I have to begin with an apology. It's been over a month since I last posted a story and it isn't because I didn't want to or was simply getting lazy; it was just that July is traditionally a busy month and this year was no exception. With our graphics and photography business we've often found ourselves in the midst of marathon orders where we had to sneak away just to use the latrine. But we have to put up with it for a while yet because we hope that it will help us out in a few short years when we say good-bye to our day jobs and join the ranks of retired and leave the tired behind. So here is my latest post from my Coffee Row series and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
No one could say that Alfred wasn't impulsive. No one could say that he thought things out completely before acting on them either. One thing that you could really count on was that his temper was shorter than most and his logic was truly lacking. Nonetheless he was logical enough and shrewd enough to become a successful farmer and thus built up a substantial spread over the years. He was even lucky enough to be able to buy a few toys to play with when he wasn't neck-deep in farming.
Al loved to fly and like several younger farmers in the Milk River/Warner region during the early fifites he was able to enroll in flight school and obtain his pilot's license. Of course it would be a few years before he could actually afford to buy an airplane. But eventually that dream too, was realized by the late sixties.
He purchased a Cessna 180 tail-dragger; a four-person light airplane with a tail wheel instead of a nose gear such as the 182 model had. With his new-found freedom toy he was able to log a number of hours up in the wild blue yonder and even manage to take some lengthy trips. But for the most part he was confined to short trips around home and one could say that the majority of those weren't much more than a joyride. Still he enjoyed his airplane and at least was able to show his colleagues that he actually had an airplane to go with the license.
Harvest in 1975 went fairly well, at least until around the end of September when a damp weather system moved in and decided to stick around so that it could tease and torment the farmers who weren't lucky enough to get their crops off by that time. It wasn't cold and raining or snowing as the sun shone every day; what it consisted of was high humidity. One had to consider himself lucky if he could even begin thrashing before noon but by the time the centerline of the sun was on the horizon (in the aviation world that marks the official beginning of night), the material became so tough (that's farming lingo for damp) it started wadding up. When those moisture-laden slugs started hitting that combine's cylinder, you might have enough time to finish the round before the damp material plugged the machine solid; and no one enjoys unplugging a combine's cylinder.
Of course there are worse things than trying to remove a bunch of damp straw. JC's cousin was combining late one night, moving steadily down a medium swath when a loud 'Wham' shook the entire machine. It almost stalled the engine but the powerplant managed to regain its momentum and continue the job at hand. Just as Bryan was trying to figure out what he could possibly have ingested, the smell hit him.
And yes, a skunk can shut your operation down in a hurry too.
Back to the story: there was a number of farmers chasing small patches of late seeding, some working away until the end of October before they were finally able to call it a season. JC tells the story from his family farm when they chased just over a hundred acres of barley and finished it on Halloween; and that was only because the temperature had dropped to below freezing which kept things dry enough to finish the last few rounds even despite a skiff of snow that had moved in.
For Alfred his luck was about the same. He had all of his crop in the bin save for a pesky quarter section of late barley that just wouldn't ripen. And when it did, thrashing conditions were much less than desireable. He complained about some days he couldn't start threshing until two in the afternoon and he was forced to shut down at five. Maybe it was the frustration of having all that crop lying in windrows and not being able to do much about it that made him throw caution into the winds that day. Or was it just that he was going to show who was really running things around his farm. Whatever the excuse, he was about to embark on something that would inevitably force him to think a bit more before doing something completely stupid.
Waterfowl such as ducks and Canadian geese love barley. Geese don't seem to be as bad as ducks but they can still do a lot of damage to the crops. But geese are also a lot easier to deal with than ducks.
Find a flock of geese on your crop and all you need to do is fire a rifle over top of them and they're gone. But find a flock of ducks on your crop and you've got yourself a challenge. Ducks will fly in at dusk and stay all night. Fire a shotgun at them and they will fly up and away from the first swath only to land on the next swath. Install a bird scare cannon and you'll find them parked right in front of the device within a day.
The most effective way to deal with ducks is to be out there at dusk with a high-powered rifle and start shooting through the flock as they are flying in. The shriek of the bullet through the air scares them and is usually enough to convince them to fly over to the neighbor's place and raid his crop. I might add that you also have to be there again at dawn to scare off the ones that are just flying in for their breakfast cereal.
Well, there came that fateful morning when Alfred was having his first cup of coffee of the day and listening to the news. The first rays of light penetrated the predawn haze and he was able to gaze out and see his farm coming to life. But then the life he was seeing wasn't what he wanted at all.
His field of barley was blackened with ducks. They had flown in before sunrise and were well engaged in destroying what was left of the crop. Al let out an oath and charged out the door.
But he wasn't carrying a rifle. He headed straight for his hangar, slid the doors open and pushed his trusty airplane outside. He didn't even perform a proper preflight; he just hopped in, buckled up and checked his fuel gauges when he turned on the master switch before firing it up.
He wasted no time getting airborne. He clenched his teeth as he firewalled the throttle. "Sons of bitches, I'll show you who's in charge!" he muttered as his plane picked up speed. He was no sooner off the ground when he banked hard and brought the airplane right around and set a course for the field across the road.
He spotted a flock nestled next to the main road and flew low, even under the power line, straight for the ducks. The thunder of the engine and the drone of the propeller scared the ducks sufficiently to get them up and flying away. Alfred's confidence rising, he banked again and buzzed another flock a couple hundred yards away; they too, took flight never to return. Out to his left he spotted a rather large flock nestled at the base of a low knoll. Firewalling the throttle again he banked sharply and sped off to make yet another strafing run.
The wind was blowing in from the north at about fifteen knots. That was sufficient to keep the noise of the airplane from spooking the marauding fowls and they didn't even notice until that huge flying creature was right on top of them. Panicking ducks crashed into each other attempting to take flight and all was chaos on the ground.
But eventually they were airborne, setting a course for anywhere they needed to avoid being swallowed by that giant bird. Al was really beginning to enjoy this; buzzing ducks was a lot more fun than trying to scare them with a rifle. He continued on a northerly direction maintaining an altitude of maybe twenty feet, flying steadily toward the crest of that knoll.
Now we're really into that part about Al not completely thinking things through before taking action. He continued toward the crest of that knoll and then flew over it at full throttle. What he didn't know was that the motherlode of ducks had camped just over that same knoll. And they heard him coming. And they were already airborne by the time he crested that knoll.
Hitting a sparrow at over a hundred miles per hour could put a small dent in your airplane. Hitting a flock of them could put a whole bunch of small dents in your airplane. But hit a duck, and you've got a large dent to deal with. Now try to wallow through several hundred of them and you've got something that could threaten to make the Battle of Britain pale in comparison.
Al literally flew into a black wall; duck carcasses pummelled his airplane's wings, the engine cowling and control surfaces, the latter of which threatened to wrench the controls out of his hands. The windshield all but completely turned into a bloodied opaque spider web. The propeller was obviously bent as the engine developed a tremendous vibration and seemed to have little pull.
Alfred managed to bank away from the mass. Through a tiny corner of the windshield that was still clear enough to see through, he spotted a road allowance off to the side of the field. By applying full power and full left rudder, combined with a lot of coaxing of the ailerons to keep it level, he managed to steer his crippled airplane over in that direction and land it.
Upon getting out of his airplane, he discovered that the leading edge of the starboard (that would be the right side) wing had been pounded flat and driven back as much as eighteen inches in some places. One blade of his propeller was bent at right angles toward the back and about a foot from the tip. The other blade was twisted in its root to the full pitch setting.
It was a miracle he was able to set it down at all.
Alfred eventually completed his harvest. By the time he added all things up the ducks had caused somewhere in the neighborhood of $8,000.00 in damages to his crop and over $20,000.00 to his airplane. All in all it might have been a better idea to just use the rifle to get rid of the ducks.