Commando of hay

A heartwarming holiday tale

I am haunted by the hay.

Look out my office window and you’ll see, just over the chain-link fence in my neighbor’s yard, two mounds of it. You really can’t miss those piles of hay, so out of place in the ridiculous overgrown tangle of vines and brambles.

Hay: Perfect for a hearty bovine brunch in the unlikely event that a cow finds herself wandering through the backyards of our Portland neighborhood.

Neighbor Man will probably never lay eyes upon these mounds of barnyard straw, as he rarely makes an appearance back there. Who can blame him? The yard is a mess, with not much to recommend it; setting foot back there—as I stupidly did last autumn—is folly. In the world of yard grooming, this is a no-man’s land, all sharp ends and bristles, nature’s equivalent of a paper shredder.

Yes, there lies the hay, protected by ivy, vines and thorns and by the fence, which is topped by pointy diamonds of galvanized wire just waiting to perforate your scrotum if you happen to possess one. I do.

For most of the autumn the hay, three bales of it, had resided in our front yard, part of a Gomer-Goes-Portlandia Halloween display that included psoriasis-faced pumpkins, small pots of pumpkin-colored flowers, and the odd plastic skeleton bone.

This was to be my task as requested by my significant other: recycle those bales, relocate them, whatever, just tote those bales elsewhere, deliver them to their final resting place, and do it soon.

Generally speaking, my modus operandi is to indefinitely avoid unpleasant household tasks, especially if a bale of hay is involved. But even I had to admit that, with Christmas weeks away, those soggy bales were a decorating non sequitur. Holiday lights and puffy Santa mannequins were popping up all over the neighborhood.

We had the hay.

Even low-key Pat down the block with the take-one-leave-one book kiosk was taking the impending arrival of December 25 seriously; on a walk this particular Saturday in mid-November, Rhonda and I discovered that he had gone so far as to supplement his little roadside collection with a book called “Cats’ Letters to Santa.” WHOA! What a find!

Cats? Actually writing letters? TO SANTA?

The titular imagery was nearly overwhelming. Little kitties at their typewriters, pencils behind their ears, hammering out heartwarming missives to Old Saint Nick in which they revealed the true Christmas Spirit residing in their misunderstood kitty souls, then licking postage stamps with their little kitty tongues and heading for the local post office, where they’d drop the letters with the kindly (if pleasantly befuddled) local postmaster.

For a second, I thought of grabbing the book, sprinting home, and replacing it with my copy of “The Pagan Book of Days.” Take one, leave one, right? But, in the spirit of the season, I exercised restraint. As much as I wanted, I couldn’t take the book for my own; I just knew some dim-witted cat lover would die to get her precious little mitts on this poignant Yuletide masterpiece.


This being the day that the bales were to go away, over Saturday brunch at a local diner when I posed my dilemma—how was I going to disappear three huge chunks of hay?—my ever-practical stepdaughter, who’d lived many years in the house, was ready with a solution: Toss them over Neighbor Man’s fence.

“I dumped stuff over that fence all the time,” she said. “Nobody ever goes back there.”

So here was my plan: Use a spade to chop up the bales, then put the chunks, one-by-one, into a yellow recycling tub, and unload them over the fence.

The first load was terribly light and easy to lift. This was going to be a piece of cake. I marched the hay-laden tub around the house, through the yard, right up to the fence, finding a secluded spot between trees that would shield the hay from Neighbor Man’s eyes in the off-chance he’d wander back here to inspect his back forty.

I hoisted the yellow tub to the top of the fence—which was about the same height as I—upended it, and immediately lost my grip. The bright yellow tub, along with the hay, tumbled over to the other side of the fence, well out of reach.

I stared at it.

Now what? Plainly I couldn’t leave it there. Plainly I’d have to scale the fence to retrieve it.

Like a commando on a scouting mission, I strode across the yard looking for a place to climb over. The little diamonds of wire comprising the fence were narrow, too narrow to gain footing, so I elected to use a trip limb to give me a boost. I’d figure out later how to get back over. So I thought.

Grabbing the tree, I boosted myself to the top rail, balanced myself precariously and jumped over, careful to keep my groin region above the pointy fence parts just waiting to turn me into a eunuch. I hit the earth and immediately felt thorns tearing at my legs. Through the brambles I marched, grabbed the yellow bucket and tossed it back over the fence.

It never hit earth, instead lodging itself four feet  above the ground in a tree.

What are the odds of tossing an object into the air and it never actually landing? This would seem to defy the laws of gravity. But there it hung in the branches, disobedient, taunting me for the second time in the space of three minutes.

Now, to get back to my home turf. I marched back to the spot where I’d climbed over, but the tree which had helped me over was now no help at all. No way I could reach it from where I stood. So I grabbed the top bar of the fence and tried to jam my feet into the little steel diamonds. No luck; the toes of my sneakers were just too wide.

I tried the same maneuver again on a different part of the fence. And again. Idiot! Why would it work here having failed just a few yards away?

My baseball cap was sweat drenched by now, so I took it off, wiped my head with my sweat-shirted arm, and panted, trying to regain my breath.  I pictured the sun setting, me stranded here until I could crawl out through Neighbor Man’s yard under the cover of darkness.

I marched back and forth until I spotted a tree with skinny arms that might just give me the leverage I needed. Grabbing a limb, I managed to land the heels of my shoes on the fence top, making me imperfectly parallel to the thorny ground below. But the sneakers felt like they were greased with butter and I slid down the fence, in the process getting a stiff whack in the back of the head by a nearby branch.

Ringing in my ears. Sweat pouring into my eyes. The commando stranded in enemy territory.

If you’d been standing with a camera on the other side of the fence in my yard, here’s the image you’d have captured: a slight man with a gray beard and baseball cap, in torn dungarees, clutching the back of his head and howling in pain; adding a brilliant touch of surrealism, in the foreground of the photo a bright yellow recycling tub inexplicably floats in the trees.

So far, twenty minutes had elapsed from the time I’d scaled the fence and I’d made no progress, unless you count throwing a recycling bin into a tree as progress.

I took stock of my options and came to a conclusion: The only way out was through Neighbor Man’s yard. Between where I stood and his exit to the street were several dozen square yards, all of it thorny vines and brambles, some as tall as I. And thus I hatched my next unfortunate maneuver of the afternoon: If I walked gingerly, I could make it through this sticky gauntlet without injury.

Onward I went, instantly regretting this course of action. The thicket was denser than it looked, and I was swarmed, torso and limbs, by angry thorns. Swatting away the vines, I ripped my way through the thicket and within five minutes I stood at the edge of Neighbor Man’s new stone patio, a vision in ripped jeans, thorns attached to nearly every square inch of my clothing, panting, sweating like a pig into my dirty yellow baseball cap. If he looked out his window, he’d spy what looked to be a disoriented hobo emerging somehow from his backyard.

No car in his driveway, no lights flickering in his windows, no one at home. My first break of the afternoon.

I trudged down his driveway into the street. From here, it was about four blocks, all uphill, to the front door of home. Shuffling along in my hobo garb, out of breath, I berated myself: What a clown! How inept can one person be? How do I explain this to Rhonda?

I found myself in front of Pat’s house with his little book kiosk. “Cats’ Letters to Santa”! At last! A way to brighten the day. I grabbed it. Rhonda, I thought, will get a kick out of this little inside joke, especially when I tell her about my wacky misadventure.

I approached our house and stepped into the foyer.

“Doug? DOUG?”

It was Rhonda, panic in her voice.

“Where were you?”

I stood there panting.

“I was looking all over for you! Upstairs, downstairs, the garage, the backyard… Calling your name. And then I saw that yellow bucket hanging in the trees. I thought you’d collapsed somewhere, I thought you were dead,  and…” She looked at the book I was holding. “You went all the way back for that stupid cat book???”

The commando had returned to home base and not given a hero’s welcome. Not only had the commando returned—arms and legs covered with scratches gouges and blood—but he’d done so bearing a precious souvenir of his adventures: the cat book!

Despite the fact that my legs and arms were covered with scratches and gouges and blood, I knew I had one more task to perform: dump the rest of the hay.

Soon, by Thanksgiving dinner, my little Hay Bale Escapade had passed into family lore. My dignity is somewhere over that fence, residing between those two bales of hay. When this sad little fact becomes too much to bear, I open that thin volume of cat’s letters and take comfort in the wise words contained between its covers, words like “Dear Santa: Do you have any catnip? I’m off the wagon—again. Your friend, Pinky.”




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