September 26, 2008

The Watchmen

Category: News — admin @ 6:55 pm

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“Something wicked this way comes.”

—Shakespeare, “Macbeth”
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I’m an alarmist. I freely admit it. If Chicken Little cries the sky is falling, I run for cover. If something bad can happen, it will. That’s my thinking. That way, I figure, if the worst comes, I’m not surprised. If it doesn’t, I’m happily wrong. The philosophy has worked pretty well for me. I expect blows, and life generally obliges.

Entertaining worst case scenarios is human nature, I suppose. Take Y2K. Back when all the world was supposed to crumple and civilization fall apart. Back to the stone age. Because of the computer chips that couldn’t recognize the date when everything turned to zeroes.

As 1999 slowly passed, I stressed about it. I believed the problem was real. Bad things were coming. With a group of friends, I purchased some buckets of long-term food. Grains and such. Stored them in the basement. Along with some candles for when the electricity went out. Blankets. A few guns. Held my breath as the date approached.

It arrived. New Years Eve. Ellen and I spent the evening at a friend’s house. At mid-night, we watched the ball fall in Times Square on TV. The crowd roared. Graffiti rained down. The lights stayed on. Nothing bad happened. And the world went on as before. After all the hype, nothing.

I was relieved, of course. But felt a little silly.

The next summer I sold my long term food buckets at a yard sale, at huge discounts. My next door Amish neighbor haggled with me over the price, then sent his son home to fetch the flyer wagon. (“John, geh holl da vegli.”) They loaded the five-gallon buckets. Two or three of them. Corn meal. Grain. Hard red wheat. Two bucks a pop. Later he graciously dropped off some delicious cornbread his wife had baked from the long-term corn meal bucket. Moist and flavorful. Best cornbread they’d ever had, he allowed. I could only nod and grit my teeth and smile and thank him.

Par for the course, I thought. And that’s how it went.

Since then, I’ve kept my distance from all doomsday scenarios. Oh, I’ve kept an eye on the chatter, everything from alien invasions to the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. Which supposedly signifies the end of the world, or at least some major polar shifts.

All a yawn. Wackos. The world is full of strange, unexplained mysteries. No one knows the future, although many claim to.

Two years ago I quit watching political shows on TV. Just like that, cold. All the noise and crap, all the screaming. I mute all political ads. Life’s been much more peaceful.

But still, I read. My favorites on the web. Guys I like and trust. They’ve been scream-ing bloody murder for the last three years about the coming economic crash. The real estate bubble, they wrote, cannot be sustained. The big brokerage houses are cooking their books. Leveraging themselves into catastrophe.

I read them and thought they made sense. Meanwhile I was selling lots and lots of pole buildings at work. Easy financing. People were buying. Make hay while the sun shines. It was all good.

And so it went. Until this year. Tremors came as the housing market finally collapsed. Even then, most mainstream talking heads claimed it would be a short term dip, the economy was sound. All would be well.

Not my guys. They kept screaming. Wish now I’d taken a little more of their financial advice on which stocks to buy and sell and short sell. One could have made a small fortune. Always in hindsight, of course.

They started to fall last summer, the big companies. Bear Stearns. Fannie Mae. Freddie Mac. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark. Foundations trembled. Big Players swayed. Then crashed to the ground in dust and ashes. Lehman, AIG, and just last night, Washington Mutual. The largest bank failure in our history.

Last week the entire financial system came to within one hair’s breadth of total collapse. Thursday was the ground zero day. In desperation, government officials leaked the word that the US Government would buy up all bad debt. Markets instantly rallied. Then soared on Friday.

But over the weekend, the bureaucrats had a bit of a hangover. How would they do it? Meetings were held. Strategies discussed. Somehow all that debt will be shouldered by taxpayers. Trillions, by the time it’s done. It’s insane. I’m not cheering.

The President looked a bit shaken when he addressed the nation on Wednesday night. He did his best to convince the unwashed peons, to overcome the massive resistance Congress is facing from we the people.

Leviathan. All of them. They are scared. No one knows what will happen. These things have never been done before.

To give credit where it’s due, the Republican House is showing a little backbone for a change. Balking at the massive bailout. Good for them. But I expect some shady deal to be worked out over the weekend.

The markets have reacted accordingly. Bounced up one day, down, down the next, then up again the next. Utterly irrational. Just like it acted in 1929, just before the Great Crash.

With all the media on radio, TV (which I DON’T watch) and the internet, there are Watchmen everywhere, each blowing his own trumpet of doom. Some say it will be this bad, some say, no, this bad. Some predict the “summer of hell” in 2009. And beyond.

Some cry blood and fire and darkness. Some croon “peace, peace, nothing bad will come.” But no one knows. It could be the worst or the best or somewhere in between. The cacophony makes the head spin. Who to believe? Who to trust?

One must sift through all the noise the best one can. Try to make intelligent decisions. Conclusions that make sense, when all the facts are weighed.

Ron Paul, my hero and practically the ONLY honest politician out there, believes we will experience economic upheaval similar to the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s. Pretty scary stuff. I admire Mr. Paul and take his conclusions seriously.

Of all the major commentators, talk radio host Glenn Beck has been the most honest about what’s really happening. He doesn’t rant or rave. Just lays it out as he sees it. His prognosis is quite grim.

I don’t think he’s grim enough.

He sees many more giant corporations going down for lack of financing. Big names, big conglomerates. Loss of jobs, people out of work, the economy stagnant. Or in free fall.

Glenn Beck is a Mormon. Mormons believe in storing a full year’s supply of food at all times. The rest of us could take note and emulate them in that practice, at least.

From my own reading and from reaching my own conclusions, I believe things will begin to unravel dramatically in the next two to four weeks. Beyond anything any of us have ever seen. It will be a long, cold winter.

This time, though, I didn’t buy buckets of long-term corn meal and grains (not that I’d scoff at anyone who did). But I did do a few basic common sense things.

I buy all the water I drink at home. So over time, I have collected a few extra cases of gallon jugs. Stocked up the larder with tinned foods. Stuff I eat anyway, just a bit more. It doesn’t take much for one guy. This weekend, I plan to go out and buy a kerosene heater, the kind we used to have at home years ago. Not just because of bad economic times, but because every home should have one for winter emergencies when the power goes out. So far I’ve been lucky. I won’t count on luck anymore.

About three weeks ago, I depleted my checking account and paid off Big Blue. The truck is mine. Title in hand. It’s a good feeling. Great, actually. Whatever happens, I’ll have my truck. And a man and his truck can survive pretty much anything. Or that’s what I like to think.

So that’s how I see it. I hope I’m wrong again, as spectacularly as I was on Y2K. That the cases of water will be gradually used over time, the tinned foods as well. That the economy will come roaring back, freed of most of its problems, in the next year or so.

But I don’t think it will. Enough so that I’m telling you about it.

This Watchman has spoken. Blown his trumpet. For what it’s worth. Take heed. Or don’t. It’s your call.

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On Tuesday evening, my parents stopped at Steves for the night, on the way home to Kentucky from spending the summer in Aylmer. They were accompanied by Raymond and Laura (my niece) Eicher and their two little boys.

They arrived for lunch and then Dad and the Eichers left to do some local shopping and visiting. Mom stayed at Steve’s house and rested. I arrived around 5 and sat down with her to visit.

Stooped and frail, now lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s, she nevertheless looks healthy physically. She recognized me, she still knows all her children. We sat there on the couch and I let her guide the conversation. She was unclear as to exactly where she was and how she got there. Dad, she said conspiratorially, had hitched up the horse and left to see some people. You know how he has business everywhere he goes. She hoped he would be back soon, surely in time for supper. I assured her he would.

And we sat there and chatted like old times, laughing freely and exuberantly, the conversation flitting here and there, guided by the vast well of her memories and experiences. We discussed the threads she chose; now she was a child in Daviess County, now in her Bloomfield years, now in Aylmer in my own childhood.

I made no attempt to jolt her to the present. It was bittersweet, yet I deeply treasure those moments in my heart.

One of these days, she won’t remember her children anymore.

Dad and the others returned then, and we gathered around to a sumptuous meal of roast turkey and all the trimmings. I helped Mom through the line, holding her plate and loading the food she wanted. We sat at the table and she enjoyed every bite.

After supper we sat around, Steve and my parents and I, and visited. Dad is quite alert and still with it at 87 years of age. He was particularly interested in my writings, specifically the Elmo Stoll posts. He’s read many of my blogs on printed hard copies.

Around 9:30 I got up to leave. Mom wasn’t quite sure where she was and kept insisting that they should go home to sleep instead of bothering these nice people. Dad told her it was too dark to drive the horse and buggy, and the hour too late. She seemed to accept that, at least momentarily.

I said good bye and walked out into the night. And so I left them.

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September 19, 2008

The Rainmaker (Sketch #10)

Category: News — admin @ 6:54 pm

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And Isaac’s servants digged in the valley, and
found there a well of springing water.

—Genesis 26:19
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His name was Chuck Norman. But he was known to everyone as “Fine and Dandy” because that was his automatic response to most questions. He used the phrase to answer anything from how he was to discussing the weather.

He was the local well driller. Tall, wiry, toothless, he was always dressed in stained olive green coveralls and wore a dented, dirty yellow hard hat, his ever-present cigar-ette dangling from his lips or cradled in a grease-blackened hand. A typical roughneck, a man who made his living drilling great holes into the earth, wrestling with ancient clanking machinery and carbide-tipped bits capable of chewing through solid rock.

He usually showed up at our farm of an evening, after supper. Dad always walked out and greeted him. “How are you tonight?’

“Fine and dandy. Fine and dandy,” he always replied, smiling his toothless grin, lighting another cigarette.

Dad then walked out to a tree in the yard and broke off a slim Y-shaped branch. Usually he allowed one of us boys to accompany him. We got into Fine and Dandy’s dilapidated old pickup and roared down the gravel road.

To the place where he was fixing to drill another well. Usually a new building site, but sometimes at an existing residence. Dad got out of the truck holding his little forked tree branch. Palms up, thumbs out, he grasped the ends of the Y shape and stuck the branch straight out in front of him. He then began to walk slowly back and forth across the lot in the general area where Fine and Dandy wanted to dig a well.

An observer would have witnessed quite the sight, an Amishman in a battered wide-brimmed black wool hat, holding a forked stick, slowly crisscrossing the yard. To the side lounged a dirty chain-smoking roughneck and a ragged little boy in galluses.

Sooner or later, the branch in Dad’s hands lunged downward, quivering, alive, pulled by an invisible force. Dad carefully marked the spot. Then he walked back and forth crosswise over the spot. Again and again, the branch lunged down, twitching in Dad’s hands.

Fine and Dandy always stood back, observing and dragging on his cigarette. Some-times Dad found more than one spot that caused the branch to plunge down. He then tested the spots to check which had the strongest pull.

Finally he stopped, X’ed the spot he’d chosen, and told Fine and Dandy, “This is where you want to drill.” Fine and Dandy always smiled his toothless smile, handed Dad a crumpled $10 or $20 bill, and took us home again in his dilapidated pickup. If we were lucky, we might stop at a store for an ice cream bar or soda pop on the way home.

Fine and Dandy always drilled where Dad told him to. Sometimes hundreds of feet down. And he always, always found good wells with abundant supplies of fresh, clear water. He developed quite a reputation as a top notch driller of wells that didn’t run dry.

He strayed a few times, before he learned. Tried to dig where he figured there would be water, without consulting Dad. Often ending up with dry runs. Shamefacedly then he came and fetched Dad to show him where to dig. And Dad would. Always there was water under the spot he marked.

Dad was a dowser. Because of him, untold amounts of water flowed onto the earth where none had flowed before. Like rain from the ground instead of the sky. Some would call him evil and brand him a water witch, a label he stridently rejected. If there was water to be found below the ground, he could locate it. Not only that, he could tell you where to drill for the best flow and the clearest water.

He never failed. Not that I’m aware of. He always found water. Always. If he didn’t, there was none to be found. His record for accuracy was 100%.

I don’t know where his “gift” came from and I don’t know why he had it. Or how it worked. It may have been a latent ability, a remnant of ancient practices, buried deep within the psyche of his Swiss-German heritage. His mother was a Lengacher. Probably came from that bloodline. To my knowledge, Waglers not from that lineage are devoid of the gift.

I don’t think he ever knew quite what it was or why he possessed it. It was passed on to none of his eleven children. All he knew is that he had the gift, and he could use it. And he did.

It was what it was. Growing up with dowsing, we thought nothing of it. As children, we played at imitating our father, walking back and forth in the yard with a little forked stick. Since none of us had the actual ability, we made the stick jump down with imper-ceptible movements of our wrists.

Dowsing has been around for thousands of years. Probably even in biblical times. Maybe Isaac’s servants used it to find water in the desert. How else would they have known where to dig a well? Through the centuries, people dowsed for other things too, such as detecting buried metals. And minerals such as coal.

In recorded history, dowsing has always had a bit of a shady reputation. People who couldn’t understand it feared it. During the Middle Ages, it was believed to be from the devil. It has never been scientifically proven to work. Most people today view it with suspicion and fear and skepticism.

I don’t. I know it works. Provided the dowser really has the gift. I saw it with my own eyes. Many times. It is real and it does work.

Today Dad is 86 years old. He still gets around well. I would wager my last penny that the man could still walk over any site with his little forked stick, and locate the purest strongest stream of water available anywhere under the ground.

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He was a man who boldly pursued his dreams, some to failure and some to fruition. An ordinary man with some extraordinary abilities. One of which happened to be dowsing.

I wonder, is he the last of his kind, or are there others out there like him?

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We live in interesting times. Times now turning a bit scary. The country and the world are abuzz with all the bad economic news. In this last week, Wall Street reeled from blow after blow as institution after institution hit the dust. Russia’s stock market was shut down after the bottom fell out on Monday.

That morning, Lehman Bros., a venerable financial institution, collapsed in the largest bankruptcy in history. Lehman was founded in 1850, and survived the Civil War, both World Wars and the Great Depression. Because of its insane investments, it did not survive the current housing bubble collapse.

The Feds, who bailed out Bear Stearns, and now the insurance giant, AIG, stepped back and let Lehman fall. As they should have for all of them. With Bear Stearns, AIG and Fannie and Freddie, our collective debt ballooned by trillions of dollars.

The guys I read on the web, William Norman Grigg and Gary North, among others, predict dark times ahead. They have always tended toward pessimism, but this time I think they are on to something. The collapse of the dollar, I believe, is imminent.

On the phone with a friend earlier this week, I asked him what he made of the whole mess. He blithely said it would affect only the rich, who had stupidly invested in the companies whose stock is now worthless. I was stunned by his naïve conclusions.

On the surface, it may mostly affect the rich. Like Lehman’s now suddenly unemployed investment bankers and their wives. But what affects them affects us all. Sooner or later. Mostly sooner this time, I think.

The whole thing will likely shake out by late October. By then, we’ll know how bad it really is. Whether a Depression approaches, or something less. It would be wise to anticipate a Depression and prepare accordingly while there is yet time. At the most basic level, a few extra tins of Spam and a case of bottled water wouldn’t be a bad idea. At a more advanced level, well, there’s always guns and gold.

In the long run, economies come and go. As do world powers, and empires. As will this country, at some point. Maybe soon.

Only the Lord endures unchanged forever.

Phillies fans are waxing delirious at their team’s late spurt toward the playoffs. Back and forth it goes, with the Mets and the Phillies half a game up, half a game down. Should be an interesting finish. Since the Phillies swept my Braves this week, and the Braves now begin a three-game series with the Mets, I’m in the awkward position of cheering for the Mets against my own team. I’d rather see the Mets in the playoffs. Oh, well. As I’ve said before, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

In football, I was one for two last weekend. The vile Brady-less Patriots beat my Jets in New York. I wasn’t too surprised. My buddy Favre threw his first interception as a Jet. The Pats are an evil well-oiled machine. I could probably play quarterback for them and win.

But the Cowboys-Eagles. Whooee, what a game. Pretty much came down to who had the ball last. I went to bed at halftime, convinced the thug Eagles would prevail. They were pretty much moving the ball at will. The next morning I was delighted to see the Cowboys had pulled it out. That made me, ahem, ten dollars richer.

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