By Michael Bromka
Before they met midlife, neither was a stranger to travel. While serving in the Army at Fort Dix NJ in the early sixties, Ken on leave bused north to Manhattan for ballgames, Broadway, and the yearly St. Patrick’s Day parade.
On Oahu, Hawaii in the late sixties, Kaye tended two young sons while expecting the birth of her daughter. Their father, her husband, was cruising the Pacific Ocean in a diesel submarine.
Twenty-three years thereafter, Kaye was recently widowed. Her daughter soon would finish college. Dating, Kaye and Ken hatched plans for marriage and travel in an RV.
Together from Wisconsin they jaunted south to see Kaye’s Aunt Doris in Mesa AZ. Then trekking to the Grand Canyon’s south rim, they hiked four miles down and four back up the Bright Angel Trail.
Like life, that hike started with vigor and ease. Late midlife is a turning point. Joy from the panoramic moment inspires tenacity for the arduous uphill homestretch to supper and a long deep sleep. Love and trust in your companion lighten each step of the way.
As newlyweds in autumn 1992, they drove south to Brantley Lake State Park for a winter of volunteer work.
“Back then there was no light pollution,” says Kaye. “The air was clear. Under a full moon, you could read the newspaper. In new moon we held star parties, no telescope needed.”
On days off venturing to the Lincoln National Forest, they hiked trails and climbed to pools up above Sitting Bull Falls.
On trips into Carlsbad to shop and do laundry, they checked local real estate ads. Thus, they found their modest home on the NE corner of S. Lake and Bronson.
The challenges of getting an older home up to snuff left Ken undaunted. He’s skillful in carpentry and electrical. “I can do plumbing and masonry if I have to. Jack of all trades, master of none.” His skills would be welcomed at local state parks.
Back in Wisconsin, Ken sold his house. Kaye deeded hers over to her three grown children. “Carlsbad, here we come!”
Ken and Kaye bought their RV used with 20K miles, and made trips for a quarter century. They journeyed to a reunion in Florida and a wedding in Everett Washington. They enjoyed the warm winter climate of Big Bend National Park in south Texas.
In Utah they trekked the Grand Circle of National Parks -- Zion, Bryce, Arches, etc. And of course, they made several trips back to Wisconsin. Three years ago, they sold their RV just shy of 100K miles.
Extensive travel allows Kaye to see similarities in driving habits nationwide. “Disregard for other people is not unique to our town and people here. Even up in Wisconsin, every small town, it’s getting hectic, careless, and thoughtless -- same disregard for other people.”
At Brantley Lake State Park, Ken and Kaye helped in cleanups. Up by Seven Rivers there were cattle feed lots that dumped runoff into the river. Truckloads of cattle would fatten up in warm weather before their trip to Kansas for grass feeding there.
About 2000, the feedlots shut down. But by 2004, 2005 the golden algae blooms brought toxic pea-soup color to the water then. Alarming for a couple who love to fish.
When Ken and Kaye picked up litter, they bagged aluminum cans separately. Recycling helped pay their gas out and back to the park.
Brantley staff are sure to make their bigger cleanup days festive, like a picnic. Some cleanups are half-day events. After volunteers collect many bags of trash in the morning, they share a potluck lunch with burgers, hotdogs, and side dishes.
At Brantley, Ken fashioned or refurbished carved wooden signs, nature trail placards. With Kathryn Law’s rubber templates, Ken made and installed concrete facsimiles of wildlife paw- and hoof-prints.
He affixed these alongside nature trails -- deer, fox, porcupine, raccoon. At the start of one trail, squished into wet concrete as an example of aboriginal man, are the barefoot prints of Ken himself.
He had preferred and urged for Kathryn’s smaller & potentially cuter footprints. But she refused to step into wet concrete. “What’s the problem?” asked Ken. Movie stars do it in Hollywood! No go.
Kaye sometimes staffed the park’s entrance booth, to free up paid rangers for other duties. On event days, they mentored kids in kite-flying and fishing.
In time, their charismatic fellow Wisconsin cheesehead Ken Britt moved to direct Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park. Brantley had recruited younger volunteers. Kaye and Ken were eager to bring their routine closer to Carlsbad. Living Desert gained.
At Living Desert, Ken did carpentry. He built shelving and an interpretive podium. He built habitat enclosures for Bolson tortoises. Wolves arrived in winter in need of adequate dens for the cold weather. Ken cobbled together plywood housing.
When high winds tore up the plant propagation housing, Ken worked repairing it. That’s where staff prepare wee young plants for later transplant along the zoo pathways.
Famously back then, Chihuahuan Desert bear El Patron escaped the zoo. He had to be tranquilized, recaptured, and temporarily penned in Roswell.
Together Kaye and Ken volunteered 76 days installing chicken wire over rebar. They enhanced bear habitat walls to be inescapable.
While clamping hog-rings on chicken wire, Kaye overtaxed & injured both her shoulders. 26 sessions of physical therapy and patience aided recovery.
Each May for years, Kaye and Ken helped cook vast cauldrons of beef and posole for the yearly Mescal Roast. Each April they helped set up for the Horticultural Society’s spring plant sale. They also attended docent training and helped to staff a full-moon walk.
At Carlsbad Public Library, then children’s librarian Cassandra Arnold learned of Ken’s carpentry skills. By paying for materials, the library Friends arranged for Ken to build two massive vertical display shelves, showing off children’s picture books at the kids’ eye-level. Bringing their love of books home, Ken built a street-side library box which Kaye keeps stocked.
Kaye helped the library during a “purge” when the old-to-new catalogue conversion occurred, from cards to computer. Kaye and Ken still help set up and later strike the yearly Friends’ used book sale, recently held at the Living Desert.
It wasn’t all work and no play. Out at Brantley Lake, fishing for black bass and bluegill was good in the winter. From Lake Carlsbad Ken would land big rainbow trout, 12”-14”, 1.5 lbs.
Kaye wasn’t as skilled at fishing. Before Carlsbad traffic got hectic, she would fish off the Bataan (Greene Street) Bridge. Water was so clear, you could count fish and pick the one you’d drop your line to.
The big rainbow trout that got away was in Lake Carlsbad near the current Rec. Center. Ken hooked, played, and reeled it closer to shore while Kaye waited, net in hand. Alas, some prior vandal had dumped a shopping cart into the river. The huge fish sought refuge in the turned-over cart and thrashed free from the line. It looked perhaps 18”-20”. “As long as my arm!” says Kaye.
As a teen and young man in Wisconsin, Ken had hunted deer. “When I left Wisconsin, I sold my deer rifle. Here I wasn’t tempted to hunt deer, elk, or pronghorn. I love venison, but it aggravates my gout. Especially organ meats -- the tastiest stuff, now a no-no.”
Kaye concurred. “He was raised by a good German hausfrau mama. She wouldn’t let him kill anything she couldn’t cook and serve.
Sandhill crane hunting at Bottomless Lakes used to be allowed. “Good meat in the thighs and breasts -- but the legs are too stringy, all tendons,” says Ken.
He hunted ducks along the Pecos south of Brantley, north of Avalon. “Puddle ducks, mallards, teals, pintails and wigeon. Hunting from October through mid January, limit depending on the hatch up north. Some years 3/day, some 5/day. Some years just one mallard per day.
“One year, while doing work on the Avalon dam, they flooded Brantley including fields with shallow water, excellent for hunting -- near to 90 birds that season.”
Ken dresses each bird, an ethic. “No good hunter expects his wife to pluck and prep the kill. She has the privilege of cooking, roasting.”
At age 15, Ken began woodcarving with duck decoys for hunting. Then fish decoys for spearing sturgeon. “It’s tricky to carve an effective sturgeon decoy. You gotta match size, shape, and color. Then you hollow out the bottom just enough to fill it with lead. Float the decoy, and lake currents will take hold, make it swim. Tricky. But easier to make a sturgeon decoy than to spear a live fish. “Valerie Cranston’s dad, Ray Ahlstrom, founded our Cavern City Carvers’ club. Sad to say, he passed away just three months later. He could carve horses -- not easy.” For years the group met on Wednesdays to talk techniques, share creations, and carve.
Kaye has sewn all her life, but only started quilting in Carlsbad. As a hobby it’s pricey, especially fabric. She depends on fabric donations from other ladies, mostly scraps. Once per month, Kaye co-ops with Mission Quilters. They work together to produce one cooperative quilt which they donate for a chosen cause.
Two of Kaye’s popular items are patchwork doggies and pillow cases. These latter go to Transitional Housing, and the Battered Family Shelter. She hopes that recipients will accept each pretty pillow case as a harbinger of brighter times ahead. Each patchwork pillow case needs nearly a yard of material and three hours to make.
Likewise, her quilted doggies go to the two shelters as well as the Carlsbad Fire Department EMS. When an ambulance crew arrives on scene, the stuffed animal is a discretionary comfort they might give to a distraught child.
Kaye averages one doggie per week. Over the last five years, Kaye had made upwards of 250 doggies. Some go to the Living Desert Gift Shop. Their Shop is a non-profit, after costs, with all revenues going back to the local park. The Shop is staffed by two paid clerks and a manager.
To the Gift Shop, Ken supplies canes and walking sticks that he makes from sturdy, lightweight yucca stalks. Ken used to harvest these from public roadsides. Now Dave and Kathy Hampton, Keith Fine and Ken Britt bring him raw stalks. Ken’s wholesale price to the Gift Shop covers his materials, paints, finishes, brushes, plus a handsome 38¢ per hour in wages.
Age takes its toll. Since hip surgery, Ken walks with a three-footed cane, two canes when it’s windy. Inner wind -- aerobic endurance -- is a concern of Kaye’s. That plus an achy knee have shortened her walks, and ruled out most uphill endeavors.
Both Kaye and Ken volunteer at Jonah’s House Food Bank. “It’s a good community thing to do,” says Ken. “Some people need this way to put more food on the table. So, we try to do our best.”
Among Kaye’s pastimes beside quilting and volunteering, she reads, line-dances, and plays board games with friends. Ken is a lifelong fan of the Green Bay Packers -- “the only football team in the United States!” He’s happy with new coach -- new ideas, did well his first year.
“We’re still in the game, but the game keeps changing,” says Ken. “I’d love to go duck hunting again. But I did that all my earlier life. I don’t have to shoot more ducks and geese now. They don’t crap on my shoulder. I’ve made peace with the birds.”
“So he’ll let these ones live,” says Kaye.
“I have a very good life,” says Ken. “A few medical problems. Happens to everybody. Your body’s like an automobile. Drive long enough, you’ll wear it out. Living isn’t what it used to be. I make do. Grin and bear it.”
“I would love to go hiking five miles,” says Kaye. “Barely lose my breath -- see wilderness all the way! But I also enjoy my life as it is now.”