March 2, 2015: Reach Out
Today marks four months of writing in this journal. I don’t think I’ve ever been so reflective or introspective in my entire life.
My mother has always been what I would call a “chronic journal-er”. Before the crash, she would write down what happened, in her own shorthand, every day. As a substitute for a journal, she wrote on a calendar. I have no idea what she’s doing these days. No one produced a 2015 calendar as far as I know. I’m keeping track of the days by carving marks into the barn’s wall. Maybe the Chinese will bring calendars when their U.N. forces come knocking on our doors. My mom would be sold on whatever else they brought in a heartbeat. That woman needs her calendars.
As we struggle with crafting a new rule of law, we’ve decided to reach out beyond the Gunters and the Olsens. If I’ve learned one thing in the last four months, it’s that none of us is the Little Dutch Boy – the only one, with his finger in the dike holding back the waters. We’re all in this together. I think it was Ben Franklin who said, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.”
Speaking of the Gunters, Jamie had her baby. Just one. No twins. It was a big one, though – just over ten pounds as I recall … huge head. That girl will never be the same.
The baby was born yesterday. For some reason, that reminds me of an old Kid Rock lyric … “I was born at night, but not last night, baby,” … I have no idea why.
Anyway … mom and baby are both doing fine. Laura assisted in the birth. As it turns out, Karla was a practicing midwife before the crash. So, between her and Laura, everything went smoothly. Well, not quite everything. Karla and Laura had a few disagreements along the way as to how things should be done. Laura approached the birth as she would have utilizing traditional, pre-crash medical practices like you would see in a typical hospital. From what I understand, a midwife has a very different take on things.
I didn’t get all the details of the disagreements but what was funny was that Jamie had to intervene from time-to-time to stop the arguments.
I can hear it now, “Pant, pant, pant … will you two quit arguing and help me get this giant bowling ball out of me?”
Those two are a couple of very strong and strong-willed women.
Jamie named her baby Jacob. She wanted to honor the memory of her father. I can’t say that I blame her for that. I just hope that she actually calls him Jacob and not Jake. I’m not sure that any of us are ready to utter that name on a regular basis for a while.
This morning, we kicked off Project Reach Out. Our plan is to visit each of the farm houses in the Union Creek community.
Union Creek, while not an incorporated town, was nonetheless a community before the crash. There is a small cemetery, near the middle of the community, where many of its residents are buried. Miriam and I each have a plot in the cemetery.
There used to be a country school right next to the cemetery. The school was closed down back around 1960, if I recall correctly.
My guess is that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty farm houses in the community that were occupied immediately before the crash. At its peak, the Union Creek community probably boasted close to 50 family farms.
As the farm owners grew older and their kids moved away to find jobs, the number of family farms dwindled. When crop prices started to rise around 2009 or so, corporations came in and bought up the family farms. Typically, the corporations razed the house and outbuildings to gain additional till-able acres. That was what happened to the farm to the south of ours. The family sold out, for around $2400 an acre, to a small corporation. The small corporation sold out to a larger corporation a couple years after that for $4000 an acre. Just before the crash, at the height of corn prices, the larger corporation had the farm listed for a little over $6000 an acre. In an ironic twist, the value of farmland skyrocketed while the value of McMansions dropped onto the pool tables and wet bars in their finished basements.
My dad was so plugged in to the Union Creek community that he could literally name all the families still living in the area before the crash. He could also name nearly all of their ancestors, when they had moved into the area, what kind of crops or livestock they raised and close to a hundred other things about each of them. We had to rein him in from time-to-time to get the information we needed before we all died of old age.
We headed out in groups of two this morning. Each group had a goal of contact with three houses. Everyone was reminded that there might be elements of the Hernandez gang still in the area and to carefully scout the houses prior to making contact. Houses showing obvious signs of neglectful occupation were to be bypassed. Nearby neighbors would probably be able to provide additional intelligence to determine whether or not those houses should be approached as friends or foes.
I took Joseph and headed north. Terry and Levi headed west, toward Pete’s place. My dad and Sam headed south. Our place is near the eastern edge of the Union Creek community. My father-in-law stayed behind to help with guard duty. His back had been acting up and he was having a hard time getting around.
Joseph and I made a slight detour to the abandoned house where we’d encountered Marta to check for any signs of activity. Nearly all of the snow had melted so the ground was soft. We swept the area looking for tracks and found none. If Hernandez did have other outposts in the area, they didn’t appear to be attempting to make physical contact with this outpost.
After we were satisfied that there was no traffic in the area of the burned house, Joseph and I headed back to the northeast toward the Volmer place. The Volmer family was relatively new to the area – only two generations had grown up on the farm – but had quickly fit into the Union Creek community. I had grown up with a couple of their boys. One was my age. The other was a couple years older. They were the first generation that had grown up on the farm. Their children were now adults and the second generation to grow up on the farm.
According to my dad, they were still farming the place last year before the crash. The parents lived in the original farm house. The boys had each built their own modular home where they lived with their family.
The farm house was near the bottom of a hill on the south side, protected from the prevailing winds. The boys had built about 100 yards apart at the top of the same hill with a better view. As Joseph and I approached the crest of the hill to the south of the Volmer’s farm, we slowed and then dropped to the ground to avoid sky-lining ourselves on the top of the hill.
All three houses were still intact. Smoke drifted from the chimney of the farm house. Chickens strutted and pecked in the yard. The place looked like a picture post card.
We could hear someone singing. I cocked my head to see if I could catch the sound well enough to recognize the voice or the song. The voice was female. The song was an old church hymn – one of my favorites – “In the Garden”. It’s a beautiful old song about walking with God. The woman’s voice lifted to our ears.
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear
Falling on my ear …
She continued to sing as she came into our line of sight. I was pretty sure I recognized her as Mrs. Volmer – the mother of the two boys that I grew up with. She was about the right height – short – and the right build – maybe a little slimmer – and had the gray, wig-like hair that I recalled from my youth.
Joseph and I continued to watch and listen as Mrs. Volmer (I had no idea what her first name was since I’d never called her anything other than Mrs. Volmer or ma’am) fed the chickens and carried on with the song.
A male figure emerged from the barn. He was dressed in typical farmer attire and carried a five gallon bucket in each hand. I was pretty sure it was Buck, the older of the two boys.
Joseph and I quickly discussed our options and decided to walk down the lane toward the house announcing our presence with a, “Hello, the house.”
We slung our AR’s behind our backs and started down the lane. Before we could make it close enough to call out, Buck spotted us and shouted at his mom. Buck grabbed a shotgun from inside the barn and Mrs. Volmer headed for the farmhouse.
“Buck,” I yelled, “it’s David Johnson.”
Buck lowered the shotgun and shaded his eyes from the brilliant morning sun.
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” Buck replied, “and come closer … slowly.”
The barrel of the shotgun came back up, trained on our chests.
As we approached, I could see the glint of the sun off of something in one of the second story windows of the farm house. Mrs. Volmer must have gone up there to get into a good shooting position.
Joseph and I walked down the lane with our hands near our heads. I kept my eyes locked on Buck’s. When we got to within about 30 feet of him, I could see the recognition in Buck’s eyes.
“Well, I’ll be …,” Buck’s voice trailed off for a bit. “It is David Johnson. Is that your brother Levi?”
“Nope, this is Joseph,” I kept moving closer as the barrel of Buck’s shotgun dipped toward the ground.
When we got close enough, I slowly extended my right hand.
Buck took my hand, “How’ve you been, David?”
“About as well as can be expected,” I replied. “You?”
“Well, it’s been tough,” Buck’s countenance saddened. “We lost Dad back in November. To the flu. Quentin was killed by looters in early January. But, my wife, Julie, Quentin’s wife, Jan, Mom and the kids are all in good shape. Well, Mom’s getting old but aren’t we all?”
Buck shook my hand and Joseph’s like there was no tomorrow. As we shook hands, I did the math on the looters.
“Tell me about the looters,” I coaxed.
“They were Mexicans,” Buck replied.
I was pretty sure that Buck’s wife was Mexican but he spit out the word like someone had shoved a horse turd in his mouth.
“Do you know where they came from?” I hated ripping the scabs off of old wounds.
“Yeah,” Buck replied. “They were holed up in the old Swanson place.”
“About two miles southwest?” I wanted to be sure.
“A-yup,” I could see the pain in Buck’s eyes. “We figured they’d come back for another try at us but they never did.”
“We burned ‘em to the ground,” Joseph volunteered. “David, Levi and Sam followed some tracks from the Hanson place and found them ….”
Joseph’s voice trailed off.
“We found some pretty nasty stuff,” I finished Joseph’s sentence for him.
“I’ll bet,” was all Buck could manage as he swallowed hard.
“So, how you getting along now?” I asked.
“Fair to middlin’,” Buck looked down at the ground.
“What?” Joseph was delicate with some things, but definitely not others.
“Well, we’ve eaten most of our livestock, with the exception of the chickens,” Buck began. “We didn’t have much to begin with. Just a couple of old cows and a goat that we milked for Brina’s baby who’s allergic to cow’s milk.”
I tried to place Brina on the Volmer family tree. Buck must have seen the confused look on my face.
“That’s Quentin’s granddaughter,” Buck cleared up the relationship. “She’s just turned two. We had to eat the goat last week. We ate the dog the week before that.”
“Sorry.” Joseph’s softer side came back out.
“The cows darn-near starved before we ate them.” Buck ran through their hard luck like he was running down a packing list. “Wasn’t much meat on ‘em after that. We got by, though.”
“Have you done any hunting?” I asked.
“I ain’t much of a hunter.” Buck admitted. “Quentin was the one good with guns and huntin’ and fishin’ and such.”
I remembered doing some “recreational” shooting with Buck when we were kids. Usually it involved a couple Coors and some road signs. Come to think of it, I don’t ever remember him hitting any of those signs.
We continued on like that for about half an hour. Buck called his mother to come down out of the house and meet us. There were hugs all around. She remembered me from the days when her boys and I ran around together. We got into some trouble back then – stuff like the beer and the road signs; probably my fault – but all that seemed to be forgotten or forgiven now.
Buck’s wife (half Mexican), Quentin’s wife, the kids and grandkids all gathered around us too. It was like a big family reunion – except we weren’t blood relatives.
After about another hour, I knew we needed to move on.
I pulled Buck aside, “We’re pretty well-stocked down at our place. You bring your boys down with some carts or something and we’ll fill you up.”
Buck looked as if I’d just rescued him from certain death. Maybe I had.
“About the only thing we’re short on,” I chuckled, “is toilet paper.”
“We ran out of that in mid-November,” Buck admitted. “You don’t want to shake my left hand.”
In the midst of all of our trials and sorrow, the two of us belly-laughed about that. Joseph and the rest of Buck’s family looked at us like we were from Mars.
“You make a list of what you need,” I told Buck. “Leave off the toilet paper and hand it to whoever’s at the farm with your right hand.”
Buck smiled, his eyes glistening.
“We’ll show you how to hunt too,” Joseph volunteered.
“Buck, we’re trying to make the rounds and reach out to the rest of the farms around here,” I explained our Reach Out plan. “What can you tell me?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” the downcast look returned to Buck’s face. “The Wilsons were wiped out at the same time we lost Quentin. It was just the two of them. They didn’t stand a chance against those savages. We haven’t had any contact with anyone else since things went in the dumpster.”
I had the Wilson place on my map. It was a mile due east of the Volmers’ and would have been the next place that Joseph and I visited.
“Joseph and I will stop by their place anyway,” I said. “We want to make sure there are no more marauders camped out around here.”
“Thanks,” Buck extended his right hand. “Thanks for everything.”
“No problem,” I took his hand and squeezed it. “Don’t be a stranger. We want to re-build the Union Creek community and we definitely want you and your family to be a part of it.”
I noticed a tear in Buck’s eye as Joseph and I turned to head down the lane.
By the time we made sure the Wilson place was empty it was getting close to five o’clock.
“Time to head back?” Joseph looked over at me as we walked down the Wilson’s lane back to the road.
“Probably best,” I decided. “We don’t want to approach anyone in the dark.”
We were quiet for a long time as we made the cross-country hike back toward our farm. Finally, Joseph broke the silence, “Man, we’ve been lucky, haven’t we?”
“You believe in luck?” I asked.
“No, not really,” he replied.
Neither do I.