RAMBLINGS • I Could Have Done Worse

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While talking to a friend a couple months ago, I realized that the students graduating from high school two months ago probably weren’t in school at all when I last stalked the halls of HHS as an instructor. 

I had already realized most of those with whom I taught were also retired, and my left knee leaves no doubt I’m well along in the aging process. My youngest granddaughter, Kamryn, was only two when I retired; now she’s a confident soon-to-be 17, and her older sister Kaylyn, who was an incoming freshman when I hit the out-the-door button, has Emma, a soon-to-be two-year-old who made me a great-grandfather. Watching the grandkids mature, including Kyle who will be 24 this September, has been one of the joys of my retirement. Although we have shared moments that weren’t joyous, I’m grateful for the time I’ve had since 2007 to be a doting grandparent.

But the conversation with my friend, who doesn’t see the kids often and was amazed to hear how old they are, also spurred thoughts about what I’ve done with myself over those same years. I’ve held various jobs, of course; I grew up trained to value work and hope to contribute something of value to society until I no longer exist. When my mind goes, though, as it inevitably will, society will have to take care of me. I don’t look forward to that.

I’ve been a reader for about as long as I can remember; I started in the first grade when I was five. Rural Rayne Township, PA, didn’t have pre-schools or kindergarten, nor did education readiness tests exist at any level. If one were to turn six in the calendar year, he or she was put on the yellow bus in late August. My birthday is in mid-November, so I was probably the youngest of 25 or so urchins in Mrs. Schaefer’s first grade class. In retrospect, that didn’t hurt me academically, but I suspect it explained some of the social awkwardness I felt through high school. My sister, born two years and three weeks later, was also the youngest in her class. She was better behaved than I, though, and didn’t receive the behavioral corrections that I did. (Paddlings were administered freely to miscreants then.) As a result of our early starts, we both were 17 when we graduated while most classmates were 18. For Janet that presented employment problems, but Dad had no qualms about maintaining his son’s work schedule on the farm, no matter the age. That was good for me, physically and mentally, so it isn’t a complaint.

No doubt several of my idiosyncrasies bothered my father, but two resonate yet in my memory. A serious, no nonsense man by economic necessity as well as by inclination, he had no time for recreation, especially if it had anything to do with athletics. He would take time to hunt, but he justified that because venison supplemented our food supply. However, if I tuned the radio in the barn to a Pirate broadcast while we milked, he’d be quick to turn it to a local station “so we can hear the weather forecast.” 

He was also adverse to my desire to read–newspapers, magazines, books were pretty much foreign to him. A sixth-grade dropout, he wanted me to have a high school diploma so I’d have that advantage in the job market (he knew long before I that a 20-25 cow dairy operation couldn’t support two families.) That I continued to buy books to read after I had graduated because I liked them (Jesse Stuart was a favorite then) was beyond his comprehension. Pre-Judy, I hadn’t seriously considered college, but I devoured the local paper (The Indiana Evening Gazette) and most any magazine I could put my hands on. He didn’t.

Since retirement, especially from my adjunct job at Lincoln Land in late 2015, I’ve had more time to read. I suppose I average a book a month or so, and I read a wide variety of titles–names that are recommended by someone on television or in AARP, the magazine. (That was an organization I didn’t anticipate joining because my late father-in-law recommended it so highly, but now I await its publications with anticipation). If Dean (or Judy) watches over me, they are happy to see that, and I believe they do.

A book I finished in late March was Centered, by Jason Brown, the ex-St. Louis Rams professional football center who left the game and a very high salary to buy a farm in North Carolina. In part he made the move to save his marriage and because he felt a call from God to raise crops to feed the hungry; much of his produce goes to food pantries and homeless shelters in the poverty-stricken areas of the state.

Brown is steadfast in his Bible-based, fundamentalist faith. In contrast, I’ve questioned my faith a great deal during the pandemic. He has what I consider to be a simplistic view of the world. It’s similar to a view I had when I was 20 or so, before the cynicism about how society works appeared in my world view. Yet Jason Brown and I share comparable values.

For me, as I grew up working the land with my father and later as part of the work program at Warren Wilson Junior College (in North Carolina) and at Berea (in Kentucky), I recognized the value of sweat equity before it was called that. It felt good to be in the sun, purified by sweat coming from honest labor, to be knowledgeable about animals, crops and equipment. A combination of a romantic (in the literary sense) and a pragmatist, I enjoyed farm work and farm life; I wanted whatever offspring I would have to enjoy those experiences.

Brown grew up in Baltimore with an absentee father (he worked as a landscaper in D.C. to support his wife and sons). He knew nothing about farming (except as a helper in his father’s crew in the summer); most of his sweat was on the football field where it and his work ethic earned him a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where he became an outstanding lineman on a relatively weak team.

He became wealthy when he signed as a free agent with the Cardinals after beginning his career with the Baltimore Ravens. His wife was a dentist, so they were never destitute.

Judy and I both taught after leaving Blackburn. She supported me on her teacher’s salary for a year and a half until I graduated in 1969. She took home maybe $6,500 per year, but that was princely to us in the late 1960s.

Brown had a fortune but a miserable life when he quit football to buy his large farm when he was told by God to do so. Judy and I were poor when we bought 80 acres of poor land because I wanted to do that. Judy was pregnant with Dawn at the time, and we both wanted a nest.

For me it was the American Dream come true. The house was tiny–a kitchen with a bathroom (shower only) off that kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom. It also had a porch, which Judy’s dad and I converted into a mud room on the left hand side and a nursery on the right with material bought from Landers Lumber and/or McDonough Supply. (Dean couldn’t believe we were in the middle of nowhere with a supply store the nearest place to shop–I think that made the place more acceptable to him.)

I built a white picket fence so the girls (Jenni arrived 20 months after Dawn) would have a safe space to play even if one of the farm critters turned too frisky–we had a pair of sows that were protective of their small piglets when/if the girls tried to catch them. We also had a female dog, Buttons, who would climb onto the cistern cover and then jump into their play area to protect them when they were out. The property also had a barn and a farrowing house when we bought it; the property line began at the end of a lane (built over a strip of land granted to the property owner for access) which meant we always knew when visitors were coming.

The first year a neighbor rented the 20 acres or so that were tillable; I planted seedling Scotch Pine Christmas trees on a south facing hillside as a cash crop to be. (At the time Indiana County, PA, claimed the title of Christmas Tree Capital of the World, and I knew the business because I’d begun planting and shearing (shaping) Christmas trees on Saturdays and in the summers when I was 12). My uncle, Judy’s dad, and Mary Alice’s dad all had patches of trees and no knowledge of a minimum age for those they hired–a willingness to work quickly, to keep up with the crew, were the only requirements.

By the second year on our farm, I’d bought a WD-45 Allis Chalmers off a used car lot in Vandalia; it came with a three bottom plow, and I replied to a classified ad in The Hillsboro Journal to find a two row corn planter in a pasture on Seven Sisters Road, so I began to farm.

Brown said he was called to farm by God. He also had financial planners who weren’t working in his best interests, so he lost his fortune before he was aware his planners weren’t fiduciary. He prayed and prayed, and by God’s grace was able to keep the farm. The trip from wealth to poverty was jarring.

Evidently I wasn’t called to farm. I know now I was called to teach and coach. Even though I enjoyed the life style that Rural Route 2, Fillmore, presented me, I wasn’t a good farmer, not even as a hobby. Planting time worked out if I did the work on weekends, but the weather had to be right. Harvest was a disaster because I didn’t have harvesting equipment, and the neighbors who did wanted to harvest their own crops first. I understand that. The few farmers willing to do custom work (there were more than a few when I was a lad) didn’t want to bother with 20 acres on small plots; there wasn’t enough money in it for them. I understand that too.

Dawn was nearing school age, and we were in the Vandalia School District, a long ride for a tot. I was more involved in school activities (football stats., the school newspaper, checking papers) than I ever anticipated, so my time to farm was short. Judy was feeling isolated with two small children, a third on the way, and no driver’s license; and I was insensitive to her fears, assuming all would work out. 

At one point I ran out of corn while feeding our two litters of pigs and had no money to buy feed; George Blankenship (father and son) baled me out by selling me a wagon of shelled corn with payment delayed until the hogs were marketed. Then came a problem with our closest neighbor. I could have solved it with a gun, but that would have ended my teaching career even if a jury ruled it justifiable homicide.

Brown prayed about his problems. I didn’t, though I suspect Judy prayed enough for both of us. God did nudge us to change course, though, so we moved to Hillsboro. For a few years I hoped to retire back to the farm, but life changed for the better, especially for Judy and the girls, when we moved to my present house in 1974. I can’t believe it was nearly 50 years ago, and I’m still here.

The kids and grandkids didn’t have to endure long trips to school; they were better off as “townies.” Judy was much better off; she could have friends. I could walk to work and church when I needed to. When land prices soared, we sold our acreage. I felt a pang or two inwardly, but I had other concerns with which to deal. We had moved from poverty to relative security, the reverse of what happened to the Browns.

Perhaps once or twice a year I drive by the farm, but it’s lost its charm for me. I do have ties to the general area, though. Judy and our two premature babies are buried in Green Hill Cemetery, and I’ll join them there when God is finished with me here.

I could have done worse.

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