Black Fly Scullers
1382 Fellows Road
Danville, Vermont 05828
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HIGH FIVE (Fifth Inaugural Black Fly Regatta: A Masterpiece)

Every summer, the manure pit at the Campbell Farm rises and falls like the Connecticut River which runs along their cornfields, hayfields and pastures. The Campbells are industrious and generous Vermont dairy farmers. By their good graces my sculling buddies and I store our single shells from May through October (the Alpha and the Omega of the rowing season here in Winot County) on a sandy bend in the river. By "good graces" I don't mean effusive, self-aggrandizing philanthropy replete with elected officials, paparazzi, and ribbon-cutting. No, the Campbells are folks of few words. When asked if we could row from his property, Chet Campbell merely said "I reckon it won't harm anything." And with those six words the Black Fly Scullers park their cars every summer morning a few yards from the Campbbell manure pit in a weedy turnoff along a gravel lane which winds toward a small quarry pit. Stepping over a cable stretched across the lane, a short walk leads to a now well-worn footpath at the edge of a cornfield through a breach in the weathered barbed-wire fence down a short, steep hill to the sandy river shore. It is at the breach in the fence where we get our first close view of the river, searching for signs of current, wind, and debris as we look down on the hulls of the shells tied to the racks. Doesn't seem like we're harming anything.

So, each morning row begins with a peek at and a whiff of the manure pit. Every day, the Campbell cows, including Beverly, the Prize Holstein of Winot County, munch hay and grain, and whatever doesn't come out as milk sooner or later is trucked down to the pit where Chet and Reg, the other Campbell brother, alternately churn the enormous pile with the bucket of the John Deere tractor. Mind you, this "pit" is not so much a hole in the ground as a pile on the ground. "Pit" is a term used by all farmers and quarrymen irrespective of elevation. It just means the place where the material is stored. Besides, the tractor couldn't very well work the pile if it was below ground. Once the heap is cool and dry enough from the churning of the tractor and the rays of the northern sun, the Campbell boys spread it over the corn field in the spring and fall and the alfalfa fields after each of the three mowings during the summer. All that coming and going keeps the pile from growing too large.

Except this year.

"Seems like it's rainin' every day," I greeted Chet in what was now a drizzle. A John Deere tractor was parked in the middle of the road, backed up to the edge of what looked like a pond of molasses. Dark, thick, and oily. A Ford pickup truck was mired in the middle of the puddle, making it impossible for any vehicle to pass.

"Keeps goin' like this, Ryan, and you'll be rowing right here," mused Chet, pulling a chain from the bucket of the tractor. "Though I don't reckon you'd wanna row in this," he pointed at the growing puddle. It was indeed one of the wettest summers in memory and farmers all over Winot County were struggling with the effects. Those who could till their fields lost their corn. Those who could cut hay without destroying their tractors or fields saw the hay rot before it was dry enough to bale. At the Winot Farm, no mowing meant no spreading of manure. But the dairy cattle kept up their end, so to speak. So the pile got bigger. And bigger. And bigger. And the rain kept falling and falling. And the pile began to take on the texture of custard, no pun intended. A sort of bovine brulee. But after an exceptionally heavy rain last night, the custard softened considerably and a thick brown tributary ran across the road, leaving a six-foot wide canyon in its wake. In the dim early morning light, no one, not even an experienced farmer like Chet, could distinguish the ooze from the road and before he knew it he was up to his axles in one of Winot County's most abundant renewable resources. His misfortune was my good luck. A few minutes earlier and I would have been the first one here. I shuddered just thinking about the consequences.

"I usually don't see you here, Chet," I said as I put on some work gloves. I had taken to carrying a pair of work gloves and barn boots in my car because I never knew what I was going to run into or find on my way to or at the farm. "I usually see your father working on the garden over there," I said pointing toward the muddy garden bed a stone's throw from the where we were standing, "but not you and Reg," I continued, hooking one end of the chain to the tractor's hitch as Chet waded through the ooze toward his mired truck.

"Well," he nodded past the cable toward the corn field, "I had to fetch her." And there she was, her tail switching, munching on what little bit of corn had germinated. Beverly, the prize Holstein of Winot County, had once again trampled a fence to satisfy her exotic diet. As if on cue, she looked up at both of us. I swear she winked.

"I reckon she's tired of eatin' last year's hay," offered Reg walking down from the main road. Beverly was Reg's pride and joy. Some say he loved her more than anything, NASCAR and Carrie Underwood included. And they'd be right. He had towed Beverly's trailer from the barn. And I do mean "her trailer." Had her name on it and everything.

Beverly was the most famous four-legged personality in all of Winot County. For that matter, she was more popular than the bipeds, too. She produced more milk with the highest protein and fat content of any Holstein known to moo. Every August she traveled to the Winot County Fair in her personal trailer complete with her name on it. The line of fans stretched beyond Floral Hall and under the grandstand. She drew more paying customers than the Demolition Derby, Monster Trucks, and the "Rustlemania" competition combined. And every August she returned to the Campbell Farm, her trailer festooned with blue ribbons.

In election years, everyone running for office donned flannel shirts and overalls, vying to have their picture taken with Bev. But Bev was particular with her endorsements. A true independent. Pollsters agreed that her endorsement was worth ten points. Enough to guarantee victory. And her political influence was spreading beyond the verdant boundaries of Winot County. Rumor had it that the Secret Service was in town checking security for an upcoming photo op with some political heavyweight. If you sat at the counter of the Ptomaine Diner, Winot County's oasis of homefries, donuts, bacon, pie and coffee, you'd hear the locals talking it up with the Diner's owners, Sam and Ella.

"We heard Barack Obama booked all the rooms at the Riverbend Bed and Breakfast," said Sam.

"Yep, an' we heard Hillary Clinton booked both floors at the Maple Leaf Hotel," said Ella.

"Well, I heard Al Gore was going to feature Bev in his next documentary," said Jewely Tressora. She was the owner of "High Mane-tenance," Winot County's trendiest unisex beauty salon. Unconstrained by any known laws of confidentiality, Jewely is the county's most abundant if not least reliable source of gossip.

"He's gonna call it 'An Inconvenient Poop,'" she sipped her herbal tea.

More than one coffee cup hit the tile floor.

"I'm serious," she wagged her french manicured index finger. "He wants to emphasize the benefits of converting methane gas from manure into electricity and plans to rent the entire Campbell farm as his Presidential Campaign "Herd-Quarters."

Well, back at the farm, Chet and Reg refused to talk about it. They had fifty head to feed and milk every day, twice a day. And today they had to get their prize out of that field and back to the barn. And to do that they had to get across the oozing puddle to which Bev herself had contributed. And it would be downright unneighborly of me to not offer to help.

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"You're a real natural with that manure, Ryan," chuckled Reg. "Must be something they teach you at law school."

"Naw," I shook my head as I put some bacon on my plate, "what you have down there is cow manure, we specialize in bullsh . . ."

"Now boys, you watch your tongues," chided Mrs. Campbell, setting some fresh muffins and butter on the table. "Yes ma'am," we laughed.

Earlier, while Chet, Reg and I were hooking chains to trucks and tractors I saw that Beverly had found the well-worn footpath along the edge of the corn field and was ambling ever so lazily toward the breach in the barbed-wire fence. It was only a few steps from there and she would find herself sliding down the steep hill to the river - and the boat racks. I feared the worst. In my mind I saw a rowing shell impaled by her hefty hooves. A bovine quad, of sorts. My bet was a claim for property damage would be denied by the insurance company once they stopped laughing. So I ran. Right through the dark, thick, and oily ooze. Up to my shins. Thoroughly splattering myself. Calling, well actually bellowing, her name. She paused, turned her head and, through those long eyelashes her big, brown eyes watched me. So did Reg and Chet, jaws wide open. But she did stop. As I breathlessly reached her, I gently patted her on her broad black and white forehead and slowly steered her away from the breach and across the cornfield.

As Bev and I ambled along, stopping from time to time to sample a particular wildflower or patch of clover, Chet and Reg bemusedly extracted the pickup from the dung puddle. Then they hauled enough gravel from the pit with the John Deere and dumped it into the canyon making a dike over which Bev would traverse. As Bev and I arrived, I realized that I could have avoided my chivalrous, yet decidedly sloppy, sprint if I had done nothing but help with the chains. Chet and Reg would have fetched Bev unharmed as they have dozens of times before. But for me this was only my third episode in the "Perils of Bev." I was worried she would harm herself. So I impulsively ran after her. Now, as she gingerly walked over the gravel dike, switching her tail and looking back at me over her sirloins, I looked down at my dung-splattered spandex. In both sculling and farming, haste does indeed make waste. Or more precisely in this particular situation, whenever waste is involved, haste is best avoided.

"I'll take it from here, Ryan," Reg broke my reflection as he took Bev by her collar and walked her up to her trailer. "You best hop in back," he nodded to the bed of the pickup truck where Dale, his intemperate Springer Spaniel, was waiting. I found some room among the assorted tools and chains. Ol' Dale was so happy to see me again. He didn't mind the poop at all. Man's best friend. I looked back and saw Bev in her trailer. She seemed quite satisfied with her morning constitutional. And so the caravan, truck, trailer, and John Deere Tractor, Chet, Reg, Dale, Bev and I proceeded back to the barn. A poopy parade, honoring Bev, the Prize Holstein of Winot County. In a matter of minutes Reg put Bev in her stall while Chet instructed me in the art of a pressure hose and chlorine. Ol' Dale ran around in search of phantom 'possums. Soon my smelly spandex was giving way to the aroma of bacon and strawberry muffins. Mrs. Campbell was making breakfast. Chet found me some dry overalls. And once again I found myself sharing a meal with the Campbells.

I love morning rows.

"So Ryan," Chet passed a plate of home fries to me, "how'd that tournament of yours turn out? We saw them skinny boats going up and down the river a few weeks ago."

"It was the best ever," I poured some fresh cream into my coffee. "Forty-eight scullers participated."

"D'jou manage to git 'em all to start at once?" asked Reg. "I seem to recall last year some fella firin' a round from a twelve-gauge to get everyone's attention."

"Well, everyone was more or less near the starting line when he fired the shot this year," I buttered a muffin. "I'm not so much concerned about everyone being lined up as I am someone may get shot."

"Or have a heart attack at the sound of the blast," offered Chet. "'Member that time we took Ol' Man Conway on that moose hunt?" he asked Reg. "He just seized right up and died 'fore that 30-caliber took down that bull up in Averill."

My muffin stopped halfway to my mouth. It was a damn fine muffin. So it gives you an idea how shocked I was.

"Chet, don't you be teasing Ryan too much this mornin'" chided Mrs. Campbell as she set a pitcher of juice on the table. "He's had a hard enough day already what with running through the poop swamp an' all."

"Yes ma'am," chuckled Chet. "The sound of the shot didn't kill him," he confessed. "He'd been dead for years jus' didn't know it, is all. He was so old and mangy the game warden almost quarantined the moose meat 'cause he was so close to it."

"I recall you call your age groups hives or something like that, right?" asked Reg.

"Swarms," I said, happy to be enjoying the muffin.

"That's it, swarms," Reg continued, "you got a swarm for a mangy old cus like Ol' Man Conway?"

"I reckon we'd make one for him if he rowed a boat," I offered. "How old is, I mean, was he?"

"Hunnerdanthree" they replied in unison.

"Almost need a whole new alphabet for that one, huh Ryan."

"I reckon I would," I paused, "we call first-timers 'Skin-so-soft' so I suppose we could call him . . ."

"Rigger-Mortis," Reg guffawed.

Once the laughter subsided I tried to steer the conversation back to the regatta. "Well, the start was a beautiful thing. Just imagine all those boats out there heading upriver. Each oarblade leaves a line of puddles, small whirlpools if you will, spaced about eight meters apart, parallel to the line of puddles created by the other oarblade. In one minute you will have two parallel lines of about thirty puddles. And that's just one boat. Now imagine forty-two boats. That's eighty-four lines of parallel puddles. And then the sunlight flickers on the hundreds of puddles created by the oar blades and the wakes of the long, sleek shells. And the only thing you hear is the echo of the gunshot and the occasional splash of an oarblade on the water."

I paused and in my mind's eye I replayed the scene. Under the thin summer overcast, the surface of the deep cool reservoir was inky black and the white foam of the whirlpools created by the ninety-six oarblades dotted the surface like a phalanx of Starbucks coffee-baristas pouring steamed milk into a conveyor belt filled with venti Mocha Lattes. But it was more than the spectacle of everyone, except Jeff Foltz, starting at once. There was an unmistakable feeling in the warm summer air. I feel it every year. Everyone was ready, but relaxed. They were all eager to get started but they were all at ease.

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"How is it they don't all get tangled up out there," queried Reg, "I seen fewer boats and more gripin' at a bass fishin' tournament."

"Well I reckon they're all thinking about our only regatta rule," I opined.

"What's that?" asked Reg.

"Unsportsmanlike conduct will result in denial of Port-a-Potty privileges."

"That would make me behave," agreed Chet.

"I'll keep that in mind," said Mrs. Campbell as she set down a platter of blueberry pancakes.

"Well, how do they all git up to the finish without runnin' into one another," asked Chet. "The reservoir's wide, but it gets pretty skinny round the bend here."

"Well," I continued, "my theory, yet to be disproved, is that the combined effect of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Random Number Theory will insure safe passage for all to the finish line."

I saw two forks stopped halfway between plates and mouths, opened initially to accept a tasty bite of blueberry pancakes but now open bit wider at what I just said. Mrs. Campbell, having come in with a fresh pot of coffee, actually sat down for a moment.

"You sure you didn't swim through that puddle this mornin'?" asked Reg.

"Well, now, I think I might have heard something about this on the Discovery Channel," Chet came to my defense.

"How'd you git the time to watch that?" asked Reg.

"I TiVoed it." Chet nodded as he sampled some bacon.

Ms. Campbell poured herself a cup of coffee.

"Well, then," I continued, "I figure if I get everyone on the line then I will have a random sample of all sculling abilities starting at the same time."

"Except that Foltz fella," reminded Reg, "I remember him from last year. Had to be a hunnerd yards ahead of everyone else at the start."

"That's okay," I said. "We have a special finish line for him - about a hundred yards upriver."

"How nice," offered Mrs. Campbell, "it lets him do what he wants and keeps it fair for the rest."

I swallowed some fresh-squeezed orange juice. "Anyway, since they are all of different abilities they naturally disperse over the course of the river and leave plenty of room for all of them to complete the race without bumping into each other."

"Uh huh," they all agreed.

"Now I add in the Second Law of Thermodynamics . . ."

"Entropy," blurted Chet.

I poured myself a second cup of coffee. I didn't see any wi-fi signs, iPods, laptops, or bottles of flavored syrup. But the Campbell breakfast table could put Starbucks out of business. "Well, you're right Chet," I continued, "entropy is often mentioned during discussions about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In layman's terms everything in nature wants to move from order to chaos. Now you can arrange things in order but they will expend energy and heat to move apart. So I figure we get everyone gathered together at the starting line . . ."

"Except Foltz," they all said.

"Right, so at the start I got all those scullers organized and as soon as they hear that shotgun they start rowing all over the river. See?"

"Well now that you've talked a bit, it sounds more to me like the Battle at Thermopylae," concluded Reg.

"You got it wrong, brother," offered Chet. "He said thremo-dynamics not Thermo-pylae. I ain't seen the tournament yet but it sure sounds like chaos to me."

"Well you may have seen something on the Discovery Channel," offered Reg, "but my Books on Tape club sent me a translation of Herodotus. You see, around fourhunnerdeighty B.C. the Persian King Xerxes tried to invade Greece with twohunnerd thousand troops, but three hundred Spartans held them off for three days at this skinny pass bordered on one side by the mountains and on the other by the sea. All them skinny boats trying to fit up that river is like all them Persians trying to fit through that pass."

"You reckon' those Spartans knew anything 'bout entropy, Ryan?," asked Chet.

I had never really thought of it in those terms.

"Actually I studied some Greek history in college. And did you know that while the Spartans were fighting on land, an Athenian named Themistocles lead two hundred seventy-one triremes against nearly seven hundred Persian warships in the straits of Artemisium. Now that was a regatta. Reg, see if you can get anything by Plutarch from your Books on Tape, or better yet the play The Persians by Aeschylus."

"Well it seems to me that you all play much too nicely out there on the river to be killing each other out there," said Mrs. Campbell. "Excuse me while I tend to the strawberries."

Chet, Reg, and I ate in silence as the aroma of Mrs. Campbell's award-winning strawberry preserves cooking on the stove filled the room.

"You reckon you can fit twohunnerdseventyone of them skinny boats up the river Ryan?," asked Reg.

"Only time will tell," I smiled.

Another lapse into silence as we finished our pancakes and coffee. I swear I was just about ready to ask if they needed a farmhand for the summer.

"So you still give out them prizes, Ryan," asked Chet, soaking up some maple syrup with his muffin.

"Oh yeah," I said, "a dozen Pete & Gerry's Free Range Organic Eggs for first prize."

"Seems fitting," offered Reg, "seein' as it's a free range start. Did that same fella win agin this year."

"Yes he did. He's a fine sculler. He beat a really great group of fine scullers. What he sees in us I can't say."

"Perhaps he just likes to visit, Ryan," suggested Mrs. Campbell clearing the dishes from the table. "Much like you do," she smiled.

"D'jou all read poetry afterward like you did last year?" asked Reg.

"Yep, this year we named our mascot."

"You gave a name to a Black Fly?" they responded together. "Lemme guess," Chet began, "May-hem 'cause they come out in May."

"No, but that's a good thought," I replied.

"How 'bout Woody 'cause they like the woods," Reg followed.

"I swear you guys got talent," I said, "but the winning name was Bob."

"Bob?" they leaned back in disbelief.

"Yep, Bob."

"Not Robert?" asked Reg.

"No. Actually the second place name was Mordecai, a nice play on our motto 'Morde Me' which is Latin for 'Bite Me' which is what black flies do."

"Uh huh," they continued to lean back in their chairs.

"So I like to tell people that the Black Fly's name is Mordecai, but his friends call him Bob."

"Ryan, I think you spent way too much time near that manure pit," said Reg. Chet nodded. "I reckon it's about time to get you back to your rig."

As we headed for the door Mrs. Campbell handed me a plate of muffins and a jar of strawberry preserves wrapped in a towel. "Now be careful with that jar, Ryan," she advised. "It's still warm from the stove. Let it cool."

"Thank you, Mrs. Campbell," I replied. "The breakfast was delicious."

"You're welcome, Ryan," she wiped her hands on her apron. "It's always nice of you to come by for a visit. And thanks for helping the boys with their chores this mornin'."

A short ride, this time inside the cab of the Ford, but with an equally excited Dale, returned me to my dung-free car. As I stepped down I remembered I had some dry clothes in the back seat.

"Hey Reg," I called out, "check this out." I held up this year's regatta t-shirt. A parody of the Peanuts' character, Schroeder, playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on his "baby" grand piano, only it was the Black Fly, not Schroeder tickling the ivories. A bust of Beethoven sat on the piano and the great musician could only sigh "Morde Me!".

"Whaddya think?" I asked.

"Ryan," Reg shook his head, "it's a masterpiece."

Epilogue

After peeking at his pocket aces, while counting the regatta proceeds at the no limit Texas Hold 'Em Tournament of Champions at Lake Cuomo, Italy, the Black Fly declared the Fifth Inaugural Black Fly Regatta an unparalleled success.

"Every year it gets better," he offered in uncharacteristically superlative language. "But I must admit it takes longer to recuperate," he graciously accepted a flute of Veuve Clicquot from his sweetheart, Barbara "Firenze" Corrigan, aglow from her seaweed exfoliation and Asthanga Yoga session and looking quite fetching in her bias cut halter top Versace cocktail dress. "And it keeps getting more and more expensive. The crowd at High Mane-Tenance won't believe how good she looks when we get back. I'm all in."

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