Note This piece is based in part on stories I wrote for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. and, a couple of years later, for the Public Opinion in Chambersburg, Pa.

On the shoulder of I-81 near Harrisburg, Pa., Nancy Statler spotted the foreleg of a deer. She stopped her old red Blazer, pulled on a pair of sky-blue rubber gloves, and tossed the deer-bit into the trailer. Finding a skimpy break in the riot of cars and big rigs, dashed out to a furry smear in the travel lane. She bent, peeled it away from the asphalt, and flopped the Bambi pancake over into the trailer, causing a flurry of stink and disturbed flies.

By this time, I am starting to get used to the smell, but her Russian Roulette foray into I-81’s river of truck traffic almost stopped my heart.

It’s all in a day’s work for Statler, and she loves the gig.

“I love this job. Out driving the countryside most of the day. Nobody hassles me. I am my own boss.”

Statler is married, and a grandmother 15 times over. She gets up at 3 a.m. Before heading out to pick up deer, she runs a paper route, then a school bus route, and then heads out for six to eight hours a day looking for smashed deer.

By 8:30 on the morning of May 8, she already had two deer in her home-made trailer. Two hours later, the count was eight and a fraction deer and one slightly queasy reporter.

She was on her way to pick up two more. Deer, not reporters.

The first deer we stopped to get had been hurled about a dozen feet off the road along the Interstate. She stopped, and I got out, figuring if I am going to be along for the ride, I can be useful. I asked if I could help her. Forty years ago I had a job picking up roadkill for a city garbage department. I figured the smell wouldn’t bother me.

“Do I look like I need help?” Nancy said. Clearly, she did not. She grabbed the doe by the back feet and dragged it up the slope, up the trailer ramp, and tucked the corpse cozily against its two new trailer-mates.

I snapped a couple of photos. And the gentle spring breeze shifted from off my left shoulder to off the top of the trailer.

I discovered that 40 years is too long. All of my olfactory calluses were long gone. I didn’t lose my breakfast, because I had been smart enough not to eat that morning. But it definitely gave me a case of flutters that remained with me for the rest of the morning.

The Interstate and other highways in the area give Nancy plenty to do. Tuesday and Wednesday of the previous week, she drove a total of 334 miles and picked up 16 deer, 11 in this county and five in neighboring one, where I live. In Nov. of 2006, she picked up a total of 126 deer.

Some days, not often, there are no deer called in. She drives about 38,000 miles per year.

She smokes, and when she feels it’s time for a break, she snacks from a number of prepackaged pastries lined up on the dash of her Blazer. I note a heavy bias toward Hostess Twinkies.

Nancy is self-employed, one of 48 contractors who bid out their services to the state highway department for the removal of dead deer.

She wouldn’t say how much she gets per deer, since it’s a competitive bidding process. Evidently, people are lining up to do the work. Who knew? Anyway, the highway department told me that the contractors picked up 10,000 deer last year, part of the state total of 30,000 to 36,000 dead deer picked up by people like Nancy, PennDOT county maintenance crews, and by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The average cost to the state for contractors like Nancy is a little more than $46 per deer, though the price varies a good bit through the state because the costs of things like disposal at licensed landfills can range from $25 to nearly $90 per deer. Those costs, along with vehicles, fuel, maintenance, and insurance, all come out of the contractor’s pockets.

I’ve heard people gripe about paying to have dead deer removed from the roadsides. Let nature take care of them, they say.

Right.

Nature did not have a lot to do with the deer being there. In nature, anything that killed the deer would eat most of it, and scavengers pilfer the leftovers.

If the cars and truck that hit the deer would eat them, we wouldn’t have much of a problem. Until we can find a way to power vehicles with venison, there is not much of an option. Nancy said there are plenty of good reasons for getting the deer off the road, shoulder, and right-of-way.

Nobody wants to look at rotting carcasses, and there are a lot of those every year as deer/vehicle collisions continue to rise. Likewise, a dead deer will put out a lot of bad smell before it decomposes entirely, a process that can take weeks. And you do not even want to think about what happens when a PennDOT mower runs over a rotting 150-pound deer.

Yeah, I know. I TOLD you not to think about it.

Nancy said that the number of deer and their size varies from season to season. In hunting season and during the rutting season, there are more bucks. In the spring, most of the road kills are does that have come down from the high country to give birth to fawns.

Nancy has a winch if she comes across a deer too heavy for her to lift.

She’s needed it just twice in the last two months. One buck weighed at least 180 pounds. She once found a 9-point buck. She said people ask if she keeps such trophies.

“Nope. He went to the landfill, just like the others. I wouldn’t want to do it, and if I did, I could lose my contract,” she said.

During hunting season, she said, about 60 percent of the bucks she picks up have been beheaded for their antlers. “That’s pretty sad,” she said.

Yes, she still likes to eat venison. No, she doesn’t take road-kill home. For one thing, she wouldn’t get paid for it, and for another, the deer she picks up have been dead for the most part for at least 24 hours, sometimes longer. A LOT longer. The smell takes some getting used to.

“The smell doesn’t bother me too much unless it’s 100-plus degrees and the deer has been torn up real bad and out there for a few days. That gets pretty raunchy.”

I would have loved to have met Joe Delaney.

 

Finding Joe’s place was dumb luck, really. Most of my attention had been given to the spectacularly rocky coastline of western Nova Scotia. I spotted the hand-lettered sign on the landward side of the road. It bore a cartoonlike head and the legend “Masque Acadie,” and saw what looked like a hundred or so scarecrows staging a demonstration in a field.

 

These are the sorts of things one should not resist.

 

“Back in 1984, my father tried raising a garden here, but the animals, the deer and the rabbits, ate everything up,” said his daughter, Ethel, who had opened a take-out diner and souvenir shop in a converted mobile home at the site of her father’s creation. “So, some neighbors said to my father, why do not you build some scarecrows and keep them away? So, he had some junk sitting around, so he made three, each about six feet tall.”

 

Joe used old clothes, Halloween masks, strips of bright plastic, and a lot of imagination.

 

The morning after the scarecrows went up, two tour buses and several cars stopped while Joe was tending his garden. Some people came out, told him they really liked the scarecrows, and took pictures.

 

“By the end of the summer, he had a dozen scarecrows,” said Ethel.

 

I poked around the little gift shop, and bought a tiny cup of coffee from her. She handed me the change. Ethel said she and Paul opened the little business two years after the tourists started showing up.

 

She wore a lot of makeup, with her eyebrows outlined carefully, the heavy black lines of the pencil leaving an oblong hollow. Ethel was an expressive speaker, and her eyebrows moved a lot. It was hard not to stare.

 

A couple of cars stopped. The people got out, took a few snapshots, dropped a few coins in the collection box that had a little sign saying the money was for the upkeep of Joe’s scarecrows, and drove away. I thought about buying some scarecrow postcards, but changed my mind. I am very cheap.

 

“The year after, he had 30 scarecrows, and the tourists kept coming,” said Ethel, her eyebrows sending semaphore signals of their own. “He had a little workshop out in the back, in the old bus, where he kept making more.”

 

Joe had died of lung cancer about two years earlier, Ethel said.

 

“He was doing real good right up until the end,” said Ethel, in accented English that told me she was more accustomed to French. “Then he got sick and we took him to the ‘ospital, and in just a little while ‘e was gone.”

 

In front of Ethel’s little take-out was one of those bright-colored windmill things, a propeller to catch breeze attached to a mechanism that made a little wooden silhouette of a woodsman make chopping motions with an ax. The blade kept hitting against the novelty’s frame. A stiff breeze blew in from the shore on the other side of the road. The little lumberjack chopped in a frenzy, a little toy maniac in the wind.

 

The same year that Ethel’s take-out went in; a vandal struck one night, destroying all but one of Joe’s scarecrows, whom Joe had named Rory. Ethel, her eyebrows rigid with indignation, said she knows who did it, but has no proof.

 

“It was a man who lives down the road, he left a bar that night after he got drunk and got in a fight. He comes in here sometimes, and I just look at him,” she said.

 

Joe wrote an account of the vandalism as though written by Rory as an eyewitness. The piece was published in one of the area newspapers. After it ran, a lot of people gave Joe money and old clothes so he could recreate his scarecrows. Today, there are about 100.

 

“We put’em away in the winter and bring’em back out in the spring,” Ethel and her eyebrows said. “We try to keep’em looking nice for people.”

 

The collection of U.S. president scarecrows looked a little tattered, but then, so does the office. There were scarecrows sawing logs, scarecrows playing fiddles. Most of them, however, stood in the traditional scarecrow pose, legs spread slightly, arms straight out at the sides, heads staring straight ahead or, sometimes tilted back, staring at the heavens. These latter looked as though they were either praying intensely, or asking God, “Why me?”

 

There were no scarecrows created to look like God providing answers, though there were a couple that looked like they could be televangelists.

 

Somewhere along the way, Ethel said, Joe forgot about the garden. He wasn’t around to ask why he simply kept making scarecrows, even to the exclusion of the garden they were designed to protect. Ethel, her eyebrows arching with pride, said her father’s scarecrows draw 20,000 to 30,000 tourists a year.

 

That’s a lot of coffee, meat pies, muffins, and postcards.

 

But I am not certain. Sure, that’s what keeps Paul and Ethel solvent, but I do not think money was Joe’s first consideration. I looked at the little photo Ethel kept of him, standing out by his workshop. There was a definite impishness in those eyes. I think Joe just kept building scarecrows and putting them out, just to see how many tourists he could lure in. I have a funny feeling he went to his grave bemused at the public’s apparently endless appetite for cute.

 

I finished my coffee, and threw the thimble-sized styrene cup into the trash. Ethel thanked me. Her eyebrows seemed to have dozed off.

 

“Come back and see us again,” she said.

 

I climbed into my van. The crazed lumberjack was taking a breather. A woman over among the scarecrows excitedly asked her husband, he of the white patent leather shoes and matching belt, to take a picture of her standing next to Ronald Reagan. I started the engine and left. A guy can only take so much culture in one dose.

 

==================================

It was not a very large cemetery, tucked away between the back end of a large brick church and a row of some houses that had seen better days.

 

There were no grand mausoleums, no pigeon-anointed angels atop granite columns, waving their swords and managing to look at the same time fierce and slightly distracted, as though they had just wondered where they had put their car keys.

 

This was a narrow rectangle of graves, 30 or 40 of them, of men, women and children buried during the years between the American Revolution and two decades before the American Civil War.

 

The church of which these sheep had been the flock had long ago moved to larger and more grandiose quarters a few blocks away. It has since changed its name. The old building is gone. All that remains are the stones, and the whispers of the names they bore.

 

I was there, as usual, because there was bad news. A number of the headstones seem to have been broken, cast down shattered on the grass the night before my visit by person or persons unknown.

 

Probably the latter. Thugs like that rarely act alone, as they need one another to crank their courage up.

 

Plainly, this was not the first time it had happened. While many of the broken surfaces shone white and new, as many more were old, weathered. It seems that these dead have been an affront to someone for a very long time.

 

It is hard to imagine why. The victims were all, by now, a thin stratum of darker soil in the surrounding clay and shale. On the stones, most of their names had been eroded by time and weather into vague ciphers. On some, the names were plain, but the dates, those points on the continuum between which the stories of their lives unfolded, were obliterated.

 

On those that are legible, the dates gave a much more careful accounting of that time than we are used to in the late 20th century. Joseph Heagy, we learn, for example, died in 1844, having lived exactly 63 years, seven months, and 17 days.

 

Another stone gives a hint of what may have been a wrenching story. Mary, wife of Ludnik, died on Sept. 14 of 1804. Ludnik, still at her side, died two days later.

 

These are people, I thought as I walked in the perfect autumn day, who lived in the tumult between the birth of the nation and the times that nearly tore it apart. It was a time of high passion, but they and their passions were by now dust and whispers. So why the anger? Why the fractured markers?

 

I stopped and looked again over the field of fallen stones, amused at myself. This had nothing to do with the vanished remains, or the people who had once worn the names etched in the marble and shale. Here, I had assumed the culprits had a reason. I had assumed that the spate of vandalism had been the result of something reasoned through, a solution to a problem.

 

Silly me.

 

This was, I reminded myself, a simple skirmish between order and chaos.

 

It was a fight between life and the vast, endless darkness on either side of it.

 

I suppose there is no better reminder of that final blackness than a tombstone, standing there solid, part of which bore the inscription “The Last Brick Wall you will ever hit.” Maybe that is where the anger comes from, a sudden despair that your brief moments above ground will mean nothing and your end even less.

 

I tucked my notebook in my hip pocket and stowed my pen, walking back toward my car. My anger at the vandalism had not abated, but alongside had grown a little understanding, and perhaps a little sympathy. The idea that you do not matter and will not be missed when you go is a painful one, I know.

 

If kicking over memorials to the forgotten dead is the best idea you can come up with as a stance against that great, crushing anonymity, you had better get used to being a nobody.

Angels in Stone

October 12, 2016

 

Of Angels in the Stone

Adapted from a column published in the Gettysburg Times on Dec. 2, 1989.

 

The man was not old, but weathered, like a well-used hoe.

He had come into the office of the concrete plant where I worked to buy sand for a project “back to the house.”

He dug the money for his purchase out of a ragged leather wallet that he must have bought when Ike was still in office. I think some of the money had been in there that long, too.

“How much?” he asked.

I put down the book I had been reading. I have forgotten the title, but it was about human evolution. The volume lay open on the computer console in front of me.

On the page, a row of skulls stared vacantly outward, with the cranium belonging to the oldest member of the human family discovered to that point on one side, and modern man’s vaulted white dome on the other, with assorted way stops lined up between.

It was one of those rainy days, late in the Georgia summer, when business was slow, and there was time to talk, to do things at an idle pace. We weren’t busy anyway; several days of rain had turned the Georgia clay into something like pudding. I had sent most of the drivers home.

I looked up the price of that particular grade of sand, added the tax and gave him the total. He counted out the exact amount, digging in his bib overalls for the change. He leaned against the door-frame and lit up a cigarette.

“Wet,” he noted.

“Yeah,” I replied, “not much going on.”

He was as dry as beef jerky, impervious to the rain. The daylight pouring in through the office window wrapped around him in the same way that lamplight embraces wood that has been carved into shape and oiled.

His eyes drifted to the book, the skulls looking back from the page like the portraits of family members in an old home.

“That there about evolution?” he asked, giving the first letter the sound of a long “e.”

“Uh oh,” I thought, nodding in assent.

“You believe in that there?”

“Yessir, I do,” I answered. “Do you?”

“Surely do not,” he said, new steel rising in his voice. “I believe unto the Lord, and unto His Word.”

I was a little more than halfway through my university study, and a little bit more than half arrogant. I knew things. I believed in things that I could see and feel and smell.

“Look here,” I said. “You see those pictures there. Those are skulls, real ones. A long time ago there was meat on those skulls, and brains in them. Something or someone lived in there. Do you believe that?”

“Yessir, I believe that. They’re real, all right.”

I stood and picked up the book, excited. Perhaps I was going to make a convert. Perhaps, having stepped into the swampy world of Religion Vs. Science, I may have managed to win an argument.

Silly me.

I pointed out to him what little I thought I knew for certain regarding the evolution of human and pre-human anatomy. I talked about progressively larger brain cavities, different jaw structures, flatter faces, flipping pages in the book as I spoke. I felt flushed with power.

“So, can’t you see that there seems to be a definite progression in these, from the oldest to the modern?”

He agreed that it seemed to be so.

“Do not you agree, then, that these creatures were real, and that they may possibly have been our ancestors?”

“No sir, I can’t accept that,” he said, the gray light from outside enhancing the lines and angles of his craggy face. “They are not ours.”

He took a long drag off his cigarette. The smoke hung around his head, something else obscuring the air between us.

“Well, if they are not our forebears,” I said, a little exasperated, “who are they? What are these bones?”

“They are the bones of fallen angels,” he said.

The air rushed out of my lungs, the way it does when one unexpectedly steps waist-deep into frigid water.

I think about that man now and then, with his measuring eyes and his hard hands. Sometimes I see him in my mind as clearly as I saw him in that doorway all those years ago.

I think about him sometimes when I am plodding my way through court records, preparing to cover the trial of accused rapists, child molesters, murderers and drug dealers.

We are influenced by thousands of unseen forces, my more-or-less educated mind tells me. We are the products of our environment, of our heritage, social and genetic. We create our own Hells.

The man in the doorway stares through smoke. “I believe unto The Lord, and unto His Word,” he says.

Like anyone else, I want the world to make sense. Things can be explained, dissected, explored, named. Give me a thing I can name and the name will make most of the fear disappear like smoke.

I say this sometimes with the assurance of the man in the doorway, a man worn by toil and as set in his convictions as a post is set in the ground.

And sometimes I say it with the shrill bravado of a small boy whistling his way through a dark graveyard.

Usually, reason wins. But now and then I find myself in an interview across a table from someone who seems made of wood, shaped from something no longer living, dead in some sense that goes beyond sensibility.

In times like those, I sometimes see him again, drawing fire to his mouth, speaking through smoke, in the doorway to a world where angels could fall bereft of God to crash into the cold stones of the world, and I wonder which one of us has found the best answer.

 

I knew right away I was going to like Nate Nicholls when I saw his yard.

I was sightseeing in 2005 on some of the back roads in the area of Maine where I like to vacation, and there it was, inhabited by guys leaning on shovels, giant chickadees, giraffes, assorted frogs, cactus, oversized flowers, and the odd dragon or two.

Everything was made out of junk, scrap metal, propane tanks, rakes, shovels, railroad spikes, nuts, bolts, lengths of rebar, this and that.

I whipped the car onto the shoulder and walked around some, taking photos, hoping the owner would show, but he wasn’t home.

But there was a big, hand-lettered sign. The sign said that the township is telling him that no business in the township can have items for sale unless they are screened from view. So, his sign says, nothing you can see there is for sale. Unless, that is, you look at it through a screen. He provides the screen, of course, a square of framed wire mesh that he made himself.

“Ok,” I said to myself. “I GOTTA meet this guy.”

The next day, I did.

Nate Nicholls was no trained artist. He was a high school dropout, then 43, who eked out a living harvesting and processing wild Maine blueberries, doing odd jobs, and from the occasional sale of a piece of his art.

Turns out, he was born only about 50 miles from where I live, in Lancaster, Pa. He was married and lived with his family in a white wood frame house adjacent to his workshop and his, well, it’s hard to say what it is. Display area, museum, and storage lot. Prop lot for some very strange stage production. Something like that.

Nate, who had collected mostly metal junk for his hobby for years, got serious about welding and bolting odds and ends of stuff together after his mother died about three years before I met him.

“She was artistic. After she passed, I just felt like I had to do something, and this is where it went,” he said.

He also said he got a little ticked off with the local government because they told him he couldn’t keep all that junk in his yard.

“So, I started welding stuff together, and called it art. I said, ‘now it’s art, what are you going to do now?’ “

He said the township didn’t like him very much.

Nate’s prices were arbitrary. He had a steel sheep he made and set the price at $6,000, because he’d seen one made by a famous sculptor priced at that figure.

“And my sheep looks more realistic,” he said with obvious pride.

The sheep, I had to admit, looked pretty darned real. OK, it looked like a sheep in chain mail, but this is art, right? The convention/menagerie in Nicholl’s yard includes people of all shapes and sizes, an elephant, giraffe, one whole red and orange dragon perhaps 10 feet tall hatching babies out of propane tank ‘eggs,’ parts of several other dragons, a self-portrait of the artist, one squid, one octopus, a pair of tiny dogs made from car springs that I would swear were modeled after a pair of miniature poodles I know, any number of birds, lizards…all made from old gears, snowmobile mufflers (great for peacocks and pelican bodies, as it happens,) nuts, bolts, pitchforks, shovels, picks, shears, screwdrivers and chain-link fence.

Nate said he spent a lot of time in scrap yards, and sometimes people just bring stuff for him. One fellow, I believe, provided a couple of tons of railroad spikes, which have evolved into hundreds of tiny figures romping, dancing and marching around Nate’s five-acre property.

Sadly, Nate is not making any more fanciful creatures.

One July day he was welding a small metal frog when his heart failed. He was rushed to the hospital in Damariscotta, but nothing could be done to bring him back. His kids had him cremated and buried his cremains in his sculpture garden, and covered his grave with bouquets of flowers made from gaily-painted flowers fashioned from outdoor spigot handles.

I make a point to stop at Nate’s on every visit to Maine. Sometimes I chat with his son Josh, who lives in the big old house, and sometimes chat with his daughter, Alissa, on Facebook.

Like many artist’s Nate’s life stared back at us from his work. He once had a run-in with the state highway department. They said his stuff was too close to the road. He countered by listing a number of more usual businesses on the same highway who keep their products as close or closer. In honor of the dispute, Nate built a highway department guy leaning on his shovel, a stumpy cigar stuck between his teeth and a woman giving him hell about something.

To celebrate his warm relationship with his township, Nate has a figure carrying a skull around on a platter. He said the head represents a figure from the local government who is sometimes a pain in the butt.

The biggest problem Nate had, aside from his hassles with the local and state government, is that he gets attached to each piece, knows the story behind every part of it, who brought him this spring, that doohickie, and what inspired him to make it. It’s sweet, but it doesn’t help his cash flow.

“I can’t mass produce these things, but if I have only one of a piece, I can’t sell it. And of my very favorite pieces, I can hardly bring myself to sell them at all,” he said.

He did sell stuff, though. He picked up a turtle made of railroad spikes, its shell made from old steel nuts welded together. It was about eight inches across. He said he makes them pretty often, because people walk onto his property and offer him a hundred bucks for one.

He said he figures he could get $10,000 for the 10-foot-tall red-and-orange dragon, babies and eggs included.

At his memorial service Alissa read from a poem Nate left behind:

There really isn’t much difference
between this old man
and a chunk of rusty mooring chain.
I grow weak
from both the weathering of time
and the brine of existence.

Since Nate’s death, his kids have moved some of the sculptures around. Some of the pieces have been stolen, but they are doing the best they can on a limited budget. They want to maintain Nate’s Recycleart Garden Gallery and the garden for as long as they can. The garden is free and open to the public, and they want to keep it that way.
Recycleart sculpture garden and studio
https://www.facebook.com/recyclesculptor

http://recyclesculptor.com/