When I was a kid, I spent most summers on a medium-sized farm that my aunt Lucille and uncle Mike owned. It was near the Black River in Missouri not far from a town called Annapolis.
Lucille was my Dad's sister and was, in many ways, like my Dad. Usually quiet and soft spoken with a bend for dry wit and sarcasm, Lucille rarely got mad, but she could make you feel about an inch tall with just a look.
Mike on the other hand, was a bit loud and blustery. And he was funny. He had all sorts of funny names for things. Like when I didn't feel good, he would say I had the mully-grubs. Sometimes I had conkus of the bonkus. And he always told funny stories.
Mike spent World War II in the Army. He was involved in the island hopping from Australia all the way into Japan. Even his stories about the war were funny. He told one about the trip from Hawaii to Australia with all the soldiers seasick and the sailors eating pickles and sausages to make sure the soldiers stayed that way.
It wasn't until much later that I learned that Mike spent some time in the Philippines and was among the first US forces into Japan after the use of the atomic bombs. He was in Hiroshima for eight months. He clearly had stories that weren't at all funny, but he chose to remember, and relate, the good times he had.
He did have a serious side, too. Many of you may not know that I'm deaf. As a kid, I learned to sign, and that allowed me to communicate before I learned to read lips and speak. My parents, of course, learned to sign, but so did Mike. In fact, he was better than my folks at it. He had a knack for signing and for communicating with me in general. He just knew, somehow, that by placing my hand on his lips when he spoke, I could get the new word he tried to teach me must faster. And he would draw pictures for me to get an idea across.
That was just Mike. He was a funny and happy man.
He also had some rather strange habits.
Mike was a firm believer in the idea that if a little of something is good, then more is better. Like the time he almost killed a young calf by giving it too much medicine when it had a respiratory infection. The package said to give a certain amount per pound, and when that helped, Mike decided to double the dose.
The vet managed to save the calf. Barely.
Or the time he decided that the big Black Angus bull he owned was breaking the fence down too often to get to the cows. You know how men are. Mike bought an electric fence charger that was big enough to handle 200 miles of fence. The bull lived in a 40-acre field. In case you don't know, a 40-acre field is 1/4-mile on a side: a total of one mile.
The shock almost killed the bull.
And then there were the moles.
The farmhouse sat on perhaps an acre of land as the yard. Lucille liked plants and flowers, just like my Dad did. She had flowerbeds with pansies, petunias, black-eyed Susans, hollyhocks, snapdragons, and others I didn't know the names of. She had rose bushes all over. Other plants were scattered around the yard as well. I remember in the spring and summer when the flowers bloomed, the yard was an explosion of color, more than I thought there were, and the fragrance would fill the air. I guess it was only my imagination, but it seemed I could smell the flowers all the way back in town, more than seven miles away.
And Mike had to mow the yard, too. Lucille had to watch him closely, though. Mike would mow down her flowers if something distracted him. That was when Lucille would show that, like my Dad, she could get mad.
The problems started the summer after my eleventh birthday.
Lucille and I were in the house. She was trying to teach me to crochet. I never did get the hang of that. Mike was mowing the yard, and Lucille heard him yell a few choice expletives and the mower stopped. Figuring he had either run over some flowers or his foot, we ran outside.
A huge cloud of dust was still settling, and we saw chunks of the Kentucky Blue Grass tossed carelessly around the yard by the now quiet mower. Mike sat on the ground rubbing his ankle.
Once Lucille and I saw he wasn't dead or missing any body parts, we stifled our laughter and got the story of what had happened.
Mike said that as he pushed the mower along, the right rear wheel had suddenly dipped causing the whirling blade to hit the ground. This propelled the chucks of grass and dirt at a high rate of speed in all directions. A small rock had come out the back and hit his ankle.
Mike once decided to get a goat to keep the grass down in the yard. The goat missed places, and he ended up mowing anyway. The goat went away after Mike hit a fresh pile of goat droppings with the mower. The little pellets came out from under the mower at something just less than the speed of sound in every direction. Mike had on shorts that day, and his legs looked like some drug-crazed artist had at him in an experiment to find a new medium to work with.
Lucille, being ever practical, looked at the mower. She commented that the wheels appeared intact.
Stumbling a little and groaning a lot, Mike regained his feet. A careful examination found that the mower didn't malfunction. The right rear wheel had fallen into a collapsed mole run.
For those city-folk reading, a mole run is the tunnel left behind by a mole as they move through the dirt. For those serious city-folk reading, a mole is sort of like a cross between a mouse and mining machine. They have tiny eyes, no ears, and can tunnel through the dirt like mad.
Lucille nodded her head. She'd been fussing for a week about something digging around her plants. Mike had told her she was seeing things.
Now, moles are insectivores. They eat bugs. I'm sure if one was hungry enough, it would eat a plant, but they prefer bugs. Most gardeners like moles. They eat the bugs that will eat the plants and actually help to keep the soil loose.
But Mike wasn't just any old gardener. And his ankle must have still hurt. Right then and there he declared war on the Evil Mole Empire.
Over the next week or so, Mike tried a number of approaches to eradicating moles from his territory. Most involved poisons that are illegal now. There were two results: First, the number of mole runs increased exponentially; second, there were a good number of dead birds in the yard.
This clearly wasn't working.
Mike next resorted to more conventional warfare. Traps. I'm not talking about the nice "live traps" you see today. Most of these traps involved wicked looking spikes and daggers mounted on heavy springs and were designed to trigger when the mole passed. The mechanism then either shoved the spikes into the mole or the mole into the spikes. And the things weren't cheap, either.
Each morning, Mike would check the traps to find every single one tripped and no moles skewered like some demented rodent luau with individual serving kabobs.
The oddest thing he tried was a mole thumper. When I learned about this, my eleven-year-old mind conjured an image of a garden gnome with a hammer waiting to play whack-a-mole...with real moles.
It turns out that a mole thumper is an electric drum. Sort of. It has a thing inside that makes a thumping noise. You push it in the ground like a tent stake, turn it on, and the noise is supposed to drive the moles crazy. It wasn't clear if they would leave or commit suicide.
The moles in Mike's yard did neither. As far as we could tell, the thumper actually attracted the moles.
Mike was despondent. Lucille and I would often find him in the evenings sitting on the porch mumbling about moles being dug in deeper than the Japanese someplace we could only assume to be a south Pacific island. His eyes held a faraway look that I later learned is common among soldiers in heavy fighting. Something like what's commonly called battle fatigue.
All his weapons had failed to subdue, or even divert, his sworn enemy. Remember that the bad taste of Vietnam was still fresh in most people's minds then. Mike wasn't ready to admit another defeat of America, most especially not at the hands, or paws, of a pint-sized Mickey Mouse wannabe.
He began to talk to everyone he could find about mole control. What worked, what didn't work. Maybe a dog was the answer.
Mike and Lucille's big collie-shepard, Danny, wasn't in to catching and eating moles. Neither was the farm cat, Sarge.
And then the answer seemed to come as divine intervention. One Sunday after church, we were all standing around outside the church talking. A guest minister from over at Van Buren had come to speak that day. As I recall, he preached about how the meek would inherit the Earth.
Mike mentioned his mole-induced misery and the preacher laughed a little. He related how he and his late wife (God rest her soul) had a mole problem several years before she passed on (God rest her soul). The way his loving wife (God rest her soul) dealt with it was to use calcium carbide. Just a few grains, maybe a teaspoon, in four or five of the runs, and then his wife (God rest her soul) watered the grass. The gasses ran the moles right off and his late wife (God rest her soul) was free of moles.
The idea of abandoning poisons, traps, and electric dirt drums and moving into the realm of nerve gas seemed to both excite and encourage Mike. Today, that would probably disturb me. Then, I was just happy to see that he wasn't getting his old M-1 out of the gun case.
Oh, that's right. You may not know what calcium carbide is. For the purists out there, it's a dark gray crystalline substance made up of one calcium atom and two carbon atoms. Usually, most people just call it carbide.
It has one main use: The generation of acetylene gas for welding or lighting.
The old miner's lamps ran on carbide. Until the 1970s, a lot of factories made their own acetylene gas to weld with.
All you do is add water to carbide, and you get acetylene gas. You get highly flammable acetylene gas.
The idea was that the gas wouldn't so much kill the moles as that the smell would drive them away. Then again, if they stayed around, I'm sure the gas would kill them.
The yard was bigger than most. It was maybe three or four times bigger. It made sense that Mike would need more than four or five teaspoons of carbide to do the job. If we go with the larger estimate, he would need maybe twenty teaspoons of carbide.
I don't know if you can even buy carbide today. Personally, I think it would be a good thing if not. Then, you could get it at almost any hardware or feed store. Monday morning, I went with Mike to Funk's Feed and Grain.
They sold carbide in cans that looked like paint cans. There were pint, quart, and gallon cans all in a pretty blue color with the Union Carbide logo on the front and a zillion warnings on the back.
I'll admit it. I'm guessing about the amounts in the cans here. I would guess that a pint can holds maybe eight tablespoons of carbide. That's about twenty-four teaspoons. Using my estimate, a quart can would contain around forty-eight or so teaspoons.
Mike bought the gallon can.
The preacher from Van Buren had said his late wife (God rest her soul) had waited until dusk to put the carbide in the runs and water the area. The poor woman (God rest her soul) said that would make sure the moles were active since they tend to be nocturnal.
An hour or so before sundown, Mike went to work on his mission of destruction. I noticed he didn't take a spoon.
Using his old Army knife, he poked a hole in a mole run, and then scooped a handful of carbide into the hole. He then moved on. He did this all over the yard, maybe every six feet or so. Soon, the can was empty.
The year before, Dad and Mike had put an electric pump in the old hand-dug well, so they had running water now. Mike grabbed the hose and began to saturate the yard.
He worked slowly toward the porch. He shut the water off and climbed the five steps up to the porch itself where Lucille and I sat, me trying to get that whole crochet thing down.
Mike smoked cigarettes. Not just any cigarettes, but unfiltered Camels. I remember staring at the pack for hours, liking the old looking pictures of the desert with the camel and Egyptian imagery. I remember finding it somehow soothing.
Mike pulled a Camel from the pack, tamped it three times, and stuck it in his mouth. Striking a kitchen match against the head of a nail in the porch railing, he lit the cigarette and tossed the match out into the damp grass.
Do you know the difference between burning and exploding? When something burns, it gives off gasses that expand. In burning, this expansion is unchecked, so it's a nice, slow process. If the expansion of the gas is somehow contained, the pressure builds up and eventually breaks free. Then you have an explosion.
Sometimes, under the right conditions, you get explosive acetylene gas when you add water to carbide.
The yard seemed to explode all at once and nothing first.
I've been close to lightening strikes. The shockwave was close to that. Maybe it wasn't quite as loud as a lightening strike only fifty feet away. I've also been close to running jet engines. The explosion was much stronger than that.
The flash surprised me. I should say the absence of a flash. It's the mix of acetylene and oxygen that makes that pretty blue flame you see when welding. Apparently, there was enough oxygen to prevent the yellow flame of free-burning gas, but not enough to give the bright blue of the welding flame.
That or it just went too fast to have any color at all.
Dirt rained from the sky like hail. Mixed in with the dirt were small rocks and clumps of grass. The occasional pansy or petunia could be seen fluttering slowly to the exploding ground.
When the rain of debris stopped, I looked out at the yard. Instead of the bluish-green of the Kentucky Blue Grass, the yard was the brown of dry clay. A few small craters could be seen, still smoldering. One rose bush still stood upright, its roots clinging for dear life to the scrabbled dirt. Every bloom and every leaf had been stripped from its now bare branches.
And there stood Mike. He was outlined against the battle zone, cigarette hanging limply from his lips. His hand and arm were frozen in the position they had assumed when he casually flicked the burning match into the grass as he had done countless times before this.
His eyes had a different look now. I suspect it was the same look that soldiers get when their enemy just demonstrated some awesome, newfound weapon for which there is no defense. I think they call it "Shock and Awe".
As Lucille and I walked to the edge of the porch to stand on either side of Mike, we saw that the damage appeared restricted to the yard. We could see no broken windows. No siding was missing from the house. Even the old tire swing in the front swayed gently in the breeze.
Mike seemed to remember the burning cigarette hanging from his lower lip. He lifted it fully into his mouth and took a long drag. As he slowly exhaled the smoke, a small mole ran across the yard and found some bug. We stood silently watching as the rodent enjoyed his evening meal.
And just like when your enemy has a newfound weapon of staggering power, the only option was total, unconditional surrender.
Melodee Aaron, Erotica Romance Author
Melodee's Books at BookStrand