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Lessons From the Farm

February 7, 2010

Unlike most people I have met in my life, most of them did not grow up on a farm.  While farm life is incredibly hard from any perspective, it has some advantages…fresh food every day which came from the soil you personally tilled, and you actually helped to create it through organic farming methods.   Until you have had hand-cranked ice cream, home made root beer and just the organic thought that you were living close to the earth and the things that matter, you are missing one of the joys of life.  Today it is astounding to think that most of our young people – tomorrow’s leaders – have never met a cow up close and personal as they say.  They have not known the joy of planting seeds in soil which you and your dad,  and perhaps his dad before him,  tilled to get it to the point where anything could grow in it.  And I guarantee you, whatever grows in that soil will be better and bigger and more juicy than  anything you ever tasted.

Unless you have lived on a farm or had this experience, you will never be able to appreciate the people who go out on their tractors and giant machines these days to till the land, plant and harvest the crops that feed all of us.  If we had to tip our hats to two groups of people, one should be to the farmers of this country – not Archer Daniels Midland and the agribusiness people – but the mom and pop farmers who bring us wholesome food to our tables every day.  These are the farmers who  care about what we put in our bodies and do not want them poisoned by chemicals.  And of course the second group to be saluted, would be the brave men and women that keep the bad guys away from our shores, so the farmers can do what they do in peace.

At the expense of being boring – no one reads my blogs anyway – I thought it would be interesting to tell at least some of my family what it was like living with a perfectionist, who was also an organic farmer, but that was just his side job.  That would be my dad, whom I lovingly call ‘ The Old Man.’

When I was growing up in my hometown – Meadville, PA. –  which is on the snowbelt axis that gives Buffalo, NY its snowfall bragging rights, we measured snow by the feet, not by inches .  You could have snow anytime from early November to the end of April, and no one ever talked how about IF we will get snow; it was always HOW MUCH will we get?  But the people  there are very hearty humans…nothing ever suffered or was delayed that I can think of due to weather.  In fact, I believe the weather brought out the best in us.   Kids went to school, had snowball fights, built snow forts, went ice skating and sledding until dark and it mattered not, how cold it was.  Nothing could keep us indoors. Contrast that today where kids stay indoors texting, playing video games and watching TV and then we wonder why our children have problems with obesity, but that is another story.

Our parents went to work and there was no such thing as taking a “snow day” at work or school. The first day of “Deer Season” was a state holiday where the kids over 18 and all the factory workers went out to shoot the biggest buck they could kill.  To come back from the hunt with a small deer was bad; to come back with nothing at all,  was like you did not  deserve to walk on the planet with the men who knew how to kill and kill big.

If you want to know what life was like up there, rent the movie “Deer Hunter,” starring Robert DiNiro, and you will understand what the gritty underbelly of life is like around what used to be called Steel City, Pittsburgh, PA.  I have been to a dozen wedding receptions held by Italians, Polish and other immigrant families and you haven’t lived until you have been to one of them.  I have relived many scenes from that movie in true life. 

Back to the Old Man.

My dad was clearly a perfectionist, but I came to learn why he was that way.  Part of it was through wisdom handed down to him from his elders – much the way the native Indians in our country trained the next generation to take over when they went to meet the Big Spirit in the sky.  And part was due to his training as a master surface grinder at Talon where he worked.  Talon, in that day, made most of the world’s zippers, and everyone in my hometown either worked there or the railroad.  If they didn’t work there, they owned a bar, which were more prevalent than mushrooms on a prolific prairie.  One day my Old Man brought this tool part home and he talked about how he had to grind it within ten thousands of an inch.  Now that breeds perfection.  I should have known then that my snow shoveling skills would not meet up to his exacting standards.

So, to show what a perfectionist The Old Man was, we had a snow shoveling drill at my house.  When I say “snow shoveling drill,” we are not talking about lots of people shoveling. We are talking about me. My other five siblings had long flown the coop, either by dictate, or by their own preference, knowing that Simon Legree would surely kill them if they stuck around long enough.  If you do not know who Simon Legree is, then do a Wikipedia search on him and you will understand the reference.

Unless you lived in this snowbelt, just 40 miles south of Lake Erie, separating the U.S. from Canada, you do not know what snow is all about. I remember one time when the snow fell and it fell and it fell.  Prior to departing for work, my dad always left instructions for me as to the chores that had to be done on any given day.  In the summer it was “weed ten rows of corn, mow the lawn, weed the garden next to our house, feed the chickens, bring the cow in to be milked, clean the stall out in the barn, etc. would be a typical drill, unless it snowed. 

If it snowed, then it is a whole new ball game. And in the winter it snowed a lot…like 24/7. The thing that was incredible about the Old Man is that he would walk to Talon no matter how cold it was.  He had a car and there was free parking, but he chose to walk.  His co-workers would offer to take him in on very, very cold days at 5AM in the morning, and he refused.  Maybe I come from Eskimo stock,  because the Old Man was a hard ass in any body’s book.

Our mailbox on Neason Hill was about half a football field from our house, across the main artery, and I use that term loosely.  Unfortunately there was no cement walk from our house over to the mailbox.  The Old Man’s first rule of snow shoveling is “Thou shalt shovel a path to the mailbox.”  Now at this time I am ten years old,  and the snow shovel is taller than I am.  But rules are rules, so I would push my way through two, three and sometimes more feet of snow, tossing it as far in the air as I could, much beyond my own height.

What made it so hard was there was no cement walk to let the shovel slide along, so you had to scoop up the snow and then flip it as high in the air as you could.  Problem was, much of it came right back down on you due to the wind, because we are not doing this in a vacuum chamber. It was more like trying to find the spot on the grass where the snow started and then lifting up from there.  If you dug your shovel in too deep, you would be injuring the grass and then the Old Man would be on your case about how deficient your snow removal skills were and now you made the yard a mess, which incidentally, I would have to also fix in the spring.  But we got through that. 

Finally after maybe an hour, you make it to your mail box,  so the folks could walk to get their mail.  Scratch one for the kid.  But this was the easy part.  And keep in mind, all of a sudden the Snow Gods did not stop dropping their glorious white cargo on us.  Oh no, there is more to come, because what we have here is what is called a “holding action.”  I called it a “white out.”  Some would call it childhood abuse.  I mean the Russians send their worst enemies to a place called Siberia, and here I am living it and I haven’t been out of my home town.

Now, having channeled through the drifts of snow in zero degree temperature to make sure they got their bills delivered to them, it is time to attack the second part of the Old Man’s snow removal plan. This would be the Path to the Barn Technique.  If you are not a farm person, you would not know that cows get milked twice a day, once in the very very early morning, (as in before the sun comes up) and the other is at a “reasonable hour,”  meaning you are just about to watch the latest installment of The Lone Ranger.

Now for those who are uninitiated as to the ways of the farm…cows do not hang out in the barn waiting for you to come and drain their udders of their liquid elixir.  Oh no, they are typically in the most remote section of your farm.  If you have a hundred acre farm, I guarantee your cow will be eating grass at the very end of your property.  And guess what… you have to go find the cow and being it back so you can now drain their udders, something from which the cow derives no pleasure.

Think about this…you are ready to relax and you have to take a metal pail out to the barn which smells of cow excrement and try to get Bessie to give you her liquid goodness, while you pull on her udders..  She is interested in eating some golden grains from the harvest that you provided to her that day.    What she is not interested in is you pulling on her udders.  I remember many battles with Bessy and when I left that barn with a full pail of milk, which did not have her foot in it, I felt that I had really accomplished something because it was a battle every time you sat down to milk her.  You have not lived until you have been milking a cow and Bessie goes to swat a bothersome fly off her back and hits a little low which would be your face.  If you think a cow tail coming at maybe 100 miles an hour does not hurt when it goes upside your head , then you clearly have not experienced farm life.

And it gets worse…in a snowstorm someone has to carve a pathway from our house to the barn.  And I am telling you, even though that barn is only 100 yards from our house, it looks like another continent when you have to shovel against a blizzard in your face and you are not as tall as the drifts around you. This is what you call a humbling experience. 

So, off you go, tossing the snow until every muscle in your body is hurting and you have more coming down.  Sometimes it is a matter of shoveling your way to the barn and then shoveling your way back, because the snow is coming faster than your ability to clear it. And God forbid if the walk is not clear when the Big Snow Inspector comes to check your work.  After working all day at Talon, you would think he would have better things to do than to go out in the cold once again and check on my work.  Only fools would believe that, or they did not know  the Old Man. 

So I have the path to the mailbox done and the path to the barn done.  Scratch two for the kid.  Now comes the big challenge….The Driveway.  Ours was a huge and long driveway and the Old Man wanted it to be shoveled for two vehicles to get in and out even though we only had one car (talk about child abuse).  I still cannot figure that one out, but I had to do what the Old Man said.  His rules were ironclad.  So off I would go for another four hour snow shoveling drill, working until my little arms and muscles could not lift another blade of snow, but never giving up, because facing the Old Man’s wrath would be much worse than the pain I suffered from shoveling.  Keep in mind, while you were shoveling the temperature would often be below zero,  but I never thought of giving up before the chores were done, because that would definitely make the Old Man angry. You did not want to see the Old Man angry, and that is a fact.  He had a couple of gold teeth and if you saw those, you put back stuff you didn’t steal.

I remembered one of these drills so clearly in my mind, and I am sure if my dad was here today, he would not admit it, but here is what happened.  He came home from Talon and began his snow inspection tour.  He walked to the mailbox without getting in over his ankles.  Score one for the kid. Then he walked up the driveway…two lanes all cleared…score two for the kid.  Then there was the death march to the barn.  He found out that I only shoveled one blade wide on the path to the barn instead of shoveling the width of the sidewalk.  So I got dinged for that.  I remember his words to this day…he said that I would never amount to a hill of beans because I always took the shortcut…the easy way…and then he said the words that pierced my heart as a little boy.  He said I was a “quitter and would never amount to anything.” That is when I discovered that you can never please some people.  But if you do your very best, then you have no reason to hang your head.

In spite of how harsh and demanding he was, I loved my dad very much, and part of the reason is that he held everyone in my family to a higher standard.  He would not accept anyone who did not try their best; and if you tried to goof off or in any way shortchange your duties, he would be there to  remind you about the standards he had set. His bar was set very high,  and because of that, it has made me a better person.  It has also made all of my family members better people because they were trained by the Master…My Old Man.

When I joined the U.S. Army and met so many drill sergeants like my Old Man, I was ready and waiting for them.  They never asked me to do anything that my Old Man had not prepared me for. I saw the privileged kids from the big cities who could not hack basic training and many of them dropped out.  I thrived on it, because the Old Man prepared me well for the hardships of life.

In these troubled times, I wish we had more fathers like my Old Man.  He was tough as they come but underneath,  he understood what life is all about, and he was teaching a lesson to all of us who bear his bloodline.  There are very few of us who could live up to his standards, but the Old Man kept raising the bar, trying to make us better than we thought we could be.

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