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Never surrender

Broken glass was everywhere around the hen house, but worse than shattered glass was her broken spirit. Just that morning we’d been relaxing in plastic chairs, taking tea in the garden and admiring fresh, perfect growth. “Why, we could be in “Mother Earth News” with these healthy vegetables,” she’d told me. “Just look at the broccoli, cauliflower and squashes! For sure, this will be our first year of growing all of our own vegetables. The root cellar will be full!”That morning I couldn’t help but agree. Garden leaves shone like sheet emeralds, the light reflecting and passing through them, red and white veining perfect and ready for any magazine photo-shoot. It was early June, and our gardens were coming on in earnest. Warm days and rich soil were working their magic. To her, the gardens are more than fresh, healthy food. The gardens nourish her spirit through a boundless optimism of growing plants.We left the plants to their exuberant growing, and spent our day in town. That’s when it happened. The warnings on the radio had said it was tracking east, across the northern part of the county. Our part of the county. A large and mature storm released its heavy load of hail from 40,000 feet. Down plummeted the heavy inch-wide ice stones, picking up speed as they went and creating icy cold downdrafts, sucking in the rest of the shredding, a crushing load of hail behind them.A storm of utter devastation staggered east across rolling prairie, pounding and relentlessly pummeling everything below. Cattle with nowhere to go bellowed in pain and terror in their pastures. Our chickens retreated to the relative safety of their hen house, but not even vertical glass was safe from diamond hard 1-inch stones. Down they came, faster, faster, until large stones lay 4 inches deep on the ground everywhere, covering the debris of their recent destruction. Trees were stripped of most of their leaves. Later, whole limbs would die, the bark beaten off of them. Our chimney cap lay in the yard amongst drifts of leaves from the trees and vines. The sumptuous gardens of that morning looked as though they had never existed. Nothing remained but lunar-cratered raised garden beds, the cratering from where large stones had smacked in and then melted.Home that evening, we were in shock. She felt like a hurricane victim and would not come outside for the next two days. I surveyed the damage. Vehicles had all been under cover, and all of our roofs are metal, but hail had completely stripped the woodvine on the west side of our home and had taken most of the paint off the barn roofs. Except for girdled limbs, the trees would recover, and before fall I’d need to install new windows for the chickens, but our gardens were a total loss. We railed and in exasperation cursed the climate: “The end of frost danger ushers in hail season, which lasts until frost in the fall!”Every year, hail singes us some, but this was utter devastation. We could re-plant. It was still early June, but why re-plant? Surely more hail was on the way, she wept. And I thought, “It’s just squash.” But it isn’t just squash, just a garden. We’re not skiers. It’s her prize, her crown jewel of her favorite season of summer. She waits all winter for this, planning the beds and the crops.Worry and depression are awfully poor substitutes for action. Circumstances get me down as they do anyone, but I’m not one to be daunted. Gathering myself internally, I faced her, squeezing her hands in mine and said, “I will fix this. We always have hail, but never this bad, never. Well, I take this as the kick in the butt we needed. I’m going to build us some kind of garden coffee tables, hail tables – something to stop this yearly sorrow.”She wondered what such tables would be. I wasn’t quite sure myself, but we needed them. Something to protect wide gardens and broad green leaves, fragile as tissue paper. Something to break the hurtling plummet of hundreds or thousands of ice balls from 40,000 feet, yet something that would let the sun and rain through. These tables would have to be big and strong enough to cover a lot of garden and not terribly expensive. Lightweight and permanent, too. I wanted to be troubled with building them only once. Hmmm… Two by fours would not do. They dry out and fall apart and would make a frame heavy to move over a garden patch. No landscape fabric on top either, it’s too dark. Chicken wire wouldn’t work. The sun but also the hail would come right through.After much discussion, I resolutely wheeled out the gas welder and set to work welding lightweight “electrician’s hail tables” out of half-inch diameter, thin-walled electrical conduit. The four legs, their bottoms pinched shut, are 30 inches tall and support a tubing framework for a 5 foot wide by 10 foot long reinforcing wire-topped table that is covered in quarter-inch square hardware cloth. Perfect, we hoped. Welding thin tubing can be tricky, and the hot sun had sweat rivulets running behind my welding goggles into my eyes. Labor intensive to be sure, but slowly the hail tables began to take shape. They weren’t done when the next storm hit.This storm was not as big as the first one from five weeks before, but fast moving and full of lightning and hail. I threw upside down plastic lawn furniture over the re-planted back garden and ran to the house, my steps quickened by deafening thunder as lightning struck all around. Rain came in a rush; icy cold and pelting down, followed by hail momentarily frozen in its fall by blinding strobe flashes of the too close lightning. Where was she? This evening storm had come upon us so fast I wasn’t sure. I strode to the study to watch the storm hammering down on the front garden; the garden’s new squash had 8-inch wide leaves waving lazily in intensifying cold down drafts. She was watching, too, from safety on the other side of the yard. And it came. Small at first, and then marble sized hail followed the rain, hammering the land and splashing the sheet flooding in our front yard.The first two completed prototype 5 by 10 foot hail tables were in place over that front garden. I watched from safety. Would the storm’s wind blow them over? But their legs were pressed into the earth, and the tables were wired together. Would the hardware cloth, just a big window screen, be able to withstand punishing hail?Cold gusts brought small stones that fell and stuck in the wire, then came the big ones, the garden shredders. Hail roared like the applause of thousands on our metal roof. Out in the garden on the tables the hail bounced, hopped and then strangely began dancing. The marble-sized stones looked like nothing but happy, energetic popcorn; hopping and jumping in their hundreds upon that quarter-inch wire 30 inches above the squash. Beneath the wire, large delicate squash leaves waved lazily, as big Hawaiian palm fronds would on a warm sunny day. Success! The hail tables did exactly what we hoped, and our garden remained oblivious to the storm.The fast moving storm roared on by quickly, sharing the hail with our neighbors to the east. She ran to me splashing through bobbing hail stones and sheet flooding. “They work! They work!” She wept, forehead pinched. Tears streaming down her cheeks; she was laughing at the same time and clutched my waist in her arms, as I had run out to meet her.This fall, there will be vegetables in our root cellar. And even hail-filled clouds have a silver lining. I bask in her countenance, her hero once again.Tom

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