It was early fall last year when I first started thinking about this project and whether a suburban family really could make everything it eats from scratch. For us now, fall is the time to make sausages. To brew beer. To put up the last summer vegetables and horde the strawberry jam from early summer while getting ready to make apple jelly from the first small apples of the season. Time to start thinking about a winter garden. But even before starting all of this we knew it was truly fall when we saw the first hints of bright blue and white parachute emerge from the leaves as Cap’n Danger, Stunt Monkey, made his annual reappearance.
The Cap’n is like our own Old Farmer’s Almanac. Just as some old timers claim to be able gauge the severity of winter by the band of lighter color on a wooly bear caterpillar, we can track the seasons with a parachuting primate who laughs in the face of fear. No, really, it says that right on the package, “parachuting primate who laughs in the face of fear.” Cap’n Danger is a maniacally grinning 4-inch plastic ape with a big blue and white parachute. He’s strapped into the parachute with a heavy rubber harness. Unfortunately, for him at least, that harness is securely lodged about 25 feet off the ground on a long limb of an oak tree in our front yard. He has been hanging there for nearly three years. Hurricane winds, snow storms – nothing has been able to rid him of that crazy smile or get him out of the tree.
Jack and I got Cap’n Danger from Archie McPhee, purveyors of fine crap. If you need a rubber chicken, gorilla costume, gloriously tacky smoking baby figurine, Carl Jung action figure, or an electronic yodeling pickle, Archie McPhee is the place to get it. I had introduced Jack to their website and he took to studying it intently. One day, not long after we had moved to North Carolina he called me into the TV room, where we keep the kids’ computer. “Can we get it?” he asked, sounding just like a kid picking out a puppy. He was pointing at Cap’n Danger on the monitor. Looked like fun, so we did a little damage to the credit card, also picking up Señor Misterioso, a suave international mystery man in a glowing suit (“In some circles, the elimination of Señor Misterioso and his atomic suit is of the utmost priority; to others, he is a sought-after dinner speaker”) to complete my wife’s office. Cap’n Danger, Stunt Monkey, lived up to his billing. Unlike too many cheap toys, the parachute is sturdy and popped open exactly the way it should. Jack had a great time throwing him as high as he could, watching the parachute snap open and carry Cap’n Danger down the hill into our front yard. The first time he got stuck in a tree Jack and I were able to rescue him by throwing a tennis ball at him until we knocked him loose. The second time we succeeded only in wrapping the harness more tightly around the branch, leaving Cap’n Danger in his bright blue jumpsuit dangling like one of those WWII paratroopers they would find years later, hanging in the South Pacific jungle.
It took a while to realize that despite the loss of a great parachuting monkey we had gained a unique weather vane and harbinger of the seasons. In the winter his parachute is visible from the top of the hill above the house. You can see him hanging there as you drive down the street toward our driveway. Sometimes, if the wind is just right, you can make out the bright yellow lightning bolt on the front of the parachute. As spring approaches and the leaves start to bud, Cap’n Danger begins to disappear. When he is fully engulfed by leaves I know we have passed the last frost of the season and I can put out my containers of peppers to get a head start on the growing season. He stays hidden during the bounty of summer, but this afternoon, even before the autumnal equinox and the official beginning of fall, I caught a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye when I went to the mailbox, and I realized that tomato season will be over soon. Time to start thinking about root vegetable recipes, stews and soups, the stuff of winter.