Bob remembers dances with wool

Bob remembers dances with wool by Bob Karolevitz The other day we drove by a field of shorn sheep, and, boy, did it bring back memories.

We used to shear our ewes in January to facilitate lambing. The sheep are gone now, but the memory lingers on.

Phyllis always recruited me on shearing day. I offered all kinds of excuses to avoid going to the barn: like fear of ticks, a lanolin allergy, and important meeting in town and war injuries (made up). None of them worked.

My wife, meanwhile, was disgustingly cheerful as she greeted the professional shearer who arrived at our farm on schedule. I secretly hoped he'd cancel out or at least be several hours late, but he always disappointed me.

When we gathered the sheep in holding pens in the barn, I'd never heard such a cacaphonous assembly in my life. The shearer rigged up his equipment, which was a lot like the flimsy foot-powered dental drill of World War II, except it was plugged in to an electric socket. He didn't use the hand-operated shears like I'd seen the New Zealanders work with in the movies.

Phyllis then showed me my job. I was supposed to deliver an unshorn sheep to the shearer when he needed it and take the newly naked ewes away. It sounded easy enough to me,a slow learner � at least for the first one or two!

The sheep all weighed more than I did, and they didn't want to go to the barber shop. By the time we got to number 80, I was so worn out and frazzled that I could hardly stand up. Phyllis hadn't explained that part to me.

While I jerked and man-handled each pregnant ewe en route to the shearer, I was surprised how docile they became when he took over. They sat ever so peacefully on their haunches as he divested them of their woolen coats. It was as though they were at the beauty shop getting a trim.

I seemed that the electric clippers never stopped as the shearer disrobed each animal as I dragged it to him. As the fleeces fell and were tied into a neat bundle, he finished by cutting the tag ends off their legs and dirtier parts. These were tossed on another pile to be sold at a discount to the wool-buyer, probably to be used to make felt which required shorter threads. But that's another story.

Part of my wife's job, as I recall, was to give the shearer an occasional drink of water from the mason jar he brought along. He sweat a lot, even in the January weather. But, then, I was sweating a lot, too!

As each fleeces dropped to the floor, Phyllis would tie it with twine and deposit it in the eight-foot burlap sack which had been fastened upright to a special standard in the yard.

I thought for a minute that she had taken the easier assignment, until she had to climb the ladder to get into the sack to stomp wool. To this day I can still see her peering over the top like Kilroy!

It seemed to me that it was kind of cruel to take the warm coat from each sheep when there were still weeks of winter ahead. An the defrocked beasts looked sort of embarrassed at first until they saw that they weren't alone. Misery loves company, I guess.

Finally the job was done. The shearer took his check and drove off, leaving us with the mess to clean up and all those pens full of nude ewes who didn't really know what had happened to them.

Eventually we loaded the the two big sacks of wool in the pickup and took them to the nearest buyer in Menno. There was still a little government subsidy available at the time, but I think we just about broke even after paying the shearer and buying the gas to take the fleeces to market.

Of course that didn't count our time or my sore back, but such was life � and the economics � on the farm. As they say, you lose a little bit on every deal, but if you make enough deals, you'll be all right.

Oh yes, when we were finished with the shearing, I tried to stay upwind of Phyllis as we made our way to the house and a warm shower � but then after a day with a barn full of sheep, I guess I smelled that way, too.

© 2002 Robert F. Karolevitz

HEAD:Sometimes it's better to be happy than right

Between the Lines

by David Lias

Plain Talk Editor

When you grow up in a household with four brothers, things can get a bit competitive at times.

Sometimes I wonder how my mother kept her sanity. Brotherly love in our house often was turned on its head as we opted instead for all out one-upmanship.

Our childish attempts to prove that we were the best at whatever the burning issue of the moment was in our household would eventually prompt Mom to ask us a simple question:

"Would you rather be happy or would you rather be right?"

It was enough to make us stop, think about how we had been acting, and realize that our attempt to prove that only "our" way was the best way, that only "our" thoughts were the correct thoughts, were, in fact, weakening our bonds as brothers (not to mention driving Mom nuts).

This afternoon, as I was driving on Chestnut Street, the source of much controversy in Vermillion, those maternal words of wisdom kept running through my mind: Would you rather be happy, or would you rather be right?

It's a question that the Vermillion City Council should ask itself.

One couldn't help but believe, after last Monday's city council meeting, that the governing board had dropped its original $1.3 million plan for the street, first adopted in late 2000.

That was my impression, and it turns out my report of the meeting was wrong in last week's Plain Talk.

For the record, the city council agreed only to explore the possible purchase of land from one of three property owners who would have been affected by the original design. That's it. There was no motion approved calling for complete abandonment of the original design.

I'm glad I was wrong. The photo on our front page quite accurately shows the traffic and safety dilemmas that would be created had the city opted to improve the street using only the existing roadbed and no additional private property.

No one has any way of knowing if the city's latest approach to solve the Chestnut Street problem will appease anyone other than the three affected property owners.

That's why we encourage the city council to try their best to make as many people happy as possible.

And yes, this can be accomplished without necessarily proving they are "right."

The Clay County Commission, the Vermillion Development Company, the Vermillion Area Chamber of Commerce and no doubt a number of Vermillion citizens would like to see the street significantly improved.

Common sense tells us that a thoroughfare that has a multitude of uses � farm to market road, school bus route and farm to farm road � should be built as close to federal and state design standards as possible.

That means the city would have to purchase private property. According to appraisals ordered by the city, the three chunks of private property needed for the original design are worth $10,800, $4,700 and $4,100.

Two of the property owners have made counter offers that total $113,750. (I was mistaken last week when I stated that Jim and Carolyn Johnson had made a counter offer to the city. My sincere apologies to them).

Before making a hasty conclusion that the counter offers are excessive, it would do everyone good to contemplate why property owners and the city are diametrically opposed on the issue of price.

I suspect that the property owners aren't out for money. We're seeing an example of one of the most basic human instincts here.

The property owners likely are simply trying their best to protect their turf.

To say that communications between property owners and the city are strained may be an understatement. We hope the city and the property owners will agree to negotiate a bit more. We hope both will come to the table open minded.

We hope the city will consider additions to the street design that will protect private property, and in turn, the landowners will consider lowering their prices.

If that's not possible, we believe that, instead of grinding out a solution with the heavy heel of condemnation, the city should seek a more civilized approach.

It should purchase the property. At the prices asked for by the private landowners.

Yes, this will increase the price of the $1.3 million project by more than $100,000. By obtaining the property, however, the city will have the liberty to:

* be able to build a retaining wall between the railroad tracks to the south and the present roadbed.

* be able to add fill between the roadbed and existing road to widen the street to 28 feet � a safe width for virtually all types of traffic. If a concrete slab is placed on the existing grade without filling in by the tracks, the slab, according to consultants recently hired by the city, would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 19.5 to 21.5 feet, with curb and gutter on one side. We find that unacceptable.

* be able to add lights and guardrails and provide smooth, safe two-way links from Burbank Street on the east edge of the city, to the newly completed Dawson Bridge and the new Highway 19 route leading to the Newcastle/Vermillion Bridge over the Missouri River to Nebraska. Along that route, motorists also can gain access to Main Street or Dakota Street.

There has been much talk since late 2000 of the potential dangers included in plans to improve Chestnut Street.

We don't doubt the sincerity of people who believe that children will climb on the retaining wall, and risk injury.

We believe people when they say they are concerned that improving the street will increase traffic numbers and speeds, which in turn will increase risks to pedestrians, bikers, etc. who use the road.

Nor do we doubt that people are concerned about the effects improving the road may have on the bluff in which it is cut.

But right now, at this very moment, Chestnut Street is a narrow, dangerous strip of unpaved road. Drivers are warned by a sign that its maintenance is kept at a minimum. Its surface seems to be a mix of gravel and gumbo.

It's time to make Chestnut Street a fine example of civic improvement. It's time to make it a safe traffic route in Vermillion.

It's time to accomplish this using methods that make everyone happy.

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