The Curmudgeon had a choice to make. He stared at the crater and weighed his options.
All of the squirrels were missing, an oak had exploded, and a bear was petrified. It was the government’s fault! Those bastards!
He knew this to be true because the government solves problems by flinging cash and his mailbox was filling up with unexpected checks. “Free” money was being tossed about. Therefore, he was being lied to. He didn’t like it one bit…
He examined the packet of envelopes. Each one seemingly unconnected to the others. The only commonality was that they came bearing checks. A handful of mini-lottery wins. One stroke of good fortune might be fate but ten was a conspiracy. He was on the receiving end of a pattern of bribery.
Free money? Those shitheads had a purpose and a plan. They were up to something.
He shuffled through the envelopes. The first was a letter from the BLM. Innocuous at first. Except it announced a weirdly specific grazing subsidy that applied almost uniquely to his land. It was almost as if it were created just for him. He’d been qualified in the boondoggle automatically, had to do nothing whatsoever to get the money (not even graze a cow), and it came with a check. A hefty one.
The next document was some sort of class action settlement for survivors of “death wobble”. It came with a check too. The letterhead mentioned neither Dodge, Chrysler, nor Mopar. It was just a check and a brief note. He didn’t have to turn in his truck. He didn’t have to prove he still owned the truck. He didn’t have to do jack shit. Just cash a check from the “death wobble recovery fund” and laugh all the way to the bank.
Another unassuming letter discussed an expired telephone line right of way from 1973. Apparently, it was never utilized but the arrangement somehow led to… you guessed it. A check. He pictured Lilly Tomlin in 1973 sneering “we’re the phone company, here’s your kickback fatso”.
He had other such documents. State agencies, Federal agencies, a sketchy sounding charity, generically named corporations, and a real estate investment trust. Each one cheerfully claiming he had to do nothing but sit back and receive what they already owed him… “free” money.
He unfolded the biggest one, a letter that cut closest to the heart of the matter; exploding oaks. It was five pages of inexplicable blather. The first paragraph discussed a malfunctioning power line monitoring drone that may or may not have experienced a software “glitch”. This caused the drone, which was the size of a football and carrying nothing but thermal imaging sensors, to “collide with a tree” and “cause minimal and non-invasive damage”.
This improbable explanation for what was obviously a huge explosion wouldn’t convince a child. Yet a forgettably named corporation was happy to pay. The corporation’s name didn’t seem to lead anywhere when the Curmudgeon searched for it on Google; which didn’t surprise him. Anyone who’ll believe a thermal imaging drone will bump into a tree and somehow blow it to tiny bits won’t do a Google search. The check was more or less the explanation itself. It was large enough to induce most people to avoid questions. They’d believe Professor Plum murdered the tree in the library with a candlestick if they could get their hand on the money. It was the price of silence. Most of the five-page letter explained the attached non-disclosure agreement. Sign it and keep your mouth shut. Do that and we’ll shower you with a wad of cash large enough to buy belief.
The Curmudgeon couldn’t play along.
Thermal sensors on a three-pound drone took out a 60’ oak? If it was a “collision” how did it create a crater? The oak wasn’t knocked down, it was disintegrated. In order to believe a story that weak you’d have to be a member of the press. To the detriment of his finances, all the money in the world couldn’t make the Curmudgeon smile and nod when bullshit was afoot.
Someone had dropped a cruise missile on his forest and now they were trying to bribe him. “A predilection for truthfulness”, the Curmudgeon sighed, “is expensive.”
It’s not like they hadn’t tried. The Curmudgeon, like all Americans, had a lifetime of social training that was meant to grease the skids for this very occasion. It was the proper, red-blooded, American ideal to take the money and run. Quit asking questions and buy shit!
Alas something deeply rooted in The Curmudgeon’s psyche rejected normal conditioning. Given the choice between two paths in life, he didn’t choose the path less traveled so much as he went off road. It was ingrained. A lifetime of doing precisely what was not expected made him sand in someone’s gears. He almost sympathized with his unseen enemies. If he could take the money and shut the hell up it would be more convenient for everyone. Not just whomever was going through all this work to make him rich, but the Curmudgeon himself. Sadly, he just wasn’t built like that.
Anyone who’s turned down money will tell you it’s harder than it looks. He rationalized. He fretted. He clenched his teeth. He tried to picture himself with actual money. A trust fund that made all the worries of life go away. Maybe he’d buy tractor that actually ran. Fish from a boat that didn’t sink. Buy bacon instead of raising it.
But where would it end? Early retirement to a gated covenant controlled community in Phoenix. Would free money make him old? Or would it end with reading Facebook on an iPad in a Starbucks? Would free money make him into a hipster?
Then, like the sun breaking through a cloudy sky, a decision was made. Once it was made he was relieved. No stranger to commitment, he immediately took action. He would find the invisible bridges and burn them to ash.
He began to smile and was at peace.
First thing’s first, he scampered to the edge of the crater and gleefully heaved the papers into it. Good riddance.
Then he dug around in his pack for a sketch book and started scribbling furiously. He hustled to a swampy clearing nearby where he marched back and forth counting. Then back to his book where he made more notes.
He reached in the pack and came out with a folding bow saw. He started cutting lengths of wood from the detritus at the edge of the crater. (An exploded tree makes for a good supply of easily managed limbwood.)
He worked at a furious pace; first stomping down the reeds in the swamp (along a carefully planned pattern) then laying lengths of tree limbs and logs in the flattened strips. He paused occasionally to consult the sketches in his book. He was having fun. Nothing made the Curmudgeon happier than messing with forces beyond his control.
If you like what you’ve read (or figure it’s better for society that I’m occupied at my keyboard than breaking tractors), please toss a copper or two my way. Thanks!