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Texts for Today’s Sermon

June 25, 2007 Comments off

From The Middlewesterner, May 14, April 30, and March 19, 2006

If you
would be

holy,
carry

what
carries

you.

****

Rich friend,
you think

you have
so much

and I
so little?

I have
the world

and you
the sadness

of things.

****

Blow me down, Lord.
Push me back.

I am almost home.

by Tom Montag

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Categories: Greatest Blog Hits Tags:

Riding With the Local Used Cow Dealer in West Point, Nebraska

May 30, 2007 1 comment

Part 5 of an 11-part series from The Middlewesterner, November 23, 2004 (see the “Focus: West Point Nebraska” category to read the rest)

“I was born and raised with a gun in my hand,” Steve volunteered. “I don’t know what it would be like to live without guns and hunting.”

We pass some empty hog lots along a back-road. “Big guys are squeezing the little guys out,” he said.

“Eighty percent of farmers around here are at retirement age,” he said, “but they can’t afford to stop farming.”

We pulled into the yard at a feedlot. “A few dead beef here,” he said.

“When it dries up, I’ll really get busy,” he said. After all the moisture, he thinks, livestock will be dying of pneumonia.

“I have to make out some slips here,” he said. “Some feed yards want to keep track of the ‘deads’ that are hauled out.”

Two dead black beef cattle have been pulled out of the feedlots for Steve to pick up. One of them is bloated more than the other one, its legs poking out like the legs of a balloon cow, its bung-hole bulging hugely, its belly bloated in an arc. “I don’t know how your stomach is,” Steve said by way of warning. “I let the air out of them.” He poked the dead animal’s great belly with his butcher knife, and you could hear the air coming out, a stream of liquid squirted out like a lazy geyser, you could smell it. “That’s the smell you don’t get used to,” Steve said. He lets the air out of most of the bloated animals, he said – “that way I can get more of them in the truck.”

“I have to keep a record of what I pick up – for the rendering plant,” Steve said. He showed me his chart. There were columns for Beef / Calf / Hog / Horse / Other / Name of farmer he picked up from / Number picked up.

“There’s one thing you see a lot of in these feed yards,” Steve said. “Cattle dogs. A lot of yards use them to move cattle. They’ll have men on horses and a good dog to control the cattle.”

Steve had worked at a feed yard himself, working with 16,000 head of cattle. He would get up at 5:00 a.m., he’d get done work about 9:00 p.m., he got one Sunday a month off. “We took our work seriously,” he said. “We had less than one percent death loss that one year – that low a rate is almost unheard of. Of course, you don’t get paid extra for that. We’d ride horse forty or fifty miles a day; each of us would wear out four horses a day. In the winter we had to walk the lots.”

“I like driving out through this country,” Steve said. He told me about a cousin who works as an “integration manager” for Gateway Computers and likes to get out in the country too. “He’s a wildlife control fellow,” Steve said. “He’ll trap two hundred coyotes and foxes a year. He makes almost no money doing it, he does it to help out the ranchers.”

In years past Steve and Cindy raised calves. He’d get the calves for nothing from some of the feedlots, they’d be new-born. “For a while, it was twenty-two bottles in the morning, twenty-two bottles at night,” Steve recalled. He has a friend, a carpenter, who needs the income now, so Steve has been giving the calves to that fellow. “He has it worse than I do,” Steve said. “It would be a better world if we all did things like this. These values are what I like about living here.”

by Tom Montag

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Ekphrasis 15: Marja-Leena Rathje + Karen d’Amico + Tom Montag + Erika Rathje

April 29, 2007 1 comment

Brother Oswald’s Lick

November 27, 2006 6 comments

My friend in the Army said he was going to take paratrooper training not because he liked jumping out of airplanes, but because he liked to hang around with the fellows who jumped out of airplanes. I play music not because I’m a musician, but because I like to hang around with musicians. Playing music is a lot less lonely than trying to write.

Thinking about playing music always scared me. How was a fellow ever supposed to fit all those notes in there where they belonged, I always wondered. It must take “talent,” I thought, and I knew I didn’t have musical talent. I flunked accordion when I was a child, after all. My friend Doug, who plays guitar and banjo and fiddle, would disagree. He would say, “It’s not talent, it’s practice.”

Doug convinced me and another friend, Ed, that it would be fun for us to play music together. What was the worst that could happen? What did we have to lose? So we started getting together on Wednesday nights after work, 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. Yes, there was some beer involved. Doug picked the banjo. Ed was learning to play rhythm guitar. What should Tom do? Well, thought Doug, who was leading this adventure, it might be best if Tom played dobro. Every place you stop the Stevens steel across the strings over a fret on the neck of the dobro, that is a chord – open is G, the fifth fret is C, the seventh fret is D. It won’t even make your fingers sore.

What else do you need to know? That the dobro is like a guitar with a hubcap on it, a resonator guitar? That the strings are set up high enough you can’t push them to the frets, but instead you make notes by sliding the steel to different places on the string? That you wear a thumb-pick and two finger-picks on your pickin’ hand, and have to learn to do forward and backward “rolls” and other such picking patterns? No – you don’t want to know too much too soon.

If you’ve got a guitar and a banjo and a dobro in the band, you have to play bluegrass. You know that, don’t you? And you have to play “Wabash Cannonball,” because Brother Oswald played it, and he was the old dobro player’s dobro player. “Wabash Cannonball” was his signature piece. And if I was going to play dobro I had to show Brother Oswald some respect by being able to play the song he made his own.

Learning lead for that song was difficult enough for a fellow like me, who worries every note into place, but finally I got to the point I could do it. I could break out of backing up the singer into my own “From the great Atlantic Ocean” going up the strings and back.

Yet I had not mastered Brother Oswald’s turnaround between verses, where he licked and slid his way from the G note at the fifth fret on the high D string across all the strings here and there to the lowest G on the thickest of them. He started it at the last word of the verse and ended it just as the band wanted to enter the next verse; he did it in time to the music, and he made it fit. Or maybe he made them add two measures to the standard turnaround, cuz he wasn’t done yet.

And, if you’ve heard him do it, you know it’s a wonderful lick. He was a remarkable dobro player and a funny guy. He had to be funny, because in those old bands the dobro player was also the clown. Yet I didn’t know enough about playing dobro to clown around, that’s for sure.

We played together for weeks and months and years, every Wednesday night after work, Doug and Ed and I, playing the old songs, learning some new songs, trying some new things. Somewhere in there I resolved to learn Brother Oswald’s turnaround lick for “Wabash Cannonball” and stick it in when no one expected.

Home alone before work, I would listen to Brother Oswald play the lick, and try to play it myself. I listened and tried it. Rewound the tape, listened again, tried it again. Listened and tried.

It was another Wednesday night. We had opened our beers. We had played maybe “Mountain Dew,” maybe “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.” Doug kicked off “Wabash Cannonball,” sang that first verse, hit the last word of the last line. And it was like Brother Oswald was there in the room with us, taking the steel down the strings all the way to that bottom G.

Doug looked up. Ed looked up.

“Wu-hoo!” we said, and we kept playing.

“Do it again,” Doug said.

And Brother Oswald did.

“Take the lead now,” Doug said, and I did. And I ended it with Brother Oswald’s lick.

Playing music was never the same.

by Tom Montag of The Middlewesterner

__________

For more information on the dobro, see here. For more about Brother Oswald, see here.

Read more…

Categories: First Time Tags:

Morning Light

August 19, 2006 12 comments

Light hooks the soft edge of things, holds them in the moment. Light lifts the cover off the sky. A sun dog stands straight up in the southeast: a lovely pillar. There is another pillar to the other side of the sun, making a matched set. The wind blowing hard to the east cannot blow away the morning’s color.

When the world rages, rage back your love for the world, I tell myself. Out-shout God.

by Tom Montag of The Middlewesterner

Categories: Short Shorts Tags:

Finding Home

December 27, 2005 9 comments

We have lived in Fairwater, Wisconsin, since 1976. Our daughters grew up here and have gone off from here to make homes of their own. Mary and I remain, and I cannot imagine living any other place than this big cinnamon-colored house. When I die, you might as well bulldoze it in on me; this house is where I want to be.

I’m an Iowa farm boy; that is to say when I was born they dropped my butt on good black dirt and I have stayed close to it since. I need to see farmers work their fields, need to live among common folks and their common ways. I met and married my wife while I was in college in Milwaukee. I’m not a city fellow. Milwaukeeans are fine people; I’m just not one of them. I needed room to run and jump, holler and hoot. And I wanted to raise our daughters in a community more like the one I had known as a child, where you knew your neighbors, where your neighbors knew your business, sure, yet they also watched out for you, where you could leave a car in the driveway with the keys in it. Where community is a face-to-face business.

It was the Bicentennial summer when we started looking for a house. Mary’s parents had a summer place in the sand country of rural Marquette County, Wisconsin, to the west of here. I recognized it would be difficult to make a living in that area, so we looked closer to where one could hope to find work. Mary was a nurse and her job prospects were better than a poet would have. She found a job quickly, at the hospital in Ripon; we knew where to look for a house.

We looked in Ripon, but the houses we toured were too rich for our hand-me-down budget. We looked in nearby Berlin, but ultimately decided we didn’t want to live next to the junkyard in a town which had leather tanning as its major industry. We looked in nearby Brandon, at two houses, both of them remodeled without regard to architectural integrity, in a community where doing laundry on Sunday might be frowned on.

It must have been the hottest day of summer when Mary and I stood in front of the Action Agency Real Estate office in Ripon, looking in the window at a photo of a big old grey battleship of a house offered for sale in Fairwater. My breath caught: that looked like it could be our house. It was set down there as if it meant to stay where it was.

“Where’s Fairwater?” we asked each other.

We went into the office. “Where’s Fairwater?” we asked the realtor. “Can we take a look at this house?” It was in our price range.

“Fairwater is ten miles south of Ripon,” we were told. “Yes, you can see the house.”

When we arrived ahead of the realtor, we rang the bell at the front door. We didn’t know any better. In Fairwater, it appeared, as on the farm where I grew up, one used the side door or back door or garage door; only strangers would come to the front door.

Standing in the front door of the house, we could see the great expanse of wood floor stretching across living room and dining room to the far wall where stood a built-in hutch with glass doors and oak woodwork. The dining room, the living room, and the other room at the front of the house had oak woodwork, too, and high ceilings. The place was filled with a light which contained us. The wood floors gleamed; they radiated endurance. Oh, we looked at the rest of the house, but after seeing those floors and the hutch I think we’d already made our decision.

Of course we knew we’d have to deal with that grey paint flaking away from the house’s clapboard exterior. That could be taken care of the next summer. First we had to make an offer, get a loan, and sign the contract. We had to close on the house, take possession, move in. And we did.

It was the Hankerson house when we bought it; it was the Laper house when the Hankersons bought it. Built in 1903, signed and dated in the attic by the man who created it, the house has had only the three sets of owners – the Lapers, the Hankersons, and now the Montags. Owning a home here seems to be a long-term proposition.

Our younger daughter was not quite two years old back then. We had lived in the house about a week when Jessica stood full height, took hold of the knob of the kitchen door and rattled it; she said, “Go home now,” which was her way of telling us she was ready to go back to Milwaukee. That’s where her home was still, the place we’d lived previously. We had to explain: “We are home now.”

The Hankersons built a ranch house just down the hill from us. The next summer we did paint this old house which had been theirs. All my family came from Iowa to help, and still it took us more than a week.

Truth be told, Mary and I bought the paint we could afford for the job – red barn paint – and the house brightened considerably with the first brush stroke. In the midst of the painting, in the long light at the end of a long day, just as I’d come down from my work atop a tall ladder, Mrs. Hankerson came up the hill behind us. She said to me, “You know, it takes a lot of self-confidence to paint a house that color.”

It wasn’t self-confidence: I was home.

Nearly thirty years later, I am still home. After a quarter century, people finally call this the Montag house. It would take quite a winch to move me.

Written by Tom Montag, of The Middlewesterner.

Categories: Finding Home Tags:

We Endure

October 20, 2005 13 comments
Categories: Change and Continuity Tags: