Part 13: With Silver Bells and Cockle Shells
When the sun rises, I go to work.
When the sun goes down I take my rest,
I dig the well from which I drink,
I farm the soil which yields my food,
I share creation, Kings can do no more.
- Chinese Proverb, 2500 B.C.
“Mateo, do you think we made the right decision?” For two days I had continued to rethink our choice to allow Tag’s people to basically camp out on our door and theoretically learn from our intensive suburban “farming” techniques. First I’d go one way and be very interested in them coming then I’d swing back in the other direction and spend a few hours very anxious about the whole thing. I wasn’t usually quite this changeable on a subject which spoke to how nervous I was about it.
I could see Mateo was taking my question seriously, not just assuming he knew best based solely on my hormones which I have to admit were running a little high at that moment. “Leah, it isn’t that I don’t have concerns. I’ve seen …” He stopped and seemed to put on his proverbial flame retardant suit. “Leah, mi Tesoro, mi Amor … don’t take what I’m going to say the wrong way.” After another brief pause as if he was gathering his thoughts he continued. “I’m a good decade older than you and had more experience even when we first married.” Something in my face must have told him he’d definitely hit a nerve. “Wait … mi Corazon hear me out. This isn’t a matter … Look, Leah, I respect you and I’m not trying to treat you like a child … I’m simply stating a fact. I’m older and have more life experience than you. You have experience of things but not necessarily perhaps as much …”
He stopped, pinched his nose and muttered in Spanish under his breath. I’ve always understood more than he thinks I do. I took three years in highschool and two semesters in college; as a teacher at an inner city school I expanded my vocabulary further … and not necessarily with words you would find in your average textbook unless you were reading the graffiti written on the inside covers. What made it appear that I was conversationally challenged was the fact that I couldn’t speak Spanish worth a flip – for one thing I never had learned how to properly trill my r’s – but I can read, write, and understand it more than I ever let on. I had to stop my lips from twitching as I translated his worried muttering, “Why did I open my mouth? I’m going to be sleeping on the sofa from now until the moon no longer brings the tide.” He looked at me and started, “Leah …”
Poor thing. I could see he really was concerned so I let him off the hook … mostly. “Fine. You are some kind of ‘man of the world’ and I’m nothing but Lil’ Miss Homebody who went from daddy to hubby. What exactly does that have to do with the question I asked?”
“Ouch.” He winced and shook his hand like he’d touched something hot. It was supposed to be funny but I wasn’t in the mood. “That is not what I meant Leah.” At my raised eyebrow he conceded admitting, “All right perhaps it was to some extent, but I would never have said it that way. How this conversation got so off course …” He shook his head in exasperation. “Your concerns are valid Leah, but we cannot stay closed off from the world forever no matter how comfortable it might seem at first glance. Short term we need news and contacts and then there are the things we need but cannot grow on our own. Long term we have Nydia and Neeno to think of.”
“I’m well aware of that Mateo, likely more aware than you think I am. I know I can’t grow everything we need and even if I could, one freeze, one season of drought, one injury to either one of us, could wipe us out. Growing up I probably lived a lot closer to that state of existence than you did and I watched my parents and how it tore at them sometimes. If you’ll remember that’s where I learned all the skills that are keeping us fed now. I’m able to preserve some of the harvest this year for next, but I might not next year for the year after that. My goal was never to simply subsist and get by except in the extreme short term.”
Mateo sighed, “I didn’t mean to insult you Love.”
“I know,” I sighed as well. “I’m just … a little prickly about this I suppose. The reality is that I did go from my father’s house to yours. If the time you were away did nothing for me but teach me that I can stand on my own feet I suppose it served a purpose. I’m not afraid of reaching out Mateo, I just wonder if this is the when and who to do it with.”
“Ah,” he said beginning to understand I hadn’t really been speaking generally. “You mean is your trust in Major Taglione misplaced.”
“Something to that effect, yeah.” You know how you can tell a man is trying to choose his words carefully? Mateo had that look on his face. “Mateo, I know Tag can be … uh … she can … er … have a … um … strong personality I guess you would call it. I’ve never really seen her interact with any men besides the ones I call her ‘puppies’ and with them she’s a real mothering figure but the kind that is trying to toughen them up so she can toss them out of the nest.”
Mateo snorted, “Hmmm. I might call it something else but not having met her more than once I’ll take your word for it.” He laughed and shook his head. “It makes me sound like a chauvinist but I am very glad that you are not like that. I want a wife not a mother, a partner not a nursemaid.”
I gave him a kiss and told him rather bluntly but with a smile, “You’ve definitely got testosterone poisoning and we both know it … but since I married you knowing what you were like I’d be a hypocrite to start complaining about it now. Besides, I like your machismo. On the other hand I might not like it in another man. I’ve never met Tag’s husband but I figure it has to take a man that is very sure of himself to live with such a strong minded woman. I do know that she is extremely family oriented and it shows in her work. It might also be why she keeps the ... well, not weaker but certainly the more innocent seeming young men … under her command until they grow a thicker skin or get a bit of experience.”
“Perhaps,” Mateo said. “I do not dislike the woman Leah, she simply reminds me of some of the women that I had to work with. They were as arrogant as some of the men in that environment and were just as blind to their failings. Time will tell if Major Taglione is more able than arrogant; she certainly seems capable and those working under her appear to respect her rather than fear or resent her which tells me a great deal. If it was just the Major I would say that there is no question that she is the right person and this is as good a time as any, certainly when we have something they seem to value enough to trade for which gives us more standing in any negotiations. It is the unknown players that will determine how constructive this relationship will be for us.”
“Unknown players? You mean the ag specialists that are coming?”
“Uh hmm,” he said nodding and thinking. “It will be good to see how far her influence reaches, how her people act when they are not under her direct supervision.”
“Wondering if when the cats away the mice will play?”
He nodded. “And perhaps talk, which could give us more sensitive information on what is happening … in those refugee camps, in the state, and beyond. I know you consider the Major a friend of a sort but never forget that she did not reach her rank just because she is nice or friendly. In my experience, limited though it is, field promotions are only given out for two reasons … because the recipient earned it in some way or because there was no other choice after all other leadership was removed – death or otherwise. If she earned her field promotions then she bears watching, and we’ll need to weigh her words to make sure she isn’t telling us things just to placate us or manipulate us. If the military promoted her because there was no other choice, especially as high as she has risen in a relatively short period of time, then that is very worrisome. That would tell us that our military has been decimated, at least in the top ranks, that a sergeant was field promoted all the way to Major in less than a year’s time.”
I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms. I pondered his words then said, “I think she earned it. I don’t think this is an issue of the Peter Principle. She’s too well organized and the other people with her seem to give her too much respect for it to be a political thing.”
“That is my first impression as well, but better to be cautious until we know for sure. As for the rest of it, as I said we need information. If that is all we get out of this visit of theirs I would say that it serves its purpose but I’m hoping for more. A lot will depend on what we find out. I need to know how cut off we are, the quarantine doesn’t appear to be very strict; on the other hand we’ve seen too few people for something not to be going on. Fear is a motivating factor but still the pressures from people migrating from the north because of the cold and those migrating from the south because of the fighting and the bombs should have had this area overrun, especially with the Bay and all of the ports and harbors it offers. Greg and I saw damage walking in … a lot of it … but there were still plenty of habitable spaces and buildings. And with no current bombing in this area the lack of people is illogical. No, something else is going on.”
“And that something is?”
“If I knew that then I wouldn’t need to pump the people coming in for information,” he said a little irritably. He walked away and then I saw him shaking himself mentally. I knew not to take his irritability personally and I knew at some point he’d try to make up for it. If I was hormonally challenged myself I certainly wasn’t going to fault him for being a little stressed out.
The greatest challenge to our long range planning was the simple lack of information. Back before the war neither one of us really cared about socializing, at least at that point and it had been a rare event in the past usually centered around some type of church function, office party, or something similar; but I did hate the claustrophobic feeling created by the lack of access to any information that we were experiencing now. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s like being partially deaf. I think my generation had gotten so used to instant access to tons of information that ending that access created a huge void. We had the ability to be hyper-connected to what was going on, like observant flies that could jump from point to point around the world almost at will. It had become a normal and accepted part of daily life … now nothing, not a blasted thing. It was like being handicapped.
I resolved to not be so anxious about the whole thing but to remain cautious. Easier said than done but what choice did I have? To that end I finished the hidden storage in the bunker and we moved in all of the remaining commercially packaged items we had left, except for a small supply of seasonings and enough of some bulk items that would last a week. Of those items I left out I strategically chose items from the supply that Tag had sent out that time. I thought it would look better just in case there were questions. I didn’t plan on them coming into the house much but on the other hand … well, I thought we’d just have to cross that bridge when we came to it.
We also moved a lot of the excess home preserved food into the hidden storage area as well. I couldn’t move it all in there or that would look suspicious but we weren’t going to give away just how much we did have. If anyone said anything I figured I could tell them that it took me a while to get the garden off the ground. If that didn’t work I knew I could think on my feet as necessary. I wouldn’t lie unless I felt it absolutely necessary but I wouldn’t pretend that I wouldn’t resort to it if I felt threatened.
The other thing I did was give the house a good cleaning; I put Mateo and Nydia to work as well. I think Mateo was mostly humoring me as he said at one point, “Leah, I don’t plan on them being in the house very much if at all.”
“Oh yeah? Then why exactly did we build all of that new hidden space?” I asked in a huff as I was turning Nydia’s mattress.
“Just in case this doesn’t go as planned,” he answered.
I looked at him and said, “My point exactly.”
He blinked, knowing that he was in check mate, and thankfully didn’t say anything more on the subject. Since we had been cleaning as we went when we removed all of the aluminum and sand bags from the house it only took two full days of hard work to do everything I wanted to do; after that it was just shutting off the upstairs to the children and maintaining the work downstairs. The added hidden storage actually did a lot to help me get organized and getting organized was half the battle of cleaning.
Of course turnaround was fair play and for the next couple of days when I wasn’t in the garden I was helping Mateo to put away all of the salvage and wood he brought in. It was monotonous work … gathering, stacking, shifting, moving, labeling, then more gathering and stacking, etc. But since I didn’t have to think quite as much about what I was doing Mateo and I discussed what we would and would not do while Tag’s people were around.
One idea in particular that Mateo raised gave me some hope that we would actually get something concrete out of the visit. “Think about it Leah, since you will have so many extra hands in the garden why not make a plan to get the best use out of them.”
I must have gotten a wicked gleam in my eye because Mateo took one look and laughed. “You would have made a good corporate wife. Give you a goal and you’ll come up with a strategy to make it happen.”
“Do you miss it?” I asked him suddenly sensitive to what he might perceive to be a huge come down from his previous life.
“Some of it. I enjoyed helping people to realize their dreams … and I was good at it. I made people a lot of money Leah. I also liked the accolades that brought … and the prestige and power … the corner office with a view, the brass name plate that said here is a man that gets the job done for his clients.” Then he sighed, “But I don’t miss some of the … what you would call the shenanigans … that went on with office politics. The water cooler gossip, liquor laden lunches, having to flirt and bribe the right secretaries to make sure that my messages got where they were going and so my proposals didn’t get lost at the bottom of the stack. On the other hand without those things perhaps we would not have come together. I’ll always regret the lie that brought us together mi Tesoro. And I’ll always feel blessed that God chose to use it and turn it to something good.”
We held each other for a few moments in complete accord. Somehow – I can’t remember who started it – the whole situation devolved into a tickle war and chasing each other around the yard while Nydia and Neeno giggled and shrieked with laughter at our silliness. That night after my loved ones fell asleep, the children in their beds and Mateo in his recliner while he waited for me to finish the last little bit of prep for the next day’s meals, I realized that Mateo and I actually got along better now than we ever had. Oh there was definitely love and lust before, we would joke and smile, but the laughter that we so often shared on a daily basis – even in the face of such a load of work and concern – only came to us after our long separation. We were so serious before, trying to prepare for we didn’t know what, but now despite it being worse than we had ever imagined we could play with each other. I try to imagine running around the yard like loons before he went away and I just can’t believe we ever would have; we were physically and mentally intimate but not emotionally or spiritually so. Now, even though daily life is a struggle for survival, play and laughter come so naturally to us there is no way that I would ever willingly choose to go back to the way things were before even if it meant undoing the months of misery I suffered in his absence.
The day before the Ag crew was scheduled to arrive it started to rain again. It didn’t just start to rain, it started and kept on raining for nearly three days straight never letting up to more than a light drizzle. We easily got over eighteen inches of rain according to the gauge we used to measure precipitation. Our pond that was just starting to go down not only filled back up but overflowed, something Mateo said he could never remember happening. The only thing that kept the pig pen from flooding and some of my garden beds was that all of the ponds and canals fed out into the swamp that in turn fed out into the retention ponds that lined the highway further up the road from us. Those retention ponds were just a little lower in elevation than our area of the road so that instead of the water backing up and truly flooding out our side of the road, the water flooded the highway and a couple of newer subdivisions to the north and south of our location. Even after the rain stopped we couldn’t let the children out beyond the lanai because there were gators and snakes in locations they didn’t normally hang out in, like our front porch. We even found the big, furry cat sunning himself on our roof. He gave us a rather wet, half-hearted hiss before returning to his grooming schedule so we left him alone.
Around mid morning the next day we were outside investigating our septic field. The ground was truly saturated and we worried that the plumbing was going to back up into the house. Mateo and I had just put the concrete plug back onto the septic tank when we heard the unmistakable rumble of a big truck engine. It turned out to be two of them. One was a hard-sided personnel transport and the other was a soft-sided personnel transport of similar size but it was pulling a hard-sided trailer. Bringing up the rear was a converted jeep looking vehicle; it wasn’t a humvee but it sure wasn’t your regular jeep you would have found on a car lot either, it had a huge and deadly looking gun mounted on it. As a matter of fact all three vehicles looked like they were loaded for bear and then some. It made us very nervous.
A dirty and tired looking man in uniform stepped down from the lead truck and carefully walked over to the gate. “Excuse me, I hope that this is the Jakob residence or Major Taglione is going to tear me a new one.”
What on earth do you say to a greeting like that? After a few more minutes of Mateo making double sure that they were who they said they were introductions were made. The military patrol consisted of the team leader – or however they divvied up the authority – Sgt. Will Ortiz and patrolmen Robert Driver, Jason “JC” Clements, Fred Baines, Rick Montrose, Lou Chin, and medic Roger Lopez. The Ag crew consisted of an additional four people: Ag Specialist 1st Class Barker “Dog” Darnell and his wife Ag Specialist 2nd Class Lissette “Liz” Darnell, and their two apprentices – Ag Specialist 3rd Class Joseph Rodriguez and Ag Specialist 3rd Class Juliet Taglione. That’s right, Taglione; the Major had sent her daughter along with the rest of the crew and I had to guess it was an act of good faith. I was actually surprised by the Ag Crew. Dog was in his young thirties, Liz was in her late twenties but the other two were just babes in arms. Joseph claimed he was seventeen but I would have pegged him a year or two younger. Juliet wasn’t even sixteen yet. “Almost. Two months really shouldn’t matter that much.” Boy did I feel old all of a sudden.
Sgt. Ortiz handed a note to Mateo from Tag. In it she informed him that the men had been authorized to help him salvage within a reasonable distance from their base camp and that he was also offered the chance to go out on patrol with them to get a wider look at areas too far for him to travel on foot. I saw Mateo mentally check off something on his wish list and though my stomach squirmed a little at the thought of him going so far I knew that it was inevitable and better to do it this way than solo and on foot.
To Sgt. Ortiz Mateo said, “I assume she is trying to encourage me to get to know you, give you a chance to earn my trust and for you to take my measure so you can report back to her.”
Sgt. Ortiz looked momentarily surprised then nodded and replied, “The Major told me you two weren’t your average survivor.” At Mateo’s questioning looked he added, “No offense. This patrol has done so many First Contacts that we have a formula. It’s good for us to have to reevaluate our approach now and again.”
“First contacts?” Mateo asked, seeking clarification.
“It’s an old Star Trek reference. In a nutshell not everyone went into the refugee camps; only logical because if they had we couldn’t have held them all. Most people are ambivalent when they see military personnel – it brings to mind more bombs and the spot this country is in at the moment – but they usually don’t give us any trouble. We try and keep our contact with civilians to a minimum and liaison with locally stationed Guardsmen or local militia troops. We’ve found Outlanders to be a different kettle of fish. Those that have stayed in the Outlands are mostly either hard cases that are avoiding authority of any kind, those that have given up and are just waiting to die, or people that are just getting by but still putting one foot in front of the other. You people, this farmstead, it’s different. You’ve got it rough, same as the others, but you’ve gone above the subsistence level. Maybe the Major is right and we can eventually use the Outlands to resettle people from the more crowded areas so that the government can disband the camps. Unlike you, most people we meet in the Outlands are actually looking for a ride to one of the processing camps, not the other way around.”
I stepped over to talk with Mr. Darnell who insisted I call him Dog and his wife Liz. “We’re just civilians. The titles are more of a courtesy than official in nature. They help us find where we are on a duty roster or flow chart but don’t really convey any special privileges or authority.”
I smiled and said, “Well then I’m Leah, you’ve met Mateo, and these two are Nydia and Michael though we all call him Neeno.”
I had thought to give them a day to get settled in and relax but Dog said, “The rain held us up two days on the road so we’ve only got eight left before we have to head back. If you don’t mind I’d prefer to get started right away … or at least right after we set up camp.”
This rushed my plans forward just a little but on the other hand I already had some ideas that I could put into place with no difficulty. First off Mateo and I took the children back to the house and I put together our lunch. In addition to the simple meal that I’d prepared for our us I wanted to give the Ag Crew an idea of what my goals were when it came to gardening. Again it was the idea that I wanted to utilize everything as constructively as possible, with as little work as possible, to facilitate the greatest gain as possible. To that end I was going to fix a small salad from the garden to give them all a taste, both figuratively and literally, of the potential that existed in this kind of gardening.
I made Broccoli and Carrot “Noodle” Salad using all fresh and raw ingredients. I took a head of broccoli and peeled the stalk and separated the florets. Next I used my spiral slicer and cut the broccoli stalk, a carrot, and a peeled cucumber. They looked like weird slinkies and I cut them so that the “noodles” weren’t quite so long. Then I mixed in a cup of sunflower seed sprouts and the small broccoli florets. I tossed it with a little homemade dressing and then put it on a platter on the lanai with a pitcher of cold guarapo. Guarapo is something that I found in Mateo’s mother’s recipe book. You take sugar cane juice and flavor it with a little natural lemon and/or lime juice. I wouldn’t call it lemonade but it was something similar only with a tropical kind of taste to it.
Sgt. Ortiz was the first to spot the offering on the table. “Ma’am, Major Taglione said specifically that we were to be self-sufficient, that we weren’t to abuse your hospitality.”
“This isn’t abusing my hospitality Sergeant and I assure you I wouldn’t take food out of my family’s mouths just to schmooze your people. This is to make a point. I’m not sure the state of the food supplies you have at your base but Tag sent the Ag Crew out here to learn how Mateo and I do things. If I offer something to the Ag Crew I’d like for you and your men to sample it as well that way you have more than one perspective to share with the Major when you go back.”
Rather reluctantly they all tried the small sample that I provided each of them. “Listen, I’m serious. It is one thing to read about something in a book. It’s another thing to do a hands on experiment. But my job as I see it is not just to teach what I do but why I do it. In that question of why comes the rewards. So what do you think?”
Joseph, the young apprentice, spoke right up. “It looks funny but it tastes better than I thought.”
I heard one of the other men mutter, “If it isn’t nailed down that kid will eat it.”
I laughed and said, “I hope that’s not a comment on my culinary talents.”
JC looked chagrined and said, “No ma’am … but he’s right, it did look kind of strange – all of them curly cues with that green stuff mixed in.”
Lopez the medic shook his head and said, “That ‘green stuff’ is broccoli and has as much calcium as whole milk does. The … sunflower seed sprouts? … that’s the protein and it will also be loaded with enzymes and chlorophyll.” At my surprised look he said, “I have a rotation in the Nutrition department every other week. That’s why I was picked to be the medic this trip. We need to find new sources of vitamins and minerals to substitute for all of the enriched foods we were used to getting before, especially for the kids.”
I nodded. “Well Tag was certainly serious then so let’s not disappoint her.” For the rest of the day I took the Ag crew and gave them a very general overview of our production system and Mateo took the military guys and gave them a different kind of overview. When it was time for me to prepare the evening meal they went back to their camp to write up reports and prepare their own food.
As dark arrived and we closed the house for the night I was nervous about them camping over in the Trask’s yard until Mateo told me, “I think we can relax, at least where their intentions are concerned. Sgt. Ortiz and I discussed things and I’m certain as I can be that they are on the up and up.”
“And you think that you can get what you want out of them?”
He shrugged, “That remains to be seen. I’m not foolish Love, their current intent is harmless but I’m still uncertain about their long range plans are in this area.”
The next day I really put my lesson plan into action and put them to work. “Rather than just describing what I do I want to show you from the ground up.”
We built several raised and covered beds that morning. As lunch time I approached though I found I wasn’t just a teacher but I was student as well.
“Portobello mushrooms? You grow your own Portobello mushrooms?” I asked Dog.
“Yep. It was a hobby of mine before things all fell apart. When the Major found out … well, I got a whole block in the base garden lots to try and add some variety to our meals. I brought a bunch with me. You wouldn’t happen to have a good recipe would you?”
I laughed because they’d already figured out that I had a weakness for cookbooks and recipes of all sorts. “As a matter of fact I do.”
One of the tidbits of information that I’d picked up from listening to Joseph and Juliet was that fuel and the power it generated was strictly rationed at the Base. That caused a lot of challenges when it came to preparing the amount of food that was needed to feed all of the refugees living at the processing center. At the outlying camps it was an even bigger problem.
“You know,” I said. “My freshman year of college I … well, I put on the Freshman 15.”
“The what?” Juliet asked.
“The Freshman 15. It isn’t unusual for people to put on about 10 to 20 pounds their first year of college for various reasons and they average it out and call it the Freshman 15. And I packed those puppies on. As a result I got very self conscious and tried a bunch of different fad diets, then when the diets didn’t work I got into these whole lifestyles … paleo, vegan, and a couple of other ones. Actually my favorite was called the Raw Food Diet.” Joseph turned his nose up but I told him, “Relax, it isn’t what you’re thinking. It’s very vegan but in addition to that you don’t cook anything. I still serve a lot of dishes that I learned during that stage of my life and one of them is this fantastic Thai salad that uses Portobello mushrooms.”
I showed them how to do that and everyone got a sample except for Mateo and four of the other crew that were out on patrol. In the afternoon we planted the beds we had built that morning and then because I’d gotten a really good harvest of pumpkin and carrots for dinner that night I made raw Carrot and Pumpkin “Soup.”
We had to use my small, hand crank blender since it was so cloudy that we only had enough solar battery power to refill our potable water containers. For two servings you take a rounded cup of fresh, pureed pumpkin, one and one-half cups of pureed carrots, a little poultry seasoning, one and one-half teaspoons of garlic powder, one and one-half teaspoons of onion powder, almost one inch pureed ginger root, a little sea salt (to taste), and put it all in the blender. As you are blending you add a little water at a time until you get the consistency that you want for your “soup.”
They were still a little unsure as to whether I was experimenting on them or not nonetheless Dog literally licked the small condiment cup of soup that I gave him clean. “Never thought of something like this. You know, I can’t wait to tell Lopez. I’m sure he’ll be over here tomorrow asking for the recipe. Think on it … it doesn’t require cooking. Every ingredient can be grown in our own garden … except for the sea salt and we’ll have to trade for salt no matter how you look at it. Plus it should help with some of the nutritional holes we are trying to fill.”
Lopez didn’t even wait until morning but caught me as I was tossing my dish water at the cat who had decided that our yard would be a good place to sing and yowl in. The cat just ignored me but at Lopez’s approach he shot over the fence and up a tree. “Sorry. Did I scare him?”
I rolled my eyes and told him, “I doubt it. He’s just standoffish. Can I help you? Or are you looking for Mateo?”
“Actually I was wondering if you could give me the recipe for that pumpkin soup Dog won’t shut up about. Pumpkins are full of Vitamins A, C, K, and E, alpha and beta carotenes, magnesium, potassium, and even iron. That plus not having to cook it … I can’t wait to try it out on the Nutrition Department staff.”
“I’ve got one for using zucchini and butternut squash too,” I told him. “The only thing is that it calls for a tablespoon of almond butter and a little soy sauce.”
“I want it … and for the almonds talk to Liz.” He left without an explanation so it wasn’t until the next morning that I could satisfy my imagination.
At my question Liz laughed and said, “Well, I suppose it really isn’t funny but to me it is. I’m deathly allergic to milk. I can’t even get dairy products on my skin. It is the primary reason I’m on the triage list.”
Slightly more confused than I was already I told her, “I heard Tag mention this triage thing before. I hadn’t wanted to ask but is Juliet …?”
“The daughter that is on the triage list?” At my nod she said, “Yeah. All of us are on the triage list.”
“OK … that’s not making too much sense at the moment,” I said confused and concerned at the same time.
“You have to understand … it’s a big thing, or can be, but at the same time it isn’t … at least not for those of us here. The triage rules are federal; you either follow them or you can lose your access to the staple goods and medical supplies that the government is trying to provide to the military bases and refugee camps. The rules make sense most of the time. Medical supplies and medicines are in such short supply that they need to be used to their maximum benefit so just like in an overrun emergency room that means that the least ill get seen first because they are the most likely to benefit from treatment. No waste in the system.”
Hesitantly, “I understand the policy in theory but … I’m not sure I could put it into practice myself.”
Liz shrugged, “You do what you have to. The Major, she takes it personally and not just because of Julie. The only way around the triage rules is if the person in question is considered vital personnel.”
Beginning to see what was coming I just looked at Liz who nodded, “You’ve got it. To offset the triage rules the Major tries to make sure that all those that are triaged are trained in the departments or programs that offer the greatest protection without putting anyone else at risk. The triaged kids like Joey and Julie are apprenticed out as soon as anyone discerns any talent in a certain direction. We’ve got apprentices that are as young as eight. We don’t have any that young in our department but you should see them in Communications. They’re teaching those kids languages and how to operate the equipment … you go over there around lunch time and the break room looks like it has been taken over by a bunch of possessed monkeys. Strangely enough though they really do serve a vital purpose; those kids are fast as greased lightning delivering notes all over base since we don’t have the energy to run a regular intercom system.”
“What about those people that don’t show aptitude or those too old to be considered vital?”
Liz shook her head, “Guess you don’t know. The average age of those at Base is around forty. Anyone that was on maintenance meds pretty much either learned to survive without the drugs or they died around the time the UN was bombed. We’ve got some older folks but the Major doesn’t let ‘em just sit around collecting dust. Usually they are teaching or training kids on whatever they did before they reached retirement age. In fact, if you broke the different departments down by age it would be our medical staff that are the oldest, what we’re missing there is the people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. A lot of them died during the period of forced medical draft when they got pulled into the MASH units or around the quarantine zones to deal with people exposed to radiation.”
Struggling to understand I said, “I keep getting mixed signals. On the one hand things sound so grim, yet on the other none of you seem to be downtrodden or anything even approaching that.”
Dog came up right at that point and said, “Given the alternative, most of us are just happy to have a place and a job to do that puts food on the table.”
After thinking a moment I said, “I guess we got away from it or I’m still not getting it … what did Lopez mean?”
“Oh that,” Liz said. “Dog and I barter some of our work credits for some of the higher priced trade items, in this case almonds. I make almond milk for myself when I want it. When I’m running low on almonds I’ll make soy milk but I prefer nut milk. I can drink goat’s milk without a reaction so long as I don’t drink a lot of it.”
“They have goats on Base?”
I found out they didn’t keep the goats on the Base but at the dairy farm that was adjacent to the crop fields. The manure generated at the dairy farm was their primary source of fertilizer for the crops. Juliet told me all about the goats then said, “I was going to apprentice with the animals caregivers but the guy who runs it is a … er … him and Mom … I mean the Major … don’t always see eye to eye and to spite her he refused to take me on. He claimed that he could risk my health by exposing me to the animals, as well as the potential injuries involved, when I don’t have access to medical care. She tries real hard not to throw her weight around and get my family special privileges so I wound up in Agriculture. I think I like this better; I haven’t travelled too much but certainly more than I would have if I was stuck at the dairy all the time and in Ag I’m still living at home on base so I get to see my parents pretty much every day.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I ever heard what your father’s avocation is.”
“His what? Oh, you mean what he does … he’s a landscape architect. He pretty much single handedly designed the green spaces on Base and helped get the farm off the ground by knowing which plants grow well next to each other and which ones don’t. He designed the watering system too. It’s pretty cool. Now he and I can talk to each other while Robert, Priss, and Mom talk their shop.”
“There’s three of you?”
“Four. Vi is the youngest and isn’t really assigned to any program yet. Let’s see, Robert is nineteen, Priss is seventeen, I’m almost sixteen, and Vi … that’s short for Violet … is thirteen. Vi is … different. She’s not mentally challenged or anything but she has trouble processing stuff if too many things come at her at once. We think she’s growing out of it but still, with the way things go on Base you never know so mostly Vi hangs out with Dad and he’s teaching her graphic arts and stuff like that. She’s pretty good at it too. If all she had to do was draw all day she’d be fine … but you know how it is.”
I nodded knowing exactly how it was. I’d had a few students like that with hard to classify and quantify “syndromes” that made the traditional classroom setting a nightmare for them. I looked over at that moment and said more sharply than I had meant to, “Ack! Joseph, what are you doing?!”
Startled he said, “Uh, prepping this pumpkin for that dehydrator thing like you wanted.”
I took a breath and apologized for yelling. “Look, we need to separate stuff out and not just dump it all in the trash pile. The rind will go to the pigs, the stem into the compost bucket, but the seeds need to be scooped out and set into this bowl.”
He shook his head and asked why. “Well, if I didn’t already have enough seeds I would set these aside for the next season’s planting. But since I do have enough seeds for that I want to use these seeds to make a snack.” As soon as I was sure that Joseph wasn’t going to throw the seeds away again I turned to Dog and said, “I don’t mean to sound snarky but is food being wasted on Base?”
He gave it an honest think before replying. “Mistakes have definitely been made, especially in the beginning. As far as waste goes today however, that is way, way down. Food is too precious and for the most part people have gotten over their reluctance to eat food that might not be what they are used to. Smaller portions helped partially and if you work long hours, you get hungry. If you get hungry enough you’ll eat whatever is put in front of you.”
To show them how to utilize even something as unassuming as a bowl of pumpkin guts I showed them how to make Mustard-Ginger Pumpkin Seed Crunchies. I started with five cups of dry pumpkin seeds and set them to sprouting. I already had some ready since it takes one to two days to sprout them and then another day to dehydrate the sprouts. To the dried pumpkin sprouts I added three tablespoons of sea salt, a quarter cup of honey, one and one-half tablespoons of cider vinegar, one-half teaspoon of ginger powder, one teaspoon of mustard powder, one teaspoon of garlic powder, one-half teaspoon of curry powder, and one tablespoon of dried Italian seasoning. I mixed everything in a bowl and then spread it on a non-stick tray liner that I stuck into the dehydrator. It was a good day and after a couple of hours I flipped the whole mess over so it would dry evenly to a crunch stage. It made a bunch so I was able to send most of it back with the crew for an evening snack while still having plenty for Mateo and Nydia to eat.
“You aren’t eating Leah. Is everything all right?” Mateo asked after giving me a serious look.
Stretching my neck I said, “I’m fine. It’s just after having almost no information I feel a little like I’m on overload. I snapped at Joseph today when there really wasn’t any reason to react as strongly as I did.” I explained what had happened but Mateo took a different view of it.
“My grandmother would have thrown something at the boy.”
“What?! You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
“No, she could be a cranky old thing but it is because she grew up with so little. In her eyes wasting food was one of the worst sins you could commit. Her and her siblings nearly starved to death during the Great Depression. Leah, any food source must be taken completely serious. A seemingly innocent mistake today could cost lives tomorrow. I have to tell you that the men, especially Lopez, are very impressed with how you run things … how economical each day’s chores are and how far you can stretch the food, how you multi-purpose almost everything you do. They’re taking notes.”
I must have turned bright red because he said something to the effect that they can take their notes but that they wouldn’t be taking me. We kind of got off the subject for a few minutes while I enjoyed his particular attention but we came back around when he brought up the next day’s expedition. “I know you are not exactly happy with me going Leah.”
“I’m not exactly unhappy either. I know you’ve wanted to travel further afield for some time now. I just wish that ‘afield’ was a little closer to home.”
“You know I will be careful.”
“Of course I do. And you know that even though I know you’ll be careful that I’ll worry anyway until I get used to you traveling again.”
“Perhaps so, but that is tomorrow and this is tonight. Now, let’s go to bed so I can show you exactly how glad I am that you are my woman.”
That I could readily agree to. Tomorrow would be another day and the fourth day that the Ag Crew would be observing and taking notes. The lessons were going as planned but it was considerably more tiring than I had expected and I still had five more days to go before they left. I hoped those days would go as reasonably well as the first three had.