Friday, May 12, 2017


Good morning, Miss Mary!” sang out the voice in a big young-man’s key.  “Miss Mary” is an honorific title in small towns, awarded to elderly, respected and slightly eccentric women.  Maybe the equivalent for older men is “Colonel” as in Colonel Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The young man, Josh Clifford, is the younger and newer member of our two-man town maintenance crew.  The older man was up in his seat on the backhoe, maybe his favorite perch.  They had already dug a hole big enough to bury a city bus and deep enough to make that a London double-decker.

“Digging a grizzly trap are you?  Shall we go gather branches to lay over the top to disguise it?”  Josh has a high delighted laugh.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the older man, Leo Malinak, laugh.  But he’s in pain most of the time these days, because he was in a trench like this but smaller, which was good luck since it collapsed on him, burying him up to the waist and wrenching the structure of his lower back.  His spotter had left for just a few minutes, so it was lucky he wasn’t entirely buried.

Earlier he had asked for one of the trench boxes that our men use now, but they are very expensive and his request was denied.  Such is the nature of meanness that one or two townspeople hinted that he got hurt on purpose to prove the box was needed.  He had proven his point the hard way, but in small towns events are often judged by one’s opinion of the persons involved.  Somehow people like to be mad at Leo.

Luckily, insurance was in place.  Small towns understand insurance, maybe because of the efforts of the local insurance rep.  For generations families have encouraged their children to get jobs sitting behind a desk, like an insurance businessman, rather than sitting in a backhoe, on the premise that nitty-gritty jobs are somehow demeaning.  Running big machines, however, is thought to be slightly more upscale in ag towns where mega-tractors demonstrate prosperity.  Big new machines are always part of parades.  But it’s likely that the future belongs to the nitty-gritty, done with skill.

In case you’re interested, there are laws and regulations about trenches.  But they are federal and small towns often have contempt for feds because they are far away and based on theory, so no one can judge them by looking in their faces and asking who their granny was.  

My uncle, who raised sheep in Oregon, had a shearing shed with a loose board in the floor.  If a person stepped on it wrong, it would fly up and maybe knock your eye out.  The OSHA clip-board guy came through and made my uncle replace the board securely.  My uncle was enraged.  Everyone in the county who ever sheared sheep knew to step over that board.  One would have thought it was the Grandfather Memorial Sheep Shed Board.  Anyway everyone knew that shearing sheep was dangerous.  Only tough guys shear sheep.  (My niece did it for years, but she’s kinda tough as well as pretty.)

Valier was founded in 1909, an actual million-dollar town because that’s what Cargill paid for the land.  The small town itself was only the service hub for a sprawling system that began with water-run-off from the Rocky Mountains, captured behind Swift Dam, which was built on a reservation ranch owned by the agent, Major Steell (he wasn’t military — “Major” was another of those honorifics) and his Blackfeet wife.  It was her allotment from rez lands and the only legality was that some irrigation canals were built for crops just at the foot of the dam.  

A long web of canals was built out across the ecotone onto the prairie so that irrigation could support small grain crops that would be stored in a Cargill elevator and shipped to the Pacific Coast on the railroad.  This system is used world-wide by Cargill and other companies, but has begun dwindling in Valier.  The railroad spur, elevators, and canals are aging and have been sold and resold.  The biggest boom was during the building of the dams, canals, and Lake Francis and has been described by Ivan Doig.

The climate in Valier is classed as semi-arid.  It is not easy to drill a dependable well because the underlying deep geo-structure was jumbled by the last glaciers and the upthrust of the Rockies.  What makes trenches problematic is that much of the soil is finely granular volcanic dust from the Pacific Northwest volcanoes.  

Locally called “gumbo,” a slightly distinct form of this clay is called “bentonite” which is both sticky and slick.  The stuff can, through an electrochemical reaction, expand to a dozen times its original size.  It’s used to plug oil wells and for kitty litter.  [NEVER put kitty litter down the toilet or any other pipe.  The only cure is is replacing the pipe.]

When bentonite is dry it’s like concrete; when it’s wet one can hardly stand up on it.  When the famous Father Van left the newly arrived steamboat in Fort Benton and crossed the street to a saloon where he intended to begin preaching, by the time he got there each foot weighed fifty pounds.  Houses in Valier are never square, though they are built that way, because the soil beneath them changes all time.

At the town council meeting this week, Mayor Ray Bukoveckas reported that he was seeking grants to address our constantly deteriorating water and sewer system.  He estimates there are 4200 feet of piping that needs replacing plus fifteen manholes that should be there but aren’t.  What Josh and Leo were replacing was deteriorating cement.  The new line is plastic, maybe a foot in diameter.  A major part of the cost will be engineering.

The town is a little over a hundred years old.  The many cottonwoods and blue spruce trees planted then are also about a hundred years old, which is close to the end of their lifespan.  Some were planted up against buildings to shelter them because they were tiny.  Now they must come out because they invade pipes and add the disruption of their roots to the bulging and shrinking of the soil.  One of Leo’s special causes is the planting of new trees in plan-ahead places.  

The infrastructure of water wells, pipes and lagoons is also about a hundred years old, and was pieced together from an odd assortment of pipe of different sizes — 4” where it should be 8” and so on — with strange couplings.  Materials and techniques are VERY different than at the time of installation.

The town population and its income does not match costs.  Water is sold to ranches on “dry” land (no wells) and to those mixing chemicals for spraying.  At this council meeting So-Lo aerial crop spraying dropped its long-standing contract rather than pay the $5,000 to $6,500 annual cost of potable water from the town. Mayor Bukcoveckas is a calm, diplomatic, knowledgeable force in all these matters, a much needed leader in a time of chaos.  Without careful research and planning ahead for maintenance and adaptation to new technology, even simple change can have major consequences.  Maybe we should start talking about “Colonel Ray,” our Major Mayor.

No comments: