Posted by: David Weimer | July 23, 2011

Timeless day

When I’m walking near the fence line I’m working on, I feel the heat radiating up from the grass, twenty degrees more than the mid-90s air.  It feels like I’m walking in an open oven.  I breathe in, and the air is hot in my lungs.  I pace myself, in order to not drop from the heat.  I feel like I’m a deep sea diver on the bottom of the ocean or an astronaut trudging along the “magnificent desolation” of the surface of the moon inside my spacesuit.  In the 4×4 “Mule” parked up the hill over there, on the other side of the fence, is my water cooler, resting against a chainsaw on the metal floor of the vehicle.  It’s filled with ice and colder-than-imaginable water.  When I get to the hot bench seat and sit, I hold the small blue container over my head, letting the water pour down my throat.  I can stand only three large gulps of the nearly frozen liquid at a time—pouring the arctic into a volcano.

I know there must be hissing and boiling, but it’s out of view.  Feeling marginally less fried, I grab the almost-too-hot-to-touch crow bar, toss my hammer in a plastic 5-gallon bucket of rusted, bent nails and slowly walk back to clear more old posts before hanging new wire.

I appreciate the heat.  I appreciate there is a seemingly wide range of temperatures I am able to survive.  This range is an almost infinitesimal tick on the thermostat dial of the universe.  There are bugs, I mumble to myself, which survive more extreme temperature changes—without clothes, fans or ice water.  Then again, those bugs aren’t working in the heat to fix fences on a horse farm.  Or are they?  Maybe they’re undertaking much more arduous and extreme tasks.  They probably are.  I’m an artificial life form; I wouldn’t have survived past my twenties, maybe, in a world without emergency rooms and inoculations.

I remember laying on the baked, hot Oklahoma scrub in BDU’s, boots, helmet and web gear, ear plugs stuck deep in my ears and sweat running into my eyes on the firing range in basic training, circa 1985.  I rest the corner of my helmet against the stock of my M-16, waiting for the subdued shouting, several positions to my right, of the range-master drill sergeant to quit before we can shoot again.  I close my eyes for what seems like a few seconds and then blink with a start when my position partner taps a newly-loaded magazine on my helmet.  I slap it into the bottom of the weapon and hit a catch on the side, causing the bolt to “lock and load” a round, then hit the charging handle on upper right side, just behind the ejection port, with my palm.  I blow a drop of sweat from the end of my nose, finger resting outside the trigger guard, waiting to thumb the selector switch from safe to fire.  The targets are nowhere in the rippling heat.  This is a 250 meter range; we’re on the shorter firing phase, using our rifle sights for distances shorter than 150 meters.

The whistle blows.  After two seconds, the first muffled sharp cracks sound, seemingly in a fish tank just behind my head.  The targets pop up for five seconds before dropping out of sight.  I see my 50-meter black head-and-torso-shaped target rise up.  Squeeze.  Got it.  With its recoil spring, this weapon is nearly recoilless, and a new round is chambered.  Something rolls under the right side of my collar and slips down to my dog tag chain, burning like a lit cigarette.  I flick the 5.56 mm brass casing away and curse.  I’m left-handed and there were no more brass deflectors in the cardboard box as I filed by with others for my turn to qualify.  I let the waffled hand guard of my weapon lie on a faded green sandbag and fumble to button my top two BDU buttons.  I’ve been watching for my second target, which just popped up.  I sight and squeeze.  Dust puffs to the right and just beyond the 100-meter target.  The expelled smoking brass hits my camouflage collar this time, falling to the hard ground over my right shoulder.  Only one shot per target.  My next target appears, smaller, farther away…

At another range, in a foxhole position, I remember squatting in a barrel-shaped entrenchment.  I was on my haunches in the thin wedge of shade, sweating, wishing I could smoke, hearing muffled echoes above—crunching gravel under boots, yells, distant cracks from other ranges—all from what sounded like the inside of a tin can.  The heat was intense.  After the “wet bulb” showed that the dew point had risen past a certain point, a “water buffalo” was brought out and we soaked our button-down camouflage shirts.  At regular intervals, we drank by the numbers shouted by a drill sergeant (one, remove canteen from canteen pouch on web belt; two, unscrew canteen cap; three…)

I remember being on the roof of a FedEx building at the Nonconnah Corporate Center in Memphis, circa 1998.  The temperature and humidity were both around one hundred.  River rocks on the roof and the concrete square walkways radiated the heat back up in my face.  Everything was bleached by the relentless sun and heat.  It felt like the surface of the sun.  I wore a paper mask and sun glasses.  I was spray painting a wooden visual enclosure around a roof a/c condensing unit.  I was the painter, and this was my last job for the day—actually, for good.  I told my boss, Scott, a ringer for Elvis, that I wouldn’t be back after today.  Three months later, writing obituaries for The Commercial Appeal newspaper, I would finally have health coverage and was able to schedule an operation to cut away what turned out to be skin cancer from the corner of my left eye.

My arm hairs, head and neck hairs are coated with blue-gray paint.  My painter whites are misted grey.  My face, around the mask, was covered.  My nose hairs are stiff with paint.  My eyelashes stick when I blink.  I sweat and keep spraying.  I know I’m breathing too much of this stuff in…

Working in the sun has a certain… feeling… for me.  A composite of an appreciation of the fragility of life and the timelessness of heat; these things and something more.  I am appreciative of how amazing it is to be able to survive in the shimmering heat.  A few degrees more or a bit more ultraviolet and we’d die, disfigured and ulcerated.  A NASA program speaker I watched recently said that without the ozone layer we’d need SPF 500—and that probably wouldn’t work very well to protect us.

Now, when I work outside, I wear SPF 50 sunblock that stains my T-shirts orange around the neck and arms.  When I was 18, in the Army, I didn’t use sunscreen, I just burned.  In North Florida, working as a land surveyor in swamps, I remember being determined to “get used to” the sun and I avoided sunblock until after I noticed an older surveyor with open sores on his forearms and neck.  He had the same freckled light complexion I have and never wore sunscreen.  He eventually had to quit working to avoid getting more cancer.  After connecting the bumps I saw breaking out on my own arms to people I’d seen, I began reluctantly smearing the greasy-feeling stuff on, around my nose and mouth, eyes and neck, grimacing as I rubbed sweat and cream together.

I am appreciative of the sun.  Scientists say it’s been burning this way for billions of years.  Billions of our years.  How many of the sun’s years?  Apparently, we’re the same age; he’s middle-aged as far as main sequence stars go.  Radiating outward, constantly blasting in a full range all his energy and solar radiation.  A nonstop, billions-years-long nuclear fusion blast.  Our planet’s magnetism—a product of spinning molten radioactive metal in its core—and a translucent thin layer of O3 allow us the luxury of sweating under pounding radiation while shooting targets, spray painting on the roof of a metal and glass corporate building, and now, prying out rusted nails and staples with a crow bar, being sure to pick up the strays that flick into tall grass.

Around 6 a.m., it is daylight here, at Windy Hill Farm, in Broome County, in mid-southern New York State, just above the Pennsylvania border.  This time of the day feels forgiving.  Five fillies are grazing in the pasture next to the hay barn and the farmhand is up there by the farm faucet, filling a water tank on the back of a pickup to make the water run to all the horses’ troughs.  In three hours, when I start working, it will already be brutal hot and baking.  Four hours earlier, a two o’clock this morning, as I stood outside on the stone walk path in front of this house, waiting for the indistinct form of our white English Labrador, Mike, to change from a squatting position over by the tree line, I was reminded of all the silhouettes I’d seen.  Of life.  I saw the stars, and I wonder if I’ve ever seen anything.  Maybe I’ve been too busy.  There are shadows and shades and vagueness now, in the pre-dawn, and blinding brightness and rippling air that ignores all time, in the daylight.  It’s one long day.  All one long day.

Such is summer for me.

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