Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Grape picking

The Big Blue Hippo
      GRANDVIEW, WA – I had no idea, but I’m a grape picking fiend. It’s such a joy when one discovers a hidden talent. Next, I’m going to try my hand at interior design. Or soap sculpting. I can’t make up my mind.

            The grape picking experience was provided courtesy of Curt’s sister, Deanna, who owns a six acre Concord grape vineyard. Concord grapes are the ones used in Welch’s Grape Juice. Welch’s is the best grape juice in the galaxy.

Deanna’s vineyard is a pick-your-own, pay by the pound farm. She doesn’t charge family, though. I chose not to tell her that the sister of the brother who married my niece would likely be considered unrelated. I believe that telling her that would be rude. Wouldn’t it be rude?

            I’m not sure you’re aware, but it doesn’t take all that long to pick all the grapes you want.  Curt, Rhonda, Kay and I picked a small portion of one row. Three of us missed a lot of grapes on the "picked" vines. Grape clusters can hide better than any fruit. You have to think like a grape to find ‘em.
We ended up with six crates loaded to the brim and beyond. Heavy, they were. A crate of Concords weighs over 40 pounds. That means Curt picked 120 pounds of a 240 pound pick. I really like Curt, but I’m sick and tired of how good he is at everything.

            Had we had a grape picking machine we would’ve made out like bandits. The only problem with a grape picking machine is cleaning the thing once you’re finished. After a harvest, a picking machine looks like a thick, syrupy, giant blue hippo… with a few more sharp-corners.

I'm a self-proclaimed expert on grape harvesters because of Curt. Everybody around here knows and likes Curt. He’s the guy you call at two in the morning when you’re stuck in the snow, or your porch collapses or your cow starts walking backwards. It's Curt's weird nature of helping others that makes people want to return the favor. One thing the owner of a massive vineyard across the road from us did, was let Curt take his aunt and uncle on a nighttime grape harvest.  

If you’re going to sell your grapes to a super market you can’t pick ‘em by machine, because the machine knocks the daylights out of the grape clusters. The harvester we rode did some serious shake, rattle and rolling as it moved down each row.

            The giant blue hippo straddled each row of vines. Rounded bars located in the belly of the beast defrocked the stems of each plant in the rudest manner imaginable. Everything that was knocked off the stems, fell onto a conveyor belt that runs right between the hippo’s feet. I don’t care if your cat was sleeping on one of those vines, it would end up on the conveyor belt purple, gooey and stunned out of its mind.

The more modern machines have vacuums that suck out the cats, rats and drunken birds. The machine we got to ride on had a guy at the top who picked out all of the leaves, stems and critters. He had to work fast. You can’t stop to scratch when you have that job.

I don’t know that much about wine making, but I just imagine that crushed critters would alter the taste of wine somewhat. – “Let’s see. It’s got a nice, nutty, sweet taste with perfect acidity and just a hint of cat.”

            I’m proud to say that no animals were killed when we did our picking at Deanna’s vineyard. Kay and I kept only a partial crate so we could experiment making grape juice… just like Welch’s. The worst part of the process is cleaning the stupid grapes. I spent hours out in the yard with a water hose, a five gallon bucket and a sheet of plywood. I would’ve rather washed and waxed an Abrams Tank.

After cleaning and de-stemming the grapes, I tossed them into a giant bowl, and Kay and I crushed ‘em in our hands. At some point during the squeezing, Kay discovered that Concord grapes contain an acid that blisters her hands. I was so mad that she was the first to think of it.

Next we had to filter the stuff, ‘cause it had the consistency of jam. In a perfect world, you filter unrefined grape juice with cheese cloth. – Let me stop right here and tell you that cheese cloth is not made of cheese. I was as surprised as you. I’d tell you what it is made of, but I’ve only seen the stuff on TV. Kay knows all about cheese cloth, but, apparently, never bought any.

We had to use our metal sieve. The thing has mesh with openings big enough to pass BBs through. We ended up with two quarts of really thick grape juice. It would’ve been so much better had it not been so bad. After drinking about three ounces of the stuff, my lips started burning. Then my tongue.

            Rhonda has a real grape juice maker. It’s a three level urn that steams the grapes and filters the juice into a pan. Yesterday, she gave Kay a quart of her grape juice. It’s terrific! Tastes just like Welch’s.

            Tomorrow evening we’re going to Bill’s Berry Farm to pick apples. Rhonda wants to make a few gallons of apple cider. I've never seen it done, but I surmise it will involve some brutality on some Golden Delicious apples. 

When Kay and I get home, I doubt we’ll get to apply much of what we’ve learned up here. Then again, my friend, Jerry Bernhardt, will probably want me to work at his winery near Plantersville. Unless he has a gigantic grape-cleaning and squeezing machine, I’ll not hire on. I’d rather get a job scraping barnacles off of shrimp boats.

Mark can be contacted at hayter.mark@gmail.com

Friday, November 3, 2017

Brain oddity

“My brain and other oddities”

               GRANDVIEW, WA –Today is the first day I’ve felt decent since returning from our Oregon vacation. I don’t know if I had an allergy or a cold. I told everyone at church that it was an allergy, because that’s what people want to hear. People really get mad at you when you share your cold.
In truth, doctors can’t even tell you if what you’ve got is an allergy or a cold. The symptoms are the same. Your nose leaks like a toilet with the handle stuck. You’ll likely end up with a sore throat and a cough that may last through mid-July.
            With either ailment, your friends will eventually turn on you. Your spouse will become more annoyed than sympathetic. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a room, sitting in a recliner surrounded by wads of spent Kleenexes. You’re holding a TV remote, but the TV hasn’t been on for hours. Your mind is entering another dimension, somewhere between light and shadow, between science and superstition… You’re both sick and over medicated.
            I tried three different cold and allergy medications over a period of a week. I gave each of them two days to work. One of ‘em was supposed to loosen my mucus, one was supposed to dry it up, and the third promised to do both.
One thing they were each good at doing was adding to my problem of irregularity. I wasn’t surprised, because it said so right on the box. “May cause constipation, diarrhea, headaches, nosebleed, a desire to jump off a tall structure, an unnatural craving for pancakes, a horrible fear of pancakes…”  If any of these symptoms occurred, I was to contact my doctor, immediately. Possibly meet him at I-Hop.
            I don’t know which medication worked, but one or a combination of ‘em did the trick. My nose quit running… as did my bowels. I also began having trouble sleeping. But Kay took care of that. About an hour before bedtime she gave me a melatonin pill, a “natural” calming agent that would help me sleep. If you stick the word “natural” on a quart jar of sand, you could stand outside Walmart and someone would pay five dollars for it.   
            But, let’s forget that. – I took the melatonin, and just like Kay said, after about an hour I began to get sleepy. So, I walked into the bathroom to brush my teeth before bed and found Kay standing at the sink getting ready to dry her hair. Seems she forgot to put on her shower cap before showering. I once stepped into the shower while wearing my left sock, so I was not taken aback by her behavior.
What did take me aback, way aback, was the sound of Kay’s hairdryer. The second she turned that thing on, it sounded as if I was standing on a runway next to a 747 that had just taken off. I stooped over, put my hands over my ears and yelled for Kay to turn it off, which she immediately did. Then she put her hand on my shoulder and asked what was wrong.
Turns out, her hand felt like a branding iron to my shoulder. I was going nuts. I didn’t like sound, didn’t like to be touched, and I wasn’t feeling all that happy about the light in the bathroom. I don’t know if it was the melatonin or the combination of everything I had taken during the week. Whatever it was threw my brain for a loop.
After apologizing to Kay, I staggered out of the bathroom, heading for the bed. Before climbing in, I located the earplugs that I wear while mowing the lawn, and plugged up my ears. Then I crawled into bed and put a washcloth over my eyes, because even in the darkened room light was somehow getting past my closed eyelids. The last thing I remember was the feel of Kay’s kiss on my forehead. It wasn’t nearly as painful as a branding iron.   
            That was the second weirdest thing that ever happened to me. I have read about people with autism who experience similar sensations, only it happens to them every day. I can now almost imagine what that would be like.
            At the moment, I’m right as buttered toast. I’m calm and collected. There’s no sound in this house that sets me off. I’ve always shunned bright lights, but I can sleep without eye cover. Best of all, I still love to snuggle with Kay.       
            Again, I’m not at all sure what caused my senses to elevate the way they did, but I’m glad it happened. If we are, indeed, the total of our experiences, I have grown a bit. And, I have more questions about the brain than I did before. If the neurons and all the other brain matter inside our skulls can immediately alter our thought processes… cause our feelings to turn on a dime, what does that say about who we are? Who we might be?     

            Could a doctor give me something that would make me fear butterflies? Cause me to like soccer? Make me give up Cheetos for pickled beets? Get me excited about polka music? Or get me to enjoy the taste of Smooth Move Tea? I really need to be hitting that stuff hard.

Mark can be contacted at hayter.mark@gmail.com.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Oregon Beach

“On the beach”
Curt in front, Mountain dune behind
            PACIFIC CITY, OREGON One of several peculiar things Curt and Rhonda noticed about me from the get go was the fact that I didn’t own a hoodie. I tried to explain that since I had no intention of ever robbing a person, pawn shop or Popeye’s I didn’t see the need to conceal my features in the heat of the day.
            Well, today I find myself at dusk sitting on the balcony of a beach house on the Oregon coast, and I’m hoodied up. I’m feeling good, and I’m imagining that I look good. Cool, even. You want some of me? Anybody?
            Just a second. Hear that? It’s geese, flying in the appropriate “V" formation, almost within rock throwing distance. They’re making the ol’ goose honk noise and appear to be headed north up the coast, which, as smarter geese know, is the wrong direction. It’s pleasantly cold at this latitude, but every flap northward has got to bring a chill.
            Curt, Rhonda and Kay are somewhere the other side of the tree-strewn dune. They drove to the beach, because they were hauling lawn chairs and didn’t care to wrestle them over the dune. Yesterday, I climbed one of the higher dunes. It was actually a mountain. I only did it because Curt asked if I wanted to climb the thing with him or stay with the women and watch as he climbed. Those may not have been his exact words but he was challenging me, all right.
During our ascent, we had to stop to catch our breath four times, but eventually we got there. Me, with my bum knee, and Curt with his cowboy boots, (How does anyone climb with boots?) we took in the sights and sounds of the beach for a moment before I asked Curt about his plan for us getting down. He said, “We run.” He assured me that it wouldn’t be all that tiring, because we’d likely fall halfway down and roll the rest of the way. “Ready?”
“What?” We exchanged the Butch and Sundance glance, and then we were off. Curt’s plan was ingenious. -- We would run.  I’m here to tell you, unless you’re a gecko, it’s impossible to walk down a steep incline. After a stumble or two, I noticed that Curt was raising his knees unnaturally high.. I immediately copied his stride and my stumbling ceased. Only God and Curt know why he chose not to suggest that.
At the bottom of a steep dune, you will find an abrupt leveling off. It was at this point that I came this close to making a triple somersault. Fortunately, I managed an awkward bone-rattling recovery, whereupon I joined Curt in the “Rocky Arm-raise.” The girls were absolutely gaga… over one of the shells Kay found during our descent. Wives? They don’t care. – “Yes, dear, you were spectacular. Can we move along now?”
Kay was always hot on the trail for shells, stones and tiny sticks to use in her fairy garden. By the time we finished our beach walk, the 14 pockets on my commando pants were stuffed, causing my pants to develop a massive downward tug. Having lost my butt in a skiing accident, there was nothing on which my pants could rest. I had to stuff rocks in my pockets with one hand while holding onto my pants with the other. It’s impossible to maintain the look of an impressive figure while trying to keep your pants up. I have learned so much on this trip.
One thing that likely saved my life was Kay’s decision not to collect any live creatures. Had I been pocketing critters with claws, sharp spines and poison slime the doctors would've spent days on my autopsy. -- "I had no idea the tiny poison sack of a red-demon squid-urchin could compress something with that much intensity. The pain must've been incredible."      
Kay has great respect for beach critters. Apparently, much more than she has for her husband. She impressed Rhonda and Curt with her knowledge of crawly critters, and shell inhabitants. I’d heard it all before, so continued walking along clinging to my pants.
Just a second. I hear the sliding door. — “Well, hello darling. I didn’t expect y’all back so soon. Yes, I’d love to see your bag full of shells, rocks and driftwood, and your photo of the gigantic starfish. Does that mean we’re having tacos tonight? Oh, you left the starfish clinging to a slightly submerged outcropping. A wise move. Let me finish here and I’ll examine what all you collected in your bucket. -- A bucket to put things in? How wise.
That woman is way past the fairy garden stage. She’s headed in the direction of a gorilla garden. Considering the region, she might come closer to assembling a formidable Sasquatch lair. Regardless, it’s time for me to sign off.
Right now I need to inspect Kay’s beach collection. I assure you, I’ll appear more interested than she was at my dune descent. I surprised myself. For a few seconds  I thought I’d end up strapped to the skid of a helicopter with a slip-knot, and flown to Portland General. Yep, that was an awkward dismount. – Next time.
Mark can be contacted at hayter.mark@gmail.com. An archive of Hayter’s articles can be found at  http://markhayterscolumn.blogspot.com

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


“The grapes are coming. Hops are
Inspecting Hops

            GRANDVIEW, WA – Sue’s daughter, Rhonda, kept assuring us that the time would come when we would smell the grapes. I don’t remember smelling the cherries when they ripened or the apples and peaches. I guess they were overpowered by the outdoorsy fragrance permeating from the goats in the back of the house, and the dairy farm across the road from us.
            However,  the air tonight has been captured by the grapes. My niece said that when we started having warm days with       really cold nights, the grapes would enter their final stage of ripening. In three weeks, harvesting will begin, and Kay and I plan to be there to witness it.
            Three weeks ago, Curt (Rhonda’s husband) took us to watch hops being harvested. The experience changed me. I find myself more open to weird stuff. My nephew-in-law told me that there are three methods for harvesting hops. I think the third one involves goats and machetes.
            We recently witnessed two techniques. The first involved a meticulous process involving a tractor clipping the vines at the base, and a huge strange-looking vehicle following behind to cut the rope holding the tops of the 16 foot vines and passing them along to two workers standing in the back of a flatbed truck. Then it was off to the factory where the vines were hooked and drawn through a tall, narrow entrance.
            In some cases, what happens on the other side of the vine entrance is a secret. There are apparently different ways to enhance the taste and aroma of hops. Both require a massive amount of enhancing. The taste of the flowery fruit is bitter as all get out, and the smell is off-putting. Yet, smart people know how to ferment them so they will taste nutty, peachy, smokey, frosty, flaky... Whatever adjective goes best with taste. (And by the way, “Off-putting” is this week’s favorite word.)
           The second harvesting method involved a single behemoth of a machine that cliped, pulled, de-flowered and then shreded the vines, throwing the chopped up stuff back to the soil. It then belched out the hops parts into a truck. Hops looks like a small flowery cone.  
            Apple picking came next. One of the apple orchards behind our house has been picked. No machines involved here. It took pickers, step ladders, canvas bags and wooden crates. By the way, the term “picker” has taken on a new meaning for me. I don’t care if its peaches, cherries, apples, plums or an angel’s kiss in spring, it takes a talented person to pick fruit and vegetables.
            I don’t have space to go into detail here, but, as mentioned in a previous article, I’ve never possessed the stamina and dexterity to be a picker of produce. It’s just hard to believe how fast these men and women can pick, while in the same movement culling the bad stuff. They get paid by the box, and they can pick for hours without missing a step. Watching these experts work will give you a sense of humility each time you visit the produce section of the grocery store. 
            Speaking of cows, did you know that the dairy farmer across the street sold his house, feed lot, tractors, trucks, barns, cows and milking station? The whole lot, stock and milk can.  The family that bought his place didn’t want his cows. For whatever reason they preferred Jerseys over Holsteins. The Holsteins were shipped off one night, and the Jerseys showed up a couple of nights later. The cows get milked three times a day, so they’ve gotta move ‘em at night… and move ‘em fast,
            I’ve come to prefer the Jerseys, because they seem to smell less worse. Possibly because the new owner keeps them  in a stockyard on the far side of the farm. Closer to Bill’s Berry Farm, located next door to the dairy. Bill’s Berry raises peaches, plums, pumpkins, apples, grapes, corn and berries of all denominations.
They also make a mean donut. Apple cider has been the featured donut for the last couple of weeks. Bill and Julie make cake donuts that are as soft as your typical glazed donut, and they taste like the fruit of the week. I’ve had blueberry, apple cider and peach. My girth now appears somewhat larger than when I arrived here.
            A weekend or two back, Bill’s BF had its special fall festival. There was bbq, music, fruit picking, and apple slinging. Contestants would put an apple in a bucket strapped to two huge elastic bands; back up several steps and then let go. The target was one of several huge signs out in a field. I think the prize was a bag of donuts. The time I was there, no one came close to scoring a hit. I’m pretty sure I could’ve done it, but I don’t like standing in lines. Apparently, bad apple slingers have patience galore.
            At some point after the grape harvest, Bill’s Berry Farm is going to have another festival that will include a corn maze. I’ve talked Kay into entering the maze with me. I’m told that each year they have people who need rescuing from that thing. Not me. I’ve always been good with corn.
            At the moment I’m feeling good with grapes. Soon as I can, I’ll let you know about the harvesting process. Curt’s sister said that I could help with her vineyard. She’s handpicking it. This experience will join my on-going list of embarrassing moments. My latest involved me trying to keep the goats out of the garage. – Maybe next time.
Mark can be contacted at hayter.mark@gmail.com. An archive of Hayter’s articles can be found at  http://markhayterscolumn.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017



            DALLAS -- What can I say about Tony Cross? Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to say anything. His brother, friends, and a church of Christ preacher did a much better job than I could in describing the life and times of Kay’s 33 year-old nephew.
            One young lady described Tony as loud, loving and fun. He was definitely all of those, but the “loud” part stood out more for me. When Tony was a kid, you had to watch him. Watch him close. Had I been his first grade teacher, I would’ve demanded home schooling for the lad.
When ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) was invented, the condition immediately attached itself to Tony, which explained why he was the bane of some instructors and the target of many bullies. Tony had no awareness of his trouble making. He just finished his assignments quickly and then started visiting with the rest of the class.
I must say, I didn’t exactly light-up at the thought of Tony’s presence during his early years. He was big into computers, which meant I didn’t understand half of what he said. He enjoyed computer games so much that after getting a degree in, uh, computer stuff, he got a job working for a company that created computer games.
When he tried to explain about a project he was working on, I’d zone out after the second sentence. One technical thing I did enjoy hearing about was how he would use something called “motion capture” in creating the illusion of animated characters convincingly running, walking, stumbling, smiling, crying, laughing…  I believe he could’ve used more basic terminology in explaining the technique to me, but I still managed to catch on to some of what he said,
Fortunately, Tony was into football, pretty much favoring the same teams I did. He also kept up with politics and current events, which allowed me to involve myself into some of our conversations. Tony was one of few people I could disagree with about politics without either of us getting ticked off at the other. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. They were mostly funny bones.
            As previously mentioned, I learned most about Tony from those who spoke at his Memorial Service. In some of the Power Point photos that were displayed, Tony was dressed up like a Viking. I had no idea he was into Viking reenactment events. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.  
            One of his friends recalled how he and Tony were once driving somewhere in Dallas. As the usual Tony was in mid-conversation. Suddenly, he pulled the car over to the curb and told his friend he’d be back in a minute. Then he jumped out and ran over to help a family that was struggling to get a couch up to the second floor of an apartment. The big lug not only liked people, he took time to notice them.
            Just about everyone who spoke said that Tony was the life of every party. It was said that he would “Tony up” any gathering. He had a quick mind that generally went ahead of his talking. He was curious, engaging and adventurous. He had one of those jeeps that can practically climb a cliff. Many of the photos displayed during the service gave evidence to practically everything that was said about Tony.
            I most appreciated the comments Tony’s brother, Steven, made about their childhood days. Reminded me of when Dennis and I were kids. Steven’s stories were for the most part humorous, and still made me shed nearly as many tears as Steven did in the telling.
            After the service, Kay’s family had a cramped gathering in the hotel room of one of the cousins. The complications getting to the airport in Seattle, the flight to Dallas, the car rental problems, difficulty reaching the church building where the service was held, and the emotions stirred during the service made me question my mental fitness for the gathering. Unlike Tony, I’ve seldom been considered the life of any party.
            I rode with Jill back to the hotel room. Jill had met Tony two Christmases past, and was flabbergasted at how much he reminded her of her son, Ethan. She and Tony just seemed to click. She insisted on driving up from LaPorte to join Kay and me in Dallas. It was so good to have her there.
            Tomorrow, we’ll all go our separate ways. Kay and I plan to drive back with Jill to LaPorte, stopping off in Conroe to check on the construction of our new home. We’ll stay the night with Jill, and then fly back to Washington. We’ll take advantage of more time with our family and friends in the Northwest.
             The past two weeks have been a disturbing time from all involved. One day we were worried about forest fires, and then we get the call from Kay’s brother, Mike, about Tony being one of the victims of the mass shooting in Plano. Tony was with friends in preparation for the Dallas Cowboys’ game, when the ex-husband of one Tony’s friends walked in and murdered his ex-wife, and seven others, one of whom was Kay’s nephew, Tony.
            During the Memorial Service there was little mention of the horror of that day. All of the right words were said. No one attempted to find meaning in the happening. They couldn’t if they tried. The only thought that gives me a sense comfort comes from a passage found in Psalm 31. – “As for me, I trust in you, O Lord. I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.” – Yes, heaven has been Tonied up.

Mark can be contacted at hayter.mark@gmail.com. An archive of Hayter’s articles can be found at  http://markhayterscolumn.blogspot.com.