What We Really Lose
by Brandt Ainsworth of Franklinville, NY
My Old Man has done some living. He was born just in time to grow up in the Great Depression, at home, on the Cryder Creek in January of 1928. The exact day is confusing because his birth certificate has it wrong. It seems after the 12 pound baby was born, and his Ma kicked the Doctor to the ground in the process, his Dad didn’t make it to town for a few weeks. When he did make it to town to register the new baby; he forgot his birthday; thus the birth certificate is wrong, (that slip also set the lifelong tone for the relationship between my Father and Grandfather). Whatever day he was born, he went on to live life to the fullest, as he accumulated stories far and wide from his vast and unique experiences.
A few minutes with my Old Man will bring you stories Hollywood could never write. Stories of driving the canned milk to town at age 12 in the family pickup, not having a car to drive, driving new Cadillacs, eating home raised meals, eating at the Four Seasons as Presidents walked out while he was walking in, farming with only horses, then new tractors, then big tractors, then not farming, then doing it again with 50 year old tractors, then once more with no tractors. My own favorites are of him hitting home runs, scoring more individual points on the basketball court than most teams, dating his school teachers while in high school (he graduated valedictorian at 16), dating lingerie models, and stories of his hunting dogs and logging characters of the old days. The Old Man (as my brothers and I call him, and as he calls himself ) has been shot by a gun, shot at by other guns, twice stabbed with a knife, and twice (same day) struck by lightning. Let me say that again, so you don’t think I made an error; he was shot with a gun, stabbed with a knife, and struck by lightning. If that has happened to anyone else, raise your hand. If he was a hip hop artist he would carry tons of street cred.
However wild and exciting the stories are, there is one that I hold closest. This simple story says so much about people, our rural culture, farming, changed times, friends, family, and community. No guns, no runaway teams, no lingerie models; just a story of two farmers doing what they do.
Paul Day was an old fashioned farmer. The world was full of them in the late forties. He was as old in those days as my Old Man was young. Paul had a farm in West Union, NY until the house burned. After the fire, Paul moved to the Wellsville Gully just outside of Whitesville, NY (even today West Union and Whitesville are very rural and remote communities in Western New York on the Pennsylvania border). Paul kept about 50 acres in West Union after the house burned, and hauled what he raised to the Wellsville Gully farm nearly 5 miles up and down hill. Since everyone in those days but my Old Man thought early cut hay was a waste, Paul would haul loads of loose hay all of late July, and August in the hot sun.
About half of a mile from the hay field and up a steep hill was my Old Man’s farm. By the time the mismatched horses hauled the load of loose hay to this point, they were ready for another good rest. “Helloooo,” my Old Man would holler out, drawing out the “oo” on purpose to stop the weary horses. My preschool age older brothers thought this subtle joke was a riot as they played in the yard across from the big three hip barn. Paul would stand on top of the load of hay with the lines in one hand, while the team rested, and roll a cigarette with the other as he visited about what farmers visit about, the weather, the crops, the price of milk, who had the best horses, and so on. All the while my Old Man stood in the road and looked up at Paul on the load of hay. Paul looked out into the yard, by the garden, where my older brothers played near the quiet road. He would get a reflective and serious look on his face and say; “Earl, enjoy them boys and watch out for them.” He would finish his smoke and throw it to the side, as he continued; “I lost my Ma, I lost my Dad, I lost my wife a few years back, it all hurt, but by damn nothing hurts like losing a boy.” With that said, he got new footing on top the loose hay, tightened up the lines and headed the team up the long road toward home. Those words would ring in my Old Man’s head as he crossed the road and did his evening chores in the barn.
A simple story, yet it intrigues me for many reasons. The message of love for family; a man who experienced that much loss earned wisdom. The unhurried sense of time; farmers just don’t take the time, or have the time to visit and know each other. The farming practices; who could haul loads of loose hay nearly five miles to- day? The boys playing; boys fought — not watched TV. Boys listened to the adults talk and learned; they played by the road because back then that road didn’t get much traffic. My Old Man’s point of view; he was young and had yet to feel such deep losses as Paul spoke of — he also thought he would live his life on that farm before he lived on four other farms and had several other careers after dairy farming (laying hens, bean farming, equipment sales, real estate, sheep farming, horse train- ing, and logging). Of course, most intriguing is the depth of character. They weren’t just two farmers from different generations, they were two reflective thinking men.
As I write this, that story is more than sixty years old. Paul Day’s hay field is grown up. My Old Man’s beautiful three hip barn was torn down, and the once proud house is now a hunting camp for flatlanders. The Whitesville area is still picturesque, but the dozens of small mostly horse-powered farms are now just a few modern beasts of farms. Paul Day has long since passed, but his story is still poetic every time I have my Old Man retell it.
Character. That’s what we lose as we say goodbye to so many from the greatest generation. We remember the feats, the landmarks, the jokes, even the photos. But, only those who lived through those times can really give us a glimpse of the character of the people who comprised our rural culture and built the foundation for what we often take for granted today.
We live in an information age. We have more knowledge at our fingertips than any other time before us. One can learn farming, oxen, logging, rural life from book pages, or a computer screen, but as always our most valuable source is oral tradition. A well told story can make you feel the leather lines in your hand. It gets you personal with the old hired man who knew just enough (like Robert Frost’s Silas). The best storytellers put you there to smell the furrow turn, and hear the gravel scrape across the moldboard of the old Syracuse 1442. Some even go back far enough to put you, as a child, on the lap of a civil war veteran, playing with his long, white beard.
There’s fewer to tell us tales of how far they walked to school, or teams of horses walking up onto the steps of the store in town for a treat, hired men are forgotten, the timber that was felled with axes, and everyone’s contribution to win the Great War fades. I’ve always made a study of our elders and the stories they tell. Some entertain, some inform, some exaggerate, some are sad, some are funny, but the best are revealing. They reveal both how they lived and the character of the people.
I find the real stories to have more of an edge than Rockwell paintings, or even JC Allen photos would have us believe. We were always human. Thieves, not so friendly fights, infidelity, swindlers, crime, and laziness were about as prevalent as it all is today. It gets hidden below the surface. The kind of thing you don’t hear about until your three or four stories into a session. To me, the bad with the good only strengthens the characters.
The real point is for all of us to embrace the stories our elders share, before there are none left that remember canned milk instead of bulk tanks, loose hay instead of bales, and civil war veterans. Not everyone has been shot with a gun, stabbed with a knife and struck by lightning, but each and everyone of the best storytellers make up who we are, and how we got here.