom of the gutter. During the winter, when the cows stayed in the barn all day, this gutter cleaning was performed in very close proximity to the rear ends of the beasts. After getting slapped in the face by a manure-soaked cow’s tail, I learned the importance of always keeping my mouth shut when doing that job.

I had a love-hate relationship with the cows. I didn’t like the mess thay made. I didn’t like their slobbering mouths, wet noses, and hot breath on me as I made my way along the narrow feeding area between their stanchioned heads and the old, whitewashed stone foundation walls of the barn.

But during the cold winter months, when I stayed in the barn to eat my lunch (peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, usually), the cows were good to have around. I discovered that if I fluffed up some fresh straw beside a big Holstein cow that was lying down and contentedly chewing its cud, and then sat in the straw with my back up against the back of the critter, it was like sitting against a warm heater.

So, yes, I lounged with the cows and we ate lunch together. The noon break was a welcome respite that I looked forward to.

To be continued....
Click HERE to go to Part 14 of this series


Earthworms & Sustainable Farming

Dateline: 19 February 2008



For years I’ve been intrigued with the idea of growing earthworms, and I’ve been meaning to get an earthworm box going. But I haven’t done it. Same goes for making sauerkraut. What’s wrong with me?! They are both such simple things to do, and they are important things to be doing, and they are fascinating projects. Well, I’m hoping 2008 will be the year I finally do both...

In any event, I’m interested in earthworms because they can be used for composting (it’s called vermicomposting). And when worms get done with the work of “digesting” organic matter, nutrient-rich worm castings are left. Those worm castings are awesome-good organic fertilizer. You probably already knew that, didn’t you?

Well, being the avid agrarian that I am, I’ve been thinking a lot about compost, and worms, and gardening, and all of that. It is, after all, February in the Northeast and I’m dreaming about this year’s garden. This year my garden is going to be the best one I’ve ever had! Of course, I say that every year.

With that in mind, I have been perusing some internet vermicomposting resources, and I discovered a story titled, “My Grandfather’s Earthworm Farm.” I started reading the story out of curiosity and discovered that it wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. I thought it would be about a fellow who raised worms to sell as a business. Instead, it was a story about a man who used worms to compost all the animal manure and bedding on his farm, and he spread the castings with worms on his fields, for 60 years.

But the story is more than that. It’s a story of an entire 160-acre, farm in northern Ohio. This farm was as close to an “ideal farm” as I’ve ever heard. It was a diversified, sustainable small farm that was successful. Such farms were once common in this country. Now they are very rare.

When we do see those rare examples of modern-day, diversified, sustainable, small farms (like Grant Gibbs’ Farm in Washington State) I think it is safe to say that compost is an integral part of the sustainability equation. And worms, whether in the compost, or in the soil, as a result of high levels of organic matter, are a common denominator.

Compost is critically important for any organic gardener/homesteader like me, and it’s critically important to any sustainable agricultural endeavor. That’s something to keep in mind.

And now, having said all of that, I hope you will take a few minutes to read the story. I think I’ve read it five times in the past three days. I love this story. If you like to read about things like compost, and earthworms, and gardening, and husbanding the earth, and livin' the good life, you're going to like this story too. Here’s the link: My Grandfather’s Earthworm farm



Christian Community

Clearly, there is something wrong with modernized Christianity. As I’ve stated in the past, the Church has, like every other aspect of our culture, become “industrialized” over the past 150 years, or so. Modern churches and ministries are operated like efficient businesses. Carefully crafted phrases and techniques are employed by different ministries to bring about conversions. National-size ministries build themselves by employing scientifically-proven mail order methods and phone solicitation marketing. Mega churches are lauded as examples of great success. The word “revival” is regularly attached to ministry meetings that have no resemblance to true revival. Televangelistic crusades of the Billy Graham sorts, which impress our senses, bring so many public confessions for Christ, but they are modern contrivances, and statistics show that a remarkably small percent of conversions from such mass market events are sincere and lasting. Something very, very important is being missed in all of these modernistic methodologies.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not disparaging all forms of modern-day church worship or evangelism. After all, I came to know Jesus Christ after watching and hearing a Billy Graham crusade on television when I was in Jr. High School. When God’s word is read and presented, it is powerful and compelling. God will work through his word to reach those whom he desires to reach. I believe He can and does do this through any Christian ministry, even through the overly-theatrical, theologically shallow, and contrived ranting of some preachers I’ve heard. So God still uses imperfect vessels (His people) and imperfect church organizations (i.e., so many unbalanced ministries) to advance His kingdom.

At one time I believed that finding the “right” church meant finding the church with the right doctrine. The older I get the less important various doctrinal issues become. Again, don’t misunderstand me. Fundamental Christian doctrine is important to me and should be universally embraced by any church that calls itself Christian...

God is holy. Men are not. God is all-powerful. Men are not. God is all-knowing. Men are not. In other words, He is totally sovereign over all of His creation. Men are not. Because of Adam’s disobedience, are all born with a sin nature. Because of that sin, we can never know God. Because of that sin, we are destined to eternal separation from Him. But... God manifest His love towards us by coming to earth in the form of the sinless God-man, Jesus Christ. Jesus willingly allowed himself to be killed by lowly men. Why? Because He loved us. Why? I don't know. Through His death, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins (have any of the false gods of paganistic cultures ever done such a thing?). It is only through the shed blood of Christ that any man can have proper relationship with God. We can know the joy and peace and contentment that come only when we are in proper relationship with Him. The Father God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ are three in one. God's word is inerrant. There is no other way to know God here on earth, or His salvation in eternity, apart from Jesus Christ. Those are what I consider the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

Frankly, I don’t fully understand some of those things. For example, I don’t know too many human minds that can fully comprehend the Trinity. I freely admit that there are plenty of things about Christianity and God that I don’t understand. But it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t affect my fundamental faith.

Such reasoning is totally contrary to the modern way of thinking. The modern “scientific” mind must have all the questions fully answered, and answered to its satisfaction. But God doesn’t give all the answers. He is under no obligation to prove himself or explain what He does. If we understood all things of God, we would be God. And therein is the great desire of Modern mankind.

For me, all I really need to know is those fundamentals. Fully embraced, by faith, it is those fundamentals that bring understanding and a peace that passes all understanding. That has been my experience. The masses of men (and women) look directly at Christianity and never experience the peace because they can not or will not exercise the faith. It starts with simple, childlike faith.

Beyond those rock solid beliefs, I’m open to different interpretations of what scripture teaches. What of baptism? What of the Tribulation? What of Israel in the “end times?” What of tongues? Oh, and then there’s the little matter of predestination. What about that? Pick your pet doctrinal issue. There are plenty of them. I’m not saying such things are trivial matters. They are worth studying and discussing and coming to conclusions about. But they are not worth arguing endlessly about and, even worse, getting angry about. But I am digressing from my main point...

That point is that I can’t help thinking the church of Jesus Christ has drifted far from what it can be and should be. I’m not exactly sure how to get to where we should be. But I can see that the community of believers is integral to getting there. Can you have this community of believers in an urban mega church? Perhaps, but I don’t really think so. Can you have community of believers in a parachurch ministry? No. You can have something akin to community but it is a counterfeit of the real thing. The same goes for television and radio ministries. The same goes for internet “community.” And, sadly, the same thing goes for many smaller “community” churches all across the land. There is a crisis of genuine, effective, God-honoring Christian community in our day and age.

I think the closest I have come to true Christian community in my life is after high school, when I was involved with a small group of fellow believers, first while in school in Vermont, then while at college in New York. These were times of significant spiritual growth for me and, I’m sure, the others in our group.

What made these forms of community so special? That’s what I ask myself now. Here are the answers that come to me: We lived in very close proximity. We shared common daily experiences. We often ate meals together. Beyond that, even though we came from diverse denominational understandings and experiences, we shared in our firm belief in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity (as I explained above) and we were not dogmatic about other doctrinal beliefs. We discussed doctrine but did not let it be a stumbling block to fellowship. The focus of our fellowship was our shared desire to know Jesus Christ better, to be more like Him. We were welcoming to our fellow students who did not share our convictions, but had an interest in the things of Christ. We were a countercultural witness for Jesus Christ within a very non-Christian society.

Our little community of believers was not loud and pushy about our beliefs. We were a quiet example. I believe God used us through our personal testimony and one-on-one relationships with unbelieving fellow students. We weren’t looking to build a big ministry—only to please the Lord by being salt and light to the world within our little sphere. And I believe God used us to influence the people around us. The best way to influence others is to love and care for them on a personal level.

One example of this (that just now came to the forefront of my memory) involves a school classmate in Vermont. I can’t remember her name. But I remember her face, and I’ll never forget this event. One evening I and a small group of other Christians (our community—maybe five of us at that time) were gathered for fellowship in a dormitory room. The door was closed. We enjoyed being together, singing, praying, reading, and talking about things of real importance.

On the night I am remembering, there was a knock at the door. We said “Come in.” The door opened and the girl whose name I can not remember was standing there. She had never been a part of our group. She looked distressed. One girl in our small group (her name was Robin) got up to go see her. Robin asked the girl what was wrong. She managed to tell us that she had just gotten off the phone with her mother. Her mother told her that their family's home had burned to the ground. They lost everything. Then she burst into tears. Robin hugged her and led her over to a seat on her bed. We all shared in her sorrow. We talked with her for some time and then we took the time to all pray for her. I did not know that girl to be a Christian. But when she was hurting, she came looking for Robin, a Christian girl who loved people around her with such conviction. And when she found Robin, we were all there for her. Our little community went into action. I guarantee you, that girl has never forgotten the compassion showed to her that night. God orchestrated that little event, for His glory.

I’ve told you all of this as an introduction to something I read this morning. It is about Christian community. It is a glimpse into something different from modern, highly-organized, institutionalized Christianity as we Moderns have known it. I invite you to read this short message given in May of 2007 by Frank Viola. It is titled, Bethany: The Lord’s Desire For his Church. I suggest you print it off (it’s 25 pages long), find a quiet place, and read it. I am not endorsing all that this article says. But I have learned from it, and I have been blessed by it. If you are looking for a clearer understanding of what authentic Christian community looks like, I think there are valid clues in this article.
Click HERE to go to the e-book

Index to "Finding My Way" Essays

This is an index to a series of essays in which I chronicle my struggle to figure out what to do with my life, beginning back when I was 18 years old. It wasn't easy finding my place in the world back then....

Part 1:
The Ol' Timer Begins His Ramble
Part 2:
Working While in High School and Going on to School in Vermont
Part 3:
Spray Painting Barns & Cutting Pulp Wood
Part 4:
I Fail to Graduate From School in Vermont
Part 5:
Skateboarding, Rocky Balboa, & My Friend Joe
Part 6:
How I almost Died in the Lamoille River
Part 7:
Buce & Patty Womer Take Me In
Part 8:
I Didn’t Have a Job. But I Was Never Idle.
Part 9:
My Short-Lived Career Selling Shaklee
Part 10:
No Money. No Car. No Job: I Decide to Enlist in the Military
Part 11:
”You Did a Good Job, Mate.”
Part 12:
Bear, Harvey, Bob Dylan.... And I Discover What I Want to Do With My Life
Part 13:
I Go Home & Get a Job on a Dairy Farm
Part 14:
This is the Part Where I Defend Myself With a Silage Fork Against Huge, Screaming Rats (No Kidding!)
Part 15:
At Last, I Make Enough Money to Buy a Car.
Part 16:
I Inherit a Small Fortune From My Grandfather
Part 17:
I Start My First Business
Part 18:
I Go Back to School. Then Back to The Farm.
Part 19:
I Land a Carpentry Job & Get Married
Part 20:
I Finally Found My Way. Thank God.

Some Catching Up To Do….

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This blog entry will be a bit of a hodgepodge. There are several different things I’d like say that are on my mind. Then I’ll get back to finishing my ponderously-long, multi-part series about Getting Started & Finding My Way

It’s a “Herrick Toy”
My thanks to Paul Hambrick who sent me the photo at the top of this blog. He said the little squeeze toy reminded him of me and he called it a “Herrick toy.” If I ever shave off this winter beard I'm currently sporting, the resemblance between me and that thing will be absolutely remarkable.


Making Sauerkraut in Hungary
And while I’m thanking people, I want to publicly acknowledge and thank Szelsofa way over in Hungary who dedicated one of her blog stories to me. The blog is about making sauerkraut. I am honored, and flattered, and inspired. But we still haven’t yet made our own sauerkraut here! I have no good excuse.

As Szelsofa says, sauerkraut is “healthy, living food.” It is so good for us! You can read the story here: Szelsofa’s Sauerkraut Blog

Beer Tokens
One more thank you is in order: I happen to live in Moravia, New York. Allen Roeder down in the Republic of Texas informed me that there is a Moravia, Texas. A few days later, I received an envelope from Mr. Roeder. It contained two wooden tokens from the Moravia Store (established in 1889). Each token is “Good For One Beer.” That is a thoughtful gift. Thank you Allen!

A Funny Story
I was over to Don Underwood’s blog (you may recall that Don and his son Caleb were the grand prize winners in the Whizbang Garden Cart Contest for 2007) and Don mentioned a book called “Pagan Christianity.” That got my attention. I went to a review of the book at a blog named, “Letters From Kamp Krusty.” That's not the funny story.

While there, I surfed around and discovered a short blog entry that really got me laughing. So I read it to Marlene and we both laughed at it. She said she has actually done something close to what the guy writes about in the story. I have worn glasses since I was in 6th grade but I have never done anything close to what the guy writes about. Here’s the link:
I Went Running and Shoved My Glasses Up My Nose and Almost Killed Myself

Who is That Boy & What is He Doing?
Photobucket
It’s my 13-year-old son, James, and he is using a draw shave to carve an M1 Garand rifle out of a 2x4, of course.

Who is That Boy & What is He Doing? (Part 2)
Photobucket
It’s James again. This time he is using a router as a compass to cut circles out of 3/4" HDPE plastic. You can see a pile of just-cut circles to his right. The circles will be further machined and fabricated into featherplates, which people buy from me to make their own Whizbang Chicken Plucker.

Last year, I was caught off guard in the spring by high demand for plucker parts. We are working now to be better prepared for this spring. I have no idea what the demand will be for these parts.

Perhaps a lot of people will use the soon-to-come “windfall” government handout that was approved this last week to buy parts to build their own Whizbang Chicken Plucking machine. Yes! Now that will help the economy out of recession! Well, at least it will help my economy. ;-)

Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference
If you’re anywhere near LaCrosse, Wisconsin, do make it a point to attend the conference on Feb 21-23. I won’t be there but all my Whizbang Books will be there for sale. You can always buy them from me HERE

And Speaking of Books
One of the great things about having a small business, as opposed to a big business, is that you can more easily change your mind and your course of direction. I’ve done both in recent weeks. It was my intention to write and publish a book this spring, and I launched into the project a few weeks ago. But then I considered the economic situation in this country, and decided to hold off on publishing another book at this time.

I also heard this statistic on the radio: In 2006 there were 291,000 new books published. That’s 33 books a hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 7 out of 10 of those books were a financial failure. 2 out of 10 broke even financially. One out of 10 made a profit.

So now I am focusing on making chicken plucker parts, and I’m continuing to work on a prototype NEW Whizbang product with accompanying how-to instructions. I will put the product through more testing this summer with the idea of making it available to EVERYONE next spring.

I have found that making and selling parts for useful homestead products (like a homemade chicken plucker) is more profitable than selling just books.

However, There is Something New Right Now...
This year’s book idea is on hold. But much of the material that was to go into my next book will be published on my newest blog, Old Farm Almanacs. CLICK HERE to go to the blog.


Getting Started
&
Finding My Way
(Part 12)

This is part 12 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.



 It is still the summer of 1977. I am in Vermont, helping to refurbish a large, old, white-clapboard building. I am working for, and living with, Bruce and Patty Womer. Bruce is a carpenter, and a good one, but the job is big and needs to get done in a reasonable time, so various craftsmen have been hired to help. And I am helping where I can. All the while, I am learning...

I learned how to cut drywall from a laid-back, big-bearded carpenter who drove an old, faded Saab and went by the name, Bear. He had a voice so low and deep that I could feel the sound waves vibrate through my body when he talked. We started by installing a double layer of drywall on the walls and ceiling of a cramped, wire-and-pipe-infested furnace room.

“Have you ever cut drywall before?” Bear asked me as we stood in front of a stack of the stuff.

“No.” I replied.

“Well, this is a utility knife.” he said to me as he lifted it out of his leather tool belt. “You slice through the paper on one side of the drywall, where you want to cut it, like this, and then you bend it back and it breaks along where you cut it. See?”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s neat!”

He looked at me for a moment in his tired, Bear-like way, and said, “Yeah. Neat.”

I cut drywall as best as I could and helped Bear fit the pieces around ductwork and wires and pipes. It was a nasty job and he growled through the whole thing. But he was really a nice Bear and I was learning a new skill.

When it came time to insulate the attic, I was gung-ho, until Bruce casually mentioned that he thought there were bats up there—but that didn’t matter, did it?

Are you kidding? I hate bats. I’m terrified of bats. I told Bruce about the time I got bit by a bat when I was a little boy. Bees, snakes, spiders, mice, and even rats I can handle. But bats are most definitely not my cup of tea.

But somebody had to insulate that attic and I wasn’t going to let Bruce down. Suited in a protective uniform of work boots, pants (tied at the ankle), winter jacket, knit hat, ear muff hearing protectors, ski mask, and leather mittens, I said a prayer and scuttled up into the dark, cramped, hell-hole.

Sure enough, the bats were there. They started flying around and squeaking. I was half paralyzed with raw fear. But I rallied my nerves and sweated out the whole job.

Of course it did help that Bruce, his head peeking up through the access opening, coached me along with words of encouragement and sympathy, as he handed up pieces of insulation. The truly amazing part of the story, though, was that he managed to keep a straight face through the whole thing.

Bruce was always encouraging, and positive, and patient, and when I had a question (constantly), he always gave me a thoughtful answer. We had a mutual respect, and as the summer wore on, there was a tie that developed between us. It happens when men work together towards a common goal. They share in all the little challenges, and frustrations, and satisfactions, and incredible experiences that come with such projects. And out of the camaraderie comes a special bonding. Bruce became my good friend, my mentor, and to this day, an inspiration.

And then there was Harvey, a local homesteader and aspiring carpenter who had moved to Vermont from New York City. Harvey told me he was a former Hell’s Angel, and when I doubted him, he showed me a snapshot of himself on a full-dress Harley with a big chopper on the front. I was very careful around the guy after that—except for one time.

I don’t recall where we were exactly, but we were having a nice chat (old bikers have great stories), and Harvey said to me, “Hey, who do I look like?”

I said, “I don’t know. What do you mean?”

He said, “What famous person do I look like? Seriously.” And he was serious.

I looked at him for a couple of seconds, threw caution to the wind, and said the only thing that seriously came to my mind. “Bozo the clown?”

If looks could kill, you wouldn’t be reading this. “No you (expletives deleted). Don’t you think I look like Bob Dylan?”

I thought about it. I knew Bob Dylan was a singer, but I didn’t have the foggiest notion what he looked like. “Oh man, Harvey. You do look like Bob Dylan!” With my mouth agape, and an astonished look on my face, I said, “You really do!”

He smiled.

And so it went. The days, the people, hard work, good times, and, in time, the great feeling of satisfaction that comes with having restored a fine old building. The ex-dormitory would now be part of the Craftsbury Inn across the street (It is now known as The Inn on the Common). It was time for me to go home.

We said our good-byes one morning after breakfast. Bruce, Patty, Bear, and Harvey were there. It wasn’t sad or sentimental. We had had a good time and done a good job, and now it was time to move on to the next job. I didn’t exactly know what that job would be for me. But I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a carpenter like Bruce.

I remember that summer of 1977 with the poignant nostalgia of a first love; fresh and new, mysterious and exciting. And sometimes I think back to those days when I was an unsure 19-year-old kid who had the good fortune to meet Bruce Womer and help him fix up an old building in a beautiful, quiet little mountain town in Vermont.... And I am refreshed by the memory.

To be continued...

One more thing:
Nineteen years after the summer of 1977, my first book was published by the Taunton Press. It was a book about making countertops. Here is what I wrote on the dedication page of that book:


This book is dedicated to my early mentor, Bruce Womer, his sweet and gracious wife Patty, Robert the mason, Bear the grizzly carpenter, Harvey the ex-biker homesteader, and that long-ago Vermont summer of ’77, when I first realized I was born to build.


Click HERE to go to Part 13 of this series


Getting Started
&
Finding My Way
(Part 11)

This is part 11 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.


This is the building that I helped to remodel back in the summer of '77

It was the summer of 1977. I was 19 years old and I was back in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. I was living and working with my friends Bruce and Patty Womer as they remodeled a big old building into an extension of the Craftsbury Inn.

The interior renovation work had progressed such that none of us could live in the building any more. So we moved into the back yard. Bruce & Patty had a big tent. Further in the back, under some trees, I had a two-man backpacker’s tent. That was my room. It was downright cozy. I don’t think I’ve ever slept better in my life.

My job was as an extra hand. I helped wherever I was needed, and occasionally it was with one of the many different craftsmen who worked on the project. Such was the case with Robert, the mason Bruce hired to lay up a new 10-inch concrete block foundation wall under the jacked-up building.

Bruce spoke very highly of Robert. He told me Robert had had some troubles with the law, but he was a third generation mason, and one of the best in the state. I was especially anxious to see him work.

Robert arrived very early in the morning. I couldn’t help but notice that he was big—-tall, broad, and muscular big, with shoulder length blonde hair. In my mind’s eye he has an uncanny resemblance to Hulk Hogan, and he had a slightly incredulous look on his face when Bruce told him I was going to be his helper.

My job would be to mix mortar and carry concrete blocks so they were within arm’s reach at all times. After quickly showing me how to operate his mixer, and measure out the proper sand/cement/water ratio, Robert got to work, and I was on my own. I have to admit that I was intimidated by Robert’s physique and his no-nonsense attitude.

I worked very hard that long, hot day trying to do a good job, and more than that, trying to impress Robert. But he hardly said a word to me unless he needed something, or to comment on the consistency of the mortar (“To thick,” “To thin,” or “This looks okay”).

Lunch break was a welcome relief. But it barely lasted five minutes—-long enough for Bruce to fetch a cold beer and Robert to drain it. I stuffed down a sandwich and we were back in business. Robert’s mind was focused completely on the job at hand.

Nobody could have tended mason better than I did that day, and one day was all it took. Having since laid up a few basement foundations of my own, and observed other masons at work, I now realize we did a phenomenal stroke of work in that one day.

When the basement wall was done, in the quickly-fading light of dusk, Robert helped me clean out his mixer. He acted like a completely different person. He was friendly and talkative, and he told me what I longed to hear. I remember exactly what he said: “You did a good job, mate.” That was it. That was enough.

To be continued....

Note: No one had ever addressed me as “mate” before. Only in later years did I discover that one of the definitions of the word is, “an assistant to a skilled worker.” It was, I believe, a word more commonly used in older days. It was a term that a third generation mason would certainly be familiar with.

Click HERE to go to Part 12 of this series

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 10)

This is part 10 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

========================================

It was early in the summer of 1977. I needed a job. I had no prospect of a job. I had tried to sell Shaklee door-to-door but failed miserably. There was only one thing left to do.

I decided to join the military.

I really didn’t want to join the military but I had no money, no car, no job, no nothing. There was no other option.

My Grassroots Project school buddy, Joe Miller, from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware was a surfer. There was a Coast Guard station near where he lived and he had told me what a great group of guys were in the Coast Guard. So I decided that the Coast Guard was for me.

My mother went with me to visit the recruiter in Syracuse, NY. We listened to his spiel. I took a short test. We went home to think about it. I was pretty sure I would join the Coast Guard.

When I got home I wrote a letter to my friends Bruce and Patty Womer back in Vermont. I told them about not having a job. I told them I was going to join the Coast Guard.

Within a few days I had a letter from Patty. She told me I was welcome to come back to Vermont and stay with them while helping to renovate the big old dormitory building. It was a big job that would take all summer. She wrote that Bruce really could use my help again. She also wrote that Bruce didn’t think I should join the Coast Guard.

Well now, that was a ray of sunshine in my dark little world. I was needed! Bruce needed me. The Womers were great folks. I didn’t have to give any thought to this opportunity. I would get myself back to Craftsbury Common ASAP.

The only problem was that I had a girlfriend (now my wife, of 27 years). I would miss her. But we knew from my year at school in Vermont that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Besides, it would only be a couple months.

Thinking back on those days of separation, it is interesting to note that Marlene and I did not have cell phones or e-mail to keep in touch. And phone calls were very rare. What we did was write letters to each other. Almost every day we wrote to, and received a letter from, each other.

My school friend, Ed Bais, from Cleveland, Ohio, called me to say he was borrowing his sister’s car and heading back to Craftsbury Common for a fiddler’s contest. Did I want to go? What timing! That’s how I got back to Vermont.

Before I left, I visited the Coast Guard recruiter again. I told him I wanted to enlist but I had a job in Vermont for the summer. I would be back in the fall and enlist then. I signed some papers but didn’t commit myself completely. Bruce Womer’s admonition was in my mind.

To be continued...
Click HERE to go to Part 11 of this series

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 9)

This is part 9 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

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It was early in the summer of 1977, and I was home from school, staying busy with various projects around my parents’ house, and wondering how I would ever find myself a good job.

Then it occurred to me that I should sell Shaklee products. A friend of the family had finagled my mother into becoming a Shaklee “dealer.” She had a Shaklee sales kit, with information about the products, and prices, and order forms. But my mother never did anything with it. I saw within that Shaklee sales kit the answer to my problems with finding a job.

My stepfather had once sold insurance for Combined Life and they gave him two classic “success” books. One was Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude by W. Clement Stone. The other was Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I had read the books in the past. I read them again.

W. Clement Stone started selling insurance when he was sixteen years old. He was an amazing man. His book was inspiring. Clearly, there was a lot of money to be made in sales. I studied the Shaklee materials to familiarize myself with the product. I liked Shaklee. Vitamins, nutritional supplements and Basic-H were good products.

Not having a car, I decided to ride my bicycle. My parents had a house on State Route 41-A. There were a lot of houses in the 16 miles or so between our place and the town of Skaneateles, on the North end of Skaneateles Lake. I would just stop at houses and go to the door and knock and tell people about Shaklee. By the end of the day, I’d have all kinds of orders. I knew from the motivational books I had read that before you can be successful at sales, you have to imagine being successful. That was fun.

It so happened that I had prior experience with cold-call sales. Back in 8th grade, when I lived in the suburbs of Syracuse, N.Y., my social studies class at school planned a two-day trip to Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. To help raise money for the bus and other expenses, we sold candy bars.

I knocked on what seemed like hundreds of doors in the housing development where I lived. I sold a LOT of candy bars. Then I went beyond my neighborhood. One afternoon I rode my bike down State Fair Boulevard (the busy road in front of the housing development) to a trailer park. The people were older there and they seemed glad to see me. They bought a LOT of candy bars. When I left the place I noticed a big sign that said “No Soliciting.”

One Saturday morning my stepfather dropped me and another classmate off at a housing development several miles away to sell our candy bars. He would return in an hour or so to get us. It was not a good neighborhood. The houses were run down. The people who answered the door were not friendly. Worst of all, a gang of kids confronted us. They started to give us a hard time. I was glad my friend was with me. But we were really outnumbered, and some of those kids were big. It wasn’t going to go well for us. We were going to get hurt.

It was about to get real ugly when, thankfully, my dad drove up. My fifty-year-old heart beats a bit faster just thinking of what a close call that was.

In the end, I sold more candy bars than anyone else in the class and won a prize of some spending money for the trip. Sturbridge Village was my first introduction to a living history museum and I’ve been in love with such places ever since.

So that is how I had prior sales experience. If I could sell candy bars, I could sell Shaklee. I got on my bike one summer midmorning, clutching the Shaklee sales kit, and headed north.

I knew most of the people who lived along the road for the first couple of miles. I didn’t want to stop at those houses because that would be too embarrassing.

After a couple miles I decided it was time to stop at a house. As I rode my bike up to the house, I didn’t turn in the driveway. I changed my mind. The place didn’t look right. I would stop at the next house I came to.

Well, every house I came to didn’t look like a place I wanted to stop. I didn’t have the nerve to stop and sell Shaklee. Hard as I tried, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I got angry because I was too scared to stop. I determined that, no matter what, I was going to stop at the next house.

But I never did. I rode my bike all the way to Skaneateles and then I rode all the way home, and I never stopped at a single house.

I was disappointed with myself. I was a failure as a door-to-door Shaklee salesman. What was I going to do with myself? How could I find my way in the world? I was feeling pretty low.

To be continued....
Click HERE to go to Part 10 of this series

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 8)

This is part 8 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.
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My school year at the Grassroots Project in Vermont was behind me. The summer of 1977was ahead of me. I was 19 years old and back home in New York State wondering what to do with myself.

I still had no car and not enough money to buy one. I had a little more confidence in myself than before, but not enough to think I could get a job, especially without transportation.

That isn’t to say that I was idle. I want to make it clear that, job or not, I always had different interests and projects that I was working on. I have always been an avid reader and when I want to learn something, I start with a book. During those teenage years I was an especially enthusiastic reader of Mother Earth News magazine. Every issue had some sort of craft or how-to project that captured my interest.

When I was at school in Vermont I spent a lot of time in the school’s small basement workshop. The school had no woodworking class back then (I think it does now) but the shop with basic hand tools was there for students to use.

One project I made in the school shop was a rope making device. The plans had been in Mother Earth News. It was made out of plywood and heavy coat hanger wire. When I got it done, my friend Ed Bais and I tried it out. The thing actually worked very well. Ed and I also made apple cider (and hard cider) and I’ve written about that whole adventure at this essay: When Me & Ed Made Apple Cider.

Another Mother Earth article that inspired me was about how to make bent-willow chairs, using nothing more than a hand saw, knife, small drill, nails, and a hammer. There was no willow around my home but there thin tree saplings of another sort in the swamp behind my parents place. I spent a couple days cutting and bending and nailing two chairs together. In the end, they came out beautifully. My mother was amazed. So was I.

Yet another industrious craft project that I remember putting a lot of effort into was spoon carving. My stepfather’s barn had some old hardwood boards that beckoned me to do something with them. I used a jigsaw to rough out the shape of a spoon. Then I clamped the blank in a vise and went at it with a knife, chisels, sandpaper, and one old carving gouge that I found somewhere. I made several spoons and a lot of blisters. I also read about and taught myself to sharpen the tools. The spoons were functional pieces of art that I gave to special people. I gave one to Patty Womer in Vermont. She was so appreciative of it. I sure did like Bruce and Patty Womer.

Once, after seeing a wooden feed scoop in an Eric Sloane book, I was inspired to carve one. I found an appropriate chunk of old wood in my dad’s barn. It was full of worm holes which was just fine for a “rustic” old scoop. Years later, I sold the scoop at a garage sale. An antique dealer snatched it up. I told her I had carved the scoop myself. She didn’t believe me (or she didn’t want to). The lady bought it as an antique and probably sold it as one. Who knows, maybe it’s in a museum somewhere.

Most of my creative interests revolved around working wood. My only experience with woodworking as a boy had been in a 7th grade shop class where I made a paper towel holder. My mother used it for years. After that, in my teen years, I pretty much taught myself.

I went through a phase where I made small pine-stave canisters and firkins with hoops and wood covers. My inspiration for this was my Grandfather Kimball’s friend Roger Hall (read Life Lessons From an Old Maine Woodsman for more about Roger Hall).

I cut pine staves using a rusty old electric table saw that had sat unused in my stepfather’s barn for years. The blade was dull and the fence was out of adjustment. I did my best to sharpen the blade and get the saw to cut right but, for the most part, I burned through the boards, filling the barn with acrid blue smoke. Looking back, it is a wonder I didn’t cut my fingers off using that saw. I know people who have done just that.

I shaved bevels on the edges of the canister and firkin staves with a small block plane and assembled the pieces in my bedroom. My desk was a workbench, and sometimes the floor was a better worksurface. There are still holes in the floor from when I was drilling wood pieces for some project and went too far.

I could go on, but the point is that, even though I was not going to academic higher learning, I was still actively learning. I was developing skills that I had an interest in. No one was pushing me. I was self motivated.

I had come to the conclusion that in order to be a homesteader and make my way in the world, I needed to learn practical craft skills. All I had to work with at the time was wood and some very basic tools. So that’s where I started.

As I consider it now, those hours and hours of carving spoons gave me more than spoons and blisters. I learned about different woods and how they carve, how to “read” the grain, how to put an edge on the tools, and how to hold and control my carving cuts. I became familiar and comfortable with these things as my hands and mind became more skilled.

Nevertheless, with the summer of ’77 before me, I had no job prospect, and I was very concerned about that. How would I ever find my place in the work world? Time was a wasting. I anguished over my lack of purpose and direction.

To be continued....
Click HERE to go to Part 9 of this series