Farm To Farm

by Spec MacQuayde, October 6, 2011

The country roads in our valley are decorated with blowing cornhusks and broken pumpkins, remnants of crops not intended for human consumption, as the autumn harvest is in full swing. I get a tour of the fields on Sunday mornings when Grandpa and Grandma faithfully show up in their luxury car to offer my son and I a ride to St. Patrick's Lutheran church, where they park beside the other shiny, full-sized gems that stand as proud testaments to the farmers' hard work and sound business sense, as well as the USDA subsidies that prevented them from going broke ten years ago when unbelievably cheap GMO corn from the U.S flooded the global markets, driving indigenous farmers off the land. This Sunday I'm planning to wear a wool sweater over my dress-shirt, as for some reason they were still running the air conditioner last week, and I caught a cold after shivering through Revelations in Bible Class, then the entire service, two hours. Revelations is impossible to comprehend, unlike the gospels.

We don't have to depend on the preacher and the scatterbrained prophets to addle our brains, though. On the way home from church we hear the news come across courtesy of the country music station, and it's of course dealing with the murder trial of Michael Jackson's surgeon for the eight seconds or so before a commercial comes on with these downhome-sounding folks telling us that US farmers feed the world, that the U.S. is a net exporter of agricultural commodities, these grass-rootsy statements sponsored by Monsanto.

“What do you mean, Monsanto is dicking over the world?” my son asks me, later, after we've been dropped off and I'm venting.

“It would take too long to explain.”

* * *

Last week a friend was literally burned alive in the truck he flipped late at night on Interstate 94 near the Montana border.

His first name was Tomante, and nobody knew exactly how old he was because he was born in Mali and survived there until sometime in his teens when, as a homeless kid on the street, he hustled Diane Sawyer of 60 Minutes right on camera, offering to carry her luggage. Some rich people in Bloomington, Indiana happened to be watching that episode, and they were tearfully moved to contact CBS to sort through the appropriate channels to adopt THAT kid, the one who was missing half his face, it having rotted off.

The rich Americans who first adopted Tomante had done so as one of those public displays of generosity, televising the whole charade on the local stations, and soon realized they'd gotten themselves into more than they'd bargained for, as Tomante hadn't asked to be adopted, could not speak a word of English, had no idea where he was or what was happening to him when he landed in a Bloomington hospital and had to be restrained, tied to a bed while doctors grafted his rotted cheek to his shoulder. For months he could not move his head, it being stuck sideways to his shoulder. When the doctors finally decided the skin graft had taken, and Tomante was able to move again, the first thing he did was bolt from the hospital donning nothing but the hospital pajamas.

The rich Americans decided to find an easier, cuter, African kid to adopt, and, by default, a young Quaker couple — genuinely generous people, took on the challenge. At first they sent him to a kindergarten at an international school in Bloomington, because he looked like maybe seven years old, but after several months of eating chicken and mashed potatoes with his still hideously deformed face and only half a jaw, the seven year-old suddenly transformed into a teenager with raging hormones and facial hair who still ran away at every opportunity. Having survived on the streets of Mali for perhaps a decade, Tomante was skilled in evading police and subsisting, especially in a college town. Were it not for the fact that the Quaker man happened to be of considerable fortitude and phsycal stature, Tomante might have gone directly from the streets of Africa to the streets of America, but the Quakers persisted, moving to the north side of Indianapolis in the early 1980's, where Tomante finally settled down.

“I don't know what we'd have done without the Cub Scouts,” says his adoptive father, who wishes to remain anonymous, as he does not want congratulations for doing what he believes any reasonably compassionate person would have done. “He was drawn to the uniforms, and soon his goal was to be an Eagle Scout.”

The final test of a boy's survival skills proved to be a piece of cake for Tomante: spending the night alone in the forest.

“The other, suburban white boys, went to all the trouble to build shelters and campfires, all the stuff they'd been instructed to do in the programs,” says his adoptive mother, “but all Tomante did was go out in the woods, find a comfortable place to sit down, and wait until morning.”

His dream was fulfilled, and the picture of him as an Eagle Scout still hangs from his adoptive parents' wall.

I first met Tomante in the fall of 1995, when both of us were working on a roofing crew in Indianapolis. “Mango Thief” was the nickname the other guys — most of them Kentuckians who'd emigrated to Indy in search of jobs —  pinned on Tomante. He and I both liked to shoot pool, and we frequented the bars in liberal Broad Ripple that winter, not really winning a lot of cash but not losing money, either. That was the last I saw of him for several years, as my first Ex and I went off to Mendo to be hippies, have a baby, and subsequently split up, at which point I returned to Indianapolis to do roofing work, finding that the job market had been inundated by Mexican corn farmers displaced by NAFTA and USDA subsidies that were flooding the maize markets south of the border. It turned out that Tomante was running into trouble with crack dealers in Indy, as well, guessing by the bullet holes in the side of his van.

“I never judged Tomante for the choices he made,” says his adoptive father. “I'd say things to him like, you know what you need to do is get into a nice house, in a nice neighborhood, and find some nice woman, and he would just look at me and laugh. That was when I realized that crack whores were the only women he would ever get.”

Even after the surgery, Tomante's face was like something out of a horror movie, a frightening mask he had to wear every day like a walking advertisement for the disparity in the global food supply. He should have carried a goddam sign like the protestors on Wall Street the last couple weeks, or worn a name tag explaining the root causes of his condition. “Hi. I starved while you got fat.” His rotting jaw had been a direct result of severe malnutrition. His utter lack of fear was a direct result of a childhood on the streets of Africa, as was his ingenuity. On one roofing job, Tomante had suddenly paused in the middle of laying shingles. “That branch is perfect for a slingshot,” he told me, leaping like a squirrel from the roof into the canopy of a hard maple, taking his roofing hatchet and chopping off a wishbone. “We made those all the time in Africa, using tubes from bike tires. Used them to kill bats, birds, and lizards.” On lucky nights, this was what the homeless children roasted over campfires.

Later that evening, after nightfall, he paid a visit to the crack dealers that were out to kill him, climbing one of the trees in their front yard, armed with a pocketful of pebbles and the slingshot. He proceeded to shatter first the front window of their crib, so the furious gangstas charged outside with their assault rifles, ready to ice the muthafucka. Calmy, from up in the tree, looking down at the would-be assailants, Tomante fired pebbles through the windshields and tinted windows of their cars. The thugs ran around the yard like decapitated chickens for hours, swearing bloody murder, but finally gave up and disappeared back inside their drafty, cold house, shattered glass everywhere, at which point Tomante climbed down from the tree and sauntered through the streets, back to the bullet-ridden car that doubled as his home.

He had to leave town, quickly, his Quaker parents assured me, offering to pay the gas money if I'd accompany him back out to the ranch north of Ukiah, California, where I'd had my garden the previous two summers. I was ready for another season of growing watermelons and skinny-dipping with hippies, so we drove across the great USA, stopping in college towns along the way to shoot pool.

At Round Mountain Ranch, Tomante helped get my garden started that spring — spreading chicken manure and oyster shell lime out of buckets, planting watermelons, cantaloupe, okra, and this Hopi blue corn I was growing out for seed.

“With your survival skills, you could probably teach courses here in Mendo,” I told him. “I'm serious. These hippies are all into that shit. They'd pay to know what you know.” I wasn't lying.

One spring morning, as we direct-seeded the Hopi blue corn, Tomante motioned to a grassy clearing beside the willows that lined the creek running out of Lake Pennyroyal. “I'd like to build a house over there,” he said.

“Sure,” I agreed, thinking it was harmless enough to go along with him on the idea, even though this was not my ranch, and he was not technically a “member” of the community. I walked up to the communal kitchen for lunch, leaving Tomante down at the garden.

He basically subsisted off salted peanuts from filling stations, and had no need or desire to join me for lunch.

When I returned to the garden, an hour later, there was a hut constructed of willows, with stripped, twisted cordage to tie the joints, and a thatched roof.

Last week, Tomante decided to head for British Columbia. He'd heard it was a good place to live on the streets, the only life he'd ever been comfortable with. Apparently he dozed off in the middle of the night on I-94, flipped his truck, and was scorched when it burst into flames. I almost have to hope he wasn't wearing his seatbelt, but at the same time, Tomante's life was a living hell for decades, so if anyone could handle going out that way, it was him. He did, anyway. He went out like that.

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