01 December 2019

A Few Words about A Few Words

Leigh Lundin
Death & Dismemberment

I grew up among men of few words– farmers and ranchers– solitary, largely silent men who spent dawn to dark alone, feeding, farrowing, calving, cultivating, plowing, planting, harvesting and husking alone in utter quiet. They practiced what OSHA considers one of the most dangerous careers in this country.

In a profession with lots of moving machinery, injury or death could strike at any time. Even if it didn’t, exposure to toxic chemicals often meant a slow, agonizing demise.

A schoolboy and men I’ve known died under overturned tractors. Neighbors lost limbs in combines and corn pickers. One man lost both hands. A shattered transmission tore off a man’s foot. A ruptured hydraulic line sliced through the chest of another.

One time, a worker severed a hand. My grandfather ripped open his shirt. He jammed the forearm stump into the man’s bare stomach creating sort of a gasket. It bought time until he could further stem blood flow with a binder twine tourniquet.

If that’s not sufficient, airborne chaff and flour are extremely explosive. A grain dust explosion leveled an industrial railroad area in Minneapolis.

The Hits Keep on Coming

Those who worked the land could die a hundred imaginative ways– gored by an ox, trampled by cattle, thrown from a horse, kicked by a mule, attacked by a wild boar. A worker could literally drown on dry land, not in water, but in sugar.

As a toddler, I developed firsthand knowledge of georgic dangers. When adults were distracted, I nearly drowned falling through the ice of a pond. I lost my little finger in a pump accident, a mere triviality taken in stride.

As hard as the life was for men, it had to be worse for women. Men could  choose solitude or danger, choose to ignore it, accept it, or madly welcome it. For wives left alone, a tunnel of crushing boredom darkly loomed.

So I say this with some conviction:

Most writers don’t fully appreciate the word ‘laconic’.

John Deere tractor and 1-finger wave
One-Finger Wave
Greetings & Salutations

On a country lane or the lane of a state highway, one could encounter farmers atop heavy machinery, driving to where it’s next needed. With wheels 0.003 inches from sliding off the shoulder, passers-by greeted one another. They didn’t wave “Howdy,” doff the hat or make a sweeping bow.

They nodded.

If they felt particularly chatty, they raised a single finger from the steering wheel.

No, not that one. They simply lifted an index finger.

That meant, “Hi, how are you, Burt? Glad to see you. Fine, fine day for field work. Might see you later when the farrier shoes Thunderbolt. Best to Lacy.”

Melodie, Eve, and I recently discussed small towns. A fixture in many Midwestern villages was the ‘elevator’. This word could mean many things in rural areas. Farmside, it implied the conveyor that shuttled bales of hay and straw into mows, or corn into silos.

In-town, it meant the grain elevator where wagons and truckloads of corn, oats, wheat, barley, sorghum, soy beans, and rye gathered to be weighed and tested for moisture, tilted into the air and emptied into bins or rail cars.

In the city, it meant the lift in fancy-ass department stores. The term could’ve also referred to Congressman Numnutz’s shoes.

The Conversationalists

In a hardware or feed store, two friends bump into each other. Their dialogue might unfold like this:

Nod. “Burt.”
Nod. “Ed.”
A Paul-Harvey pause.
“Beaut day.”
“Sorry, I heard about…”
Nod. “Thanks.”
“The co-op.”
“I know, goddamn it.”
“Couldn’t be helped.”
Pause before fulsome burst of conversation.
“Market’s down.”
“Called loan, I reckon.”
“Goddamn Democrats.”
“Numnutz’s a Republican.”
“Oh. Goddamn Republicans.”
Lengthy rest from excessive blathering.
“Heard Ellie…”
“Don’t go spreading that.”
“Deserves sympathy.”
“Welp, wagons unloaded.”
“Give Lacy…”
“Yep. You too.”

The one man in town who did talk couldn’t be understood… by adults. Orrie’s severe speech impediment didn’t slow his chattering one wit. Kids learned what he was saying, and Orrie-talk became a secret language.

Townsmen didn’t entirely refrain from gossip. Cutting hair caused a Samson-like weakness of tongue-loosening, but even in the barbershop, rumors were contained.

The town women, my mother and grandmother among them, marveled with the wives of the barbershop and elevator owners. Mrs Unger told Mrs Callahan, “I don’t understand Dick. Three weeks ago he hears Pauline’s running off with Art Dodger and Dick doesn’t tell me. Three weeks! I ask him why, why? He just hunches over his plate and says it wasn’t his business. Well if not our business, whose is it? Why me?”

Show, Not Tell

Life on the most remote homesteads had to be terribly trying for pioneering women of any era. Alone home all day without healthy human interaction, some had to wonder if the term of solitary confinement was a life sentence.

A few husbands mastered the art of showing, not telling. On cold winter days after milking and mucking, a rancher might retire to his workshop. On their anniversary, he might emerge all tongue-tied with an inlaid jewelry box. It couldn’t offset a difficult, lonely life, but it refilled the hearts who remembered the promises of younger days.

And So It Goes

In traffic, if you see a familiar and devastatingly good-looking guy raise a single finger in greeting, you can pretty well guess who it is.

Just wave back. As Red October’s Captain Ramius might say, one finger only.


  1. Absolutely gorgeous, Leigh.


  2. A fine column. Farm life certainly wasn't and still isn't for the faint hearted.

  3. Well done, Leigh. This from a city boy. I visited a couple farms as a kid and a horse ranch where my cousins housed race horses but never worked on one. You post opened my eyes for a lot of things I did not realize. Again, well done.

  4. Absolutely! I'll never forget reading about a Texas ranchwife who spent most of her time alone because all the men were out on the range. Someone brought her a couple of chickens, and they became her constant companions. "No one will ever know what company they were for me." And for a truly harrowing tale about what pioneer life was like in the Midwest, read Rolvag's "Giants in the Earth".

  5. Leigh, there was always another side to their conversations. Those old ranchers could be very judgmental as to what they considered to be positive and negative about a person. Something on the positive side might be: "That Reynolds boy sure knows horses." And from then on, the Reynolds kid is known as a horse expert. But, God forbid that a rancher/farmer burned his weeds in the roadside ditches or in the fields at the wrong time of year, say the fall instead of spring, or the spring instead of fall. "That Smith fellow don't even know the right time of year to burn his weeds. Everybody knows it ought to be in the ..." And, if the wind came up and the fire got into the barn, then Smith would forever be known as the fellow who burned at the wrong time of year and lost his barn.

    Don't get me wrong on this. It's just the way it was. And, I actually enjoyed shoveling tons of fertilizer off a flat bed truck and into buckets to load the corn planter or scattering hay bales off the same truck in winter time to feed the cattle. Also had a great time building miles of barb wire fence, riding roundup, and working the calf brandings. I can see why those people are referred to as the salt of the earth.

  6. In my book about women in government statistics I point out a US Agriculture Department report on farm wages from, I think, 1912, that ends with a bitter denunciation of claims that life on the farm drives women insane. Apparently this was being reported in a lot of magazines and newspapers at the time. The author of the statistics report even went to the trouble of contacting the director of an asylum in one of the farm states and asked if there were more women than men there. The director said absolutely not but pointed out it would be easier for a farm man to keep his crazy wife locked up than for a farm woman to do the same with her husband. Hmmm...

  7. I spotted you the other day, Dixon! So good to see you. And thank you!

    Janice, it sure isn't an easy life, but the insidious thing is that it gets into your blood. There's even an on-line matchmaking web site for farmers and ranchers.

    O'Neil, when attending NYU, I crossed swords with an MBA grad student instructor who insisted farmers were all rich land-grabbers who thrived on government handouts and manipulated Congress. The farmers I knew struggled to survive in a landscape of iffy weather and constant debt.

    If a region has poor weather, either a lack of rain or too much rain, then crop failure results and the farmer loses his seed, land, and equiopment investment. But if a region has beautiful weather resulting in a bumoper crop, then prices plummet and the farmer watches his investment evaporate. Some farmers attempt to solve this by storing grain until prices rise again, but that avenue is fraught with problems too.

    Eve, I haven't read Rolvag, but I can understand that. This age of high-speed transport makes it difficult to understand the problem. In horse-drawn days, town might be an hour or two away, or it could lie a day or two away. The latter makes it damn difficult to socialize.

    RT, some of those neighbors could be pretty unforgiving. If a boy was on the withering receiving end, about all he could do was keep his head down and tough it out.

    One of the most daunting chores I faced was emptying a rail car of loose fertilizer by myself with nothing but a shovel and a rickety wheelbarrow. I didn't think it would be possible. I kept thinking of that mythological Greek forced to roll the boulder up the hill– Sisyphus was no sissy.

    Rob, I wonder how many husband poisonings were reported? In the many biographies and histories from pioneer times to the motorized era a century ago– Charles Major, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Betty MacDonald, even my own family histories, no one complained about hard labor or physical dangers. Like you, I think psychological challenges posed a more serious risk from loneliness to seeing one's work destroyed by a whim of Mother Nature. As Janice said, pioneer life wasn't for the faint-hearted.

  8. A really great read, Leigh. I’m 100 % 2nd gen Angeleno and small towns and farm life are exotic locales for me. Thanks for shedding light on (and having fun with) that world.


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