Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Distance, Chapter 24


January Twenty-ninth
12:50 p.m.

The drive down to the Farm was just as perilous as the drive home had been, but much more scenic.  The windblown snow had created drifts across the fields and roads, with a fog of snow covering the terrain ahead.  The blizzard warning was still in effect, but the heaviest snow had been pushed back until late Sunday night. Doug wasn’t too worried about it…he’d be back to his place by then.

Pulling into the driveway, Doug found himself driving slowly around a half-dozen monstrous hay-bales, placed in an irregular stagger for a couple hundred feet on the main entry.  The sides of the driveway were now plowed high with earth and snow—a lot of work had gone into the project. He recognized it eventually for what it was—a trap for any fast-moving vehicle that might be trying to attack the farm.  Julie saw him coming and was on the porch as he pulled in next to ‘her’ Dodge pickup.   By the time he stepped out of the truck, Arie joined Julie, shotgun on his arm. 

“I hope that’s not for me,” Doug said to Arie as he shook hands.

“Not this time,” Arie said with a pause, before starting a deep laugh. “Good to see you, Douglas.”

“You as well sir. Fairly impressive work out there,” Doug said as he motioned to the entry.

“More than a few hours there.  Some friends of ours had some problems. City-folk.”

“There’s a lot of work like this going on, from here to Des Moines.  Whole towns have blocked off the roads,” Doug said as he took Julie’s hand.  “Hi, there.”

“Hi.  Got plans for the afternoon?”

“You’re it,” Doug said. “What’s in mind?”

“Arie’s just loaded up your pickup with some stuff that needs to go to Peter and Molly’s place. Last minute.”

“Glad to help.  You want to drive or navigate?”

“You just follow, you two,” Arie said, sizing Doug’s clothing up.   “My truck has a load as well.”

“Don’t forget your coffee!” Maria said from the door.  “Sorry, Douglas. Didn’t mean to yell. The man will forget his feet but for his shoes.”

Arie said something in Dutch, kissed his wife and took the battered green Thermos. Maria smiled back.

“Let’s go. Daylight is precious,” Arie said and headed for his one-ton truck.

A minute later, they were threading their way back through the barrier, and Doug realized the Dodge wasn’t in four-wheel drive. He had to stop to engage it, and it still wouldn’t go in.

“What’s wrong?” Julie asked.

“No four-wheel, apparently. No light on the dash. See?” he pointed to where the light should be. “And the way she’s behaving, obviously. He goosed the accelerator and the rear end snapped around.

“Just be careful then.  We’ll look at it later. Arie will keep an eye on us.”

The trip wasn’t long…only a mile or so, with two big left-hand turns. ‘This parcel had to be contiguous to the Segher’s place,’ Doug thought.

“This is Molly’s sister Catharina’s place.  It’s one of the first homes in the area.  Cath and Tom have almost finished their new place.   Peter and Molly are buying it; Peter’s finishing the remodel and helping out with the new place.”

“Busy man,” he said, meaning it. “So what’s in the back?” Doug asked, watching Arie turn into a long driveway, similarly set with a vehicle trap.

“Doors….original to the house.  The guys refinished all of them. Oh, and a bunch of other wood trim. Arie’s truck has the last of the insulation and some drywall for the new store room,” Julie said. “What’s up with these masks?” she asked, holding up the container of Regent-supplied masks as well as his heavy-duty version.

“Company provided—I’m advised to wear them when there’s a chance that the local population has been exposed to the flu. I’m assuming that the locals are safe in this case?”

“No contact with anyone outside of the family or anyone that’s showing symptoms,” Julie said, realizing that Doug was dead serious. “They’re telling you that?”

“Picking up supplies was an interesting experience—yes. That’s what they’re telling us.”

The home came into view, just on the far side of a shallow draw. “Not exactly palatial,” Doug said.

“There’s more than outside appearances,” Julie said, squeezing his hand.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Arie had already backed the flatbed up to the side door, and three men were quickly starting to unload.  Doug pulled in next to them, careful to leave enough room on the side and back.

Roeland, Peter, and Cath’s husband Tom were making quick work of the load on Arie’s truck and Doug joined them, moving bales of insulation into the basement stairwell followed by twenty sheets of thick drywall. Doug helped as much as he could, trying to keep moving and stay out of the way when he wasn’t helping with a load. He quickly found himself winded.

Julie had opened up the canopy of the Dodge, where a dozen interior doors were placed, laying on edge, held just-so with the help of a frame made for the purpose.  Doug was stunned—the doors were solid oak, each had hand carved panels, and the new stain and finish was mirror-like.

“These are incredible, Arie. Your work?” Doug asked as Arie took the holding bracket apart.

“No, this be Peter’s. Fine craftsman, that one.”

“Are these original to the house?”

“Ya, my great grandfather built the house, cut the lumber, built the cabinets and doors and such.  These took a month each to build.” Peter came up behind them.

“These are amazing, Peter,” Doug said. “Nice work.”

“Thanks, and yes they are.  Restoring them was quite a pleasure.”

Ten minutes later, the Dodge was buttoned up, and all four men were hauling doors throughout the house. Peter had them numbered, and once they were inside, it was just a matter of hanging them on their hinges and slipping in the pins. 

The home was compact, with a large kitchen and family dining table; a parlor—too small to be a ‘living room’; a small ‘master’ bedroom; two small bedrooms, one each for the boys and the girls; and a fair sized bathroom on the main floor. 

“That was fun to watch,” Julie said. “Coffee’s ready in the kitchen,” she said.  “Sorry I couldn’t help.”

“You did. You made coffee,” Arie said in his clipped accent, a glint in his eye.

After everyone poured a cup, they made their way back to the basement where the next project beckoned.

“Douglas, have you every set drywall?” Arie asked.

“Helped my father do our garage, a long time ago,” he replied, remembering that in his youth, he’d vowed never do it again. He’d make an exception.

“We need to get this set today.  Moving day is coming with much to store here,” Arie said as Peter and Tom cleared some loose two-by-sixes out of a framed room against one wall.  The walls were all insulated and covered in plastic, even though it was in the basement, essentially a room-within-a-room.  Doug then noticed that the foundation was concrete.  That wouldn’t have been possible in the home’s original construction.  Arie saw Doug’s realization.

“We replaced the foundation two years ago. Raised the house up as well. This was once just a root cellar. Now there’s nine feet clear down here. Foundation is a foot thick, ceiling is six inches of concrete. Reinforced, ya.”

“Why the insulation in that room within the foundation? I don’t get it.”

“That room is insulated to be warmer storage space.  The rest of the basement will be cool for root-cellar storage.  The canned goods and things will be stored there,” Arie motioned to the storeroom. “Each home should have storage like this. That door on the back goes to the storm cellar outside. All underground.”

“Pretty wise. Tornadoes?”

“Ya,” Arie said.  “That’s why the concrete ceiling, too.  House sits on top of it. Stairs down on that end, just through that door,” he said, pointing to a large steel door on the far end of the basement.

Doug was given some gloves and quickly the men set to work, with Julie refreshing their coffee as needed.  The twenty sheets of fire-rated drywall took less than an hour to install, with two men hoisting and holding, one cutting and trimming when he wasn’t also securing the material with screws. Doug found it quite enjoyable, not remembering why he’d hated it as a teenager. Little small talk took place—there wasn’t time.

“Nicely done, Doug.  Many thanks.”  Peter said.

“You’re welcome. I’ll be feeling that tomorrow I’m sure. Badly out of shape.”

“Comes with the territory,” Tom said. “Shelves are next. You up for it?”

“No tape and compound on the joints?” Doug asked.

“Nope. No time.  Besides that, the shelves’ll go against the finished wall. These can be finished later,” Peter said, exchanging a look with his brother in law Tom.  Doug saw the look as well, and it told him that ‘there would not be time.’

What were they expecting?’ he wondered.

Another two hours of work, longer than he expected for certain, and the heavy steel frames were assembled, wood shelves in place, and each unit tied together and bolted to two by fours exposed on the finished ceiling. Once finished, the shelves wouldn’t move.

“All right now, men. That’s enough for now. Move in can start tomorrow,” Arie said, as Julie joined them. “More to do at home now, and then dinner.”

After washing up, they donned their outerwear, cleaned several inches of snow from the trucks and headed back to the main house. 

“What were you up to the whole time we were slaving away?” Doug asked.

“Working on the nursery, helping fold diapers, stuff like that. Molly’s on bedrest most of the time now. Two weeks, probably less.”

“What are you doing for medical care?”

“Five midwives within three miles from here, for starters. And there’re a couple of doctors not too much farther away.”

“What about a hospital if she needs it?”

“Most births around here are at home.  If there are complications, we might have to go to the clinic….but with the flu going around like it is, that’s probably a bigger risk than a reward.”

“Didn’t Molly have a prior miscarriage?” Doug asked.

“Two. First trimester. This one looks much better.”

Doug pondered what it must have been like for Peter and Molly to have gone through that.  “That must have been tough,” he said.

“It was. Molly handled it better than Peter did at first. The second one was worse for both.  They’ve been on edge for months of course.”

Doug turned into the driveway, slewing around the obstacles.  Without four-wheel drive, the truck was dangerous on the compacted snow.  Roeland, who’d arrived with Arie, flagged them to pull the Dodge into the equipment shop. They parked inside as Roel closed the monster garage door.

“Father said that you had no four-wheel?”

“Yeah.  No dash light, nothing,” Doug said.

“It worked yesterday—I used it,” Julie said.

“We’ll look at it later. I’m sure we’re expected inside,” Roeland said just as the intercom came to life.

“Roeland? You’ll need to eat quickly.  You’re needed by Jakob.” Julie and Roeland exchanged a quick look.

“Jakob?” Doug asked.

“One of the neighbors,” Roeland replied. Doug could tell there was something else…

They made their way to the house, and entered the tiled ‘mud room’, where there was a cubby for work shoes near the floor and above it, a spot for ‘house shoes.’ Above the shoe cubbies, one for gloves; another for a hat.  Julie handed him some nice leather slippers to wear as he sat on a bench opposite the cubbies. He hung his coat on one of a dozen matching dowels above the bench, seeing Arie’s coveralls on the peg nearest the door.  He’d never seen a utility room as organized in any house.

Doug was re-introduced, which he appreciated as he’d been a little overwhelmed the first time they’d met. Molly’s younger sister Beth was much more talkative this time, with good reason.  She’d heard from her fiancé, just home from Jalalabad, now at Fort Hood, headed for Mexico.

Dinner was a lesson in itself: Hutspot, which included potatoes, carrots and onions, with rookwurst, which was a smoked beef sausage; a very thick pea soup called snert; and a magnificent rye bread, topped with butter and a smoked bacon. Dessert was an appeltart, which seemed a vast improvement on a traditional apple pie; and to wash it down, home made beer, ice cold.  Roeland ate quickly at the kitchen counter, and had coffee instead of beer Doug noticed.  He slipped out without announcement.
After-dinner conversation covered a wide range of topics: Doug’s life history it seemed, politely brought to the surface with casual comments; his trip to Des Moines, which required substantial detail; the young woman that he’d brought to her home in Ottumwa; other observations on the trip, some things mundane to Doug but of interest to the Segher’s.

“Arie,” Maria said from the kitchen, “Turn on the radio. News time.”

Arie reached behind him, and opened an ornate wood cupboard, revealing what Doug thought was a shortwave radio setup.  He switched on four switches, including two on a non-descript black box below the radio.

“….apparently executed in Pittsburgh, mirroring several other gang-type slayings in New Orleans, Memphis, Indianapolis and in major cities in the Northeast. National Guard units from Pennsylvania were dispatched to the Mexican frontier late Thursday, leaving local police departments alone in the fight.  With the loss of the Governor, the commonwealth is struggling for leadership at this time…”

“Where’s this from?” Doug asked.

“Independent station.  Western New York state,” Julie said quietly, anticipating Doug’s next question. “I listen a lot and try to keep everyone up to date, since I’m not all that able-bodied right now.”

“We are hearing that this afternoons’ earthquake in the Western United States may have been centered near Mount Shasta. The quake, reported to be magnitude six point three, hit just after eleven a.m., local. Local observers have stated over the relay network that roads around the mountain are blocked by debris and snowfall, and that the mountain itself cannot be seen. It should be noted that a half-dozen local residents who are part of a local preparedness group have not contacted their leaders, calling into question the chance of an eruption or major landslide.”

“They’re just not getting a break out there,” Doug said, remembering a drive, a long time ago, through that part of the state.

“..reports that at least six barter networks have been raided by Department of Revenue and IRS agents, demanding that the transactions be taxed and taxes paid to the local and Federal government immediately.  In several locations, precious metals used in trading—even though they are legal currency—were seized, along with legally-obtained, legally-permitted firearms. All listening should take that news and act accordingly in any transaction.   In North Carolina, a handful of Federal agents were blockaded from a pending revenue action by directed rifle fire, which resulted in more than a hundred agents descending on a single residence.  The residence was later found to be abandoned. The agents in that area, and we’d expect in other areas, are fanning out and looking for anything at all of interest. Be warned.”

Doug said quietly to Julie, “The government wouldn’t do that…”

“Sure they would. It’s the only way they can keep control.”

Doug looked surprised at her response. “Do you think that?”

“I absolutely think that,” she replied, looking at Doug oddly. “Come with me.”

In the larger living room, they took a seat on the couch. “We’ve never really talked politics, Doug, but I think it’s time we do.”

“OK, that’s fine,” Doug replied, not knowing the dark territory that might be covered.

“You traveled thousands of miles a year in sales, right?”

“Tens. Hundreds of thousands in some years.”

“Air and ground, right?”

“Of course,” he said.

“How many times did you go through a metal detector at an airport? How many times through a scanner? How many times was your phone and your computer put into a machine while you walked through another?”

“Uncountable. Why?”

“All that was done in the name of ‘security.’ Yet you don’t look like any of the terrorists who flew planes into buildings, who bombed the stock exchange or the El, who brought backpack bombs into sporting events, do you? And neither did most of the other people you traveled with. Yet you were searched. You were forced to surrender your liberties. And you didn’t do anything about it…or not much, right?”

“Wait a minute, now,” Doug said. “What they did made us safer. They stopped attacks on us.”

“Through airliners. Then they found other ways, so more searches were put in place. On buses, on trains. TSA teams on the streets in Manhattan. Camille and I saw them there with machine guns. They’re all over the place, in plain sight, and we’ve let it happen.”

“We didn’t let it happen. It was necessary.”

“What did the government learn from this?” Julie asked, leaning forward toward him.

“Learn? They learned what the terrorists could do….”

“Debatable but I think wrong. They learned that the people of today’s United States would not argue with them when they were inconvenienced. Then they learned that they would not argue when they were searched. Then they learned that whatever you have in your computer or your phone or your network or your email is critical to national security and therefore needed to be searched. They learned that they could take more and more, and you wouldn’t do anything about it.”

Doug was getting angry. Not at Julie, but at the points she was making. She wasn’t wrong.  “So you think that the agents in that story were part of that same mentality? Those people weren’t paying their taxes…”

“Why should they pay taxes on trading goods? They aren’t selling, they’re trading.”

“It’s commerce…” he replied.

“Many believe, myself included, that those types of attitudes,” Julie said, pointing to the radio in the other room, “are wildly outside the bounds of the intents of the Founding Fathers and are in direct conflict with the Constitution. If there was an issue there it was a state issue, not a Federal issue, and the IRS shouldn’t have been there.”

“As a living document the Constitution needs to adapt to the times…”

“Nonsense!” Julie said quickly.  “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap like that, but that type of interpretation has put us in the basket we’re in, headed someplace hot,” she said, echoing his thoughts of the morning.

“So we’re supposed to have a twenty-first century government with eighteenth century rules? How is that supposed to work?”

“You should know that I’m a Constitutionalist. Meaning that I believe that the Constitution was ideally created and we’re in trouble now because we’ve allowed it to be subverted. I’m not alone in that belief,” she said, looking at the Seghers, who had taken an interest in their discussion, but were polite enough to pretend otherwise.

Doug was surprised by her forcefulness. “So what…you have some sort of litmus test for your leaders?”

“Don’t you? Do you vote for people who will deliver, or do you vote for people who will protect?”

“Deliver.  If they promise to do something, they should make good on it.”

Julie sighed, with some disappointment. “Protect. Protect the Constitution. Protect the nation from greed. Protect the future from ourselves.”

“I’m sorry. I just can’t see how that is a practical outlook. Too lofty an ideal,” Doug said, almost immediately seeing that he’d regret that statement.

“But the ‘deliver’ attitude has created a society of instant gratification, greed, and debt that has crushed us. Everyone is angry with us. ‘More’ at the expense of others…funded by others through deceit, is toxic. It’s killing our country.”

“We’ll recover. We’ll get through this….” Doug said.

“Some of us will if we’re lucky, but the old system is dead. They used to say, ‘it is different this time.’ They’re right this time. It is different. There is no going back,” Julie said, an expectant look on her face. “Doug, do you disagree?”

He thought for a minute before answering. “Julie, I’ve been just trying to do my job. I’ve never really delved into the low drama of politics. I have just never thought about it. It didn’t matter to me. There wasn’t any difference that I could make anyhow.” 

“Does it matter now?” she asked.

“There’s a lot going on. Yeah, it probably matters.”

“Doug, I need you and I to believe the same things if there’s going to be a future for us,” she said quietly.

“I’m not sure I know what to say right now.”

“Neither do I,” Julie said, looking down at her hands, folded on her lap. 

The radio broadcast continued, as they sat in silence.  Neither heard a word of it.