This column appeared in the Manhattan Mercury Tuesday, November 7, 2017.
Bumping along in the passenger seat of my father’s white-over-green 1965 GMC pickup truck, we saw lightning strike one of our pastures across the limestone gravel road. Pop slammed on the brakes, wheeled around and sped toward the fire.
We turned cattle out on this grass. No grass meant skinny cows. My father was subtracting numbers in his mind as the bluestem burned. His hired man lived next to the burning pasture. They grabbed some grain shovels and attacked the flames.
At age six, I took it upon myself to extinguish the burning cow chips by stomping on them in my rubber-soled Keds. Sacrifice your sneakers for the good of the family farm.
My father was not born into farming. When he landed in Rooks County, Kansas in 1947 as a teenager, it was as far east as he had ever been. It was there he met my mother and her father, the man whom he would credit as having the single greatest influence on his life. Pop always envisioned a career on the land back in the west as a conservationist or forest ranger. After four years in the Navy and another four earning an agronomy degree at K-State, he entered into a partnership with his father-in-law and Kansas became home.
Dad would work the cattle on horseback. No cowboy, him. He rarely wore blue jeans and I don’t remember ever seeing him in a cowboy hat or pointed toe boots. Khaki work pants, a greasy ol’ khaki ballcap and lace-up work boots.
My father started a hog operation from scratch. Built a hog house on the western boundary of our farm (downwind, thankfully) and was among the first in western Kansas to artificially inseminate swine. A little something he picked up from the land grant school.
I remember tagging along when he was “fixin’ fence.” A freebie promotional canvas nail apron from the lumber yard with pockets full of horseshoe-shaped staple nails and a brown rubber-handled hammer that he used the rest of his life in his suburban Wichita garage workshop.
Wheat in the summer, milo in the fall, pasture grass, cow-calf, hogs. We had two horses, Ginger and Comanche, and a pony named Bucky. Me and Bucky went ‘round and ‘round. A combine. Two tractors. Implements. A three-quarter ton grain truck, a state-of-the-art navy blue Harvestore granary. Land and capital-intensive. Debt inducing. Operating loans from the bank secured on a handshake.
Pop died a couple of years ago. He knew the end was coming and used his last three years to re-connect with me. Purposeful conversations and reminiscences that led me to write a book about his troubled childhood with alcoholic parents. Talking about the farm, my father shared with me that despite the pride he took in his innovation, he struggled to get his head and heart around all the debt.
“One day, I was sitting on the tractor and I heard the voice tell me it’s time to do something else.”
I once told that story to a farmer friend who was my father’s age. “A lot of us hear that voice. Few of us listen.”
Pop’s instincts were pulling him toward more predictable economics. He and Mom had the courageous conversation, sold the farm, paid off the debts, and earned a post-graduate degree in education at Fort Hays State. In the summer of 1966, he accepted a job teaching 7th and 8th grade science at Brooks Junior High in Wichita.
At one point or another, we all hear the voice. It’s how we respond that shapes our lives. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
That’s where the lightning meets the grass pasture.
He was in his early 30’s with a wife and three small children. There may have been order to this life, but there was not peace of mind. There’s an enormous difference.
From the tractor seat of the red Massey Ferguson, the voice was telling him that selling the farm was a way to fulfill his responsibility as the breadwinner.
To step closer to peace of mind.