Gauging Small Risks

Life is full of risks; a notion experience seems to teach us as we head deeply into our personal fall seasons.

I’ve taken on plenty of risks in my day – too many, I’ve been told by some folks – and will continue to take them. Some of those risks have been grand; some of them have been small. Some of them have brought joy and successes; some of them have brought sadness and losses.

Most of the risks I’ve taken are tales for another time and another day. But one of the small annual risks I take is bigger than it might seem or sound, making it worthy of a few words.

That single, seemingly small risk, after all, challenges nature itself: that time each year when I turn my glass rain gauge right-side up.

Not everyone will understand what I’m talking about, and some northern Driftless Area folks might take a similar risk by taking their glass rain gauges out of storage – those folks using the greatest caution with such a valuable instrument when the previous fall’s weather turned icy.

Though rain gauges are relatively inexpensive instruments, plenty of us carry a long-established rural gene which gives us the unspoken challenge of seeing how long we can make a rain gauge last.

Those who know the challenge know that the rain gauge needs to be turned over or stored when winter weather approaches. Doing otherwise would allow some water to get into the rain gauge and freeze, the freezing water’s expansion breaking the gauge.

I painfully learned about the science of that freezing-water-in-the-rain-gauge long before ever stepping into a school’s classroom. It was taught at my father’s hands on that long-ago spring day when my father went to turn his rain gauge right-side up for the warm season.

Dad was making his way from the barn to the house after morning chores that day, his little redheaded sixth child doing his best to keep up. Along the way, Dad stopped at the post on which his beloved rain gauge told him how much rain had been feeding our pastures and crops.

He reached his farm-gnarled left hand and plucked the rain-gauge from its holder.

His jaw muscles tightened as he pensively stared at the bottomless glass cylinder.

He turned and looked down at me, his nostrils flaring.

Some sort of question came through his clenched teeth, but I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say.

“Huh?” I said with all the 5-year-old innocence I could muster.

“I said, did you turn my rain gauge over?” he somehow hissed through his still-clenched teeth.

I smiled and straightened my little body and proudly answered, “Yes! Somebody turned it upside down last fall, and I knew you’d want to know how much it was snowing!”

His left hand still occupied with the now-worthless piece of glass cylinder, he reached his farm-gnarled right hand to his seed-cap’s bill and, with one uninterrupted motion, pulled the cap from his head and swiftly lowered it onto the top of my red hair’s cowlicks. The cap, well-oiled by several years of him leaning against Holstein’s bellies, cracked like a lion-tamer’s whip across my skull.

No further explanation was needed, and none was offered as he strode with anger toward the house for a bit of breakfast and to undoubtedly tell my mother that – for the moment – he’d have been happy if they’d stopped at five kids.

I walked across the farmyard the other day here at the Eimon Homestead, and stared at the upside-down rain gauge on a post near the milk house. It was the middle of April, and it hadn’t been freezing much at night. I reached my aged left hand to it, giving thanks that no 5-year-old had done what I long did to my father’s gauge, pulled the glass tube up and reinserted it open-side up.

I reflexively flinched, waiting for that well-worn seed cap to fall from the heavens and crack me across the skull. It didn’t, so Dad must have been OK with me taking the risk.

That night, I drove from a meeting in Galesville. The dark sky opened in a downpour of nourishing spring rain – so much that I had to slow my truck because of the reduced visibility. My knuckles tightened around the steering wheel as I deepened my concentration on driving through the storm.

And then, a smile came to my being –a smile of satisfaction in knowing my risk would allow me to tell folks how much rain we got that night up here on Eimon Ridge. As I drove through Whitehall, Coral City and Pigeon Falls, I wondered who else might be sitting in their northern Driftless Area homes and smiling about their risks paying the same dividends.

— Scott Schultz

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