• Close Calls

    A friend of mine owns a pair of Shire horses--each of which weighs in at a massive 2,400 pounds--that are used to pull mowers and other farm equipment. His wife, Annick, is an experienced equestrian and has taken to riding them, a notion that I have decried on many occasions as a uniquely hairbrained idea. After all, they haven't been schooled in pleasure riding, and arguing with more than a ton of stubborn horseflesh could be fatal. Well, you can guess the rest of the story. My wife, Adrienne, and I went down for a visit and Annick suggested we go for a ride. The other horses were ill-disposed, so she saddled up one of the Shires. One thing led to another and I soon found myself at a full lope, at which point the Shire, having had enough of this particular passenger, took a sharp left into a small stand of trees. I went from 20 miles per hour to zero in less than a second, having been swept out of the saddle by a set of thick branches. When I came to, my face was full of dirt, my ribs were bruised, my left leg was useless, and my neck was, well, stiff. It took about a month to mostly recover, and I still don't quite remember exactly what happened. It was a close call.

    Many of our neighbors have had their own near-death experiences. A month ago, Nate was working next to an excavator, bent over as he was spraying a line on the grass. The operator swiveled the machine around just as Nate was standing up and caught him on the head with the back of the cab. It laid him out flat on the ground, his eyes were bloodshot for a week, and he still has a crease in his skull. Charlie Bentley had his own close call a few years ago when his head was caught between two disks in a harrow and was pulled 100 yards through a field face down by a runaway tractor. Tom, who works in construction, fell off of scaffolding above a concrete apron dotted with spikes of rebar. He landed on his feet in between the metal spikes and walked away without a scratch.

    Nancy Tschorn runs the local country store with her husband, Doug, and she just wrote a book of stories, including her "close calls" with wily vendors. D-Wayne is one such salesman, and he phones her every few months to make her a special offer: 300 pounds of bubble wrap, a case of hammer heads (the handles got burned in a fire), Swedish (not Swiss) army knives for 99 cents apiece, and, on this one occasion, 10 pairs of socks for a dollar each. Socks sell well since the store is near the famous Battenkill River, which does a good job producing loads of wet socks. Knowing that acrylic socks are no bargain, she asked D-Wayne what material the socks were made from. After a long pause, he said in a southwestern drawl, "Well, let me see. They are 70 percent wool and 30 percent nylon." Nancy placed the order, as a combination of warm wool and strong nylon sounded like a good mix. A week later the shipment of 10 pairs arrived: Seven pairs were wool and three were nylon.

    In the kitchen, of course, we have all had plenty of close calls as well as outright disasters. I recently put a baking sheet of individual chocolate bread puddings under the broiler with the timer set for a minute and left the kitchen. My 7-year-old, Emily, shouted out, "Daddy, the oven is on fire!" True enough. The chocolate had burned and the bread was indeed ablaze. Although I could not conceal my blunder, I did manage a bit of culinary surgery and topped each ramekin with plenty of whipped cream. Dessert was a close call.

    Our closest calls, however, are often those times when we wisely opt to take a quiet path in the face of disaster. As a young farmhand, I was driving a tractor and baler down a steep hill when I pushed in the clutch and tried to downshift. Charlie Bentley (the farmer) was standing on the back of the tractor and said nothing. When we managed to get safely down the hill he said quietly, "Best not to shift a heavy load going downhill." I realized later that this had been a serious, potentially fatal mistake--a close call of the highest order. But Charlie knew that there was more at stake than his tractor. Instead of overreacting and shaking my confidence, he handled the situation quietly.

    One summer night years ago, my oldest daughter, Whitney, decided to leave home on her bike, a green and white special with colored streamers on the handgrips. It was just the two of us home that evening, but I said nothing, leaving her to her preparations. She left (I peeked out of the living room window), bicycling down the long drive to the dirt road that runs through our small valley. I walked to the kitchen and set the timer for 30 minutes. When it went off, I went to the old Ford pickup and drove down the road toward New York State. I found her turned around, heading back home, just short of Harley Smith's farm. I turned the truck around and came up next to her, asking her if she might want a lift since it was mostly an uphill ride. She said, "Sure." I put the bike in the back of the truck, and we drove home without another word between us. We never spoke of it again, nor did I ever tell her mother. (That is, until now.)

    Sometimes kids need their independence, need the freedom to head down the road on a hot July night. I guess I have learned something from the Vermont farmers I grew up with (although they might say otherwise). You stand by the stove, watching the timer count down slowly, dreaming of a little girl cycling purposefully toward the broad flatlands of New York State with a sandwich and marshmallows in her white vinyl saddlebag. You step back and take a chance, letting life fill in the future on its own, wondering just how close a call it will really be.

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