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.
Men I’ve known and a young boy died under overturned tractors. Neighbors lost limbs in combines and corn pickers. One 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’.
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.
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. My best to Lacy.”
Melodie, Eve, and I recently discussed small towns. A fixture in many Midwestern villages was the ‘elevator’. This word can mean many things in rural areas. In town, it meant the grain elevator, where wagons and truckloads of corn, oats, wheat, barley, sorghum, and rye to be weighed, tested for moisture, tilted into the air and emptied into bins or rail cars.
Farmside, it implied the conveyor that shuttled bales of hay and straw into mows, or corn into silos.
In the city, it meant the moving stairs in fancy-ass department stores. It could’ve also indicated the inserts Congressman Numnutz stuffed in his shoes.
In the hardware or feed store, two friends might bump into each other. Their dialogue would unfold like this:
A Paul-Harvey pause.
“Sorry, I heard about…”
“I know, goddamn it.”
“Couldn’t be helped.”
Pause before fulsome burst of conversation.
“Called loan, I reckon.”
“Numnutz’s a Republican.”
“Oh. Goddamn Republicans.”
Lengthy rest from excessive blathering.
“Don’t go spreading that.”
“Welp, wagons unloaded.”
“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, it was contained.
The town women, my mother 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 my 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, they 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 have said, one finger only.