A Dry Year

Richard Gilbert


illiam, I’ll call him. His real first name was likewise one that people always slap a nick-name on; but in the formal way of some country folk, he didn’t abbreviate. So a gracious air of olden times arose with his mention. And William was who I wanted, all the locals said, to rebuild my pond. We’d recently moved to the hilly Appalachian region of Ohio and bought a small farm with erosion issues. William was the best excavator—that’s what they call men here who bull-doze and backhoe and otherwise gouge the earth: excavators. A great title, both elevated and elemental. But William was about impossible to get, everyone said. And here I was a newcomer, a flat-lander, who needed a dam reshaped and a gully below it filled. But I figured any man would be expensive who moved earth to make crooked places straight and rough ways smooth, so I called William and he came. Or said he would. It was winter and I’d have to wait for the weather to calm and for his schedule to clear. His bread-and-butter work was helping build bridges along the Ohio River and constructing retaining walls anywhere a hillside gave way and covered a road. Land here is slippy, which means that sometimes it just can’t cling to the slopes anymore and gravity wins. Then the highway department calls William. Landowners get in line behind the government, but his reputation made him worth the wait. Another thing made him attractive: he sometimes didn’t bill landowners, or so it was rumored. Maybe he was so busy that his billing department (probably his wife) couldn’t keep up. Or, since farmers couldn’t truly afford him, his crew and his equipment, he built their ponds as a public service. Naturally, no one asked about



this, hoping to receive his charity by keeping quiet about its possible existence, especially if it were just an oversight. There was another story, a sad one, about William. He had killed a girl. Decades ago, the tale went, William had gotten drunk one night and crashed his vehicle into hers. He’d probably put in a sixteen-hour day and then drank with the crew—if it was just beer, a case on his tailgate, they wouldn’t even have considered that drinking. But the curvy roads here are unforgiving, even if you’re sober. Supposedly the judge let him off easy; he had many friends and admirers who knew he wasn’t a drunk. I WAITED FOR WILLIAM through a warm, dry spring; no measurable rain fell from mid-April to mid-May. Then an unbelievably hot and dry summer set in. Good for excavation, I guessed. Even so, the grasses headed out, determined to make seed, and I mowed every evening until eight o’clock, to foster tender forage for my new sheep flock. Clouds of pollen marked my progression through the pastures atop a tractor that towed a throbbing, six-foot-wide mower. My eyes itched and tis-sues around them swelled. My throat constricted and I coughed. My neck broke out in hives. It was buggy, too: bloodthirsty deer flies flew up from the lake that bordered our farm to bite me. And a horde of locusts emerged howling from the earth. The creatures, known more scientifically as seventeen-year cicadas, were as large as late-summer grasshoppers, with chunky black bodies and fiery red eyes. The clingy insects flew at me as I mowed—my thrumming John Deere summoned them, an improbable green diesel decoy. The males emitted an insane buzzing; females sucked juice from woody stems, mated, and de-posited their eggs in slots they trenched into living twigs. There were hundreds of thousands of the insects to each acre, the local newspaper said, and entire neighborhoods in town were draped in cheesecloth shrouds.


Richard Gilbert Finally, in the middle of June, William called one night. Early the next morning, when I pulled into our farmyard down the road from our house to meet him for the first time in person, he was already there, sitting in his truck, a mud-spattered white Ford with bars welded over every running light. William turned out to be a slight, white-haired old man—he was seventy-four—bearing stories about the way rugged equipment had been bent into steel pretzels by mis-haps. Cheery is the word that came to mind for him, but I sensed in his weathered body and ice-blue eyes a seam of Scotch grit, a buried grimness. He said it was his fault that one of his men had gotten two fingers torn off last year by a device, which William was operating, that pounded monster pilings into the earth to hold the region’s roads and riverbanks. William’s own fingers appeared crooked and shortened. He knew our land. As a boy, he’d dragged raccoons in a burlap sack behind his pony all around our farm, leaving scent for hound trials. We walked through the pastures and our pants got soaked past our knees by dew—the grasses were that tall, despite the drought. When we came to a metal gate, overgrown and rusted shut, we paused—I thought. It was a natural break at the top of a rise, a place to catch our breath. William was beside me and I was looking dreamily across the farm, when from the corner of my eye I saw him melt over the gate. His movement was quick but unhurried, fluid and silent. He’d shown me a rural skill I hadn’t even known existed. He must have defeated many such hurdles during his days and nights roving these hills. But it was as if he’d entered another dimension before my eyes. I wanted to see it again. I knew how I climbed the farm’s arthritic gates: slowly, precariously, and with flailing, middle-aged effort. And incompetently, I now saw. William was older than me by almost thirty years. I mounted the barrier after him with earth-bound clumsiness, which now seemed a deeper flaw. D



WILLIAM SAID HE’D CALL when he was ready, probably in late July or August. But he phoned early in July, ready to come the next Monday, sending me into a frantic scramble. When an excavator of his stature was available, you dropped everything if you had any sense. My practical wife of course wanted me to delay the project until we were more settled, financially and emotionally, but I was adamant about marking my turf by healing this scar that marred our dream farm’s beauty. Monday went well. William and his crew bulldozed the gully below the pond and laid a drain tile the length of the field to channel pond overflow off the property and toward the neighboring lake. An ancient 400-gallon water trough was in the way and they jerked it up with their track hoe, a giant ice cream scoop mounted on bulldozer tread, and repositioned the huge circular concrete tank as easily as you’d set down a poker chip. On Tuesday, the rain we’d been praying for arrived, a brief but heavy soaking. I worried about the earth we’d exposed washing away, but the dusty ground absorbed the downpour. However, the site turned to mud and William declared the day rained out. On Wednesday, they finished grading the gully field and reshaped the pond’s eroded emergency spillway, a swale at one corner of the dam that’s supposed to preserve the dam in a flood. Excavators always need more dirt, and they filleted this extra material with a bulldozer blade from a woodsy pasture above the pond. They knocked over trees, pushed aside sod, and peeled off tons of dirt, then slathered back the topsoil so that the pasture could grow grass again. They shoved the remains of trees into bristling piles. I wanted to close my eyes at the destruction, which nevertheless was thrilling. A thunderstorm threatened all day. The sky to the west was black and it rumbled, an evil presence. I felt vulnerable thinking of what a big storm could do to the raw soil on the dam and to an acre of bare ground below the pond and in the steep pasture above. I saw the folly of average weather: a normal year is made of sudden changes and extremes, which in their wild swings produce averages. The weather lurches from


Richard Gilbert drought to deluge, from balmy to frigid. And in the end a grinning weatherman says we got average rainfall even if we got flooded all winter and, during the summer, when we needed rain, vegetation burned to a crisp. But even people who didn’t pay attention to the weather knew this was an extreme summer. And the relief valve had to be a storm, a violent one. The weather had been too hot and dry not to rain. In late afternoon Wednesday, the storm hit a town twenty minutes north with vicious force. Mercifully, we caught only the edge of it. The light rain cooled us but then we steamed in humidity that wouldn’t lift. The pressure was still building. I was distracted from my unease by how dirty I was and how tired. I went home that evening, fed our two children a frozen dinner my wife had left for us, then collapsed. “How is everything?” Kathy asked when she called late that night from Hong Kong, where she was teaching during her summer vacation to support my obsession of resurrecting an old farm. I launched into my tale of work and heat and thunderstorm terror. I was supposed to take the kids on vacation in two weeks, to Florida to see their grandmother, but things had gotten complicated. “I think I can make it, if nothing goes wrong,” I told her. “If William finishes this week and I get everything put back together next week, we’ll just make it.” “And how are the kids?” she wondered. “They’re foraging,” I said, making a joke of my neglect. On Thursday, we trenched water lines in ungodly heat. William knew I’d gotten sheep and since he ran livestock himself, beef cattle, he knew I needed water and said we might as well run pipe to the pastures while he was there. The atmosphere was hazy with humidity. I’d grown up in the south’s heat but couldn’t believe the conditions, which had gone beyond oppressive and into hellish. I looked wonderingly at the men (how bad did the weather have to get before they’d quit?), but there was nothing to be done but to keep working. The radio reported the heat and humidity index at 110 degrees. I broke into beads of sweat the



instant I moved and got soaked as I unrolled black plastic pipe. The locusts buzzed madly in the trees, making up for their seven-teen years of mute burrowing in our woods: it was as if the forest itself emitted an angry wave of mechanical noise. The wall of sound chastened the birds into an uneasy silence. A scrawny young man with a mop of sandy hair rode a diesel trencher, its blade chewing three-feet into the ground, through baked soil, roots and a layer of shale, and spit the pulverized mess to the side. The trench was bone dry all the way down. I squatted in the floury dirt trail and connected pieces of pipe. I felt greasy with sweat, which fell off my face into the dust. Cicadas screamed. Wilted grass crunched underfoot. We couldn’t get enough to drink under the blistering sun. William kept us hydrated by running to a store for Gatorade to supplement the jug of water in the bed of his truck. But with the trencher radiating its own heat in the summer’s inferno, the kid stuck inside became woozy, then faint and disoriented. William pronounced him a victim of heatstroke and shut off the machine. His other man, a quiet black-haired fellow in early middle age, completed the digging with the track hoe’s big scoop. He was the guy whose fingers got ripped off (doctors had reattached them but he was shy about giving me a close look). He clearly loved William, who’d attended to him and kept him on full pay through his long recuperation. The bucket was fast but made a wide ditch—more erosion for me to worry about on hilly runs. Late that afternoon, William and his men pulled out, leaving me wondering how to protect all the wounds they’d made. I was exhausted. The hills had turned my legs to rubber. My feet throbbed, and I moved in slow motion. My shirt was so wet I could see through it. Sweat saturated my leather belt and soaked my pants from the waist to the crotch. I went home, fed the kids, and returned to the farm. Protecting the steep pasture was critical. We were overdue for a storm—the heat just couldn’t continue unabated. Riding my tractor and fighting a feeling of desperation, I dragged a disk harrow over clods


Richard Gilbert and then strapped a red plastic barrel seeder to my chest and cranked orchard-grass seed onto the ground. I tore apart bales of straw, which would absorb the force of rain and runoff. I spread the shiny yellow straw until past dark, my nose clogged from dusty chaff. Then I went home, drank everything in sight, fed my daughter and young son another meal their mother had left in the freezer, and fell into bed. I was too tired to sleep, however, and lay awake for hours planning my next move. My daughter awakened me at 2:30 A.M. as a cataclysmic storm shook the house. The rain fell in heavy layers. Thunder boomed. Our dogs cowered in terror. Lightning crackled overhead, and flashes illuminated our faces, pale in the night. Electrical surges fried our television and the computer’s modem. Rain and wind beat a peach tree to the ground outside our door. The sheep would be huddled in a knot at the farm, heads lowered in the maelstrom. “It’s okay,” I told my daughter, who held our trembling terrier on the couch. “We’re safe. It’s just a storm.” But I imagined what this meant for the pond and the naked earth across the road. I listened to the rain’s drumming, and in an hour when it lessened I returned to bed somberly, in defeat. Why had I even started such a project? My worst fears had come true. But now everything was beyond my control. In the morning I sped into the farmyard, where our pond bulged with muddy water—the dam had held. A bucket I’d left out contained four inches, from rain that had fallen in only one hour, an incredible deluge. The wavy lines of debris across the gravel farmyard indicated it had been under water in the night as runoff from the hills and our neighbors’ driveways flooded the road-side ditches and raced toward our little pond. Beyond, I saw that the straw had saved the pasture. I walked onto the dam and looked down—the spillway was destroyed. Water had surged into the safety notch, tearing loose tons of fresh dirt and rocks, which cascaded down the back of the dam and tumbled across the bottom where we’d filled the gully. The spillway was again a



jagged ravine and the flood had stripped the field’s topsoil and sent it into the lake. This was just what we’d been trying to stop; we had made the event much worse. Between our dam and the lake, I gazed upon a sheet of slick orange subsoil. Bulldozer tracks crisscrossed the mud, each imprint a rectangular puddle glinting in the sun. What to do? William was gone and there was no getting him back. I talked for hours on the phone with USDA drainage experts, trying to decide my next step. In Hong Kong, Kathy spent $200 calling repeatedly, only to get our voicemail because the line was busy. In over my head, all I could think of was making the disaster disappear—even though I knew the weather pendulum had hit its high arc. I was frantic to get the damage repaired during the lull rather than risk another storm. I called my mother and cancelled the Florida trip. William helped me locate a couple of guys with nimble equipment for repairs. They came right away and I bought them twenty tons of topsoil and twenty tons of rocks—each the size of a loaf of bread—to bandage the storm’s wounds. They wanted to be paid immediately for the reconstruction. With dread, I awaited William’s invoice for days of moving dirt and trenching. ONE RAGGED EDGE REMAINED, a riddle I couldn’t solve. A good man, hard-working, competent, had taken a life; his younger self, long gone, had been negligent and left him stranded to relive what happened on a dark road for decade after decade. I imagined he continued to pay the girl’s family after, what, fifty years? It was the kind of blunder—one moment in a life—that I could imagine making. I could picture causing such an accident but couldn’t fathom living with it. I thought I’d seem more broken. Maybe it didn’t bother him after so long, yet that was even harder to imagine. He hadn’t outraced pain. Surely even William couldn’t rise above guilt and sorrow. You can’t ask a man about such a thing. Doing so would be monstrous, selfishly seeking clues to the mystery the past has for adults. Trying to


Richard Gilbert comprehend the man you had been. Probably his answer wouldn’t help anyone else. He just suffered. Years later, grass softened the contours of our brutal work. The memory of that dry year and a terrible storm receded. I no longer suffered a recurring nightmare of driving our family’s van off a bridge and into the dark water beneath. Of course, with my children at college and my mother dead, I regretted backing out of that vacation so long ago. Sometimes I thought about William and his terrible burden. I’d remember his story forever but never grasp its awful depths. How does anyone atone? All I know is that William never billed me.