Friday, November 28, 2008

Getting the wind up

It's been windy down on the farm lately, enough so two nights before Thanksgiving to take some roof off our sheep barn and bring down some trees on our power line. We're second to last house on a spur line, off another spur, deep in the woods, a forgotten enclave as far as the tree trimmers seem concerned, and so we're used to short power cuts every few weeks or so, but I was still worried as my sump pump wasn't doing its job and I have several hundred dollars worth of farm-fresh meat in my freezers and this seemed a longer outage than most.

So when the linesmen showed up I was very glad to see them. This despite the fact that they showed after quite some delay, about 20 hours of no power. About half the county was without power, and our little outage was a low priority job compared to others that would have restored power to hundreds of people, not just a handful.

This logic of electrical triage we understand and appreciate, and we also are mindful of the responsibility to be self-reliant when you choose to live so deep in the deep woods.

We choose to live here. If we and other rural folk demanded the same services and amenities enjoyed by urbanites and complained every time the power went out or the snow didn't get plowed, everyone's utilities and taxes would be that much higher.

And we'd be what our students would rudely call "lame."

So when the linesmen finally showed up with chainsaws and a cherry picker truck, I was delighted, and set to, helping them clear the trees. They were all young guys, and they didn't mess around, expertly wielding chainsaws and winches and other useful implements to clear the trees. Even so, it took them about three hours to fully diagnose and fix all the ground leaks on our five-hundred yard spur, there were so many down and leaning trees. The power came on and off again several times, and we even heard the main breaker crack loudly once, like a gunshot, down on the main line, as the linesmen tried to switch the power on before they'd cleared all the trees.

All very exciting.

Luckily, electrical power, like many other energy problems, succumbs to logical trouble-shooting, and so you know that eventually, if you keep asking the right binary questions, and proceed by elimination, it will get fixed. There's a good lesson there. Reason still works! Surprise! When lots of perfectly intelligent people in academia have tried to make it go away for many, many years. But these are not people who have to fix things and keep them running. Those of us who do, love reason because it makes our lives easier.

Question: How many postmodernist and deconstructivist academics does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None. Because if you don't really believe in logic and reason in the first place, you'll be so busy thinking up silly notions of why the light ain't on, you'll never get around to fixing even the simplest problems.

I've been fixing things since my dad taught me the basics of my first trade, electrical wiring. Dad rewired houses, and I was his crawl space boy, expertly fitting junction boxes into tiny dirty places at the tender age of eleven. Now, a dozen skilled and semi-skilled trades later, from airplane maintenance to barn-building, I remain thoroughly appreciative of practical things and practical people.

Postmodernists never seem to actually do anything useful or practical. They depend on others for all that. And of course, if everything is relative, and there's no such thing really as wrong or right, just differing viewpoints, well, what's to stop me eating my neighbor if I get a little hungry in an emergency? Why should I have to contribute anything important to society and to community, if there's really no such thing, if it's all just a simulacrum.

Obviously, deconstructivism begins to fall down when you realize even the best deconstructivists are dependent on the ordinary con-struction trades for shelter.

Reductio ad absurdum.

Another good lesson was found in not having power for twenty-three hours, this one in ecological systems. Everything is connected to everything else, in our house, and around the planet. As with ecological systems, resilience and redundancy are key. If you don't have power, the things that still work are wood stoves, flashlights, and oil lamps. Appreciating resilience and redundancy, we have all of these. Our propane kitchen stove still works, although its oven does not. When we bought a wood stove, we opted for a practical Norskie model with a hotplate built-in. Those Norwegians appreciate the absolute value of heat. Inverters and generators are also useful things, mostly made in China these days, and we own several inverters and a good propane generator. Practical folk, the Chinese. Admirably productive and adept at engineering usefulness out of steel and plastic. And a sensible hot water tank by GE that runs on propane and still works just fine when the power goes out. Remember when America was the workshop and factory floor of the world?

Unfortunately, some folks have borrowed the genny for quite a while now, and so we were left trying to use inverters hooked up to a pick-up truck motor to run the essential systems of the house and that's where our otherwise careful preparations fell short..

These essentials, in our particular farmhouse, comprise two chest freezers, two refrigerators, a sump pump, and a well pump. The various food coolers are needed to store our farm surplus for the winter. The sump pump is needed twice a year when the ground water begins to rise in our basement. Mostly, we use it to keep the water away from the furnace and hot water tank and one of the two freezers that live in the basement. And we need to run a deep well pump to get water for humans and animals. Our eleven sheep in particular need about ten gallons a day.

If all else fails, we're just two hundred yards from a year-round creek. We wouldn't even have to carry the water, just let the sheep go. They can go get a drink and come back. They're good sheep and they would come back.

Of course, even with all this resilience and redundancy, things never go quite as well as you want. I managed to burn up the larger of our two inverters trying to get it to run the well pump, which had I thought about it, I would have known would happen, that pump drawing about twice as much power as the inverter could supply. I was more careful with the other one after that. We gave up trying to get the well pump to run and used rainwater collected in pools here and there for the animals.

Other than that, all went well and we even enjoyed our electrical hiatus. We heated with the wood stove, shutting down the heat systems that needed power. We cooked on the wood stove and the propane burners and used flashlights and oil lamps for light. We were able to stay warm and fed and to properly water and feed all our animals. We missed our TV a little, but instead made conversation and read books. It was actually quite pleasant at times.

Still, I know now I need to be more forceful about getting that generator back. It's silly to be the owner of a 1500 watt generator, if you can't use it when you need to. I would have been much happier about it all if I could have used the genny to run the sump pump to clear the water from the basement and to run the well pump.

This was a good test, and we were not unprepared. A passing grade. We have a thing or two to tinker with, to be even readier for the next emergency.

So much for the Womerlippis. How resilient is the rest of society? And how redundant are our systems for food, water, shelter, energy, health care and emergency services? Because we are for sure going to need them more and more these next few decades.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Crawling in the crawl space

I wanted to work indoors today because the weather was too bad to mess with our greenhouse. So I hung the new front porch door I made over the weekend. No pictures of that because I got too busy insulating the crawl space above said porch.

I cut two hatches in the ceiling, bought some insulation and made ready. But I wanted somebody around in case my ladder fell, so I waited for Aimee to get back from college where she had been doing some prep or grading or something.

But the sight of my legs dangling as I struggled up into the crawl space was too much for Aimee. Instead of watching my ladder (and my back) she ran for her camera and started snapping shots, effectively blinding me with the flash up in the crawl space.

She got roundly berated for her trouble, but was not fazed.

Nothing new. You can see at the bottom what she's generally like to me. Bad girl.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The new greenhouse

That stinking cold abating for the time being, hopefully for good, and the weather having improved, it was time to begin framing Aimee's new greenhouse.

Last year she made do with a half-hoophouse, but it was forever getting damaged in our regular winter gales. This new building will be made of cedar, glass, and polycarbonate roofing.

Aimee likes to grow plant starts in the spring of the year. She grows enough tomatoes, peppers, and basil to meet our needs and the frozen and canned tomatoes and pesto last all year.

This building will serve double duty, because as a half-scaffold, I can use it to more easily put asphalt shingles on this half of our barn roof. There's just cheap roll roofing up there right now, nowhere near good enough. Actually, you can easily see where I recently had to put two new sheets down to replace two that blew off in a gale. One more bit of scaffolding on each side will suffice to reach the entire length.

Of course I had a lot of helpers. Especially when it came to unload the half ton of oats we got today at the feed store.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Can't beet that soup; and feeding other kinds of beasts

Here's our four young ewes Molly, Maggie, Lark, and little Nellie with visiting ram-bo Snorri, eating hay. As you can see there's some kind of strange white stuff on the ground.

Hmmm. Wonder where we've seen that before? Ah. that's right. Only for about five months last winter.

It's baaa-ck!

Cold and windy with blowing spindrift out there, I spent much of the day in the shop making a new front door for the porch. I was sneezing the whole time, cold and snotty, so I finally came in to make beet soup.

That should help my cold. And I made Mick-bread.

Mick bread is any hearty bread made by a Mick, best served hot with butter. This has pinhead oatmeal and rye.

Want to buy a "virtual" pig or lamb?

Making this farm pay is a real headache, but I think I may have a partial solution.

We get a lot of interest in the meat and eggs we raise from colleagues at college and in the community. We raise a lot of food here, and would like to make some money off the surplus. Given time to get these old overgrown orchards and pastures back into productive grass and apples, we could raise more, much more. We do sell some food already. We sell eggs. We also sell Aimee's plant starts and raw fleece. And then we just give some away, quite a bit, mostly because we can and because we like to. The eggs and chops we give out are extremely popular.

(Aimee has a kind of rough schedule so everyone she knows, close friend or not, gets eggs once in a while. I tend to give chops to those who ask, but also as a kind of thank-you to anyone who's been helpful to me recently. I guess Aimee is more of a democrat, while I'm looking for a return on my investment. Capitalist.)

But we can only legally sell the surplus meat if we truck the animals live to a USDA approved butchering facility some sixty miles away. This is not really very sensible right now for two reasons. The first is, we'd need to shell out nearly two grand for a suitable, street-legal, safe, heavy-duty livestock trailer. We have a tiny home-built box trailer that's legal and that cost a couple hundred dollars, but we can never take it more than a few miles. I accidentally twisted the frame, so the tires wear out too quickly. I can make it to the butchers and back, but not much more.

There are a gazillion things we need right now more than we need a livestock trailer, including a new car for Aimee to get to work. A non-starter.

The second reason is, sixty miles is a long haul for an animal that's already terrified and going to die soon.

The first problem could be overcome if it were a good investment, if we thought we could sell the meat at a good price. The second, well, it would make the animals and us pretty unhappy. Butchering season already makes me miserable.

But recently a colleague asked us if we'd grow out an extra pig for her and her husband, possibly in consort with another couple we know. I told her, sure, probably not a problem. For our own use we usually grow two pigs every two years because one pig is lonely and two pigs is more than I can eat in a year. But we can comfortably get two pigs every year and grow one extra for a friend or consortium of friends.

And this year, with seven breeding ewes and two rams at work we will have between six and ten lambs. Some of those, the surplus males, can also be "virtualized:" sold soon after birth, but "boarded" here until slaughter.

And then the animals can be trucked just the fourteen miles to our local butchers who does a great and legal job for half the price if the person using the meat actually owns the animal that is delivered. I still could use to get a new trailer, but I can keep my eye out for around for a small box trailer in Uncle Henry's, our local classified weekly. Maybe I can find one for under five hundred bucks.

A sensible solution.

And then I read on Stonehead's blog that he's working out much the same system.

It's the wave of the future. Virtual livestock. And it could be really helpful to my farm development project.

I want to eventually have a farming operation that grows all our own fuel and most of our bulk food, and makes a couple to three thousand dollars cash a year. This is realistic. We already grow all our own fuel: five cords of wood a year, worth about $1,000 to us in offset expenditure. We already do pretty well on food. Meat, eggs, potatoes, cabbages, frozen and canned tomatoes, and beans are the key crops that keep most or all winter, comprising about half to two thirds of what I eat and about a third of what Aimee eats. This is a lot of offset expenditure, and it makes for an interesting shopping trip for Aimee, since most of what she gets for me is premium stuff like coffee, a bottle or two of cheap plonk a week, some bread, some granola. That's about it. I really don't eat very much bought-in food.

But we only make a couple hundred dollars a year on eggs and fleece and plant starts.

Livestock is our best option right now for income. I keep imagining a terraced vineyard on these well-drained south-facing slopes, but right now, realistically, we're best at growing animals, and the meat we raise is premium quality and very valuable. We raised about 400 pounds of pork and lamb this year, which at, say, an average of six dollars a pound is worth $2,400. We probably spent about half that much to raise it and butcher it. Figure we can make one or two dollars per pound profit.

The money we make can be reinvested into the operation. We need that trailer, we need more fence, we need a new bushhog, we need just a ton of stuff to help us get this land productive again, that we can't afford because farming is only a second income for us, not a first, and because our primary jobs pay the mortgage and pay down consumer debt and give us savings but not much more. Certainly there isn't any money or additional debt load we could afford to accelerate the farm development project.

Even so, it will be a long haul.

I wish I could have gotten my hands on this place twenty years ago, before the real decline set in. I'd have been able to get up to a decent level of production in three years instead of the ten it will likely take, and could then retire earlier on the farm income and my service and college pensions.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Burning season

It's going to be 10 degrees F tonight.

Time to burn s..t.

I finally gave up and fired up the furnaces. We have an oil forced air furnace, a wood stove, and a wood furnace. We'd been doing OK this fall with just the wood stove, but it lives in the kitchen and is 30 feet and around a 90 degree bend from my usual seat on the left hand side of the couch, which also happens to be right next to Aimee's cat door, visible to the left of the TV.

The freaking cat door leaks air, but herself banned its removal for the first part of the winter. The cats' excursions take priority over my comfort, it seems.

It was 55 degrees in that corner when I came home from work today. It didn't get much above 59 there last night.

Poor old duffer, freezing his ass to let the cats have their day out.

Alright then. As long as they kill the mice that would otherwise eat the roots in the cellar.

So I fired up the oil furnace for ten minutes to take off the chill, while getting a fire going in the wood furnace, and opening up the wood stove full blast.

Haggis is getting the benefit. And you can tell Aimee is toasty because she's not covered with her blankey.

I like the orange glow from the two wood burners. It makes me feel all pleistocene.

Awesome. Burn! Burn!

Beet soup

Mick's Cold-Cure, Anti-Viral Beet Soup

Challenged by the rhinovirus lately? Here's an option that will at least make you feel better.

Take 3 pounds fresh beet roots, and dice to 3/8 inch cubes. Set aside.
Dice 1 pound carrots, set aside.
Optional: 1/2 pound parsnips. Slice these. They'll taste better sliced than diced. Set aside.
Chop finely 1 pound yellow onions. Fry these in olive oil in the bottom of a large soup kettle until translucent. Do not caramelize
Add the root vegetables. Cover and reduce heat to lowest setting. Cook very gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not allow vegetables to brown.

Add the following seasonings and stir in:
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 heaping teaspoon cumin seed

Add 1 20 ounce can of chopped tomatoes, or one quart jar of home-canned tomatoes, and stir well.

Add sufficient water to cover all the vegetables and then some.

Bring to boil, and simmer gently for at least an hour, preferably more. This is a good time to put the whole thing on the woodstove for a long while and go do something else, like take a walk for the benefit of that cold. The dog wants to go too. Don't forget the dog.

When you're almost ready to serve, add chopped fresh dill if you have it, and let it sit on top of the simmering soup for about five minutes to bring out the flavor. Serve a lot of the life-saving liquid, and a little of the roots in each bowl, piping hot.

Garnish each bowl with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream if you wish. Refrigerate whatever you don't eat today and save it for the next day, when it will taste even better.

This soup won First Prize in the Alliance for the Wild Rockies recipe competition, 1994. The extra ingredient that got the attention of the judges was Scots whiskey. But that was just a gimmick.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Walking the cat back

Our she-cat, Shenzhi, likes a nice walk almost as much as the dogs do. In this case she accompanied all three dogs and I on a walk in the woods.

But she was upset that we only went a few hundred yards.

Poor cat. But it was dog-dinnertime. The dogs all ran home for their food, leaving me and the cat alone in the woods.

How cat-astrophic.


Wanting entertainment on a wet Sunday, we noticed that a small pond had appeared on our front lawn, courtesy of the night's rain.


Just right for some ducks, we thought.

A little quacking and duck-carrying later, the ducks were in the pond, although they were not enjoying it, and took off back to their pen at the first opportunity.

We need to get a life. But this was terribly amusing for us.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bubble and squeak

Hmmm, what do we have for dinner...

cabbage and onions from our garden

bacon from our pigs

last week's mashed potato from the fridge but originally the garden

our own eggs

In a cast-iron skillet, using deep green olive oil, fry onions covered until translucent, add cabbage and cover and steam for 10 minutes, add mashed potato and cook until crisp in places. Au gratin, or as my college buddy Rab always said, meaning "with burned scrapings." That's for the first day. Save some. It's better the next day.

The second day, cut the bacon up to one-inch pieces and fry up until crisp. Add yesterday's bubble and squeak until hot, then serve. With eggs over easy if you can.

But, if you can at all help it, don't get chased by your wife around the kitchen.

(What for? For leaving the kitchen stool in her way, that's what for. How unjust. The stool, meanwhile, was sent to the porch.)


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Workin' stiffs

No farm posts lately. That's because we're too tired to get anything done. And we're a little depressed, which is usual for this time of our year.

This is the middle of the semester, and we're working quite hard. And, although we are on the run-down to Thankgiving break, the pressure will continue to mount until the last week, when, except for grading, the bubble will pop, and we will deflate.

I would guess that I routinely sleep for twelve hours a day over the Christmas/New Year's break.

Spring term is always more relaxed than fall. For one thing, the worst of the students will have already flunked out. The really pathological cheats, the druggies, the bullies and vandals, the spoiled, the lazy ones. Our small college doesn't get as many of these as other colleges, especially in the cities, but we get a few, and they generally disappear after Christmas. Some never return from Thanksgiving.

Maybe that's why we call it Thanksgiving.

Actually, the worst thing is the so-called helicopter parents of these pathological students. There should be a teacher's prayer: "Lord protect me from parents of spoiled teenagers."

The other thing thta makes the spring progressively easier, is that the days are getting longer, not shorter, and weather better, not worse. The darkness and gloom of the November and December weather is a major contributor to our seasonal mood swings.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A walk in the Maine woods

Aimee and I went for a hike with Haggis and Mary-dog up to Howe's Pond, a local beauty spot, very secluded.

Harris Mountain is the peak in the background.

Aimee always says I walk too fast, and my objective is not to enjoy the walk, but to get to the top of the hill as fast as I can.

Actually, I'm so arthritic that if I go slow, it hurts more.

Still, on this day at least we had a nice walk together.

Seasonal sadness

(My Grandfather, Arthur Holden Watson, as a private in the East Yorkshire's, a Kitchener Army training regiment, probably taken at or close to Hillsborough Barracks, Sheffield, spring 1917.)

Fall can be brutal.

Not the weather, the death of nature all around us. That's easy enough to deal with, although the colors and the falling leaves always contribute to my mood.

It's really the remembering that is hard.

This time of year, with less to do around the farm, a little time on my hands, and various anniversaries to help me, I can easily get caught up in remembrances.

It's perhaps a silly mood, very celtic, I think, but a whiff of coal smoke, a fragment of poetry or song, a photo, doesn't seem to matter what, but usually it's a song, and I suddenly realize that I'm an immigrant, in a strange country, and that all my people and their bones are somewhere else, and that somehow I've been lucky and had things in this strange country, like land, a farm, a house, a wife, an education, things I might otherwise take for granted that past generations of Womersleys and Watsons, and Sumys and Phillippis for that matter, particularly back in the old country, were routinely denied.

I start thinking about them, especially the men who served, and how hard it was for some of them, and how many of them there are in my family who served, and how disproportionate it is that my family served and suffered so much, when others, especially the wealthy who benefited from the British and American world hegemonies that our service ensured, in most cases did not, and do not, serve.

And now we have another war and some of the kids in my classes rotate in and out of their reservist, or National Guard, or regular service, and in and out of Iraq or Afghanistan.

My paternal grandfather (not the one in the photo) was in Iraq. In 1943.

What goes around, comes around.

This time is was Eric Bogle's And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda that brought it all back and nearly brought me to my knees.

Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Veteran's Day, call it what you will. It's part of me. I'm a former British airman, an aircraft engine fitter and RAF Mountain Rescue troop with nearly seven years in, who's really the last of a long line of British soldiers and airmen dating back to WW1 and before.

I have a lot of people to be grateful to, and to remember this next week:

Grandad, Arthur Holden Watson, British Army, WWI and II, including at least a year in the Northeast Fusiliers during the time of the second Marne (1918). A hell on earth. We don't know where he was or what he did, because he was so shattered by it, he never spoke about it. My sister and I are trying to find out through the National Records.

He went in again, for four years, as a way to survive the Great Depression. 1929-1934. We have those records.

Still on the reserves, incredibly he was drafted again at the age of forty in August 1939. According to the little he said, he was sent to London during the Battle of Britain and the first Blitz, to do heavy rescue from the rubble. Later he helped run the massive training base at Salisbury that contributed to the Normandy landings. We have these records too.

He served 6 years in WWII, 16 in all. He voted Labour and was an outspoken pacifist for much of his later life, despite his feeling that participating in WWII was his duty. He hated Hitler but made his own personal peace with the German people in the 1970s, taking a coach tour to meet some of them, German Great War veterans.

I doubt he would have participated in WWI, knowing what he later knew about war. And the ridiculous British and European class system that was the primary cause of the war and its prolonging. Lions led by donkeys.

He lived just long enough to see me become an RAF Mountain Rescue Party leader. Even with his pacifist convictions, he was proud of my service. It was another depression (I served from 1978 to 1985), and at least I was doing something for myself, not being a drag on my family or society, on the dole like so many of my classmates were, and I was helping save lives too.

I was radioed off the hill at Cheviot the day he died, and swept in an unauthorized MR Land Rover all the way to Sheffield, 120 miles of stolen RAF petrol, courtesy of my mates and the common sense and humanity of working class servicemen everywhere, but it was too late. I wore my best blues at his cremation, with the new MR arm badge so recently won.

But he's just the one I know the most about.

Great Uncle Tom Leigh, British Army, lost an eye somewhere, someplace in WWI. He and his wife, my great aunt Ethel, also suffered during the Depression. He was aways full of fun and mischief, never seemed to dwell on his losses or hardships. For a scare, as a young boy, he'd frighten you by showing you his eye socket.

Great Uncle Bert Watson, British Army, originally enlisted, he won a battlefield promotion to brevet major (so the legend goes). Again, he never spoke about it. He appears in the National Records as a subaltern, but at that time and at that place, officers who survived became brevet majors routinely, so it could be true. How did he survive? We don't know. He lived out his life with Jane his wife, and Tom and Ethel, at the modest cottage in Whitely Woods that our family held on lease for nearly 125 years. A century of landlord-ism. Never ownership. That's the British class system for you. Arthur and Grandma Lettie, and my mum and sister and I, would come visit all the old folks on Sundays and bank holidays.

What I would give to show them all this fine safe home and productive farm we've made here in the woods of Maine. And play Newmarket one last time around our kitchen table, after a good meal of our homegrown Yorkshire ham and sliced boiled eggs with salad.

There'll be no-one going cold or hungry in this home. Because of them.

Uncle Ron Watson, Royal Air Force, (mother's first cousin, actually, but this is the Yorkshire usage), was a Bomber Command navigator, WWII. The death rate among bomber crews was almost 50%. Mother's first banana was brought back by Ron from his flight training in Canada. Can you imagine being 10 years old and never having had a banana?

Dad, Gordon Womersley, British Army, National Serviceman, Royal Signals Regiment, 1953-55. Easier, certainly, but Dad's two-year service would have freed up regulars to go to Korea. Dad gave me all types of tips to get through basic. Including the stock, "never volunteer." Or, "If it moves, salute it, if it doesn't move, paint it."

Uncle Ron Womersley, Royal Air Force, Dad's elder brother, died 1964, another 1950s National Serviceman. Died of a now-curable fever at an early age. Apparently a low-key musical genius, was Dean of Music at Hexham Abbey and is buried there.

Uncle Stan Womersley, British Army, National Serviceman, 1950s. Catering Corps. They also serve who keep other men's bellies full. Still in uniform: the Salvation Army. Still filling bellies. Still serving. Amen to that.

Uncle Barry, Royal Air Force, National Servicemen, 1950s. Barry and Dad together taught me the traditional British serviceman's card game, Three Card Brag, a kind of poker. They would fleece me for my pocket money, then gave me more so they could take that too.

That's the Brits, but we're not done. There's also Dick,

Richard Phillippi, US Army, Vietnam. My father-in-law. Who now has leukemia from Agent Orange and is on 100% disability from the VA. Dick was a generator service specialist attached to the HQ company at LZ Oasis on May 11th, 1969, when the airfield and Dick survived one of the first regular NVA attacks of the latter part of the war. Later Dick married into the Sumy family, and thus the Church of the Brethren, and so some of his family members, and many members of his church, were conscientious objectors during Vietnam.

I am so proud of them all. Especially the ones who had the guts, the sense, and the religious belief to say no.

And then there's myself, who had it easy. I ate well, exercised well, and was not shot at, at least not with live rounds. I was at some risk from time to time on rescue trainings and call-outs, and was lightly injured several times, and almost killed once or twice by rockfalls, avalanches, and other hazards. Mostly I just had big adventures in the wilds with my mates. But seven years is still likely to be ten percent of my life. The guys I helped train went on to do great things; one summited on Everest for the RAF, and many of them were at the call-out for the infamous Lockerbie Air Disaster. My old roommate Heavy, who visited this spring, was in charge of this response for the RAFMRS, another hell on earth. But like Grandad, I've seen and helped more than my share of lost, hurt, broken, bleeding and dead people.

Sensibly, however, I'm the last of my family to serve. Not counting cousin David who followed his dad into the Sally Army, my young cousins on both sides, British or American, have not served, nor are they likely to. Nor do I blame them.

In my perfect world, we'd only go to war when we needed to, and everyone would have an equal chance of being drafted.

I guess I'm pretty crusty about this. And so now I'm sort of becoming an old soldier too. I have a few years to go, but I can see it happening.

Don't get the wrong idea. I'm no jingoist, no armchair conservative warmonger. I hate war. For myself, even after nearly seven years, I demobbed early in protest at what Maggie Thatcher was doing to the Yorkshire miners and to the Greenham Common Women. In a very strange way, I am my grandfathers' legacy. And in a strange way, Aimee is her family's legacy. She's a leftist American peacenik from a Peace Church family, which is very different but also very similar in many ways to being a greenist British peacenik from a Labour socialist and Methodist family. I don't object when my students join up. For most of them, they need the money to go to college. But in my perfect world, they'd be able to study for free, just like the wealthier kids that don't need to do a stint in Iraq or Afghanistan just to get through school.

But in a few days time, the old-timers of the RAFMRS will take their place of honor in the march-past at the Cenotaph and I sort of wish I could be there. Some of my old buddies will march. It's a matter of deep pride to me that our honor is for saving lives, not taking them. And deeper still, that I am still on call for search and rescue, even in this new country.

Amen to that.

No, what this strange, contradictory, yet severely disproportionate record of service and sacrifice really means is that no-one, no-one at all, in this country or any other, especially that armchair British or American conservative, has the right to tell me or my families what to think about war, peace, national service, and sacrifice.

Believe me, some have tried. Shame on them. The first idiot I met that thought you had to be conservative and a free market capitalist to have a valid opinion on any of this was an RAF officer. A real Zob from the British class system. Thankfully I escaped that nonsense long ago. These days, you hear similar bullshit all the time on the American radio and TV, from idiots that have never been in uniform, never served. And one candidate in particular during this election was truly offensive.

What this really means is, my mixed up, contradictory, atheist, religious, leftist, greenist, German pietist and Sheffield socialist and Salvation Army, all at the same time, but always peace-loving, extended family, is really right from the beating heart of both the British and American twentieth century experience.

The real people. Not just from red states.

They're my family, and my people, and no matter how red or green or pink or purple, we have the right to think what we want, where we want, how we want. For which we have sacrificed a good deal.

Have a good Remembrance Day.