The blanket of snow lingers on into March, with nights dipping below zero, so I have temporarily abandoned the plan to construct a solarium on the south side of an old concrete block shed behind our house. The solarium project best wait until some love-struck hippie gal is gleefully chopping veggies for kimchee in the kitchen, both of us whistling while we steal glances periodically throughout the glorious day.
When the weather finally warms, time will be our new boss, and my son and his buddies will need jobs. I can't pay them to stand around while I muse over an artistic implementation of hippie architecture. So instead of a glass solarium, I decided to construct a 20' x 40' greenhouse using pine 2 x 4s for a frame. I ordered a roll of greenhouse plastic, rather than messing with all those windows. There's this concrete pad in the very northeast corner of the place, which gets unobstructed, year-round sun, the remains of the foundation for three cylindrical corn cribs from back in the days when farmers still harvested full ears of corn for the livestock. No doubt the cribs were placed in that location for the same reason. Corn stores way better on the ear than “shelled,” and requires no propane dryers, but only the Amish and hippies still harvest corn that way.
The Amish have inspired me to build a wood-frame greenhouse, rather than purchasing the steel bent into semi-circles that you order on-line. Pine is way cheaper than steel, and after watching three Amish dudes put up an immense equipment shed up the road, I'm pretty sure my son and his buddy and I can handle this project. The Amish fellows aren't building the shed for themselves, rather for an ambitious, young farmer known locally as “Prince Don.”
“You see those Amish guys out there today, Spec?” the local bartender asked. “Looks like they need your help, your expertise.”
“Those old boys didn't even have nothing covering their ears,” offered another patron.
That particular day, snow had been falling somewhat, more like blowing by in a stiff breeze from the northwest, probably one of the most inhospitable mornings our climate has to offer.
“Old boys were up on aluminum ladders, nailing cross-braces to all the posts [of the pole barn].”
“They really need your help, Spec.”
“Yeah, I always thought the Amish were smarter than everybody else, but today I think it may be smarter to drink beer in a nice warm place like this,” I said. I didn't totally mean that. I mean those fellows probably had their reasons for hiring the Mennonite fellow to drive them across the river to construct a giant shed for the steel dragons of corporate agriculture, million dollar machines the Amish farmers religiously avoid using.
Most of the valleys to the south and west of our place have been inhabited by Amish and Mennonites for more than a century. Not much traffic motors through, as they're thankfully still not as famous as the folks in Lancaster County, PA. In the growing season, the young and old are scattered about in outdoor activities dusk till dawn, horses pulling carriages on the roads. Instead of miles of GMO corn and soybeans, you see orchards of peaches, apples, and pears. You see hay fields, pastures, rows of cabbages, tomatoes, cantaloupe. You see few electric lines. The Amish don't bitch about power outages. They don't worry about the collapse of the dollar, though they definitely regard cash as a useful tool in dealing with today's bullshit. They really have a lot in common with the back-to-the-land hippies of Mendo.
“They only take baths on Saturday night,” said one of my son's friends from across the river who grew up neighbors with the Amish kids. “The girls aren't allowed to shave their legs.”
“Sounds like Mendo hippies in the drought years.”
I'd always wondered why the Amish men shave their mustache and clear around their lips yet leave the rest of the beard untouched. My guess, observing my Amish and Mennonite brethren and fierce competitors at the farmers' markets, was that the men shaved around their lips so as not to leave irritating spines messing up their lady's pleasure while kissing or oral sex, but I'd never point-blank interrogated one of the dudes until the Amtrak ride last fall from Indiana to California where I ran into a whole gang of the bearded fellows in their black hats on the observation deck of the lounge car. I may have blurted the question, don't remember.
The fellows seemed genuinely entertained by my boisterous demeanor (after spending an 8 hour delay in the bars of Galesburg, Illinois waiting for the train from Chicago), but I'm pretty sure they only laughed and didn't say. Not the most candid bunch, the Amish.
It wasn't until last weekend that I finally learned why the Amish fellows shave the mustache.
About an hour east of our farm, towards Cincinnati, resides a generous, voluptuous nurse about my age, with rosy cheeks who is letting her black hair go to dreadlocks. Her right shoulder is tattooed with a male peacock, feathers spread. “I'm hoping to hook up with a Jewish hog farmer,” P— told me several years ago the first time we met, “who wears a yamaka and lederhosen.”
“Pretty sure Germans wear lederhosen. I don't know if the Jewish ever did?”
“Still, a yarmulke and lederhosen.”
I knew right then we'd become great friends, almost family. P— sort of stepped in as a mom for my son last winter, let him stay at her place when he needed a break from me. She and his actual mother (who lives in Mendo) are Facebook friends and communicate often. For example on Friday they both shared a post from some news source describing how our home county is now nationally famous with a massive HIV outbreak thanks to prolific, nihilistic needle sharing among abusers of pharmies, heroin, and crank primarily.
“Make sure that boy has got condoms,” they both told me, emphatically.
“Don't worry. Got that covered. Mostly cause I sure as shit ain't ready to be a grandpa.”
With snow covering the ground, and subzero temperatures, I decided to pay P— a visit over the weekend. Her house usually offers sanctuary to a number of folks, but this particular night it was quiet as the dead of winter. I remember she was up all night trying to purchase on-line tickets for the Very Last and Final Grateful Dead Show this summer at Soldier Field in Chicago that everyone and their mother wants to go to except me.
“You want me to make you some coffee?” she asked in the morning, before I drove back home.
“No. Thanks, though. I gave up hot beverages about one year ago.”
“Yeah, first it was coffee, than Earl Grey, finally I'd gotten into chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm — it was out of control. I had to quit.” I went on to describe how I prefer to start my day with a Bloody Mary.
“Sorry, Spec. I don't have any tomato juice. I got hot sauce, but no vodka. How about orange juice?”
When she returned with the OJ, I started telling her about the tenacious Amish fellows building that equipment shed for the millionaire farmer, Prince Don.
“Those guys are damn cute in their outfits, but they don't work cheap,” she said. Several years earlier P— had actually hired an Amish crew to put a metal roof on her century-old house. “They drink coffee, though. I was surprised.”
“See that's why I quit hot beverages. You'd have to be on one to be out hammering nails in this weather. This orange juice is nice and cold, though. Thanks.”
“No problem, Spec. I don't ever make coffee, normally, but the Amish guys requested it. They were really nice.”
“You know one thing that's always perplexed me?” I didn't expect P— to answer the rhetorical. “Why do the Amish guys shave their mustache and all around their mouth, but leave the rest of the beard untrimmed?”
“It's probably religious.”
“Yeah, sure. Except the Amish aren't like other religions. They don't believe in preachers or churches, despise hierarchies, and always got a practical reason for what they do.”
“Let's look it up,” she said, scrolling down her handy, modern implement of infinite possibility, googling “Amish Men beards.” “Look at this, Spec. Says they started shaving their mustaches off in the 19th century in Europe because mustaches were favored by the military. So they shaved the opposite way, so nobody would associate them with the military. It was originally a political statement, as the Amish are anti-war.”
Sounds just like the old school hippies, I almost said, but P— handed me a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. “Sorry these are just store-bought eggs, ain't no good,” she said. “It's winter and the hens are just barely starting to lay.”