Who’ll Stop the Reign? (May 14, 2003)

The rains fell so redundantly this spring that I tired of checking the forecast in the newspaper. I took to wearing a green raincoat with plastic overalls on sunny days, sweating as I carried buckets of chicken manure, boots sucking in the muck. I didn’t care if they said it was supposed to be sunny; I didn’t believe them. Our potatoes rotted in their trenches. Our carrots never saw the light of day. Our lettuce grew strange white molds. 

Still, the rain kept pouring. Good weather for messing around with the traffic in Ukiah. When I drove through town, one Friday afternoon, barely able to see through the steamed windshield, the worn-out wipers squeaking between buckets falling from heavy, black clouds, I noticed the brave souls among us were staging a demonstration against the incessant precipitation. People lined the sidewalks in front of the courthouse, carrying banners, waving flags, protesting the damp weather. 

Using a dubious hand signal in the pouring rain, as the rear blinkers on our truck were not operating, I turned right on Perkins, found a parking spot on School Street, and walked down to the square to join the throng. I had no banner, no poster, nothing but my rain pants and jacket to keep me dry. 

“STOP THE RAIN!” commanded one poster. “THE WEATHERMAN IS THE REAL ENEMY.”

Two young women whose sexual distinctions were heavily veiled under layers of vortex held up a banner that read, “HONK IF YOU LOVE THE SUN!”

Hands in my pockets, I tried to catch the eye of one. “So, you really think this protesting, or whatever you call it, is going to get the attention of an aloof and indifferent cosmos?” 

“Action is the antidote to despair,” she said, steam rolling off her tongue. 

“Hmm… I always thought beer was the cure.” 

A grizzled man, who appeared to be at least of the age in which he could conceivably have weathered the storms at Woodstock, judging by the length of his beard, overheard my shallow attempts to hit on the young women. He spoke in a gruff voice, after much clearing of his throat, the way thunder accompanies the whistling wind. “Long as I remember, rain’s been coming down. Clouds of mystery pouring confusion on the ground.”

“I’m with you, there,” I said. “I’m actually from back east, Indiana, you know, is socked in between the great lakes, the Ohio River, and the Appalachians, I’ve seen the time when ten inches came down in a single hour. I was camping next to a lake. My cooler floated away, and there were bluegill in my tent.”

“Did you say you’re from India?” asked one of the young women. “I just returned from there. God, the monsoons, they make you feel lucky just to be alive.”

Across the street, another set of demonstrators was assembling. Judging by the posters they carried, the flags they were waving, those people had a different opinion about the rain. “GOD BLESS THE RAIN,” read a red, white, and blue placard. “WATER IS NOT WET.”

Remembering my grandfather, now deceased, who introduced me to Busch beer as the cheaper alternative to Budweiser on a stormy afternoon in May, when we’d been driven out of the cantaloupe field by hailstones the size of baseballs, I eyed the cozy ambiance of the Ukiah Brewery. “Good luck to all of you,” I said, my words drowning, doused to oblivion by what seemed to be the wrath of the universe, some karmic wheel coming home to haunt America. 

They’ve always got blues playing in the brewery, and newspapers strewn across the bar. Grateful to be out of the weather, I picked up the Press Democrat to check out the weather, and noticed that were two forecasts. There was a set of four pictures, and Saturday and Sunday’s boxes showed a large round sun with a cloud covering part of it. Friday’s and Mondays showed only a gray cloud and raindrops falling from it. But the printed forecast, under each picture, was the same: showers likely, heavy at times. I wondered, as I gazed out at the water flowing down Perkins, if that golden sun and silver cloud for the weekend was somehow related to the North Coast tourism industry. I knew it was a bit of a stretch to even think that deeply about the weather. I guess my skepticism about the weather was rooted in a perennial disdain for the rest of the drivel that passes for news. 

“How’s the crops growing?” asked the woman from behind that classic, wooden bar. “They must be loving this weather.”

“Actually, mosquito larvae and tadpoles are doing well in what was once our winter onions. I saw some wild ducks swimming out there, and there’s a kingfisher who perches on our fence posts, gleaning our fields.”

“Well, rain’s a good thing, don’t you think?”

“In the long run, I suppose it’s okay. At least we don’t have to irrigate our baby greens, just pick the moldy leaves out. Not a vintage year, for sure.” Grateful for the pint of Sunset Red, I raised the glass in a salute. “What’s this?”

There, on the front page, was this headline: “Lab tests show lettuce tainted by rocket fuel.” 

“I thought they only printed bullshit about the stupid war. This is real reporting.” Miguel Bustillo of the Los Angeles Times was picked up by the Press Democrat. 

It begins: “A laboratory test of 22 types of lettuce purchased at Northern California supermarkets found that four were contaminated with perchlorate, a toxic rocket-fuel ingredient that has polluted the Colorado River, the source of the water used to grow most of the nation’s winter vegetables.”

Perchlorate, he goes on to explain, “is a salt widely used by the US government to help power missiles and the space shuttle. . . .[It] is known to effect the production of thyroid hormones, which are crucial to early brain development.”

Many people feel safe about purchasing organically-grown products. Less so, though, to know that “a prepackaged variety of organic baby greens had a level of perchlorate contamination at least 20 times as high as the amount California now considers safe for drinking water.”

“But the Pentagon and defense contractors, who together produced most of the nation’s perchlorate, dispute those conclusions. . . .a Bush administration proposal known as the Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative is making its way through the GOP-controlled Congress. Among other things, it would exempt military bases from laws requiring the cleanup of toxic substances associated with munitions and other explosives, which include perchlorate.”

“Perchlorate, which is highly soluble, has been detected in water supplies in California and at least 19 other states, usually near defense contractors or military bases.”

“The Colorado River, which supplies water to roughly 15 million people in the Southwestern United States, contains perchlorate that leached from the site of a former Nevada rocket factory. . . .[In] January, an estimated 88 percent of the nation’s lettuce comes from farms nourished with water from the Colorado River.”

I ripped the article carefully from the newspaper. As with the sporadic reports through the last several years of refugees abandoning farms and homes in Colombia, as their countryside is bombarded by herbicides from the sky, I knew that if I let that information slip into the recycle bin, I’d never see it again, and wonder later if it had ever been printed, or if I’d concocted the fantasy after one-too-many hits of the old pipe dope. 

I wanted to join the demonstrations, stand the middle of the damn road, not on either side, neither hippie nor redneck, or maybe a little too much of both, and wave that newspaper at the passing traffic. “Guess it ain’t so bad picking moldy leaves out of lettuce,” I said to nobody in particular.

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