Thursday, March 13, 2008

Chapter Forty-Eight

As always, Scott is as good as his word and he is home within a week. This time he brings home something that the family has been desperately missing; fresh, domesticated meat.

Scott, along with his father-in-law and brother-in-law, had a very successful trip. The men trucked a large load of sugar and some south Florida fruit and produce up to north Florida to a town called Live Oak. They followed the same route north, along I75 corridor up to Lake City, FL. In order to reach their destination. At Lake City, they left the Interstate and got onto US90 and went west until they reached the outskirts of Live Oak.. The town is the seat of Suwannee County and continues to serve as a hub of commerce for several local communities, much as it did prepandemic. It took them a whole day just to get a pass into the city. After finally receiving permission to proceed, they continued west through town until they reached the former GoldKist chicken processing plant.

The large processing plant that was once a primary employer in the area has been converted to a food distribution point after being sanitized on several occasions because of panflu infections. The plant no longer processes poultry, but deals with almost everything else. Security is very tight. While it is understood that truckers – due primarily to road piracy – carry lethal protection devices, while parked in the GoldKist compound all such devices have to be registered and turned into the GoldKist guards for the duration of their stay.

One of the main production efforts taking place at the plant is the processing of fresh and jerked meat products. Even better, they recently received a federal grant to re-engineer the plant to accommodate a small cannery. The state of Florida also helped with acquiring resources to complete the project.

The federal and state governments are finally regaining enough personnel and resources that they have been able to sponsor community-seeding programs. One of these programs helps to encourage and procure the equipment for localization of food production and preservation. This program has been quite successful in those locales that had existing resources to exploit. In areas with few natural resources, the government is taking a two-pronged approach. They are encouraging relocation as well as implementing re-education and revitalization programs.

The re-education/revitalization programs are similar to those that were once conducted in Africa and many third-world countries that taught new farming techniques. Other skills taught include special water catchment and conservation techniques. The relocation option is primarily being offered to those who do not or cannot participate in the re-education and revitalization programs.

The relocation option is not as simple a solution as it sounds. Unless you have family willing to sign an affidavit stating that they will be financially and legally responsible for you for one year, you are put on a waiting list until a slot comes open in a community accepting flugees. For the move, you are limited to two bags – weighing fifty pounds each – per person on what you can take with you. However, transportation and food are provided free of charge for the travelers to their disembarkation point. Transportation primarily consists of open-air rail service.

Upon arrival, flugees are subject to rigorous quarantine procedures, especially if they come from certain cities designated as Red Zones. Red Zone cities includes cities with a certain per capita of infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, etc. or from a particularly violent location such as Los Angeles or the D.C. area.

Many areas further restrict flugee emigration to age groups or family groups. Some say that they will only take adult males between the ages of 18 and 40. Some areas only want females aged 16 to 35. Some areas only take orphan or unattached children. Some areas prefer intact family groups. Adults with trade experience, or teens willing to sign an apprenticeship contract, are welcome almost anywhere. For a while there was a blackmarket indenture program operating along side the Federal relocation program. This was quickly brought to a hault when it was discovered people were signing away years of their lives in the form of unpaid service just to have someone in a relocation area agree to sponsor them.

The indenture black market caused another, and very restrictive, condition to be put in place. Every flugee has to have an official picture I.D. from prepandemic times, such as a driver’s license or US passport. Children can use a picture student I.D. as long as their original birth certificate and social security card accompanies it.

The more restrictive condition with regard to identification is causing the relocation process to slow down. Babies born during the pandemic usually lack official documentation. Some communities will overlook this documentation deficiency on children under two years of age. Some will accept a notarized letter from a registered doctor, nurse, or midwife. Many communities, however, will not. This is not a harsh or arbitrary rule to hinder relocation, but is an attempt to make sure that children are not removed from their parental care except in the case of being orphaned or abandoned. Adults who find unsupervised children are required to turn them in to a law enforcement agency, show a picture ID, and sign an affidavit concerning exactly how, when, and where the child is found along with any other known information concerning the child. The system is imperfect, but it is an attempt to make sure that children aren’t accidentally shipped away from a parent who is desperately searching for them.

Live Oak is not accepting flugees. In fact, the whole state of Florida is still debating the issue. The northern border of the state has been cordoned off and is marked by armed crossing points on all major roadways. Vigilante flotillas patrol the hundreds of miles of Florida coastline. Of course people still manage to cross into the state, but once here they find it hard going without sponsorship. Most small cities are insular and can spot an outsider almost immediately. Since a state residency I.D. is required to obtain ration cards, many flugees have to obtain goods on the black market which means they pay a great deal more than the federally capped prices.

An unauthorized refugee faces a tough road. If caught, they are put on a national database along with criminals and various other offenders. The first (or second depending on state law) time they are caught they are simply deported across the state line. The second/third offense puts them in a labor camp where they clear roads, tear down condemned buildings, work agricultural fields, etc. The third/fourth offense might find them on a prison barge bound for who-knows-where to do who-knows-what, including international relief work.

The hitch is that some states count any offense on the national database. Some states only count the offenses that take place within their own borders. Some states count only deportation offenses when it comes to assignment to prison barges. There are attempts to standardize the system but the compromise will take a while to finalize as states are using the issue of state’s rights to bolster their positions, especially those that are hard-lining the flugee laws. The case for illegal foreign immigrants is even harder. A lot of the Border States simply turn a blind eye to vigilante activities. Those that do take a direct hand in the immigration issues are prone to simply shipping out any immigrant found unless he or she can prove that they have permission to be in this country from prepandemic times. Permissible exceptions include foreign tourists with a valid and stamped passport, student visas (out of date visas can reapply so long as they continue to either go to school or work in the health care field), work permits, and diplomatic corp members.

Scott knew all of this from listening to radio broadcasts. But in Live Oak the men see the reality. Individuals in institutional orange are seen loading and unloading trucks. They are also part of the ground-keeping crews. And yet another small contingent is sitting chained together in a higher security area where armed guards patrol.

When the brother-in-law asks what is up, it is explained that the group in the detention area is being shipped to Panama City where they will be placed on a prison barge. The guard also volunteers that several of the group are gang members who had been given a chance to migrate by Alabama authorities, but when they kept getting into territorial fights, they were shipped to Florida to try and work off their sentences. Unfortunately they continued their poor conduct here. If they get into more trouble on the way to the port, they will likely find themselves sent to a barrier island prison for special populations. Those prisons are very Spartan; they receive air-dropped rations of just enough food and water to subsist on each day and nothing else. There are no buildings, no walls, no guards … and no way off That penalty is reserved for only the most extremely incorrigible individuals. Even assignment to a prison barge is rare these days now that the threat is understood to be real and that there is no parole from such a location. Usually forced labor is enough to rehabilitate most offenders, or at least it is enough to encourage them to follow the laws of the land.

As harsh as the new – and hopefully temporary – prison system is, it is the only way that has been found to deal with the violence that continues to pop up, especially in large urbanized sectors of the country. For a while sending people to prison was an automatic death sentence, sending people to any kind of mass congregation facility was. Panflu infections could sweep facilities bare of living inmates in a matter of days. There is no perfect solution, but this is the one that requires the least amount of manpower, yet gives the greatest benefit to a society battling a pandemic.

After waiting a full day to get into the city to reach "GoldKist" as the locals call it, the men are forced to wait another day to take their turn at the barter table. Since the brother-in-law is an independent trucker he does most of his own contracting and negotiating. He is a dab hand at it too, surviving in an industry that struggles with many nearly insurmountable challenges.

In south Florida Sissy’s brother negotiated with a sugar procesor to truck a certain poundage of sugar in exchange for a contract in north Florida for meats and canned goods. Since he has an existing bond and a good working relationship with this sugar processor, they were willing to let him have the load with nothing down. The profit is a percentage of the sugar. Once arriving at GoldKist he negotiates a good price for the sugar and gets additional profit in the form of meats and canned goods. He saves even more by negotiating out the price of loading and unloading as the men choose to do this themselves rather than have the prison crews do it. Scott and his father in law get a cut because they went in shares for fuel and help with the labor of loading and unloading. Since the truck is not refrigerated they have to negotiate for cold packing, but that is easy because sugar is such a valuable commodity that the food processing plant will be able to make a really large profit for themselves on the re-sale, even with existing price controls in place.

While waiting for the legalities to clear and the paperwork to be readied, the plant manager makes up nice and offers to take the three men hunting. He is very interested in future trading, especially if he can continue to get sugar and other south Florida products at a reasonable price.

It is hunting season in north Florida. Deer, wild turkey, quail, and squirrel are all "bag as many as you can." The men aren’t really interested in anything but deer. Next day is a perfect hunting day and each man brings down three deer as well as two turkeys that check out infection-free. The game is processed at the plant free of charge. They also make a side deal with the plant manager to trade him a hundred pounds of sugar in exchange for some crab, shrimp, and snapper that the manager’s cousin has just brought in.

The following morning the men leave to head back south. The truck is loaded down with iced meat products and they are praying that they won’t be held up at any checkpoints. They need to get the meat down to south Florida as quickly as possible and then turn around and get their shares home before any spoilage takes place.

This is accomplished in good time and Sissy waves goodbye to her dad and brother as they pull off down the road about three hours before dusk. This will hopefully give them just enough time to get home without having to stop for the night. Curfews are not quite as tightly enforced as they have been and truckers are given some added time on either side of daylight to get to a bolt-hole before curfew sets in, but it is still going to be a push. Sissy and Scott give each other a proper greeting and then set to work figuring out what they are going to do with their share of the meat.

Luck is on their side and the power is on. They immediately put what they can in the refrigerator and freezer including venison and beef that is already been cut into roasts, tips, and steaks. There are several sides of beef ribs that Scott sets aside to give to Barry and Tom. Incredibly there is also pork that has been certified infection free. And then there is the seafood and a wrapped package that Scott stashes in the freezer before Sissy gets a good look at it.

"Are you positive that the pork is good?" Sissy asks suspiciously.

"Yeah. As a matter of fact, while we were there the plant was being inspected by the feds. They got high marks on everything except for having semolina plants growing in barrels at the office doors," Scott replies.

"Having what where?"

"You know, those semolina plants like you have at our front door."

Sissy looks confused and then suddenly laughs, "You mean centronella plants?"

"Yeah, whatever. Those stinky little bushes that keep the mosquitoes out. Anyway, if you see a piece of meat with this seal stamped on it, its from certified clean meat. And from what I understand it is also darn hard to get this seal."

"I hope you are right, but I don’t want anyone but me touching or cooking this stuff and we will process and can it completely separate from everything else," she decides.

First Sissy starts a large pot of water to boil for the crabs that has a ¼ cup of lemon juice per gallon of water. While she is doing this, she has the girls sterilizing jars and lids and setting up the three pressure canners she has. She raw packs stew meat by the quart and begins processing it. Then she starts grinding some of the meat into hamburger that she then browns and hot packs for processing. She cuts some of the steaks into cubes and makes Chili con Carne with some of the fresh tomatoes out of the garden. She also uses some of the ground meat to make Spaghetti Sauce. Sissy cans beef stew, beef and vegetable soup and several other recipes out of her Ball Blue Book. She treats the venison the same way.

Once the crabs are done she dumps them in cool water for ten minutes and then sets Scott and James to cleaning out the meat. After the guys are finished, Sissy rinses and packs the meat according to her canner’s directions and processes the crab in pint jars for 70 minutes. The shrimp she boils in an acidic brine until done and then peels them. These she packs into pint jars and processes for 45 minutes according to her canning book. The fish is cut and placed in jars and processed at 100 minutes. Sissy is very careful handling the seafood. It is one of the more difficult types of food processing in her opinion.

While the seafood is processing, Sissy sanitizes her work area and then gets started on the pork. The loins she slices and cans by the quart. Some pork she grinds and makes into sausage. Some she leaves fresh to be used for breakfast and the rest she browns and processes in pint jars. Sissy looks over at her girls and says, "I am so proud of you three. You are really helping. I don’t know if I could have done all of this by myself."

Rose, Sarah, and even little Bekah have been hard at work cutting some of the beef into long strips and marinating them. These strips are put into the dehydrator and are dried as jerky. She also has them make pork jerky and fish jerky so that Scott can have something that is more portable for his lunches when he is out working.

Sissy and the girls are on their feet for two days straight getting everything canned before the power goes out. Which it in fact does just as she is taking the last batch off the stovetop.
But Scott suddenly goes, "Uh oh."

"Uh oh what? We did it. We got everything processed while the power was still on. Even the jerky is done," Sissy says irritably. "What could possibly be ‘uh oh’ about that?"

"Um. Well," Scott starts then he says, "Well, hell. I guess it was too much to ask for the power to stay on until Thanksgiving anyway." He goes into the freezer and pulls out the freezer paper covered bundle. Out comes a small turkey.

"A turkey?!," Sissy squeals. "This is for real right? This is one of those special seal of approval meats that are infection free? Right?!"

"Yeah and," but he gets no further because Sissy has swooped down on him and starts hugging and kissing him.

"Oh you lovely, lovely man. You and your surprises. Honestly! You double my gray hairs every year with your shenanigans. Go pull out the grill. I’ll roast this sucker and we’ll have our Thanksgiving celebration a few days early," she merrily directs her spouse.

"You aren’t disappointed that the surprise didn’t keep?"

"Are you kidding?! The First Thanksgiving may have been in 1621 with the Pilgrims in Plymouth but there have been thanksgiving celebrations for many different reasons before and since. During George Washington’s time as president it took place in December. It wasn’t until 1863 that the traditional US celebration was truly born as an annual event. And it wasn’t until F.D.R. set the date in 1939 that it became celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. With history like that, I reckon we can celebrate Thanksgiving any day we want to. And having the garden doing so well and now this bounty of meat is as good a reason as any to have our own specific thanksgiving celebration and pardon me running off at the mouth," she laughs. "I’m just so excited!"

Sissy’s excitement is contagious as she calls the children to show what their father has brought them. There are grim reminders of the pandemic year all around them. There are still people getting sick and there are still people going hungry. Even in their own neighborhood people are struggling to keep body and soul together. But there are things to be thankful for as well.

They are still all together and all healthy. They’ve been able to keep food on the table and even share some with less fortunate neighbors. They have survived hurricane season. The business, while not the same as it was prepandemic, is doing OK. They have made some good friends and allies. While the world is full of troubled people, they have also found it to be full of people who are helpful and kind. There are all the personal stories of success by each family member and then there is their success as family as a whole. The blessings are numerous, all they have to be willing to do is recognize them.

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