DIRECTIONS PART II: Stories of Halloween, outhouses, potatoes, pesticides, Parkinson’s and mea culpa

DIRECTIONS PART II: Stories of Halloween, outhouses, potatoes, pesticides, Parkinson’s and mea culpa

Prior to my last post, DIRECTIONS PART I: Stay werr you’re to, ‘til I comes werr you’re at, B’y!, which is the first in a planned series, it had been over four months between posts. My instinct, even though I wasn’t raised in a family with a strong religious tradition, is to confess my sins i.e., apologize for my tardiness and seek your forgiveness. However, as I was reflecting on what words would be suitably contrite, I realized that this same lax religious upbringing permits me to conclude not only that I have no obligation to confess but equally I have no reason to apologize. I have done nothing untoward. Rest assured that I say none of this out of any disrespect for you, dear reader.

In November 2016, I wrote a piece that is truthfully a “Last Post” in that it was my reportage on the Celebration of Life for John R. Mills, a man who warranted the many accolades that were thrown his way at the best wake I have ever attended.  I know that learned intellectuals and professionals studying death and dying within all types of societies have researched, interpreted, analyzed and written about the grieving process identifying its stages and concomitant behaviors of the mourners. For the last four months I have been trying to come to grips with the reality that the strikes of the hammer on the anvil were hailing the blacksmith and farrier, beloved by all, to come home.

John’s death affected me in ways that I did not anticipate. He and I shared some quite personal moments in the months (even years) before he left us – moments that gave me insights into his life and his person; moments that give me the strength to face my own future with Parkinson’s, a progressively degenerative neurological disease; moments that help me better understand my own person; and moments that bring calmness to my spiritual self. Most of those moments will remain private and confidential but there are one or two that I feel I can share.

Sometimes there is no ‘option’ in option

During the last months of John’s life, there were many decisions to be made, difficult decisions; decisions no man or woman should have to face. He had sage and respected advice from physicians, health professionals, family and friends so he did not face the decisions or their consequences alone. Still, the final burden was disproportionately his to bear.

What turbulence is created in your intellectual and spiritual self when too much ‘hard’ medical data competes unfairly with too little ‘real’ time?  Some are tempted to call this problem a “quandary,” a ”puzzle,” or a “dilemma” for which there is no correct answer. Others see it as a kind of cost – benefit analysis where the positives and negatives (upsides and downsides) are totaled and offset to inform the decision – making process. Characterizing the problem as having a binary answer (yes/no) disguises the fact that the options under consideration are most often ‘options’ in name only and each option could be equally unthinkable e.g., living longer with a medically assisted but vastly diminished quality of life or dying more immediately from the ravages of your disease on your body and mind.

Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia”

The language of “options” also implies that we have a say in the matter; that there is ‘free will’ and we can, not change the course of history but, choose the course of history. The heading above is the epitaph (several slightly different versions are often quoted) that W.C. Fields proposed for himself in an article in Vanity Fair (June 1925.) I guess if Fields had the final say he would be alive in Philadelphia rather than in a grave beneath a headstone in Glendale, California.  Wouldn’t we all?  More likely, he would still be in a grave but in Philadelphia rather than California.

I do not deny the existence of free will for many actions we take, or do not take, in the course of life, but does free will always exist for life and death actions/inactions? If free will does exist are we fortunate or are we fortunate if it doesn’t? If there is no higher power than you, then to whom are you accountable? What if you, as the highest power, do not wish to die but your body and spirit can no longer sustain life? What if, at the very end of life, at that moment when our Soul is to be released from its material casing, we have no choice? How does that happen; who makes that decision? What if we do not have a Soul? The list of questions is interminably long.

Living with the dying and dying with the living sucks, doesn’t it? Or does it suck only if dying has greater importance or gravitas than life? The problem is that ‘not dead’ means ‘alive’ and ‘not alive’ means ‘dead.’ In relational terms each condition should be equal; each dependent upon the other being not present. As I only know and experience “aliveness,” that is the only condition about which I can speak and it turns out that I don’t know very much about it at all.

On the positive side, I know nothing about “deadness” and I am not even certain I ever will. This is not to imply that I will live forever but that there may be no consciousness for me after death. It is all very confusing and is very much a “black hole” into which the secret code of life is absorbed after death, never to be relinquished. Perhaps, being prepared to live and to “not live” (rather than “to die”) is the best we can do.

“Tell me a story”

What could I possibly say to John that would be at all helpful? The mind often boggles at times like this but John took the lead and on two occasions he lifted one hand slightly off the hospital bed to signal that he wanted to “say” something and although he was unable to speak without great effort, he signaled that everyone except me should leave. The first time was very private and personal and shall remain that way. The second time he wanted me to tell him a story. I had been sending John copies of my blog for quite some time and I knew that the stories resonated with his own experiences and that he appreciated the humour and context. So I stood by John’s bedside and spun a few stories that had been tumbling around in my brain but hadn’t yet made it into written and more polished form. Today, you are privy (pun intended, you’ll see) to some elements of those stories in a more organized form.

Nothing says Halloween like outhouses … and a potato?

I knew that John would appreciate the particular time period within which the stories are set as well as the many threads within the stories themselves. For me though, the significance of the stories lay in the telling and in the non-verbal responses they drew from John. In those brief few moments, I was thrilled that I was able to remind him of what it is like to be an eight year old boy – a boy who plugged Bob Lang’s sump pump hose with a potato on Halloween night, causing a minor flood in his basement which thankfully was unfinished and unfurnished.

I am sure those of you with sump pumps would like to take that boy and wring his neck, as water in the basement is not what any homeowner wants and a plugged drain pipe could overheat the sump pump motor and blow a fuse or trip a breaker. (See note 2) I suppose it could also start a fire if there was no thermal relay switch. My recollection is that the potato plug in Bob Lang’s sump pump hose caused only minor flooding. I heard no talk of fire or other damage.

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Who plugged the sump pump hose with a potato anyway? Photo: S. Marshall 2017

It is well known that boys over the age of nine, teenagers and immature adults look forward to playing the “trick or treat” game on Halloween night. The idea is simple; if a residence or business did not give you a treat then they could expect a trick to be played on them. Sometimes the older tricksters did not even give the “treat” part a chance; they just went directly to the trick. Tricks came in a wide variety of forms: soaping windows was quick and easy to do but slow and labourious to remove; throwing hay or straw bales on a roof top required the strength of young men; anything that wasn’t tied down and was smaller than a car got moved; but the most common trick was to tip over the outhouse. Almost every house in Altamont had at least one outhouse; likely a “two-holer” but there are many with only one hole. I remember seeing a three-hole outhouse on my grandparents’ farm when I was a kid. I thought it was hilariously funny but you never know, perhaps the number of holes is determined by the size of family … or some other social or economic variable. I am sure someone has done an analysis and with power of Google I could find out but this not the time to wander too far from the subject matter.

Cottage outhouse

A “one-holer” outhouse was common for a residence  Photo: S. Marshall

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A typical outhouse for a business with separate entrances for “Men” and “Ladies”   Photo: S. Marshall

Humour and Horror in the ”honey pit”?

Halloween is not all Hollywood, horror movies and Freddie Krueger. The horror of the “honey pit” predates the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and seems to have persisted over time. One recurring story is that a specific someone e.g., Ed Bulmer, Oz Jackson or Bob Hetherington, was in his outhouse when it was tipped over on its front, blocking the door. These images produced roars of laughter at each telling. Whether it is true or not is hardly the point. Strangely, I do not recall any women being named as someone, pants down, struggling to get out of an outhouse lying on its door in front of its “honey pit.” In fact, there are very few visual sightings of women entering or leaving the outhouses at any time and certainly none at Halloween no matter how strong the call of nature might be.

Sometimes the perpetrators got their comeuppance and one or more of those (no names will be provided here) tipping the outhouse inadvertently found himself (it was always a male) in the “honey pit,” having slipped during the deed. Even though I had been present at a few tipping events when I was young, I never witnessed such misfortunes – and it certainly never happened to me!  Still, it could not have been that hard for someone to nose out the truth after you have fallen into a pit of human excrement and piss, but perhaps like a cat that failed in its leap onto a precarious perch, you just preen for a second or two after falling and walk away nonchalantly as if nothing happened.

It is a safe bet that at least once in the last 130 years someone in Altamont was in the outhouse when it was tipped over and at least once a trickster did fall into the pit after giving the outhouse that one last mighty shove to break the centre of gravity.

The origins of Halloween go back thousands of years and bear resemblance to traditions of the Celtic harvest festivals. Interestingly, in the 1880s and 1890s many Irish immigrants passed through the Ottawa Valley (Merrickville, Carp) and other parts of southern Ontario (Lucan) on their way to settle in southern Manitoba around Musselborough which was founded in 1884 and later renamed Altamont. Undoubtedly, their Irish humour was fertile ground for tricks at Halloween and they relished the opportunity to regale one another with tales of forays on this night when the authorities turned a blind eye to minor infractions. It is not hard to see how stories of falling into the “honey pit” or of being in the outhouse when it was tipped over on its door, the only exit being over or through the foul smelling and disgusting looking pit, would become standard fare whenever they gathered.

I tend to think there is a kernel of truth in most stories that persist over time and the rumours associated with outhouse tipping are no exception. As if to prove this very point, the following entry in the book of memories for the 100th anniversary of the founding of Altamont was written 33 years ago and speaks to the general nature of these outhouse capers at Halloween.

“Halloween was always an exciting time in Altamont, especially in the days before in-door plumbing. It could be a dangerous time too. You had to be careful where you walked. More than one in–a-hurry, prankster found himself the victim of a fate worse than death, having fallen into an uncovered toilet hole.”

“Those outhouses must have been built well to survive the annual “pushing over.” Sometimes they were hauled out into the road and used to block traffic.”

“The most famous back-house in Altamont was also the most fortified. In fact, it still exists today. Bob Lang secured his one-holer with barbed wire. Most years he was successful in keeping his out-house at home.”

“Just when the boys were making some progress in getting his toilet over, old Bob would come running from his house waving his hockey-stick cane in the air. Everyone would scatter only to try again later.” ~ Allan Dawson in Memories of Altamont, 1984 -1994, compiled by the Altamont Centennial Committee.

Yes, Mr. Dawson identifies the same Bob Lang I referenced earlier in the sump pump potato plug incident. Bob seemed to be a target for many on Halloween. Perhaps, it was the challenge of his fortified outhouse and, appropriately enough, the danger of being ‘slashed’ by that hockey stick cane.

Memories of Altamont 1884 -1984 cover

Fire??!!

John was a great fan of stories that had action and he loved it when the characters were hit quite literally over the head as part of the story line. It goes almost without saying that when I was fully engaged in the stories of the outhouse tipping shenanigans, John was more animated and his eyes were visible under their closed lids. I am not sure what he enjoyed the most: the idea of a general assault on outhouses at Halloween; the tipping and dragging of outhouses onto the street to block traffic; the possibility of someone actually being in the outhouse at the critical moment when its centre of gravity was breached; the irony of a perpetrator falling into a cesspool of piss and shit; or the idea, which I heard more than once during the outhouse raids, “Let’s set fire to the fucker.”

Fire was no stranger to Altamont and I am researching a number of fires over the 130 years of Altamont’s existence. As my research is incomplete at this stage I cannot delve into those events too deeply but let’s consider the following questions: What if the Halloween tricksters did set the outhouse on fire? What if the idea caught fire, so to speak? Would there be a conflagration of “shitters” the likes of which the world has never known? Not likely, but even though Altamont was small, setting fire to one or more outhouses in the community would make a statement far beyond the usual Halloween “pranks.” Flaming outhouses are sure to hit the news – even though cell phones were not yet in widespread existence and video of such events would be difficult to find. Rest assured the concept of mens rea would be applied and charges would be laid.

Environment, outhouses and Parkinson’s

In the 1950s and 1960s small villages and unincorporated Local Urban Districts (LUDs) such as Altamont did not have public utilities such as water and sewer. Only a few houses had septic fields and the “water utility” was an electric pump drawing water from a well on the property. But in truth most houses had no electric pump; no running water; no flush toilet; no septic field; and the waterworks was an old creaky hand pump drawing water from a well directly below.

Most people had outhouses where they went to “do their business” or “honey pits” into which they emptied a “honey bucket” from the house, a task I was given when I was about 8 years old, once a day, every day after my sisters had gone to bed. I can still recall the weight of the honey bucket in my hands, stink trailing behind me as I walked through the kitchen and back porch out into the back yard – the air fresh and clean until I passed through. The honey pit was located at the northwest corner of our lot beside our rhubarb and as far as possible from our well but still only a distance of 10 – 12 meters. Cleverly disguised as a squat wooden square box, the honey pit sat there innocuously and surprisingly stench free with a padlock securing the trap door entrance on its top. I always fumbled with the lock and opened it with trepidation as it was usually after dark and there were no lights in that corner of the yard. I don’t know, maybe I expected a monster with extremely foul breath and dripping with soggy toilet paper and excrement to jump out the moment I opened the hatch! I think dad must have tossed in copious amounts of lime to cut the smell and reduce fly and pathogen problems, as I was always surprised that the smell didn’t knock me over and there were few flies when I opened the door

Drinking water and water for bathing was drawn from wells that were dug only a few meters from the outhouses and honey pits. So how far should an outhouse be from a well? I thought this should be an easy question to answer. Turns out that it is not. At the one extreme, some municipalities in Canada prohibit outhouses outright. At the other extreme, unorganized townships have no restrictions or regulations whatsoever … build your outhouse wherever you want – and better yet, don’t tell anyone even if you do build one. It is the best thing about unorganized townships, ‘don’t cha know’ (facetiousness is dripping here). Other people argue that a “few feet” is OK as long as the pit is above the water table. I agree that deep wells accessing  underground aquifers far from the surface pits of outhouses would be quite safe.

Surely, the juxtaposition of drinking water sources and the storage and disposal of human waste does matter and close proximity does not make for a healthy environment. When I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I wondered if sanitation issues and/or contaminated well water might be factors contributing to the development of Parkinson’s in an individual.

Well … what about the well?

The well in our house in Altamont was directly under the kitchen. It was a hole about five feet in diameter and about 15 feet deep. There was cribbing for the first five or six feet and the whole thing was covered by a large piece of 3/4 inch plywood forming a landing at the bottom of a set of stairs made from rough-hewn timber, leading to an unfinished basement. Occasionally my father would take the cover off to peer into the depths to determine the water table. About three feet to one side a separate hole about three feet deep housed an electric sump pump to keep the basement from flooding should the water table rise too high.

I have no idea how often a well should be cleaned if ever, or what should be used to clean it. I do recall one time my father cleaned our well. It happened one July when I was about 14 years old. It was a hot Saturday evening during haying season (it’s beginning to sound like a country and western song here) when I returned home from a long day of riding the hay rack behind a baler spitting out alfalfa bales in rapid succession. [Interestingly, the sway and rock of the hayrack across the field is not unlike the feeling that I currently experience with my Parkinson’s balance and peripheral neuropathy proprioception issues.]

I arrived home hot, sweaty and thirsty, thirsty, thirsty! I grabbed a tumbler out of the cupboard, went to our water pump in a small alcove just at the top of the stairs to the basement. I worked the pump handle up and down a few times to fill the tumbler with water that was not extremely cold but as cold as I was going to get. I tipped the tumbler up and let the water drain into my throat. About half way through the last gulp, a very big gulp I might add, I sensed that this glass of water was not all that it promised… or maybe it was more than it promised. I could feel something disturbing in my mouth. I suppressed the urge to swallow and I suppressed the urge to gag, although I don’t know how. Instead, I willed my self to spit the contents of my mouth out into the porcelain sink. A three to four inch long worm began wriggling across the slippery surface. I don’t know how I hadn’t spotted it before tipping the glass all the way to vertical but rest assured that I have pre-checked every glass of water I have ever had since then. It is something I will continue to do into the future. The worm in a glass of mezcal repels me and I can hardly look at it never mind have a sip!

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A word to the wise: always check the bottom half of your glass  Photo: S. Marshall

Of course, my mother was extremely distraught by my account of the worm in the drinking water. The very next day, dad and a neighbour took the cap off the well, pumped it dry and with a rope around his waist dad descended into the well with a brush and sponges. He scrubbed the walls and cleaned the intake on the pump. It seemed to make my mother much happier if nothing else.

I doubt that a worm or two in your well causes Parkinson’s but I do recall that dad was concerned about high levels of arsenic and other contaminants in well water in the area. Even so, I don’t remember our well water ever being tested although I do recall dinner table conversation that it should be. In the end analysis, I think we were too poor to pay the test fee plus the shipping cost to Winnipeg. Dad likely relied on the tests that others in the community had obtained as being indicative of the readings that our well would have. In any case, I don’t think the arsenic was much of a problem but I cannot say the same for the chemicals and/or metals the ground water may have contained, although studies are inconclusive as to the consequences.

We lived in an agricultural area and the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were times of intensive usage of pesticides on farms, and I know that our father used these same practices in our gardens. (See Note 3.) As always there is considerable difficulty in obtaining reliable data for pesticide usage and funding for research on the health impact of pesticides on the population is relatively scarce. Still, since 2003 seven provinces including Manitoba have passed legislation banning the use of pesticides for cosmetic (non-essential) use. Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia are the holdouts. The definition of “cosmetic use” ranges from use on lawns only to use in all elements of landscaping. Most provinces have some exceptions.

Those initiatives and laws are all well and good but the 60 years between 1940 and 2000 were pretty freewheeling when it comes to pesticide usage. The current legislative bans and regulations come far too late for those of us in our 50s and 60s who are just now being diagnosed with Parkinson’s as we could have been exposed to the pesticide as many as 50 years ago. Indeed, it is much more likely that we were impacted by pesticide use than by the proximity of outhouses and honey pits to well water.

There is also a possibility that some metals, oil and petroleum products seeped into the ground from nearby industry. Whether it (whatever “it” is) ever reached the water table in our case I cannot say as the details were buried forever when our house and the industrial buildings were torn down and the area redeveloped.  In other words, none of these possibilities can be verified, no conclusions can be drawn and all speculation will remain just that, speculation.

I suppose that every Person with Parkinson’s (PwP) has asked two questions: what causes Parkinson’s disease and why me? Do you know that this year, 2017, is the two hundred year anniversary of Dr. James Parkinson’s famous work, An Essay on the Shaking Palsy, which established the disease as a medical condition named after Dr. Parkinson. After 200 years of study the question as to what causes Parkinson’s has yet to be answered.  Scientists are coming ever closer as they research proteins such as alpha-synuclein that misfold and form Lewy bodies that are present in the brains of all those with Parkinson’s disease. Nevertheless there are gaps in the research indicating that perhaps they  are not isolating the precise genetic factor and protein or that the cause is more multifaceted than we care to believe e.g., other factors such as environmental exposures may be complicating or confounding features of the cause(s).

Is there a link between poor sanitation and Parkinson’s disease?

There are many references in the literature to the links between environmental factors and Parkinson’s disease. Could there be a link between poor sanitation and Parkinson’s disease?  I suppose that anything is possible given that a definitive cause of Parkinson’s has not been isolated, but it is not probable. I have not seen research reports showing a correlation between the presence of outhouses or “honey pits” and the incidence of Parkinson’s or other neurological diseases. I am certain that it is not desirable to have human waste “honey pits” in close proximity to wells providing drinking water as it increases the likelihood that insects can pass diseases back to the human population. Nevertheless, I don’t think such proximity was a contributor to my Parkinson’s.

Pesticides are a trigger

Researchers have long suspected a correlation between the incidence of Parkinson’s disease and the presence in the agricultural environment of pesticides. The authors of a newly released (April 2017) literature review and meta-analysis conclude

“ …there is now strong evidence that exposure to any pesticide involves a ≥50% increased risk for developing Parkinson’s disease.” (Gunnarsson and Bodin, 2017)

Let’s be clear though, most research and considered academic writing on this matter is careful to highlight that environmental exposure to these toxins is not sufficient in and of itself to develop Parkinson’s. In order to develop Parkinson’s a person must already possess a genetic marker for Parkinson’s that is then triggered by the environmental factor. Neither exposure to toxins nor possessing the genetic marker is sufficient to result in Parkinson’s but together they may result in Parkinson’s. Not very convincing is it? But, on the other hand it is encouraging that we at least have some leads.

“In conclusion, this meta-analysis provides evidence that pesticide exposure is significantly associated with the risk of PD and alterations in genes involved in PD pathogenesis.” – Ahmed, H. et al. in Biomed Pharmacother. 2017 Apr 13;90:638-649.

“As a neurogenetecist, I’m prejudiced to say that people have a certain proclivity that resides at the genetic level which predisposes them to environmental insults—whether they be pesticides, well water, living in rural areas, or trauma, possibly.” – Northwestern University neuroscientist Teepu Siddique as cited in The Atlantic, “The Brain of a Fighter” by James Hamblin, June 2016

There is also research, although not as strong as the chemical toxin research, that supports the conclusion that well water with high levels of iron, mercury, manganese, aluminum and other by-products of industry are linked to the increase in incidence of Parkinson’s disease. These metals leach into the water table or enter underground streams and aquifers to be drawn on through wells and consumed by the population as drinking water.

Summary offence (misdemeanor) or indictable offence (felony)?

Before I forget, we do need to return to the sump pump potato plug case to tie up a few loose ends. One of those loose ends is the question of whether the perpetrators of Halloween pranks were “mischievous” or “rotten to the core?” I prefer to think mischievous, as it was a different time then, a different morality. Pranks were expected on Halloween. Still, is a potato stuck in the sump pump hose a prank of a different order than an outhouse tipped or moved into the street to block traffic i.e., was the potato incident an “indictable offence” (felony) and the outhouse tipping a mere “summary offence (misdemeanour)?” I have bracketed the terms “felony” and “misdemeanour” even though those terms have been abolished in the Canadian legal system because they still evoke an intuitive understanding of the relative severity of the offence. I have my own view and when I asked John for his opinion his face brightened a little and I knew that he had experience on both sides of this question and there was a discussion to be had, if only he had the strength and ability to talk. I like to think that we wouldn’t be far apart in our interpretation.

Bob Lang's house front view 1982

Bob Lang’s house (front view) Photo: S. Marshall 1982

It seems that Bob Lang spoke to the parents of a different young boy (let’s call him “H”) accusing “H” (wrongly) of the prank. In keeping with their values of respect for elders and discipline for their children, the parents believed Bob and punished “H” accordingly despite his wailing and vigourous protestations that he was not guilty.

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Does this look like a kid who would plug your sump pump hose?

At this point I could tell by some slight movements of John’s mouth muscles and the gentle squeezes from his hand in mine that he could identify with the first young lad who was in truth guilty not only of the potato caper itself, but also guilty of not confessing to the deed (a mischievousness but cowardly act of omission) after his friend (“H”) was wrongly accused and subsequently punished. I knew that John empathized with “H” who was wrongly accused – although I know also that John would find the fact that the wrong boy was punished to be tremendously funny especially if he (John) was the true guilty party.

Bob Lang's house back view 1982

Bob Lang’s house (rear view) where the sump pump hose was located. Photo: S. Marshall 1982

Straw bales burn better than outhouses

To my knowledge no one ever acted on the suggestion to set fire to the outhouses in Altamont at Halloween. However, I do recall that a number of straw bales were set on fire about a half-mile south of the village. It is a strong memory for me, not because I actually saw the bales blazing, but because an RCMP Constable later interviewed me as to my whereabouts on Halloween and whether I could say for certainty that I was nowhere near the burning bales. I was sitting in the driver’s side backseat of the RCMP cruiser while the Constable sat in the passenger side front seat with his clipboard (no computers on those days.) We were well away from others and thankfully well away from my father and his failing hearing – hearing that could be cured with faith-healer-like speed if the conversation was interesting enough.

A second Constable was rounding up a few other local lads to be interviewed in the search for the straw bale pyromaniac. I had no problem in convincing the Constable I was not in the vicinity of the fire … as I was busy sticking a potato in Bob Lang’s sump pump hose. The Constable laughed and said he had no report on such an incident and that I shouldn’t do that sort of thing.  At that moment I knew the policing arm of the state, rightly or wrongly, ranked a potato in a sump pump hose at Halloween to be similar in severity to outhouses tipped on their sides, stinking up the neighbourhood. i.e., they were summary offences at worst and forgivable on Halloween with no charges laid. Fire and arson, on the other hand, were clearly matters of a higher order – indictable offences –  and the RCMP were looking to lay charges.

The Constable dismissed me from the cruiser and called the next kid in line to jump into the rear seat. As fate would have it the next kid was “H,” the very same kid who was punished by his parents for the Bob Lang sump pump hose potato plug caper even though he was innocent. It is a good thing that ”H” did not know who was actually guilty of “his” crime and it seems that the Constable never mentioned it to him.  Perhaps “H” has been searching for the real potato prankster for the past 60 years?

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This kid probably plugged the sump pump hose. He looks like a hood to me!

I never heard another word about the potato plug in the sump pump hose caper or the straw bales which “spontaneously combusted” in Fraser’s field. The petty pyromaniac pranksters (if alliteration for effect can be overdone, this is probably an example) were never found. If there are any outhouses remaining (and I believe there are many,) they continue to be “at risk” each Halloween. On the other hand, the risk of a potato in the sump pump hose attack is relatively low.

Is mischievousness only a children’s thing?

On Halloween nights there are acts of commission and acts of omission which fly beneath the radar of the legal system because they meet a reduced community standard on Halloween. The more that these actions bump against the outer edges of that community standard, the more humourous it is until there is a breaking point. Remember how your mother admonished you to stop waving that sharp stick because you will take someone’s eye out? It is exactly like that; it was all very much fun until Tommy lost an eye.

John R. Mills was a man who loved stories where the action is on the edges of acceptable community standards and/or legality – and the subject matter didn’t have to be as serious as murder either.  He had a keen sense of small-scale mischievousness and that mischievousness fuelled his ability not only to maintain a boy’s view of the world but also to engage in adolescent behavior from time to time during his adult life. I sense that we shared this connection.

On the other hand, what if I read John’s non-verbal responses incorrectly? After all, as a young man he was a member of the mounted force of the Toronto constabulary and he was a superior horseman and rider all his life, winning cutting championships in Kentucky and Kansas. Perhaps he was imagining himself in the role of a mounted officer with the power of a trusty and fearless police horse snorting underneath him as he provided crowd control on Halloween night. In the end it matters not as John was not one-dimensional in any respect and I know he would have revelled equally in a detailed account of police horse vs prankster on Halloween.

A larger moral message?

As I looked at John’s face, eyes alert under the closed lids, a slight smile on his lips, I knew that I had transported him to a different place, free from the weight of medical evidence, medical procedures and medical consequences – all of which pointed to him becoming a medical and demographic statistic of the worst kind.

I sense that some of you may be looking for a more meaningful lesson in morality to emerge from these small town shenanigans and my telling of those stories to John. Sometimes in life there isn’t an obvious moral lesson. Sometimes, when the conditions of life warrant, it is just a matter that we, like John, deserve a few short moments away from the serious (sometimes life and death) decisions men and women have to make. We should be granted that respite.

I could end this post here except for the fact that the end is not here … for those who wish to argue over whether actus reus (the act) and mens rea (you meant the act to have the consequences it did) were both present in the potato plug sump pump case and that a “duty to act” was breached in the act of omission (not confessing) such that a crime was committed… but because I cannot “plead the Fifth” in Canada I am just going to mutter “mea culpa” under my breath and move on … and I would suggest you move on with me except that …. the questions about Parkinson’s go unanswered if we do.

Afterword

What causes Parkinson’s? It seems obvious to me that outhouses and poorly located “honey pits” are not high on the list of suspects. More and more the research data is leading us to the conclusion that pesticides, insecticides and fungicides are prime suspects as co-conspirators and should be investigated with increased vigour and resources. Think of it this way: the environmental violations of outhouses located too close to a water supply are summary offences or misdemeanors compared to the indictable offences or felonies that are negligence and misuse in the development and application of chemical toxins in the environment.

I am no lawyer but it seems we are closer to establishing that, at least for some portion of the Parkinson’s population, there is an actus reus but is there no agreement that there is mens rea by those who develop, manufacture, sell and use the toxins i.e., they did not intend that the chemicals to contribute to an increase in neurological diseases of which Parkinson’s disease is one. But should they have known? After all, they were developing chemicals that work by attacking the nervous systems of those pests they were trying to kill. Would that not twig someone to ask the question, what does this mean for human neurological systems? If it did, then did they find that it was without cause for concern? Did they downplay the consequences? Did they willfully ignore the signs? Is there an act of omission? Did someone breach a duty to act? Are we confident that there is no corporate interference with, and influence on, the research process?

There are so many questions, so little real time and so few resources. The weight of the evidence is beginning to accrue towards a conclusion that exposure to pesticides is related to Parkinson’s disease but don’t hold your breath for chemical corporations to step up and say, “mea culpa”;  to start making amends (reparations is probably too strong) through financial contributions to independent Parkinson’s research; and to defray the costs of pharmaceuticals and medical/therapeutic devices and programs which enhance quality of life for Persons living with Parkinson’s.  That would indeed be a radical change in direction.

NOTES

Note 1:

Definitions:  An “outhouse” is defined as a permanent private privy used as a toilet and situated on a permanent privy pit usually 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 meters) deep within which human waste is kept, maybe forever. The outhouse is located on private property or at a private residence and serves the sanitation needs of the owner and/or tenants. For further clarity, an “outhouse” is not equivalent to a temporary, transportable, commercial “port-a-potty” used on construction sites and at outdoor entertainment sites and fairgrounds. Such port-a-potties as the name suggests are built to be transported and have an internal waste holding tank that is designed to be emptied at a sanitation facility.

Disclaimers: 

I do not advocate that outhouses be tipped at Halloween or any other occasion nor do I condone such action as serious injury and/or property damage may result.

I am aware through social media sources that port-a-potties are overturned as a prank from time to time. I do not condone such behaviour.

I do not condone the blocking of sump pump hoses in any manner. Serious property damage may result.

Note 2:  As I write this post we are experiencing very heavy rains in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. Many homes have been flooded and their residents evacuated. It is not my intention to diminish the severity of these events by making light of the consequences of the potato plug in the sump pump hose. The situation as described, in Altamont at Halloween of that particular year is not comparable.

Note 3: I follow the convention used in most of the research literature and government documents where “pesticides” is an overarching concept that includes insecticides (insects), herbicides (plants and weeds), and fungicides (fungi.)

APPENDIX: Outhouses are a serious measure of health and sanitation

WaterAid reports that in 2015 there were over 65,000 Canadians (0.2% of the population,) mostly in rural areas who do not have safe reliable access to toilets inside their homes. The UK has over 500,000 (0.8% of the population) citizens without proper inside toilets. Interestingly, WaterAid claims the USA is approaching 0% of pop with just slightly over 36,000 citizens without adequate toilets, bettering both Canada and the UK.

Only 17 countries in the world – including Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Saudi Arabia – have reported that just about every single household in the country has a safe, private toilet. (WaterAid 2015)

These numbers probably represent the best-case scenario and unfortunately we will never know the actual numbers as the question on indoor toilets is no longer asked routinely on census forms in Canada and other countries. The Washington Post puts the 2014 estimate as considerably higher at over 1.6 million households in the US without adequate indoor plumbing facilities i.e., they do not have one or more of the following: a toilet, a tub, a shower or running water. In any case, many thousands of outhouses are still in use as the primary toilet facility for households, and many more outhouses serve as secondary or back up facilities for use when the indoor toilet is otherwise occupied.

When my parents moved to an apartment in The Pas, Manitoba in the early 1970s after our father got a job at the pulp and paper mill there, I recall how excited my mother was that they were on town water and sewer. In fact, it was the very first time (ever!) that our mother had lived in a home with running water and a flush toilet. Needless to say, she was thrilled!

REFERENCES and RESOURCES

Ahmed H, Abushouk AI, Gabr M, Negida A, Abdel-Daim MM, “Parkinson’s disease and pesticides: A meta-analysis of disease connection and genetic alterations.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmetd/28412655

Alberta Environment and Parks, http://aep.alberta.ca/water/programs-and-services/groundwater/documents/AlbertaWaterWellSurvey-Report-Dec2010.pdf

Backcountry Canada Travel, http://www.backcountrycanadatravel.com/outhouse-culture-canada/

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Fact Sheet on Pesticdes http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/pesticides/general.html

Canadian Journal of Neurological Science https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/canadian-journal-of-neurological-sciences/article/geography-drinking-water-chemistry-pesticides-and-herbicides-and-the-etiology-of-parkinsons-disease/B8A09AAE44121012B905C358CCE9A8EF

Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Manitoba https://cosmeticpesticidebanmb.wordpress.com

Cottage Life http://cottagelife.com/environment/10-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-outhouses

Grandpa Remembers: Tipping over Outhouses, July 25, 2010. http://grandpa-remembers.blogspot.ca/2010/07/tipping-over-outhouses.html

The Guardian, “Can you catch Parkinson’s?” https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/apr/04/medicalscience.healthandwellbeing

Gunnarsson, Lars-Gunnar and Bodin, Lennart,“Parkinson’s disease and occupational exposures, A systematic literature review and meta-analysis,” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Health and Environment, online first, April 2017

Hamblin, James, “The Brain of a Fighter” in The Atlantic, June 8, 2016 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/06/ali-and-parkinsons/485798/

Kashatus, William C, “Outhouse has faded from region’s landscape,” in Standard Speaker, June 26, 2011 http://standardspeaker.com/outhouse-has-faded-from-region-s-landscape-1.1165644

Law Lessons, http://www.lawlessons.ca/lesson-plans/2.1.definition-and-principlesb

Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pinworm/basics/causes/con-20027072

Parkinson, Dr. James, Essay on the Shaking Palsy, originally published as a monograph by Sherwood, Neely, and Jones (London, 1817). Republished by J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 14:2, Spring 2002.

Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, http://www.pdf.org/environment_parkinsons_tanner

Parkinson’s Saskatchewan, http://www.parkinsonsaskatchewan.ca/pd/nd.html

Popular Mechanics, http://www.popularmechanics.com/home/how-to/a3896/4305543/

Small Cabin, http://www.small-cabin.com/forum/5_781_3.html

Summers, R. (2010). Alberta Water Well Survey. A report prepared for Alberta Environment. (University of Alberta: Edmonton, Canada).

Survivopedia, http://www.survivopedia.com/waste-disposal/

Warick, Jason, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News, Saskatoon, “U of S, prof under fire for Monsanto ties,” May 17, 2017 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/u-of-s-prof-under-fire-for-monsanto-ties-1.4100399

Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/04/23/1-6-million-americans-dont-have-indoor-plumbing-heres-where-they-live/?utm_term=.42d2da15b8dd

WaterAid, IT’S NO JOKE: The State of the World’s Toilets 2015 Its_No_Joke_2015_the_state_of_the_worlds_toilets.pdf

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._C._Fields

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener) 2017

 

LIST OF POSTS IN THIS SERIES

DIRECTIONS: Taking the Scenic Route to Parkinson’s and Beyond

DIRECTIONS Part I: “Stay where you’re at ’til I comes where you’re to, b’y“

DIRECTIONS Part II: Stories of Halloween, outhouses, potatoes, pesticides, Parkinson’s and mea culpa

COMING SOON!

DIRECTIONS Part III: (Working title) Detours and your GPS 

 

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A Celebration of the Life of John R. Mills, Farrier, Renaissance Man, and Man’s Man

Preface

Celebrating the Life of John R. Mills was, and continues to be, an intensely personal affair and while I am making my insider view public by writing this blog post, I ask you to be respectful should you decide to respond, comment or question.

This account of the day’s activities is neither exhaustive nor inclusive and does not follow the precise chronological order in which events occurred. I have also taken some liberties in my role as amateur reporter to interject commentary, interpretation and analysis which, I believe, is consistent with the intent the day and enhances the readers’ understanding of both the Celebration itself and the life of a beloved Kentucky farrier

Finally, please note that I am Canadian and ‘writing Canadian’ means that some words are spelled differently e.g., I love the colour orange.

Two irrefutable facts

Today, I am a little at a loss as to how and where to begin so I shall begin starkly and painfully with the first irrefutable fact. John R. Mills is dead. [See obituary in Appendix.]

The second irrefutable fact is that John R. Mills is alive. “Film at 11” as the newscasters of early television used to say.

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John R. Mills

Reportage (is not an equestrian sport)

I am neither a trained nor accredited journalist but today I shall engage in a little reportage of the funeral … no, service … no, ceremony … no, commemoration … no, celebration … no, party … no, event …. oh what the hell, let’s just call it for what it was – a migration of anyone who was anyone in the life of John R. Mills, Farrier and Blacksmith, to a gathering at Woodgate Farm just outside Louisville, Kentucky to pay homage through prayer, poetry, song, music, storytelling and many a glass with a “wee dram” of scotch or a ‘fizz’ of champagne raised in toasts to this humble yet “deeply intelligent, quirky and feisty” man.

John’s death came as no great surprise to anyone in the know for he had been suffering from some form of pernicious lung disease for several years. I am not going to go into the medical diagnosis and jargon here but the inside word was that John was already entering the second decade of a prognosis which had him dying half way through the previous decade. In this respect, John was a fighter and an inspiration to many, including myself, as he clung to life “for dear life.”

Stereotypes, electric bikes, full body kayak rolls and farewell tours

It is well known that farriers and blacksmiths are muscular – strong and powerful as they wield hammer against red hot metal. And no matter the season they were drenched in perspiration as they tended their forges, the little fires of hell that live in their shops and accompanies them on their trucks. Farriers are equally at home filing the teeth or clipping and shoeing the hooves of animals that can weigh a tonne (2,200 lbs) and have a propensity to kick and bite. Handling these animals requires strength, skill, tact and patience. And of course you must also possess a personality that can handle the owners of these animals, no small task.

 

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A nosy horse on Woodgate Farm Photo: Stan Marshall

 

John, the handsome and muscular young farrier and blacksmith was a stellar example of the ideal. He still exists in youthful form in photographs and lives on in the memories of those who knew him. However, the physical manifestation of that particular farrier had long fled the scene before his passing. John’s physical presence was greatly diminished in the wake of a disease and illness that slowly stole strength from his powerful frame and inevitably had a wearing effect on his psyche but not on his agile brain.

Yet, John persevered and extended his time on this earth for as long as his incredible constitution would permit. There is no doubt that these last few years were difficult ones for John, for his family and for his close friends. As you walk ever closer to the end of life, you reflect on your frailty and vulnerability and try to recapture the strength of your past. So it was with John as he began a modified ”farewell tour” about two years ago, but not just by visiting places and people from his past but by engaging in fun creative pursuits e.g., building an electric bicycle, or attempting feats which he was able to accomplish with a younger, stronger body e.g., doing a full body roll in a kayak. Just for the record, he built the electric bicycle but was not able to accomplish the body roll. No shame there as far as I am concerned. I was never able to do a body roll in a kayak and quite frankly, I doubt that I could build a satisfactory electric bicycle.

The story always begins when you meet John

I first met John when I was dating his sister, Anne, who I subsequently married with John’s approval, I believe. John and I always got along well, as we are close in age, have similar backgrounds and had similar experiences through our teenage years. Neither of us took a straight-line route to our final career destinations but we were diligent individuals (and John was intelligent) with good work ethics and somehow it turned out all right for each of us – except for the health issues of course. At age 69 John passed far too soon and I struggle with Parkinson’s disease. I shall refrain from elaborating on my condition any further except to say that our respective maladies presented us with similar real challenges and consequences that brought us closer together in these latter years.

Accounts of the exploits of John R. Mills and of his acumen as a storyteller have been circulating for years and his death serves now to detonate another explosion of tales – some well known, some dredged from almost dormant memory banks, and some newly uncovered and never before spoken about in public. Most of the stories are true and some are … well … mostly true.

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A few family and friends remembering John R. Mills  Photo: Stan Marshall

On the day of the gathering the stories fly fast and furiously. I overheard several different categories of stories. Some were intensely personal, almost private and whispered in hushed and reverent tones. Other stories are clearly part of the commons already and their telling marks just another occasion to be regaled to the point of belly laughs, all the while enhancing the details for the next telling. Still other conversations are ‘fact finding’ missions, gathering information and threads of details that will become stories in the future – or perhaps these conversational groupings are the crucible within which the narrative of the life of John R. Mills is being re-created, re-invented, or re-envisioned – spiced up or sanitized as necessary.

A ‘pop – up’ museum

The gathering to honour John R. Mills is well attended. Let me set the scene for you.

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Parking is at a premium at Woodgate Farm for the Celebration of John’s life  Photo: Stan Marshall

Your first footsteps onto Woodgate Farm take you to a greeting spot where a hammer and anvil await along with an invitation.

“Please take John’s hammer and send out a ring on his anvil. In the traditional farewell to Farriers and Blacksmiths, let the anvil’s peel [sic] carry your memories to him on his next adventure.”

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The added and unstated bonus is that the ring of the anvil alerts the bartender at the chuck wagon (built by John himself and pictured at the top of this post) that a Bloody Mary should be mixed and at the ready for the new arrival.

The house and garden at Woodgate Farm has been transformed into a small museum of John’s inventions, creations and activities – all artfully positioned such that the formal main event of the “ceremony/service/celebration” could take place unencumbered and the informal gathering with a veritable feast could be consumed with equal ease and comfort.

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The hammer and anvil beckons  Photo: Stan Marshall

John the Farrier had many clients (some two legged, some four legged and almost all had shoes) and his skills were in high demand. This was his business and while he was a master at it, and passionate about it, it was not his great passion. The real John the Farrier and Blacksmith loved to invent and build things – especially things that are useful, novel and fun.

Today, this ‘pop – up museum’ showcases a chuck wagon, a hovercraft (one of two he built,) an electric bicycle, a dog sled, steel throwing knives and hatchets, various pieces of leather work in progress, among other items.

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One of several photo displays  Photo: Stan Marshall

Annalea joins the party

John R. Mills was not a man who kept pace with information technology, the Internet and social media. Oh, he knew about it but he just didn’t know how to work it very well … or perhaps he didn’t want to know how to work it. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. He was never going to read my blog on line so I sent him hard copies.

I am not sure whose idea it was but it was a brilliant idea. Perhaps Chris and Annalea, John’s son and daughter, collaborated to make it happen. You see, Annalea could not make the party as she had returned to her home in Antigua after visiting her father in Kentucky. The first I noticed Annalea at the party she was being escorted on (in?) an iPad by Chris. Chris held the iPad out carefully so as to not fall or bump into anyone or anything, talking animatedly to himself or so it seemed. However, his behaviour made sense once you grasped that Skype can be a great way to share both happy and sad moments.

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John R. Mills with son Christopher and daughter Annalea  Photo: John P. Mills Date: unknown

Annalea had cleared her day and stocked her larder with the necessary rations – a bottle of wine, a wheel of Brie, another bottle of wine, some other unidentifiable snacks which may have included one of her father’s favourite, cheesies, and perhaps another bottle of wine. I have not verified the precise menu in Antigua but I surmise that it approximates the list above.

What I do know for certain is that Annalea was with us for a good portion of the day listening to the formal tributes and to the many informal stories about her father. She also spoke personally to many friends who gathered at Woodgate Farm. I think she exhausted the batteries of a number of electronic devices in the process. I have no knowledge of how long she was able to maintain the Skype connection as the party went in camera (ironically) after the formal program closed – a tactic everyone now supports even though there was mild resistance at the time. Keeping the party going does not mean it needs to be recorded for all time. Some things are best forgotten and other things are best remembered through the filters of time and experience.

Suffice to say that Annalea’s presence was a most pleasant surprise and surely was close to a record for unbroken Skyping.

The hunt and the feast

John and his wife Maddy (Dr. Madelyn Jacobs) have had a long  association with the local Hunt Club – usually referred to simply as “The Hunt” and is accorded a status equivalent to “Family.” You need to know that members of The Hunt along with other friends and neighbours are very experienced and efficient at pulling together the essentials of any gathering (including a memorial service) on extremely short notice. We literally watched the feast materialize in front of our very eyes as if spirited to us from chefs working underground.

White cloths covered the banquet serving tables laden with all manner of foods, some home cooked and some purchased, but all suitable for the occasion. Bloody Marys continued to flow from the chuck wagon. Scotch, champagne, wine and beer shared a common status as they lay waiting in strategically placed coolers around the patio and gardens.

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The feast is arriving   Photo: Stan Marshall

On this day of tribute to John R. Mills, the efficiency of the food preparation and presentation to the hungry mourners was a tribute in and of itself to the internal organizational capacity of The Hunt. From beginning to end, it was impressive to witness.

The skirl of the pipes

There are to be many poignant moments on this day. The skirl of the lone piper’s call across the paddocks drew everyone to the house garden for the main event … or at least the part of the day that had a formal program. I shall do my best to capture the flavour of the program but I am afraid that my efforts will result only in a poor facsimile of the actual events. I ask you to be indulgent as I relay my impressions.

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A lone piper calls us together  Photo: Stan Marshall

The poet farrier

John the farrier and blacksmith was a teacher and mentor to several young men, some of whom would go on to become, not surprisingly, farriers and blacksmiths with superior skills both at the forge and in the delicate relationships with large animals and their owners.

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Tools of the trade Photo: Stan Marshall

Isn’t it often the case that those who are creative in one area often excel in artistic merit in other endeavours? It certainly is the case with the young protégé Kraig who composed an emotional tribute incorporating the unmistakable rhythm of the farrier’s hammer shaping steel on the anvil in an adjacent barn; the peal evocative of the working life of the Brotherhood of the Farrier, and of the good wishes each mourner personally sent to John with mighty swings of the hammer on the anvil as s/he entered the grounds earlier that afternoon.

The words to the poem written by Kraig Milam, read for the very first time in public by John’s brother-in-law Gerald Smith and accompanied by Kraig Milam on hammer and anvil at the Celebration of Life, have been printed in the American Farrier’s Journal, November 16, 2016 in an announcement of John Mills’ passing. (See https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/8791-kentucky-farrier-john-mills-passes-away#sthash.c7lvrCra.dpuf .) The poem is as yet untitled.

The tires crunch in the snow as he backs up to the barn,
the sun not yet up, the first stop of the day.
Warm yellow light bending around the heavy stable door,
it rolls open at his touch, the light and smell of the hay fall out.

Mare in the cross ties, her head hangs low,
he rubs her neck and she gives a long sigh.
she’s a good mare, would have been great if not for that knee
he’s kept her sound now for five years .

He lights the forge, the smell of smoke mixes with the stalls,
the mare lifts her foot, she knows this game.
A thin shoe hits the floor, the knife flashes, the nippers snap
with a practiced eye the rasp grates the hoof to the floor.

At the anvil, the hammer shapes red iron
the ringing muffled by the hay.
The hands swings the hammer, the anvil hits the shoe
the hand, the hammer, the anvil, three parts of the whole

Just one horse ... just one barn ... just one day.
How many of each, the numbers blur.
Tomorrow another horse will need him,
And he’ll swing the hammer again.

One day he'll lay down that hammer.
The anvil no longer will ring
but the farrier will live on forever,
in the memories of horses he's touched.

A long moment passes before the peal of the hammer fades into the warm Kentucky sunshine and the mourners, already struggling with their composure, hear a second poem penned by the young protégé. It is equally beautiful, equally fitting, equally poignant. Our emotional mettle is being severely tested.

A Renaissance man and a man’s man

In his opening remarks, neighbour and friend, Colonel Walter Herd (Retired,) emphatically referred to John R. Mills as a “Renaissance Man” citing his many and varied interests, talents, skills, abilities, and accomplishments, as well as his wide circle of friends drawn from across a wide spectrum of social and economic groupings. It should not surprise you that in true Renaissance fashion, John mentored Kraig (the “Poet Farrier” mentioned above,) and two other young apprentices, Albert and Brandon, in both the finer and coarser points of his chosen trade. He also helped set many others onto a better path in life, and enjoyed a special relationship with his “little brother,” Quinn.

And equally, Colonel Herd knew John to be a “man’s man.”  This designation might seem to be in contradiction to the Renaissance Man label but that is the reality – sometimes the Supreme Being doesn’t arrange character traits to be allocated in homogeneous bundles to individuals. So it was that John was at home with guns, knives,hatchets and axes. He forged and shaped serious throwing knives and axes – heavy ones that reinforced the feeling that you were holding something lethal in your hands. I doubt that there was a single grandchild, niece or nephew who ventured on the property who did not receive a lesson from John in throwing knives and axes.

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Target for throwing knives and axes Photo: Stan Marshall

It follows then that he also had no objection to hunting as a sport and he did make some forays into the hunting terrain beyond the fox hunt.

Colonel Herd also noted that John’s  experience in the mounted force of the Toronto Police Department demonstrated that John had the mental and physical toughness to face any adversarial situation.

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John doing what a man’s man does. Photo: unknown

 

Thoughts and memories

Whoever drafted the program for the Celebration of the Life of John R. Mills knew that each successive item on the program would raise the emotional quotient within the mourners exponentially, setting the stage for the final farewell.

Three members of the Mills’ and extended Mills’ family were given free rein to relay their thoughts on John’s passing and their memories of him through the years. I was privileged to join John’s son Christopher Mills and brother-in-law Gerald Smith (married to John’s sister, Wendy) to make some remarks. I found it a tough assignment to narrow my reflections to fit a tight schedule for the agenda and to give proper due to the man for whom we were all gathered. The following are my notes for trying to manage the impossible.

Notes on memories as delivered by Stan Marshall, brother-in-law

[Caveat: May not be exactly as delivered.]

It is an honour to say a few words on behalf of John’s sister Anne and our portion of the family (our daughters, Natalie, Sophie, Kristen, and Alexandra and their respective husbands and partners.)

John was Anne’s big brother and she tells me he was a pretty fine big brother … did the usual things that a big brother did with a little sister … rough housed and wrestled, teased, and told her stories … but did not throw knives as far as I am aware.

… And whenever she talks about him, it is clear to me that she witnessed the early development of an impishness and outright silliness that we all saw in the adult John R. Mills … later in life … and throughout his life.

Anne tells me that John read to her, told her stories and sang songs for her. This is not surprising. John loved a good story and he loved songs that told a story, like Big John, or maybe Stompin’ Tom Connors singing “Tillsonburg, Tillsonburg my back still aches when I hear that word” – in recognition of his tobacco picking days in Southern Ontario.

John loved a good re-hash of a true story especially one in which he was personally involved. But it had to stretch your imagination ….a story like one I just heard the other day …. And I am by no means recommending this action no matter how captivating the challenge may be …. A story about the early teenage John devising a plan to steal a steamroller and outrun the authorities….  Seems like a challenge. If you want to know how he was successful in doing exactly that, I am afraid you’ll have to find someone else to tell you the story … and the secret.

I think we all know that John was no fool. If something didn’t smell right in a story he had a way of wrinkling up his nose in a way that said “uh,uh” … and he scrunched up his face into a disbelieving look – that’s when you knew he was onto you and the gig was up.

He knew the essential difference between a story and a tale, but more importantly he knew when that difference, made a difference.

By the way, Anne has inherited that same skill and sometimes I see John’s scrunched up face of disbelief on Anne’s head, and that is when I know I am not fooling her or anyone.

Among our children Uncle John has long enjoyed legendary status as they recognized the qualities that made John R. Mills … well … John R. Mills. When asked to describe him in a word or two they use words like “silly, funny, jolly, happy, jovial, warm, creative, great personality.”

When pressed harder they volunteer, “Goofy in a way that is funny for kids and just as endearing now that I am an adult. “

One daughter says, “He reminded us that while being a grown up is hard, we can’t forget to have fun and try new things. “

I think John learned to be creative early in life and that it is hellishly fun to be creative – hellishly fun! You can see that as you look around this farmyard at the wide variety of “toys” he built using skill, knowledge, and problem solving abilities.

Both Anne and I are thrilled that their Uncle John with his personality and his creative vision has influenced our children in a positive way.

This influence was not always one of playing the “jokester.” One daughter says that she has “a cute memory” of a tender moment between John and the good Dr. Jacobs in the early days of their relationship …. a memory which our daughter now credits as instrumental to understanding that adults are permitted to show affection for one another. A good influence indeed!

However, I will leave it others to wax poetic about John in the role of “romantic lead.”

It is safe to say that the influence of John R. Mills on our collective children and indeed on Anne and me, ranges from the “goofy” e.g., hiding a rubber snake in their beds…. to the “fantastical,” the stories of his many adventures and escapades…. to the “creative,” his skills and talents as a craftsman, designer, draughtsman, artist … to the “socially adept,” his ability to connect with a wide range people from many different circumstances and stations in life … to the “sensitive and caring,” his underlying compassion for community, friends and family, no matter how thorny his exterior visage could be … to the romantic …. and back to the “silly” and “goofy” again.

I got to know John in a more in depth way at Wendy’s and Jerry’s cottage on Lake Kawawaymog in Ontario. We spent many an early morning looking out over the misty lake … ‘swapping a few lies.’ It is here that John provided inspiration to me – inspiration to hone the art of the raconteur, the storyteller – the art of knowing the small interstices within a story where the truth can be “massaged” or embellished for effect, or altered to ensure the lesson within the story is learned. I learned that I had to walk the edges of veracity carefully, because if I saw that “scrunched up disbelieving face” of John R. Mills, I had failed.

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The mist slowly lifts off Lake Kawawaymog in Ontario, Canada  Photo: Stan Marshall

It is also at Lake Kawawaymog that I began to understand John’s life and … why I fell in love with his sister … and her often scrunched up disbelieving face.

In part, it is because John and Anne share much of the same creativity and the same sense of whimsy.

Sometimes the simplest things say it all when it comes to silliness… clever silliness.

One day at the cottage, John heaved himself off the couch with great effort, almost leaving his feet as he stood up, raised his arms fully to the sky in his best victory pose, announcing in his best sportscaster’s voice, “He really stuck that landing,” as if awaiting huge applause from the crowd.

Silly? Yes.

Clever? Yes.

Words that will be repeated in our home forever? Yes.

Each of us here today will have similar, simple memories which will forever form our own individual gateway into the complex life of a husband, father, brother, uncle, and friend – John R. Mills.

 He is loved and missed

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Canoes pass in the early morning mist on Lake Kawawaymog  Photo: Stan Marshall

Speech by Christopher Mills, Son of John R. Mills

Christopher (Chris) has a wide variety of memories of his father but the ones that stick with him are the ones which highlight John R’s sense of humour – the funny stories, the desire to do things that are a little off beat. In this respect the apple has not fallen far from the tree and Chris is funny in a quirky sort of way himself. I often refer to Chris as “the funniest man on the planet” and he replies immodestly, “you mean the funniest man in the universe.” Chris has been on the edges of some very funny and creative endeavours and for a while was in a band that toured extensively in Europe. He can be spotted from time to time as an extra in one of Canada’s favourite TV shows, Murdock Mysteries.

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John and Christopher all clear for a hover over Lake Kawawaymog  Photo: Stan Marshall

Chris understands that the imperative in breaking new ground in any field is to take some chances. This is not inconsistent with his father’s approach to life I believe it is this trait that led Chris to be quite provocative in his address to the gathered mourners – particularly about the human half of the clientele of his father’s farrier business. The safe thing would be to say something like, “My father’s recipe for success was one part skill, one part personality, and one part business acumen.” Of course mixing this cocktail is not as simple as pouring scotch over ice  and adding a splash of water – something John had also mastered. In any case, Chris did not do the safe thing, he just laid it out there by revealing that in the latter years, in order to be a client of his dad’s farrier business, the owner must be notable in some way, have a quirky personality, be intelligent and inquisitive, or be a reservoir of inside information. It is hard to say what characteristic would tip the scales in your favour but you most certainly could not be average or dull. In fact, if you were not a client then you were just “boring.”

There was laughter at this point – but was it genuine funny laughter? Nervous laughter? Snorts of indignation? Embarrassed chuckles? Small breathy wry smiles? Who knows, but Chris’ provocation did set people to remembering John in multi-dimensional terms.  There was nothing one-dimensional about John R. Mills and there is nothing one-dimensional about his son, Chris Mills.

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Just some of the animals in John’s clientele?  Photo: Stan Marshall

Chris’ comments got me thinking about the time I accompanied John on his rounds and I had a chance to observe John at work. I think that Chris has not only hit the gathered grievers over the head with his observation that if you were no longer interesting enough, John did not make any extra effort to keep you as client, but he has hit the nail on the head in understanding the role of farrier. You see, John in many ways was a ‘curmudgeon’, which is just an interesting word for an ill-tempered crusty old man. Oh, he wasn’t a curmudgeon all the time, just when he wanted to be and he cultivated his image as that of a “lovable curmudgeon.” Being both lovable and a curmudgeon allowed him to ferret out the most fascinating information about people and to relay that information in story form to others. OK, this may just be a fancy way to say that he was a ‘gossip.’ Oh my, ‘gossip’ is such an ugly word in this context and many take it to mean, “spreading untrue rumours” but this definition is not one that describes John. In John’s case it is more accurate to say that a ‘gossip’ is someone who likes to talk about the private lives of others.

Remember earlier I said that the safe thing for Chris to say would be that the recipe for John’s success as a farrier included one part business acumen. Well, the farrier is a natural communication conduit, carrying information from client to client as he makes his rounds. For John to be successful, he had to use his business acumen (ability to understand and reason) to decide what information to pass on, when to pass it on, and to whom he should pass it. This communication of vetted information from reliable sources, especially in the days before social media, provided a valuable service to the community and accorded the farrier a certain amount of power and influence. It is hardly surprising then that the more interesting and fascinating the private lives of the owners, the better it was for business and the more interesting and often powerful his position became. In other words, no one should be shocked that John chose his clients using criteria that had nothing to do with the animals. He was just taking care of business.

Speech by Gerald Smith, Brother-in-law and Elder Statesman

Gerald (Jerry) Smith is married to John’s sister, Wendy, and that means he is one of the favourite brothers-in-law. Jerry is known to be worldly, sophisticated, educated, articulate, and erudite not to mention politically astute, community conscious, a friend and patron of the arts, a loving husband, father (Kerri) and stepfather (John E.), and respected by all. By virtue of these qualities and the fact that on his next birthday he will turn the page on three-quarters of a century, Jerry is most deserving of the honourific title of “Elder Statesman of the Extended Mills’ Family” (ESEMF).

The following paragraphs are the notes from Jerry on his remarks.

Three themes:

Being first born and only son (you, me and Christopher) [includes John R. Mills, Gerald Smith, Stan Marshall and Christopher Mills] shaped us when it comes to responsibility, caring and nurturing, patience . . .

John R. was more into the hunt than the kill; notwithstanding the boar shot with bow/arrow, or the snake skin on the wall, it was more about solving problems, figuring things out – witness the 2 hovercraft, recumbent (electric) bicycle, dog sled; witness cottage projects including solar power, 5.0 hp pump to get water from the lake, hot water shower system, learning to execute Eskimo roll in kayak AND the 7 hour boat!

Finally, our favoured toast – after scotch and before a great meal – ” family, friends, food!”

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Rowboat built for Wendy. Photo: Stan Marshall

Jerry captured the moment succinctly as usual – although at peril of disagreeing with the Honourable Elder Statesman, I don’t believe that John R. successfully executed the kayak rolI – at least not in the last five years. But … that is probably a debate, a question, and a story that will be told and re-told, hashed and re-hashed in the coming years. I bet that at this very moment there are some who would be willing to place a small wager that they personally witnessed John R. coming up out of the water in full body roll pose with the kayak, his round face spluttering, but smiling! Do I have any takers?

The horn and the pipes

The Hunt Club acts as a large (functional) family on occasions like this one. They have the leadership and organizational skills to muster their membership to coordinate with family and friends to meet the needs of any member of this ‘Hunt family’. Food and drink appear on cue; memorabilia, artifacts and inventions are displayed to great effect in the house and around the farm yard; the agenda is put together with care and its execution is seamless with other parts of the day; and when it is all over and the night has swallowed the last of the revellers … er mourners, the visible components of the day have disappeared and if one looks carefully around the farm many things including the hovercraft can be seen back in their assigned storage places. All food, dishes, warming plates, and heaters have disappeared. It brings to mind the old adage “Everything has a place and everything in its place.”

Before our emotions had fully settled following the poems penned by Kraig the farrier, the sob filled silence was broken by a long and mournful tone blown on the hunting horn by Alf Caldwell (LRH Huntsman, MFH*.) At the end of the wail, Alf calls out with a catch in his voice “Gone hhh oo   mmme” – traditionally signifying disappointment at the end of a long day’s hunt, but today poignantly marking the passing of John R. Mills.

Tears, sobs and sniffles ensue.

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Children love to play on the dog sled   Photo: Stan Marshall

In a tree’s shadow, slightly off to the side of the gathering, a lone piper stands just behind three of John’s creations (the electric bicycle, the hovercraft, and the dog sled) silently filling her pipes’ bag with air in preparation for a rendition of Amazing Grace, the immensely popular Christian hymn written by John Newton 242 years ago!

Amazing Grace is almost the perfect complement to the readings and message delivered earlier by the Rev. Joey Pusatari. The hymn seems chosen deliberately for its message that “forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of sins committed and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God.” This message resonates with hundreds of millions of people worldwide and it is no less resonant in Kentucky. The promise that the soul of John R. Mills will live on forever as a result his good works and kind heart, and that John, not a known church-goer, may indeed be granted salvation at this late hour, is greeted with tears of joy, and the only dry eyes are those fixed steadfastly to blades of grass on the ground.

The piper expertly transitions into a rendition of My Old Kentucky Home ** which signals that the celebration of John R. Mills’ life and accomplishments is to continue. I confess that the rush to the bar for more champagne (or scotch in my case) distracted me from noticing whether the piper expertly uses the last of the air in the pipes’ bag without the drones continuing past the end. I assume nothing less.

Reportage ends

To my knowledge there is no reportage of any behaviour, word or deed, subsequent to this moment as the gathering goes “in camera” and reporters and journalists are banned.

There is nothing left but for the party (for it is truly a party now) to continue in earnest as the breadth and depth of grieving has affirmed the first irrefutable fact that John R. Mills is dead.

It is only fitting that there is already a rumour that some stories (embellished or not, who knows?) from the “in camera” party have already leaked out, confirming the second irrefutable fact that John R. Mills is alive.

Time has a way of preserving the richness of the past so that great storytellers may convey it in the future. The richness that is John R. Mills lives on.


*LRH stands for Long Run Hounds which is the the second oldest recognized hunt club in Kentucky established in 1961. MFH stands for Master of Fox Hounds and that individual is in command of the hunt in the fields and in the kennels. Joseph “Alf” Caldwell has been the MFH for LRH since 2011.

** John R. Mills was born in Toronto, Canada and he remained a Canadian all his life. Kentucky though was his adopted home for approximately 30 years. He carried a deep love for both.

APPENDIX

 Obituary

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John Robert Mills
1947 – 2016

Born October 9, 1947 to John Porter and Joan Whyte (nee Ross) Mills in Toronto, Canada. Stepson of Frances Mills. John died at home on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 surrounded by his “guys”, just as he wished.

Survived by his beloved wife, Dr. Madelyn Jacobs (nee Jackson) and his two children; Christopher David of Toronto and Annalea Juliet (Chris Harris) of Antigua, and his grandson and the light of his life, Marlin Mills Harris.

Loved by his sisters, Wendy Joan Smith (Gerald) of Toronto and Anne Frances Marshall (Stanley) of Ottawa, Canada, as well as nephew John Descheneau and nieces, Natalie and Sophie Malek, Kerridwen Smith and Kristen and Alexandra Marshall and his extended family, colleagues and friends.

An avid member of the Long Run Hunt Club, he truly valued those hunting friendships and shared memories. He spoke so highly and lovingly of Jeff and Ellen and Grace, Walter and Anne, Lisa and Tim, Marilyn and Uri, Jim Marcucci, Bruce and Shawna and Karen and Bill and Toody and Bruce. Margaret and Quinn held a special place in his heart. He deeply missed his friends David and Carroll. He loved his time cruising in his hovercraft with Hover Dave and enjoyed seeing the rivers of Kentucky and the northern Ontario lakes. He was a skilled farrier and teacher and master problem solver. He took great pride in the skills of Kraig, Albert and Brandon. Deeply intelligent, quirky and feisty, he will be missed.

The family would like to thank Dr. Dale Haller for his outstanding care and the wonderful nursing provided by his trio of Brianna, Dawn and Faith.

In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate donations in John’s name to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kentuckiana [http://www.bgckyana.org/]

Published in The Courier-Journal on Nov. 13, 2016 http://www.legacy.com/guestbooks/louisville/john-robert-mills-condolences/182484454?cid=full

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener)