Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Worm Farm

If I asked you to think of a farm, chances are you pictured a big, red barn situated on verdant, rolling pastures, with a proud silo silhouetted against a bright blue sky. There might be cows and chickens, or pigs or rows and rows of corn. You might even picture a farmer looking over it all, ensuring that the daily business runs smoothly.

If you were to ask my family to picture a farm, chances are they would envision my father’s infamous Worm Farm. In the course of a short, hot, summer, my father came up with this particular idea, wrestled with some interesting logistics, suffered several terrible setbacks and eventually gave up worm farming altogether.

My father loved to fish. He wasn’t a particularly gifted angler and this was because he was not particularly patient. He wasn’t particularly wealthy, either. Tackle costs money as does bait. But unlike tackle, bait has to be purchased constantly. Nightcrawlers made the best bait for my father’s type of fishing. For those of you who may not know, Nightcrawlers are big worms. BIG—we are talking huge, honkin’ worms, here. Worms the size of Cheez Doodles. Nightcrawlers were expensive, too. My father was not patient. My father was not rich. So he decided he would grow his own.

I recall my father sitting in the coffee-scented kitchen, gleefully scribbling away on a pad of graph paper.

“Whatchya doon, Daddy?”

“I’m building a worm farm!”

“A wo—a what farm?”

“A worm farm! See?” He held up a schematic of what looked like a large box without a top or bottom. “I’ll build it, then I’ll catch worms, and fill up the farm. Then I won’t have to pay for ‘em at the tackle shop!”

“Um, okay, Daddy.” I beat a hasty retreat, lest I get roped into helping (I would anyway, but hope springs eternal).

A few days later, my father appeared with the physical manifestation of his schematic.

He held a topless and bottomless wooden box. It was meticulously made; my father had even dovetailed the corners. I have to admit, the pine box was beautiful, almost a piece of artisan furniture, but I really didn’t understand the extent of his madness. Not at this early point, anyway.

Dad carried the box outside, placed it in my mother’s garden, filled it with dirt, and spent the next two hours rooting around the garden, looking for worms. He inadvertently uprooted most of Mom’s cucumbers, but eventually he got about a dozen worms, which were carefully placed in his “farm.”

Next, weekend, he decided to go fishing. He went to the worm farm, anticipating a bountiful harvest. No worms. He dumped the box out and flung clods of dirt everywhere. There were no worms. No worms. No worms!

As my father sat in the garden, shell-shocked, my mother appeared.

“Where are the worms?” she asked.

“They escaped!” said my incredulous father.

Mom noticed the worm farm. “What happened to the bottom?”

“What bottom? There wasn’t any bot—“

We went fishing that day, anyway, because Dad paid two bucks for a dozen night crawlers

My father was resilient. Worm Farm Phase II was put into action almost immediately. This time, my father put a fine mesh screen across the bottom. Mom refused to let him go tromping through her garden again, so The Bruce L. Trautman Development Company built Worm Farm Phase II on the compost heap in the back yard.

Dad didn’t feel like digging for worms again, so he “seeded” the farm with two dozen purchased crawlers, and hoped that they would reproduce at some ridiculous logarithmic rate. He even began to daydream about a Nightcrawler Empire, wherein he could corner the market and become the primary supplier to local marinas, tackle shops, roadside bait stands, you name it. His delusions of grandeur did not last long. Less than four days, as a matter of fact.

The mesh bottom of Worm Farm Phase II made the worms stay put. However, the top was exposed—to the rain, the sun, the wind…the crows. Having the mesh in place was a good thing for my dad, but a bad thing for the worms.

Restricted by the walls of the Worm Farm, and unable to escape by deeply burrowing, the worms were easy pickings for the crows. For two days, black-feathered, yellow-beaked death rained down on those poor worms. My father just happened to look outside in the middle of one Corvid sortie and rushed out the door, hollering and flailing his arms and acting crazy, even by our family’s generous standards. He eventually waved the voracious birds off, but it was too late. All two dozen worms, totaling a cost of four dollars, had been slurped up, spaghetti-style, by the local feathered gentry. But however put out he was, my father was not down and out.

In addition to being resilent, my father was stubborn. The crows had been just another minor setback. He picked up his worm farm, tucked it under his arm, and marched back to his shop. A few hours later, he emerged, looking triumphant. The worm farm still had its mesh bottom but it also now had a lovely hinged top made of lattice, which came complete with a little latch and a tiny suitcase lock. This was Worm Farm, Phase III.

Dad found a warm and damp but sheltered spot in the yard and placed the worm farm there. He even pulled some dirt up to the sides of the farm, securely anchoring it in a miniature berm. He stole my mother’s very expensive potting soil and lovingly poured it into Worm Farm Phase III, patting it down and making it all very nice. He then ran down to the tackle shop and in an expensive burst of optimism, purchased six Styrofoam containers (at two bucks a piece) of worms. He unloaded his new stock, latched and locked the lid and promptly forgot about the Worm Farm for a third of the summer.

One Saturday, my family was awakened by shouting. Stentorian arpeggios of profanity raked across the mild morning air. There was only one person we knew of who could cuss like that…we ran out to the back porch and there in the backyard, stood my father, holding up the Worm Farm and shaking it, as if he were trying to make a worm-and-mud martini.

As he shook the wooden box, we could see that the fine mesh bottom – the fine METAL mesh bottom had a large rusty hole in it, courtesy of the damp ground. The worms, being opportunists, hadn’t hesitated. They just beat feet or whatever it is that worms beat. At any rate, they were gone, leaving my father a wooden box without a bottom, plenty of wasted effort, and ultimately, some thirty-odd dollars in the hole. It was onto Worm Farm Phase IV. Or was it?

During this apoplectic outburst, my father had an epiphany: mainly that crows couldn’t get into the fridge at the local baitshop; stryofoam couldn’t be penetrated by worms nor would buying bait at the tackle shop cause him to feel like the butt of some cosmic joke…

…And a man had to retain some shred of dignity. Somehow.

My father never complained about buying worms after that.

I miss you, Dad.

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