THE FRONT GATE PART TWO

I have spent over forty years involved in athletics and have a love for great expanses of well-manicured Bermuda grass. My wife does not share that love. Compromise is a necessary component of a solid marriage but as I look through the gate I see nothing that is well-manicured. I see a tangled expanse of…jungle. Glad I was able to compromise. Our yard would be best described as a wildlife preserve…all at Linda Gail’s insistence. Any weed that puts off a pin-sized bit of color is a flower to be prized, a stalk that a butterfly or humming bird might avail itself to must be preserved. Any twig found near a morning glory must be pushed into the ground to support that most favored flower. Milkweed is in abundance for the Monarch butterflies. Lord preserve me from the wrath of my wife if I happen to cut one. Plants of all types are found together with no rhyme or reason and she has created a haven for animals of all types…even some who have become unwanted visitors to our home. I consider myself to be truly blessed despite my earlier “Donald” moment and smile at the memories of my bride sprinting naked from our old-fashioned bathroom. Sprinting and yelling, “Snake! Snake! Snake!” I imagined the snake, a six-foot-plus black rat snake, yelling in my head, “Naked Woman! Naked Woman! Naked Woman!” as it tried to escape up the wall behind her.

The summer of our first year living as farm owners we returned late to our yet-to-be air conditioned farmhouse. The late July heat and humidity were still evident when Linda Gail decided to bathe. Believing that the bright overhead incandescent light bulb simply added to the heat, she had entered the bathroom in the dark and, after beginning to run her water, stripped, reached down and plugged in the small lamp that sat next to the lavatory. As the light dimly flooded the small bathroom, she found herself staring at the snake that was coiled below the short electrical cord. Typically male, my attention was drawn to the vision of a fit, well-shaped woman with fabulous…eyes running naked through the house and not on the snake that was trying to escape in the other direction. There is always a price to go with the vision I was enjoying. Someone had to remove the snake…but first I had to find it.

Years later, after a series of renovations that included air conditioning, we decided to build a deck off our new upstairs bedroom suite. One morning we observed a large raccoon taking advantage of seeds that had dropped from bird feeders that I had hung from the deck. “OOOOH! Isn’t it cute? She really is big. Look at her little well-formed hands. OOOOH.” We loved her…until later that night. When we renovated, Linda Gail decided she wanted double French doors and a big deck…off of our upstairs bathroom. For some reason I have always thought it was odd to locate a deck this way but it was the only way to have a deck off of the bedroom…and what Linda Gail wants…. That cute raccoon decided she would use her cute little hands to open the French doors and try to make off with a large bucket of cat food. Discovered in the act by my darling, a tug-of-war ensued over the bucket, until Rocky Raccoon was popped with a towel when she refused to back off.

As you can tell, a lot of our lives has revolved around Linda Gail’s love for animals. We have always had pets – multiple dogs, a cat or two and, of course, that rat snake that lived in our attic along with its mate and what turned out to be a family of flying squirrels. ”Honey, we have to get them out. They might chew through an electric wire and burn down the house.” “Oh, we will cross that bridge if we need to.” Need to? Couldn’t that involve having to build a new house? Oh yes, they are still there and I shudder to think how many generations have joined them. Maybe with the snakes…please don’t suggest anything of the sort to Linda Gail or I will find myself on a snake safari in our attic.

Even when we have attempted to portray ourselves as actual farmers, more times than not, we have found ourselves in a cross between American Gothic and a gothic horror story…or gothic comedy. I remember standing in front of this same gate one afternoon after returning from a nearby coaching clinic. I stood in confusion as I wondered why there were sheets strung like hammocks between the hemlock trees in our front yard. When we first moved to the foothills of the Blue Ridge I made the mistake of commenting that since we had a chicken coop we needed to get a few laying hens. The mistake was saying it in front of Linda Gail’s dad, Ralph. “You know? There’s a guy down the street from me trying to get rid of a couple of chickens.” Thirty hens and two roosters later I had to say “Enough with the poultry.”

A mixed bunch from several different sources, our game hens took offense to our robbing their nest for eggs and decided to take advantage of our free range farming techniques. They just disappeared and after a while we believed that they had been kidnapped by Br’er Fox who had been shopping for dinner. Imagine our reaction to hearing the “peep, peep, peep” sounds of baby chicks emanating from the squirrel nests high in our hemlock trees. Temporarily struck stupid in amazement, we never considered how they would make their way to the ground. Their mothers hadn’t considered it either. Chickens, at best, are not the brightest animals God created and they fly only slightly better than rocks. Chicks? They don’t fly at all but simply make a sound reminiscent of a nut being cracked when they hit the ground. Linda Gail decided that sheets strung under the trees was a better option than running around trying to catch them with a butterfly net that we didn’t have. She is one of the brighter animals that God created and was able to save most of them.

When we met I knew there was something special about her. She had an inflated pumpkin on her head and was hiding behind a bar. She was my roommate’s former girlfriend and even after their last breakup I was slow to grasp that she was feeling the same spark that I had been feeling. After a most pleasing and unexpected face-sucking session after an impromptu stop off at a local “watering hole,” I still did not push the issue. It had to be the alcohol and she was my ex-roommate’s ex-girlfriend after all. I should have been concentrating more on the ex-part than the girlfriend part. After fumbling the chance, I got one more opportunity when she stopped by at the end of a football practice and asked if I would take her to The Casablanca, a blues club on River Street. She wanted to hear an old friend of hers sing and play the piano. Sounds exotic doesn’t it? The Casablanca on River Street sounds sexy…but it was not! It was a rundown brick building and not a white house at all. There was no view overlooking a river, and it was anything but exotic, unless you find Harley Davidsons exotic. No, while the name invoked visions of “Rick’s American Café,” I did not see anyone who resembled Humphrey Bogart or Grace Kelly. Previously having read an advertisement stating that “proper dress is required” I decided that I must dress somewhere between casual business and formal funeral parlor i.e. sport coat, dress pants but no tie. I’m glad I didn’t go for a “Casablanca” inspired dinner jacket and bow tie. As we walked through the door, the first view I had was of a tattooed lady of ample girth, in a hiked-up denim skirt, sprawled on a pool table trying to make a shot without benefit of a bridge. I would guess there was a Marlboro stuck to her lower lip but was looking up the wrong end to see. Women that large can get underwear in rose prints? Who knew…I hope it was a rose print. I tried not to stare but it was almost like watching the wreck that you knew was coming. I could not tear my eyes away until I realized that the three long-haired, tattooed, and denim-clad gorillas with her were staring at yours truly ogling at her. “Linda, what have you gotten me into?”

Since walking through this gate the very first time I have asked that question a lot. We have survived tornadoes, an ice storm with a hurricane attached, and a goat in our well. Yes, a goat in our well but that is a story to be told later along with the story of the goat in the bathroom. Most importantly we have survived with each other. Now with retirement we might have to survive being with each other too much. I stood thinking how lucky I was when I heard our two blue heeler puppies begin to bark heralding Linda Gail’s entrance into the yard. “What are you doing? You are standing there like a dope.” I explained that I was debating whether or not to throw my cap in the yard. As she cocked her head side I explained, “I figured if it didn’t come flying back out it was safe to come in.” She just looked at me and said, “When has it ever been safe?” That is a pretty good summation. Interesting, exhilarating, exhausting, confusing, the descriptors can go on and on but will never include the word safe…except it does. It was time to walk through the gate to my “safe harbor” and begin to create some new memories. I am sure none will be boring.

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