Our driveway was 1/3 of a mile long, and in need of regular care. We called it grading the drive. Not like a grade you get in school, though.
This driveway used to be a public, maintained road but was decommissioned long before I was around. There’s still a weathered sign at the bottom of the drive that reads, “ROAD VACATED.”
My sister and I used to walk the entire length to wait for the school bus. The neighbor’s land across the road where we waited for the bus was home to a herd of buffalo. My parents devised a contingency plan for our safety if the buffalo were ever to escape. “Get in the ditch and crawl in the culvert under the road.” It never happened, but we were prepared.
Dad would put some earplugs in my ears (my Grandpa Forry had hearing damage, so this was always a priority) and we would be off. I’m assuming that he lost some hearing using this outfit as well.
Our road grader was probably 100 years old then, pulled by a tractor from the 1940s or 1950s. I’d take a seat in the pressed-steel pan seat (quite comfortable to this day) and await my instruction. Ahead of me were two large iron wheels, each raising or lowering the left or right sides of the large blade that would shape the road surface.
Dad would point up or down with his left or right hand and I would make the adjustments to shape the crown of the roadway to ensure the rainwater went where it was supposed to. Mostly, it was me just sitting there bouncing up and down like it was a somewhat useful carnival ride.
One pass down and one pass back was all it usually took, unless a gully-washer of a rainstorm really messed things up. The road needed care only a couple of times each year, and only in the milder months. I do remember putting on some hand-me-down coveralls a few times in the late fall to get things in shape for winter. The light grew dim, as we usually graded the drive after dad got home from work.
At the bottom of the driveway, dad would perform the machinery miracle of turning this whole enormous contraption around in a shockingly small amount of space using only the steering wheel and left brake pedal (or lever, if we were using the model WC) on the tractor. The old tractors had two brakes, one for each rear wheel to help with such turning maneuvers in the field (or driveway).
Grading the drive was such an event that I even got to bring my friend Tim along for the ride, once. He was at our house for a sleepover and I was so excited to share this singular experience with someone else. Mom snapped a picture of it. Tim is no longer with us, but this picture is. And so is the grader.
The drive is now maintained solo with the big tractor and a mounted blade, but this will always remain in my mind one of the things that we just did to keep things in order on the farm.
I wrote this short story as a part of a quarantine Halloween Zoom party. It’s based on a true story, and told from the perspective of my great-grandfather Frank Forry.
I have a tale of warning and concern to tell you tonight.
Earlier this year, this treacherous year of 1918, we had a tragedy happen right here on the Forry Farm. (We like to call the farm “Wildcat Ridge.”) It’s the saddest chapter on the farm since we moved here in 1912. And that is saying quite a lot, considering the state of the world at the moment.
The war is still happening in Europe, and servicemen are living in a hellscape of trench warfare and death. There’s an election for president this year. And just this month, the Iowa Board of Health put the whole state under some kind of quarantine due to the Spanish flu. I hear that the paper down in Cedar Rapids prints a tally of all the people that died in each edition.
You’d think we could escape from all of that madness here on the farm, but sadly, death descended upon Wildcat Ridge in an unspeakable way back in January.
Now, owning a piece of ground is a funny thing. You know how it is with friends and family – I might own it, but lots of people use it. Whether it’s deer season or just a horse ride through, everybody wants to take in this beautiful patch of land, away from the rod-straight streets of town or the endless flat expanses of farm ground, hemmed in by barbed-wire fence.
The ridges and hollows down in the timber on the north slope are like nothing you’ve seen before. Oaks and ironwoods as far as you can see. Ponds and streams that lead to the gentle flow of the Shell Rock River on its northern-most border. Every season here has its own magic. Wildflowers emerge in spring, summer’s heavy, hissing greenery, fall’s leaves crunch and mushrooms fruiting, and the bright drifts and short days of winter’s snow. No wonder everyone wants to hang out here.
This January deal was no different. Ed and Lelah Neal’s boy Burr Neal and his friend Edmund Scharpof wanted to go sledding down in the timber. They were both 14, definitely old enough to do a day’s work on the farm. Letting them go sledding was a rare distraction from the hard days on a shovel or pitchfork.
They’d walked here with their sled knowing that the hills in the timber are some of the steepest in the township. The highest slope is just to the north and west of the rest haven a little camping mezzanine we’ve set up for enjoyment, about halfway to the river.
The ironwood trees really like that slope. They grow like weeds down there, and that wood is as hard as nails. We’re always cutting them down, leaving stumps here and there for the possums to perch on.
I don’t know the exact details of it all, but I do know that they would take turns on that sled, going as fast as they ever have on anything, save for a horse in a rare, full gallop. That hill is steep but treacherous, and anyone knows that you can’t really steer a sled. You can sort of give it advice on which way to go, but once it’s going, that sled ain’t stopping.
Let’s be honest – these boys are growing up in Clarksville, and they don’t have too many thrills outside of fresh raspberries in the summer and the occasional glance or wink from another pigtailed 14-year-old Clarskvillian.
What do you do when the thrills are few and far between? You find more daring and dangerous ways of doing things. Maybe you let that sled go a little faster. Maybe you take more of a running start to get it going. Or maybe you go on the steepest part of the hill with the most stumps, sure that you can weave in and out.
Edmund probably had his fastest sled ride of the day, and Burr wanted in on that rush, too. He took his turn with a long running start, almost leaping down the top of the hill head-first with that sled glued to his chest. “The fastest sled in Butler County,” he probably thought. Mittens damp, heart racing, tears at the outside corners of his eyes from the cold and wind.
And then BOOM. It was over. Burr hit one of those ironwood stumps. Edmund told me that his body flopped and convulsed after he hit it. That stump broke his neck in less than a second, ending the timeline for Ed and Lelah’s firstborn son.
Again, I wasn’t on the hill, but I imagine that Edmund momentarily regressed into a child’s state, his voice cracking as he shouted at Burr, hoping that he was ok. “If Burr gets hurt bad, Frank ain’t gonna let us sled down here again,” he thought. But it was much worse than revoking sled privileges. Burr was dead.
Edmund ran up the north road to our homestead, scared out of his mind. We both went down there as quickly as we could, though the snow makes for slow-going on foot.
There he laid, his neck twisted in a way you never see on the living. You could tell that the stump hit him right on the forehead and face. The blood that sprayed and spilled from his mouth was still bright on the snow. The heat of life in his blood melted some of the snow right down to the fallen leaves underneath. This day, the forest floor met with the blood not of a deer, but of a human taken too early.
His skin was already cold. Edmund and I put him on the sled and again made our way back to the top of the hill. We brought his lifeless body uptown to the doctor, but it was far too late to do anything.
This all happened on the 5th of January, this year, and has caused me great consternation each day that passed since. This war, this presidential election, this disease atop this death in the woods is almost more than I can manage.
Like all Forrys before me, the advice is to take to the woods to ease your mind. And so I did just that, hoping that returning to the woods would bring peace and calm. But it did not. Two days later, a fresh skiff of snow covered all of the blood, all of the tracks from that day, and even the stump that severed Burr’s spine.
But what I don’t understand is why there are FRESH tracks around that stump, with the same type of Sears & Roebuck overshoe footprints that Burr wore. I’ll see things out of the corner of my eye, but no one else has set foot down here – it’s too soon for most.
It can’t be a ghost. Ghosts aren’t even real. I’ve heard people talk about ghosts after the Number 19 passenger train derailed north of town, killing 16 people in the cold Flood Creek two years ago, but I’ve never believed those tales. They talk of hearing screams at 3 in the morning, the same time those passengers plunged into the river.
This situation seems different. It’s not just screams. It’s tracks, tracks at that very location. When the snow melted, I couldn’t see them anymore, and I sort of let it drift from my mind. But these early October snows have brought it all back. The tracks are there again. And there are more of them. This spirit is becoming more active, more agitated.
I was overwhelmed by my social media news feeds, so I took a week off. And I gained some clarity along the way.
“This is ridiculous,” I thought. I was watching “Meet the Press,” a Sunday morning habit I recently picked up in hopes of gaining yet another input into the ongoing drama of U.S. politics.
Earlier that morning I’d already scrolled through Twitter, Facebook, and the r/Politics on Reddit. Nothing gets by me, I assured myself. If an event has taken place, I know about it and have probably read a dozen snarky Tweets about it, plus a couple of hot takes and some Reddit comments. I KNOW WHAT’S UP.
Things got weird.
As far as I can tell, this is the first U.S. presidency that plays like a Netflix original that we are collectively binge-watching in real time. Each episode is 24 hours long, and the season one finale is four years away. The thing is, I grow tired of television programs quickly, and this particular one was too much. The events portrayed seemed too far-fetched.
About a third of the way through that episode of “Meet The Press,” I said it out loud: “This is ridiculous.” What good does it do for me to know completely every observed action, some of it in real time, throughout the day? It was Sunday, for Pete’s sake. Time to relax, not time to descend into turmoil before I’m out of my pajamas.
Maybe I’m not using these channels correctly, I don’t know. At any rate, I opted to drop out, for a week. No endless Facebook or Twitter newsfeed scrolling, no Reddit politics browsing. None.
It took some getting used to, no doubt about it. I probably don’t want to know how many times every day I refreshed my social feeds, just looking for something new, even if there wasn’t anything new. Most of the time, the internet delivered something new, something awaiting my outrage. “Did you see this?” the internet would ask again and again.
I didn’t want to put my head in the sand — I was just hoping to find a more sustainable balance of news awareness for my mental well-being. Instead of social feeds, I used some primary sources to stay up-to-date: NPR on the radio for my work commutes, and the Reuters & BBC apps for those times when I might incessantly check my social feeds.
NPR worked well on my commutes, rather than the blood pressure-raising podcasts that used to whip me into a state of horror and despair each morning.
The Reuters app reminds me of a now-retired New York Times app, NYT Now. A clearly-defined user experience really set NYT Now apart. They published a limited number of stories to the app twice each day, and when you were done looking at those, it presented a message, something to the effect of: “That’s it for now. Check back later.” The Reuters app follows a similar approach, though their publishing style is closer to a wire feed. (Probably why they called that part of the app “The Wire.” Maybe.)
On the Wednesday of this social-hiatus week, I encountered a New York Times article by Farhad Manjoo — he undertook a similar media diet, but our weeks had overlapped by half. It was encouraging knowing that I wasn’t the only one feeling overwhelmed in the past month. (Or past 18 months, if I’m being honest.)
Only so many words in a day.
What did I do with all of this extra time, now that I didn’t have my nose buried in a newsfeed? Read. I read so much this week. We have only so many hours in a day, so many minutes to read words. Before, I read an unending firehose of rage in my newsfeeds. This week, I read books and magazine articles instead.
I read Frederick Douglass’ narratives, a book about a woman that survived unimaginable situations as a forced laborer in WWII Germany, countless New Yorker articles, and books about artists Fernand Léger and Peter Brötzmann. These things gave me a greater perspective on how humanity deals with the passage of time and turmoil, which seems like a better use of the limited words I can read in one day.
I’m not here to brag, I’m here to confess that I was missing out on this perspective, getting caught up in the whirlwind of political reporting.
This Sunday morning I dove back into my feeds. It wasn’t great, which makes me a little sad. Ten years ago this month I signed up for Twitter, and my use of it has changed quite a bit over those years. This time it feels different, though.
As a reaction to all of this, I may return to using it as a platform to share dumb jokes and puns and my work thoughts. I’m not sure yet. A week’s pause gives a person time to re-evaluate the return on invested time.
On a side note, I have kept a tiny legal pad next to my desk, jotting down the bad puns and jokes I would’ve Tweeted during this hiatus. Part of me thought that I might keep them all to myself, or just show them to people, awkwardly on this tiny legal pad. “If you want to ‘like’ one, just draw a heart next to it…”
Nah. I’ll Tweet them out. Because we could use a laugh right about now.
(I should also note that my Representative in Congress received a two-page letter, written in ink during this hiatus, voicing my opinions. I intend to keep that old communication channel going no matter what happens in social media.)
I stopped writing in cursive in the seventh grade. It was all printed letters from there on out. For some reason or other, I took up the quill (or pencil, actually) and started to write things all curly and old-fashioned once again.
I’ve tried picking it up again two other times in my adult life, but it never stuck.
My family and friends are familiar with my odd personal challenges. They rarely serve any purpose whatsoever. Like the time I listened to my entire music collection from A to Z. Or eating candy only in prime-number amounts.
Then I read an interesting article about the nature of handwriting and its effects on brain activity. From the article:
The brain’s “reading circuit” of linked regions that are activated during reading was activated during hand writing, but not during typing.
Communications? Efficiency? Ideas? WHY DO I PRINT MY DAMNED WORDS? “No more,” I promised with a better-placed-elsewhere resolve.
Polishing a skill unused for 20 years or so is tough. At the start, I could feel my brain using up extra capacity as I struggled with the simple connections between the letters of a word. But kept at it. A whiteboard and dry-erase marker really helped ease me back into the dignified way. (I hate to call it that, but boy do I feel fancy, now.)
Should I ever gain access to a time machine, I would consider going back and slapping my seventh-grade self and insist upon maintaining proper penmanship skills. But maybe not. Because, you see, my handwriting is better than it ever was.
My teachers always gave me poor marks for handwriting, and for good reason. I’ve seen some of those chicken-scratchings. You’d think I would have pursued a career as a doctor or something.
Each word more closely resembles my father’s handwriting now. Before it was large, unruly, flying off of the lines. Now it’s measured, even-handed, and tiny. (It’s also unreadable at a distance, which has its benefits.)
Many of the things I write for work or pleasure start off in written form. On paper. With a pencil. But now, those same words are slanty and flowing, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t just as satisfying as can be. Now, I’ll sit in meetings and take notes about things I have business taking notes about JUST SO I CAN PRACTICE.
Sometimes I’ll reserve a conference room with a whiteboard and a marker at work to work through some ideas. In cursive. There’s a certain rhythm and harmony that comes with praciticing a skill learned in youth, as an adult.
As much fun as it is, my handwriting will never win awards. I’m not signing up to teach cursive classes. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Freese, probably wouldn’t grade it better than a B- at best. That doesn’t matter, for the most important part is not what happens on the page, but what happens in my brain.
A: My grandfather owned Allis Chalmers farm tractors and equipment. So does my father. Growing up on the farm, I learned to drive a tractor [an Allis-Chalmers WD-45 model, among others] long before I learned how to drive a car.
I started using “WD45” online in the late 90s, on bulletin boards as a short username with some personal history behind it. At that point, it became relatively clear that I would not be driving tractors for a living. This moniker serves as a persistent reminder of my family’s rural and agrarian legacy and the hard work that built it.
As a kid [and as an adult] I have been an enthusiast of this tractor company and its history of innovation. I actually have a collection of Allis-Chalmers marketing and promotional films from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. They have taught me a lot:
The odd diction of mid-20th century industrial film voice-overs
Clear messaging that keeps in mind the audience’s station
Industrial design and innovation shines in the service of real needs
If you see someone online with the username WD45, it’s probably me. [Twitter, Instagram, etc.] I’ll even sign up for a new service just to claim that username.
Four characters, easy to remember. It just stuck. To this day, it still sounds funny when people say it out loud. Especially when they are referring to me, and not a tractor…