My father was a farmer.
Farming was at his core; it was who he was. There are many things that he did in his life but only one thing held fast. He was an infantryman during World War II. Wartime, however, never defined him. He served and when the war was done, he returned home and rarely, if ever, spoke of it again. Whenever I asked him about those times, he told me that he could not remember. Perhaps, he really couldn’t. Maybe those conflicts were isolated events which only temporarily interrupted his natural order. When the war was over, he came back to the farm and resumed his life.
He traveled, and he worked in several states. Although life carried him away from the half section near Sherman, South Dakota, he never really left. I spent my youth, it seemed, stuck to the vinyl back seat of a Dodge Polara driving slowly down gravel roads, surveying more farmland than I care to remember. This was a time before the DVD player or the hand-held video game. It is, incidentally, futile to play the license plate game on a country road in South Dakota. Such trips, however, are what one does when the driver is a misplaced farmer. It was a good time to bring a book.
When life demanded it, he left the farm and took a job in the meat packing plant in Sioux Falls. I’m glad he did. That’s where he met my mom. He was able to stay in that job, he told me once, because he didn’t have to stand on a conveyor line. Instead, he built the conveyors and the chutes and the slides to move meat products around the building for processing. Building things to bring food to table, my father, I think, always viewed his job as farming with an electric motor.
At night, he’d settle into his chair. He’d moved and climbed and welded and built enough for one day. Most nights he’d read. He liked Louis L’amour’s books, stories of individuals carving a life outside and standing up to bad guys. He cared about the welfare of the Sacketts.
He picked up my copy of Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes when I had to read it for a school assignment. It became a competition to see who could finish it first, each of us sneaking the book away from the other when the paperback would get set down. While he liked playing a game with his son, I know that he also fell into the story of Johnny maturing from prideful boy silversmith to young man patriot.
He liked books with imagery to which he could relate. In the Center of the Nation, a book set in South Dakota, contains a scene with a good-old-boy who likes to throw his empty beer cans into the back of his pickup while speeding down the highway. The driver, Tuffy, had to battle through intoxication to account for wind and vehicle speed. Success required a combination of luck, applied math and finesse. I never knew my dad to try, but I know he relished the word picture Dan O’Brien drew of the character Tuffy’s efforts. It read real to him.
As the years in the noisy plant took their toll on his hearing, he cared less for the television. My wife, Betty, and I bought him books frequently. He liked reading mysteries–enjoyed good dialogue and a clever puzzle. I thought he’d like Ken Follett’s book, The Pillars of the Earth. The detailed description of medieval cathedral building would, I thought, appeal to him. I was wrong. His disdain at the violence against women overwhelmed his interest in the architecture. I don’t think he finished it.
I’ve studied and read some about writing fiction. Many of the lessons had academic titles, but the core lessons: write a character your reader cares about, have the characters grow, give them entertaining dialogue and a story a reader wants to continue, be mindful of what readers like and, what they don’t. These lessons I learned reading with my father.
In L’Amour’s memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, he writes about his life as an autodidact, “If I were asked what education should give, I would say it should offer breadth of view, ease of understanding, tolerance of others, and a background from which the mind can explore in any direction.” I know I’m biased, but that sounds like my dad.
I don’t have to wear a suit and tie to work. I spend my day down in the basement of the jail doling out rights and setting bonds to the recently arrested of my county. They come before me in a rainbow of jumpsuits, most faded green, some striped, some red, others yellow. Each color signifies something to the detention officers and each wears poorly on everyone. Every suit, the short, tall, fat, thin, frayed or new comes paired with bright orange, plastic sliders. I don’t have to wear a suit and tie to work. It isn’t that hard to dress better or to look judicial in front of this crowd.
I wear a suit for my father. Dad knew how lawyers dressed, he’d read about them in books. My father the farmer spent a lifetime in a meat packing plant so that I could wear a tie to work. A Windsor knot is a small act of thanks I’m honored to perform.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.