Saturday, March 27, 2021

Suffer the little children...

But Jesus said, "Let the children come to me.  Don't stop them!  For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children."  Matthew 19:14 (NLV)

    "You're not in trouble," I started my usual spiel.  "There are a couple of people that would like to ask you some questions in the office."

    The unsure girl who stood up to my waist followed closely behind me as I attempted to maneuver so that we were walking side by side.

    "Okay," she said, her hands fidgeting, looking for something to do.

    We turned the corner, and she stepped through the office door before me.  The adults in the office attempted reassuring smiles, smiles of strangers who meant well, but had difficult questions to ask.

    It is not required that a school official be present at meetings like this, but I always offer, "Would you like me to stay with you through this?"

    "Stay," the little girl said barely above a whisper.

    Introductions, easy questions, and then the tough ones always start.

    "Can you describe the last time you were afraid?  When was the last time you saw the police?  Does anyone in your family drink?  When was the last time?  Do they get physical when they drink?"

    My older girl was this girl's age at one time, my younger girl goes to class only just down the hall from her.

    "What is your favorite food?"

    "Moose soup," the girl smiled back.

    "Moose soup, I enjoy that quite a bit myself.  Do you get enough to eat?"

    "When there is food in the house," she said looking down and the words trailing off.

    "Does your dad have a wife or other significant other?" the questions continued.

    The little girl answered about topics that I didn't even know about until my twenties, her voice always quiet, a tear once in a while would work its way down her cheek.

    "I'm sorry," the case worker said at one point, "I don't mean to make you sad.  Do you have someone to talk to when you feel sad?"

    The little girl looked up into the face of the case worker, but she didn't have an answer.

    "What is something you enjoy doing with your dad?" he worked at changing the mood to something positive for the girl to hold onto.

    When she didn't answer, he prodded a little to give her help in the question, "When was the last  time you had fun with your dad or what is something that you really like about him?"

    "I don't know," she looked at her hands in her lap.

    What if this was one of my girls?  How would they answer?  What is something you like about your dad?  When was the last time you had fun with him or something you really like about him?

    My thoughts went to walking in knee deep snow, breaking trail for a ten-year-old who was not terribly keen on walking so that we could check her little trapline.  I went back in my mind to a four-year-old on skates pushing a chair around a rink, family dinners, books at bedtime, pulling the covers up around the chin of a sleeping teen with her dog pressed tight beside her.  

    We are given these gifts for such a short time.

    "Okay, that is really all the questions I have," the case worker began wrapping things up, "you can go back to class."

    "I can walk you back," a voice I recognized as mine brought me back to the present, "if you feel you are ready."

    "I'm ready," the little girl said as she stood from her chair.

    We walked in silence to the gym where her class was happily running around in a game of caribou, caribou.  She jumped right in as though the last ten minutes had never happened and crossed the gym evading her classmates acting as wolves.  They were not the first she'd seen.

We are given these gifts for such a short time.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

A Seed Is Planted: Year One Results of the Unalakleet Muktuk Marston Victory Garden


Students helping deliver this year's crop to local elders (Photo courtesy Nick Bruckner)

 There is something magical about the potato.  Dig a hole, drop it in the ground, water it (or don’t), hill it (or don’t), and it multiplies itself.

  When we started planting the victory garden this spring, no one was sure what to expect.  More than a handful of volunteers didn’t realize that a seed potato was just a potato.  When 1600 pounds showed up, they were somewhat shocked.

The ground that had not been worked for years fought our efforts at first.  It was too wet and sucked in the equipment we used to break it up.  Then it was too hard and resisted every attempt to sink a spade.  

The volunteers invested their sweat equity with smiles on their faces, but secretly were unsure they would ever see a dividend.  

This summer’s growing season in Unalakleet was about ideal.  There was plenty of sun and it rained at least every couple of days.  We were set up to irrigate, but conditions were such that we only got to fire up the new water pump once.

Who could tell what was going on below the soil in these mulched potato rows?

We mulched for weed control as much as our young 4-year-old apprentice would allow.

“Dad!  I’m getting eaten,” I would hear from across the field.

In Ellen’s defense, she does not remember interior Alaskan mosquitos.

“Let’s go Dad, I’m itchy!”

They were slow at first, but with each trip up to the field, we were greeted with more and more plants pushing up through the clay.  Even so, it was hard to say what was really going on below the surface.

The first killing frost knocked back the plants and signaled that it was time to harvest.  There is a short window in Alaska between killing frost and frozen like concrete.  Families gathered at the field unsure what to expect.

“Wow, this comes from one seed?” a surprised volunteer laughed as he turned his first spade full of soil over and beautiful Yukon Golds tumbled out.

Kids ran through the field looking for the biggest, smallest, weirdest… bounding from hill to hill “helping” the adults draw the harvest from the ground.

By the time the whole field (about a half-acre) was harvested, the small crew of volunteers had gathered around 3000 pounds of potatoes.

“It’ll be a little easier next year,” Abel commented as he loaded his crew into their truck.

“We will have more things in place when we do this again,” another dad agreed.

“Yeah, next year…”

This year, a seed was planted.  Yes, potato, but beyond that, a seed was planted showing families that we can produce our own food again like our parents and grandparents did.  And, maybe we can even live out Muktuk Marston’s ideal of an agriculturally self-sufficient bush Alaska.  At least in our little part of it.

Potato Holiday of the past (photo courtesy Jeff Erickson)

This Year’s Numbers:

1600# of Seed Potatoes (About 1000# planted)

½ Acre Planted

3000# of potatoes harvested

75 Elder Households fed

30 Volunteer families receiving shares of potatoes

Thank you again to our partners:

Marston Foundation Northern Air Cargo Everts Air Cargo AK Specialty Crops

Susitna Organics Unalakleet Covenant Church Bering Straits Native Corporation    

North River Bible Camp

Native Village of Unalakleet        Norton Sound Seafood Products

Friday, November 13, 2020

November Is Apple Pie Month

         November is apple pie month.  In a year of fierce disagreements, this is a simple fact that is not up for debate.  Plenty of people have told me that they don’t like apple pie, but it is just because they have never had the right one.
They picture a Marie Callender’s apple pie coming from the freezer section, going into the oven, and coming out… ordinary.  Nothing against Mrs. Callender, I am sure she is a fine woman, but her apple pie comes up short and is only one of the examples that have caused Americans to move away from what was once the very epitome of what was great about this country.
“Oh no,” I have been corrected during debate, “my mom made homemade apple pie, and it still is not my favorite.”
Upon further investigation, “homemade” was a store-bought crust and a can of pie filling from the shelf at IGA.
“My mom,” I begin, “can make a pie.”
It is hard to even write about it without my salivary glands waking up and paying attention.  
Pies in my parents’ house growing up started with my dad and I picking a truck load of apples.  As fall drew near around late August or early September, he and I would climb in his full-size Chevy Blazer, connect the utility trailer my grandfather had built what seemed like to a young kid a hundred years ago, and pointed the nose of the truck toward Posen.
My dad was a UPS driver with his route taking him to the small agricultural town just outside of Alpena.  He easily made friends with his customers, one of whom offered the apples from the trees lining his cow pastures.  The cows would push through the fence to get the apples that fell in the ditch, and the farmer was happy to have them gone.
My dad and I would work our way down the fence line, tasting apples from the trees as we went, determining which ones would go in pies, which would become sauce, which would get eaten fresh, and which ones the deer would get in the feed piles near our hunting blinds.
They were all wild apples from trees that had sprung up of their own accord and were left to fend for themselves.  And, they produced some of the best tasting apples that so many of my childhood memories are made of.
“This one’s a good one,” Dad would squint one eye as he bit into an apple tart enough to make his whole face pucker up.
He would hand me a sample, I’d agree, and those apples would get set aside for pies.
At home, in the evening after work, my dad would go out to where the apples were piled by our shed, grab five gallons worth of pie apples in an old bucket, bring them into the house, head down to the basement, turn on the news, and begin to peel.
My mom would always act surprised when he would return up the stairs after the news with a bucket of peeled and cored apples.
“Oh, my,” she would exclaim in the same way about every time, “what am I supposed to do with all these?”
He would look at me out of the corner of his eye and say something like, “Well Mom, we haven’t had a pie in a while now.”
Time is a relative thing, but “a while” in reference to pie in my childhood home in the fall referred to approximately two days.
“Well,” she would sigh, “I guess I’m due to make a pie.”
Evidently “a pie” is a collective term for six pies, because when she was done, there would generally be a half-dozen put together, crusts from scratch, filling from real ingredients, some for the freezer and a couple for eating right away.
My Dad would drop a pie off at Chuck Allison’s place about once a week.  He was a good family friend and was like an uncle to me.  He was also a special challenge for my mom.
“All right Chuck,” she would say as he handed her the empty pie plate at church, “how was this one?”
“Well Nan,” he would him and haw a little, “not going to lie to you.  It was a pretty good pie.”
Mom would smile knowing Chuck had not completed his review yet.
“But,” he would continue, “it could’ve used a little more cinnamon, and if you send another my way, I’ll gladly try it for you again and let you know if you get it right.”
Mom would laugh, shake her head, and walk away with the empty pan.  Chuck would look at me, push out his dentures and wink.  He knew he’d be getting another pie next week.
Traditions changed a little when I left for my first year of college.  I missed gathering apples, but more tragically, I wasn’t there when the hot pie came from the oven.  
At the dining hall, I bit into a piece of apple pie, tasted it and let my fork fall to my plate.
“What’s wrong?” my roommate asked.
“Well, it isn’t exactly home cooking,” I complained.
“The food here is just as good as what my mom makes,” he replied.
I silently mourned for this poor guy’s childhood.
Mom found a way though.
“You think it will ship?” she asked my dad as she held up a freshly baked pie.
He took it from her, shrugged his shoulders, found a box and started a forty-five-minute process of armor plating that pie to improve its survival chances.  When he was all done, he stood in front of my mom with the box at chest height, turned it upside down, and dropped it to the floor.  He picked it up, opened the box and pulled the perfectly unscathed apple pie from inside.
“It’ll make it.”
My roommates and I were on a first name basis with the UPS guy.  He’d come in with a box we knew held pie, sit down, and drink a bottle of coke that we offered him.  When he would head back out, the guys in the dorm room would celebrate pie day.
“What’s pie day?” Bob, a new initiate to the celebration naively asked.
“Well, you see,” my roommate started, “Jason’s mom bakes a pie and ships it to us about once a week.  When it gets here, we eat it.”
Bob looked on not completely understanding the sheer look of excitement in my roommate’s eyes as he did a Wile E. Coyote dance across the room looking for the knife.  It was, after all, just a pie.
“Well, I guess I’ll try a slice,” he shrugged.
We opened up the pie, I looked down holding the knife, and asked the logical question, “How do you cut a pie into thirds?”
“What?” Bob asked incredulously, but he had found a new understanding as we all laid around the room enjoying the euphoria that came from eating a third of my mom’s apple pie.
From then on, Bob just kind of knew when the UPS truck would show up.
Tradition changed once again upon my accepting a job in Alaska.  I hugged my mom and assured her it was only for three years and that I would move back to Michigan to teach after scratching the adventure itch.  Inadvertently, I moved out of pie range.  Though my dad was sure he could armor plate a pie to survive even the beating USPS and the village airlines would put it through, my mom was not convinced it would not spoil in transit.
They began armor plating apples and sending up two boxes of a bushel a piece.  Kids in Savoonga began finding out that there were more than the two varieties they knew: red and green.
“I don’t like red apples,” a student exclaimed as I handed him one to try.
“That’s because you have only had Red Delicious your whole life,” I said as he took the Mac I was offering. 
“Wow, this is good,” he said as his eyes opened literally and figuratively.
And, I began making my own pies.
“Jody,” I called my sister, “do you have Mom’s pie recipe?”
“Uh,” she responded, “I don’t need it.  I just drive over to her house.”
Mom sent me a box with all of the necessary recipes for adult life shortly thereafter.  I think she has tried to give them unsuccessfully to my sister too.
As I made my first pie, I read the note next to the teaspoon of cinnamon, “I use more.”  I couldn’t help but think of Chuck as I turned the cinnamon container over and began beating the bottom.
Shortly after making that first pie, I met the woman who would become my wife, and it kind of put a little kink in my three year plan.  Mom and Dad celebrated with us at the wedding, and then continued sending two bushels of apples each fall.  We adopted a daughter who quickly earned the nickname “Two-a-Day Romay,” because, unchecked, she could eat a half-dozen apples on her own in a couple hours.
Myra and I took apple pies to family gatherings.
“You guys are in charge of the pies from now on,” my nephew mumbled through a mouthful of his second piece.
In a year when we can’t travel to see family back east and the tie to home is blatantly more important, my younger daughter squealed as I carried a box up the porch stairs, “Oh, that one smells wonderful… its apples.  Open it Dad, open it,” she encouraged as I put it down.
Besides needing the same limit we put on her sister, Ellen has also taken up her mom’s habit of sneaking an apple out of a freshly baked pie.  I pretend to be upset, but all that does is encourage the both of them to continue their bad behavior.
This year marks my twentieth in Alaska, and people continue to ask if I miss Michigan and if I ever think about moving back.  I have gotten slower to answer.  My mind drifts to the sun rising over Lake Huron, the red and orange painted across the hills of hardwood in autumn, the feeling of the first dip of the year in the lake, the smell of fallen leaves during bird season, the sound of a summer breeze kicking through the aspen, and the taste is always apples.
But, this is where God has me now, and I am happy in that.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Halloween 2020: Coming out of Retirement


Romay grew a mustache one Halloween.

      “Dad,” Romay used the voice she always employed when she wanted something.  It was almost sweet enough to give cavities.  “Can I drive the truck to go trick or treating with my friends?”

It was the voice that almost always worked, but I had pictures of a sixteen-year-old girl hopped up on candy driving a full-sized pickup while other kids ran around the roads hopped up on candy.

“I’m happy to drive you,” I answered.

She smiled, grabbed my arm, and began pulling me toward the door, “Okay, Dad, let’s go.”

I spent the rest of the night driving three teen girls from house to house as they ran an assault on the village of Galena.  By the time they were around 16, Romay and her friends had Halloween down to a science.  They knew which houses gave out full candy bars, popcorn balls (still the coveted item in Alaskan villages), cans of pop, etc. and would map out in advance and give me my driving orders as we went.

To be honest, I knew which houses I wanted to stop by as well as the dads would send out treats for me who they knew was sitting in the truck while the kids stood at their doors.

The action was fast and furious.  

“Go, go, go,” the girls would start yelling before the truck had even fully stopped while the girl sitting close to the door struggled with the mechanism.  

The goal was to get as much candy and goodies as possible before the houses ran out.  After finishing up, we would return to our house where the girls would spread their take on the kitchen table and divide up their plunder.  I felt like I was watching buccaneers in a pirate cave.  Kemper, our yellow lab, looked on with great interest as the girls opened their popcorn balls to enjoy first.

“Shanda makes the best popcorn balls,” Romay said as she unwrapped hers.  The absolute joy on her face changed to sheer terror as she lost grip on it and it began falling to the floor.  

The ball never hit the ground.  Kemper had seen his opportunity as though it was the moment he had been training for, snatched it from the air, crunched twice and swallowed.  He looked pretty proud of himself as Romay sank to her chair groaning.

Romay and her friends trick-or-treated all the way up through their senior years.  It was something that I secretly looked forward to at least as much as they did.  Senior year Halloween came, and I knew Romay would be heading off to college the next fall.  I wanted that Halloween to last and tried my best to hold on to that evening for as long as I could.  I was not ready for trick-or-treat retirement as I felt I was still in my prime, but all good things come to an end at some point.

We moved on from Halloween to the rest of the roller coaster that is a kid’s senior year.  As parents, Myra and I did our best to hold on for the ride.  Romay’s basketball season started and we moved on to going from game to game and cheering her on.  Just as the season started, Myra came down with a flu that seemed to drag on forever.  She couldn’t shake it.

A couple of weeks of the flu, and we got smart to what was really going on.

“What are you guys planning on doing with your empty nest,” Andy asked as I sat down next to him at the Grace Christian School basketball tournament.  

“Well,” I smiled, “we won’t have an empty nest.  We’re backfilling.”

We had only just started telling family that Myra was pregnant,  Andy is my cousin, and so fit that circle.

“Oh, well,” Andy smiled back, “congratulations.”  

He found out only fifteen minutes before our older daughter who laughed and cried and excitedly looked forward to being an older sister, even if there was to be eighteen years between them.

Our backfill baby was born that July and entered the world in much the same way that her older sister exited the truck while trick-or-treating.  But, when Halloween came that year, Ellen didn’t even dress up.  The next Halloween came, and though she dressed up like a dog, she didn’t pull me toward the door to go raid our neighbors for candy.  She fell asleep before our candy bowl at home was even empty.  

Halloween number three and four came, and she finally started getting the idea.  It helped that she could walk, and she found it novel that the three houses we went to gave her candy just for knocking on their doors.

Halloween number five, and her mom asked, “Do you want me to take you trick or treating, or Dad.”

“Dad,” she said as she grabbed my arm and started dragging me to the door.

My heart beat a little faster.

She looked at me in the car and started talking strategy, “I want to go to Harper’s, Miss Vicky’s, Ms. Martins, Cassidy’s…”

I have called my older daughter on occasion and apologized for her role as my experiment child I had learned with now that her younger sister is the one benefiting.  She always says something to put my mind at ease, but with this child, this time around, I don’t take anything for granted.  

Ellen opened the car door and ran for the next porch and for a brief moment, I saw her older sister doing the same thing.  

In the car by myself, I whispered a short, quiet prayer, “thank you, Father,” and watched as Ellen scampered back down the steps, to the car, and climbed inside.

“Let’s go to Papa Jeff’s now,” she requested and we drove off for our next stop, her smile matching mine.

I wasn’t ready to be done with Halloween.

Two good dogs (Halloween 2017)

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Square Dance: Getting Our Garage Foundation Ready to Build On

         We needed a smoke house.  We had some recycled OSB and 2x4s that had at one time been crates and so I slapped together a box figuring that the sheets were square, the cuts on the ends of the board were square, the box would be square.  It made no sense to me when the shed roof went on and it just didn’t fit right.

“Weird,” I said to myself standing back to admire my work.

Later on, I would make the fire in the smoke house too hot and bake my fish right off their skins and onto the ground.  I was twenty-five and definitely had not yet arrived.

Before building our first house, I did a little bit more reading and remember being completely blown away by the diagonal rule: the diagonal drawn from one corner to the far diagonal corner had to match the diagonal of the corresponding corners in order for the building to be truly square.  

“Who was the genius that came up with this method,” I whispered to myself as I put my book down.

Out at the building site, I had placed a spike in the ground where I wanted my first corner, measured out the 33’4” to where the other corner would be, measured 16’ in a direction I thought was perpendicular, and worked my way around the perimeter of a rectangle that looked pretty “square” to me.

I dragged a tape from one diagonal corner to the next and then repeated the process for the other diagonal only to find out they were different by about six inches.

“What’s a half a foot between friends?” I mumbled to myself as I pulled a stake and moved it in the direction I thought would make the building square.  I moved its friend the same distance and remeasured.

“How have I made it worse?” I sighed to myself.

I mentally and physically wrestled with those pins for the next forty-five minutes until the diagonals were within less than a eighth inch (close enough when using pilings as I would have to square it up with the sill logs later).  Much mumbling and scratching of my head took place during that time.  A couple of times I walked to the wrong corner and measured the same diagonal twice.

Perhaps I am a simple man, but there was something tough to picturing the actual shape in my head based off of the concrete measurements I took.  I danced around the square gesturing with my hands, drawing in the dirt, and then by sheer luck and the will of God, it lined up.

Ten years later, and the square dance is continuing.  My family, with the help of some good friends, just poured the pad for our garage.

“Build your garage first,” Dave pointed out, “and it will make the house build easier.”

He paused for effect.

“You just have to convince your wife that it is a good idea.”

Myra was on board from the very beginning and she jumped right into the conversation.

“I want the garage built first,” she emphasized.

Dave and his crew built a pad of gravel harvested from a borrow pit on our property.  We checked it for square to assure the garage footprint would fit. Myra and I measured out where the forms would go and squared all the corners with stakes, then we built the forms, checking for square as we went adjusting how the short walls connected with the long walls.

I am blessed with good help... once she got the hang of it, she wouldn't let me run the compactor anymore.


Dane putting down insulating rigid foam with his help.  

 Barn raisings are still a thing in the rural communities, and Myra and I felt very blessed early on a Saturday morning when our neighbors and relatives showed up to start a long work day of pouring and smoothing cement.

Forms square, 4 inches of rigid foam, rebar in place for footings, two loops of pex for infloor heat, wire mesh... ready for the pour.

The pour itself only took a couple of hours, but the smoothing of the concrete took the entire day and involved a lot of kneeling on hardening concrete.  The crew just kept coming back.

“I think this is my last time up here today,” Dave repeated the phrase he had been using each trip up.  It just became his greeting each time.  “I think you guys have it from here.” 

I was not surprised when he was the first one back to the site when I arrived the next time to continue trowel work.

"Uncle" Dave Cunningham troweling for "his last time that day."

Thanks to that group of friends, the concrete set up beautifully, smooth, level, and pretty much square.  Later, I laid out my lines for the sill plates and assured that the corners were again correct.  The dance was taking less and less time.  I got ready to snap my lines and then remembered that I needed to set the lines back an extra inch to make up for the cdx I was using to sheath the walls.  

I danced a little more, changing the location of the corners to make up for the sheathing.  Myra and I each held a different end to the chalk line and snapped out the marking that would allow us to put down straight, square walls.

Bub then hijacked the process and had me making purple chalk lines on a sheet of plywood she had claimed for her chalk art project.  

We drilled all the holes for the sill plates and spent two days getting them all into place.  The level said we were good to go from that point, and measuring for square was only done for the sake of saying we did it.

“We’re off by ¾ inch,” I yelled from my corner.

“Is that close enough?” Myra asked.


We jimmied the corners around and found the front wall was not quite on its line.

“Half inch,” I said.

“That’s better,” Myra consoled.

It was, and with the light fading, it would have to be good enough for that day, but at home I rolled in bed all night trying to find that half inch.  I watched in my head as the walls went up and the sheathing didn’t fit quite right, and my dreams only got worse as I worked my way through putting the roof on.

“We’ll pull each plate, and make sure each one is correct a wall at a time,” I greeted Myra as she walked down the stairs rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.

“Coffee,” she mumbled.

When we got back up to the site after work, I pulled the east wall plate and found it was not at the line like it should have been.  A half hour later after drilling out the holes more to give the wiggle room necessary, and bolting them back down, we remeasured.

“It’s an inch off now,” I frustratingly shook my head.

As I pulled the west side plate, the chalk line looked a little funny.  We had held the line at the new adjusted corner mark on one side, and had held it on the old corner mark on the other side.  We had chalked out a diagonal line.

45 minutes later and I was truly doing the square dance as the diagonals were exactly the same.

“Man, this building will be up in no time,” I promised Myra as she grinned at her crazy husband.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Plains, Trains, and Wood Chippers

At this stage, it was a beautifully painted boat anchor.
Myra and I are to that stage in life when we get excited about things like wood chippers.

            “Man, all these willows along the road that need to be cleared… they would make great mulch,” I began anew the conversation we had been having since May when we ordered our DR Power Equipment chipper/shredder.

            “Yeah, would work great at the potato farm, playground, around our house,” Myra continued.

            It was a well-worn mental path that we continued walking down into late July when Craig Taylor equipment contacted us to let us know that the chipper they had promised us two months ago was finally ready to ship to us.

            “Just leave it crated,” I reminded them, “it’ll ship easier, and since it has never been fired up, we will avoid the hazmat charge when it gets air freighted.”

            “That is the plan,” the salesman assured me.  “I’ll get it dropped off to Alaska Airlines tomorrow.”

            Tomorrow came, and Alaska Airlines called me.  “Before we can proceed,” the cargo representative informed me, “we need to receive payment for the hazmat fee.”

            “It is brand new, in the crate, and never fired up,” I pointed out.

            “Yeah, probably has fuel residue in it though and that makes it hazmat.  It’s a $120 fee.”

            I mumbled to myself as I dug for my wallet.

            “And, since we don’t ship directly to Unalakleet, I’ll need to receive payment for transferring it to another carrier in Nome when it gets there,” she continued.

            “But, you guys do directly ship here.”

            “No, we don’t.”

            “Okay, but I saw a plane at the runway today that said Alaska Air Cargo on it.  It is still parked out there.  I can send you a picture if you want,” I said without being sarcastic (that is a difficult thing for me to do in cases like this).

            “No sir, according to my computer, we don’t service Unalakleet,” she insisted.

            “Well, according to Chuck Williams (name changed to protect the innocent) who came and did the training of the Ryan Air employees, you do service us directly,” I insisted back.

            “Oh,” recognition of the name evident in her voice, “I’ll have to call you back.”

            Fifteen minutes later, I received another phone call from Alaska Air Cargo looking for payment to ship the chipper/shredder directly to Unalakleet, “We do ship to Unalakleet,” the woman informed me.

            Another two days, and we received the long-awaited phone call from Ryan Air letting us know the anticipated freight had arrived.  Myra and I danced around the living room like two kids on Christmas morning as Ellen stared wondering what kind of mental breakdown her parents were going through.

            “You are going to want another guy or two to move it to the job site,” Myra recommended.

            “We’ll see,” I said absentmindedly smiling as I dreamed of feeding the huge piles of willow brush through the machine.

            Ryan Air forked the crate onto a borrowed trailer and I drove it out to our building site.  Upon removing the crating, assembly was pretty self-evident.  Two long bolts to put the feeding shoot onto the shredder and a spark arrester that easily screwed on to the muffler. 

            The machine weighs a little over 200 pounds, and so I did an interesting dance down a ramp I had temporarily erected from 2x10 header material.  My 42-year-old body was happy that the boards only bent and did not snap as I bounced down the ramp, dragged behind the chipper.

            Not heeding my wife’s advice, I had gone out to the build site by myself.  For some reason I thought the wheels on the chipper would be larger than the toy wagon wheels it came equipped with.  The pull handles on a DR chipper/shredder are just slots cut into the feeder shoot.  They are far from comfortable, but I had gotten the machine this far and wanted to try it out later that day.  Two months was a long time to wait to hear it run.

            “How hard could it be to drag it across fifteen yards of tundra and another fifteen yards of uneven, willow stump strewn ground?” the stubborn voice in my head piped up.  And as if I needed further encouragement, “Weren’t you a college athlete once?”

            Twenty minutes later, and it was my own voice giving the machine I was dragging “words of encouragement.” 

            “The next time I move this stupid thing, our driveway will have been put in,” I said to nobody in particular while wiping sweat from my forehead.

            I hobbled back through the stumps, tripped over the tussocks, and climbed back into the car.  I knew Myra would want to be with me for the first time the machine ran and needed to pick up oil since it was a new machine that had never been started.  It had been shipped without oil.

            We ate dinner, smiling the whole time about how much work we were about to get done.  Two twenty-foot long piles standing over six feet tall and another six foot at the base stood waiting for us.  I could see them start to quake in fear as I dragged the machine into place earlier.

            I grabbed a full quart of oil and another partial since the book said nowhere how much oil the engine should have.  It was a small little Briggs and Stratton motor, and I would be surprised if it took more than the partial quart, but I didn’t want to have to drive all the way back to the house for more.

            When we got to the chipper, I took out the dipstick, saw the oil reservoir was empty, added oil, and replaced the dipstick.  The plan was to allow the oil to run in and settle in order to get a true level reading.  In the meantime, I filled the gas tank.

            The dipstick (the one in the machine not the one adding the oil) still showed low oil and so I added again.  I began pulling the warning stickers from the machine. 

            “Do not run engine without oil,” was printed on one blocking the choke.  “Add oil before initial running,” was printed on a tag connected to the recoil rope.

            I took one more look at the owner’s manual and was greeted by, “Check oil before running,” on the very first page.

            I pulled the dipstick and saw the oil level was at that hashmarks, replaced the dipstick, adjusted the choke and throttle, turned the fuel valve to on, and pulled on the cord.

            “Ooofda,” I said looking at Myra, “this thing has some compression.”

            Four more difficult pulls and the motor sputtered to life.  I worked it through the choke and throttle settings until it was puttering at a strong idle and excitedly reached for the first small willow branch in the pile.  I smiled as I saw the branch consumed and turned to beautiful chips, turned to grab another branch and listened to the engine bog down and die.

            “What happened?” Myra asked.

            “Must have gotten that willow jammed in the chipper,” I said as I tried the recoil again.

            It wouldn’t budge.  It was stuck solid.  Because I didn’t want to be known as nubby or have people feel awkward when asking if I needed a hand, I removed the spark plug wire from the plug before beginning work on the chipper mechanism.

            The willow had gotten jammed in the flywheel and pulling a couple of bolts allowed access to a screen covering the works.  I pulled what I could reach that way, and attempted to manually turn the fly wheel.  It made a terrible screeching noise indicating that a willow was still stuck somewhere in the flywheel up against the housing.

            Two more bolts, and the feed shoot was removed so that I could reach down through the top of the chipper.  This was not the first time in my life that I wondered if being a contortionist might have been a wise and applicable job skill to have acquired at an earlier age.  I also wondered if this was normal practice after each branch.  The videos of this machine that Myra and I had drooled over while shopping for it showed none of this laborious process.

            The pencil size stick that had gummed up the works pulled free, the flywheel was able to spin again, and I put everything back together including pushing the spark plug wire back onto the plug.

            “Huh,” I commented while pulling, “the cord still won’t budge.”

            “I’ll look for the trouble shooting guide,” Myra said as she tried convincing Ellen to surrender the book the little girl had begun running around us in circles with.

            Ellen giggled in recognition of the new game.

            A trade agreement was reached, and Ellen walked away with the warranty information guide.

            “Jammed recoil… remove any material that may be jammed in the flywheel… well, that’s done,” Myra scanned further down the list.  “Pull spark plug and pull recoil rope.  Oil or fuel may have filled the cylinder and blocked the piston.”

            On the DR Chipper Pro 400, the spark plug has been strategically placed under a muffler cage.  I could only guess this was done to keep thieves from walking off with the valuable plug.  It was a sufficient deterrent as I struggled to get the spark plug socket past the cage and onto the spark plug.  I mumbled encouragement to the socket as I wriggled it into place.  Ten minutes later, and the plug and all of the tools used to remove it were free.

            “Huh,” I commented as the recoil again wouldn’t budge.

            Myra scanned further, “Check oil, engine seized.”

            “Really, it jumps to that?” I asked with disappointment evident in my voice.

            I pulled the plug wire again just to assure that this boat anchor engine wouldn’t jump back to life, and then began digging for the right socket to remove the drive belt cover.

            “If it is just a jammed recoil, the pulley on the back of the motor should still turn,” I reasoned aloud.

            It did not.

            “Well, I guess we call tomorrow when Craig Taylor is open again,” Myra suggested.

            We all walked back to the car.  I walked back defeated.

            “Yeah, that sounds like something that should be covered by the warranty,” the salesman at Craig Taylor said.  “I’ll start reaching out to DR, but they are usually more receptive hearing right from the customer.  You should probably give them a call.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll communicate with them too, but they’ll answer you quicker,” he went on.

            DR’s customer service has some great bluegrass for hold music.  This was a real plus as I waited an hour for anyone to pick up.  I am prone to exaggeration, but in a world in which cell phones have timers on them for how long a call lasts… this is not an exaggeration.

            “DR Power equipment, how can I help you?” a friendly voice broke through the bluegrass.

            I went through my spiel and everything I tried.

            “Did you pull the plug and then pull the recoil?” the kind lady asked.

            Thankfully my eye rolling is not as loud as a teenager’s and was not audible on the phone, “yes, that was second thing I did.  I am thinking it is seized and that I got a dud.”

            “Okay, well, just bring it to the dealer, and we’ll get it checked out for you.”

            “Mam, I live in rural Alaska.  We don’t have a dealer.  The machine got here by air.  It will cost me as much as the machine to send it back and then get it sent back here after it is checked out.  I’m the mechanic you’ll be working with,” I said calmly.

            “Well, in that case, go out and take the drive belt off.  It might be binding and keeping the motor from turning over.”

            “If that doesn’t work, what should I do?” I asked to get the next step ready.

            “Call us back.”

            I waited for Myra to be done with work for the day so that I could go out and try the next problem-solving approach as supplied by tech support.  The drive belt cover was already off from the day before.  The drive belt itself was under considerable tension, but loosening the motor mount bolts allowed me to then work the bolt that adjusts motor placement and belt tension.  The belt came off and I pulled on the recoil.  Still stuck.  I grabbed a hold of the drive pulley and tried to manually turn it… didn’t budge.

            “It’s seized,” I shook my head looking at Myra.

            The next day I called back for my one-hour bluegrass session… “take the recoil off and see if it is jammed…”

            I did, it wasn’t.

            “Yeah,” the tech said the next day after I waited through another hour of the same bluegrass song on repeat, “sounds seized.”

            “So now what?” I asked.

            “Well, in order to be covered by warranty,” I was told, “we would have to have a shop look at it and determine what caused the engine failure…”
            This was sounding more and more like a large company escaping responsibility.

            “And so?” I asked during the pause.

            “Well, I can offer you a discounted motor for $300 plus shipping,” I was told.

            My blood pressure went up.  I had seen a motor on Amazon for $350 with free prime shipping.

            “Mam, you drive a brand-new Ford off the lot and the engine blows up on you, how much are you paying for the new engine that goes in it?”

            “I understand sir, but…”
            “So, how many days do I have to return the machine to the dealer for a full refund?” I quickly asked.

            “Excuse me?” came the other end.

            “How long for a 100% refund?”

            “Well… thirty days… give me a minute, I’ll have to put you on short hold.”

            More blue grass.
            “$150 is the best I can do, and shipping will cost $20,” she said.

            “Not as good as free, but better than $300,” I conceded.

            “I’ll just need your address so that I can tell the truck where to drop it off,” she informed me. 

            After all we had gone through in explaining rural Alaska, DR was still convinced they could truck ship me the new motor.

            “You’re not truck shipping it,” I said calmly.  “Put it in a box and drop it off at the post office.”

            “Well, we don’t do that, we truck ship.”

            “If we had roads, I would have driven it to a service shop, drop it off at the post office.”

            “I’ll have to work on a quote for you...”

            Three days later and we still didn’t have a quote.  I got someone new when I called DR for my bluegrass session who told me there was no note about a shipping quote on my account.  He’d get back to me… when he did he told me we were in luck since we received barge shipping in Unalakleet. 

            “You missed the last barge.  Next barge will get here in June of next year, put it in a box and drop it off at the post office.”

            “Well, I’m not sure how much the motor weighs, it might be overweight…”

            “Amazon says 41 pounds,” I informed him.

            “Oh, well, that is within USPS limits…”


            “I’ll get back with you in a couple days on a quote.”

            In a couple of days, he told me that he could ship it to Anchorage and that I’d have to figure out the shipping from there.

            “Ship it to my folks in Michigan.  They’ll put it in a box and drop it off at the post office.”

            He seemed relieved and I told him how excited I was to start chipping with the machine that looked really good… until he cut me off midsentence and said he really had to get to his next call.

            The motor was dropped off to my parents’ house in a crate.  My dad pulled it out and repackaged it, dropped it off at the post office and had it to me in a week.  Four bolts on the motor, a pulley puller to pull the drive pulley, all back together, filled with oil, filled with gas, double checked the oil, and the new motor fired up in one pull.

            “Wow, that sounds a lot better than the first one,” Myra commented.  “That first motor wouldn’t pull over and sounded terrible.”

            We let it idle for five minutes, and grinned as it began eating the willows we had ordered it to deal with three months ago.

            The DR chipper shredder works like the pro it is labeled as.  The Briggs motor happily spins the heavy flywheel with ease eating through pretty much anything four inches or smaller that it is fed.  What I didn’t realize was how much of a gamble it would be to work with a company like DR.  I was originally happy to work with an American company that used American made motors to power their equipment.  It really is a well-built machine and functions well… with an operable motor, but I don’t think I’ll be going with a DR Power Equipment product anytime in the near future.  They just don’t stand by their products.

            For some reason, at the end of this whole adventure, I felt like I should be eating Thanksgiving dinner with a shower curtain ring selling John Candy.  I guess feeding willows to a machine that finally runs will have to suffice.

It makes short work of our willows... just took three months to get started.