Robert Louis Stevenson
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the farmer home from the field.
If you’re familiar with Stevenson’s “Requiem” you’ll have noticed I changed the last line. Stevenson’s last line is “And the hunter home from the hill.” Which rhymes much better with “will” than my “field” does.
But if you’re going to talk about my Dad, and that is what I’m doing, if you don’t talk about farming you really don’t know what you’re talking about.
Dad was a farmer, and could he farm. He taught me how to plow. One year you throw the field in, the next out. You step your lands off at both ends of the field and throw this year’s headlands right smack in the middle of last year’s dead furrows, driving a perfectly straight line while looking back over your right shoulder. That makes almost no sense unless you’ve run a moldboard plow, but if you have you know what I’m talking about. The result of that care was fields that were as smooth a pool table, ideal for growing crops.
And he did grow crops. Farmers love to cuss the weather; it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too dry, it’s too wet. But Dad grew a crop every year, and that was the difference between success and failure in the years before subsidies and revenue protection crop insurance. I remember a story Mom told me once: Dad had had a really good year, had earned money farming when nobody was earning money. He went to an accountant, the best around here, to figure out how to minimize his tax bill. The accountant studied his numbers and said, “Bon, what are you doing messing around on that farm? Go into business and you could get rich!” Dad looked at him and said, “What does a businessman, a doctor, a lawyer, do when he gets rich? He goes out and buys some land and plays at being a farmer on the weekends. I’ve already got what that rich fellow wants.”
He was a planner. Every morning we’d get up to WOWO on the radio for the farm news, and Dad at the kitchen table, a piece of paper covered with drawings and plans, rows and columns of numbers. He planned and he studied, and then if he could make the numbers work, he did it.
It’s not easy today, in the day of air-conditioned cabs, electric over hydraulic controls, to understand how hard he worked at farming. I remember Dad telling me he’d been the equivalent of around the world 3 times… on a Farmall M… at 1 1/2 mph… with no cab, no air-ride seat, no air conditioner. Auto-steer? Without even power steering.
He raised livestock like he raised crops, with care, dedication, and hard work. He fed cattle in a bank barn, and farrowed hogs in the woods. Hard, hard work.
Dad and I never talked about religion. We were of a generation and of an inclination to never talk about that sort of thing, but he told me a story once that explained exactly what he felt. On an Easter Sunday once, when I was just an infant, Mom and Dad went to church. There was an old hill farmer at church that day. It seems incredible now, but just a few decades ago there were hillbillies where we live that would come to the big city (Churubusco) only for a special occasion like Easter.
There was a preacher at the time, a good speaker, someone Dad respected. At the end of the service, as we do now, the parishioners shuffled by to shake the preacher’s hand. When the old hillbilly, dressed in his tattered but clean overalls, threadbare cotton shirt, and work boots, got to the head of the line the good preacher didn’t shun him, but didn’t make him welcome either.
Dad was a farmer. He planted seeds in the ground and saw them grow. He understood the mystery, and a church that didn’t respect that mystery, that valued a person on how they dressed or spoke, was not of the God that makes seeds sprout in the good Earth under the care of a good farmer.
When Dad told me that story years later, he didn’t articulate any of that, he just told a story of a preacher who, as we would say today, disrespected a hillbilly. It took me years with my hands in the dirt to understand what he was telling me.
In his old age Dad was hammered by strokes. Towards the end all he would respond to were stories about the farm. A day or two before he died I went in and told him about what we doing on the farm. I don’t remember now what it was I talked about, just everyday stuff; the truck getting stuck, doggone elevator cheating us on corn drying costs, looking at buying a new grain drill, that sort of thing. He didn’t say anything, but he’d look at me and chuckle or snort depending on the story I was relating.
Dad was a farmer to the very end.
He was a farmer.
There’s nothing else, and nothing better, to say.