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Dog Day Lessons

Bill Meredith

"When ‘taters need sprayin,’
I bet you’re a-prayin’ the bugs’ll fall offa the vines…."
                    Hoagy Carmichael & Johnny Mercer, 1933.

(August, 2011) We are in the middle of the ancient season that the Romans used to call dies caniculares, more recently known as Dog Days. This was a significant time in back then. The Royal Astronomers would mark the time when the sun rose in the constellation of Sirius, the dog star; they could see at dawn on that date that Sirius was getting too close to the sun, so they could predict with confidence that they were in for a period of hot, muggy weather. And they were always right.

We didn’t have pre-school or kindergarten when I was young, so much of my early education came from my grandmother, who ran her life by the Bible and the Farmer’s Almanac, in that order. She was the first to tell me about Dog Days. When I got to school, probably about the third grade, I learned that the months of July and August were named for Julius and Augustus Caesar. I’m not sure if Grandma knew about Julius Caesar; but she was aware of Augustus; the tax he imposed was the reason Mary and Joseph happened to be in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and I’m sure she could have cited the chapter and verse to prove it.

I was born in the same year that Hoagy Carmichael wrote "Lazy Bones," and my wife has always maintained that he dedicated it to me. While there may have been some basis for that in recent years, back then it didn’t apply to farm kids. There was work that had to be done, Dog Days or not, and that included everyone. The gardens were producing beans, sweet corn and tomatoes, and the women were canning them in kitchens that were stiflingly hot and humid, since they cooked on coal stoves.

The first cutting of hay had been made in June, and the second crop would be ready about this time, depending on how much rain we’d had, so the men were out in the fields all day; if the hay wasn’t ready, fences had to be mended, machinery had to be repaired, and acres of field corn had to be hoed. Kids were kept busy. As a pre-schooler I had the job of picking beetles and caterpillars off the bean and potato plants and disposing of them in kerosene, contained in one of Grandma’s Garrett Snuff cans. It was a labor-intensive task; folks said kids were well-suited for it, being close to the ground. We also carried a couple of flat rocks for squashing the masses of yellow eggs the beetles had laid on the bottoms of leaves. In those days if you were born squeamish, you got over it. When we got a little bigger, we were assigned to feed the chickens and pigs, gather eggs, and carry jugs of water to the men in the fields; and in a few more years we were working in the fields ourselves. Ah, the Good Old Days.

Besides learning how to work, I learned a lot of things that made my mind receptive when I began to study science. One day my Dad was chopping wood near the house, and I was out in a field some distance away when I noticed something was out of synch. The axe made no sound when it came down on the wood, but when he raised it for the next blow, I heard a solid "WHACK!" as if he had hit an invisible log in the air over his head. He chopped rhythmically through the log, the last sound occurring after he finished. I thought it would be neat if I could do that and amaze people, so I went and asked him how he did it. He looked at me with an odd expression… I was used to that, for my questions often resulted in that look… but after he figured out what I was talking about, he gave me a clear explanation. The axe made its sound when it hit the wood, but sound travels through the air at a fairly slow speed, so he had raised the axe before the sound got to me. I wasn’t sure if I believed him at first, but that evening there was a thunderstorm, and he explained that the sound from the lightning travels about 1,000 feet per second, and since there are about 5,000 feet in a mile, if you count the seconds between the flash of light and the thunder and divide by 5, you can calculate how far away the lightning is… five seconds equals one mile. We sat on the porch and timed the approaching storm with his pocket watch, and when the intervals got less than five seconds, he said it was time to go inside. Before long there was a blinding flash, followed instantly by an enormous crash as a tree near the house was struck. It demonstrated the point more vividly than any lesson I ever had in school.

That was 70 years ago, and things are different now. I still plant a garden each spring, but it is about 1/20th the size of my grandmother’s, and the work involved in tending it seems less urgent. How well we will eat next winter does not depend on it. Especially since my retirement, there is more time to stop and look at things. I was tying tomato plants to their stakes the other day when an adolescent chipping sparrow fluttered to the ground a few feet away. It gazed at me as if it wondered whether I might be its mother; meanwhile, the real mother fluttered and chirped frantically from the edge of the lawn. My hearing has deteriorated badly in recent years, but as nearly as I could tell in translation, she was saying, "Not him, you idiot! Me!" Things like that make you wonder how kids ever manage to survive. Later that day, while cutting grass in the yard, I found a baby toad that had survived tadpoledom in the ditch below the house last spring. It was not half an inch long, and its legs were thinner than a blade of grass; hopping from its birthplace to where I found it would have been the equivalent of walking from here to Baltimore. It would not fare well there the next time the lawnmower came by, so I carried it out to a field where all it will have to worry about is garter snakes, raccoons, crows and pesticides.

Dog Days take their toll. Last spring my wife got some tree seedlings for Arbor Day, and when I set them out I put wire around them and supported it with sticks that I had recently pruned from trees. Most of the seedlings died, but one of the sticks sprouted leaves, even though I had stuck it into the ground top-end-first. It was a demonstration of the indomitable tenacity of meristematic tissue, and I had some hope that it might take root and survive, but temperatures above 100 in July were too much for it.

So, I will stay indoors for a while. Somewhere I have a recording of Nat "King" Cole singing "Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer," and if I can find it, I’ll put it on and listen to it, if the old turntable still works. It will be a good time to stretch out in the recliner with a good book… nothing too strenuous… maybe re-read Harry Potter. You have to take advantage of Dog Days while they last.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith