Who’s to Answer?
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
I wasn’t going to write an editorial for this issue. Didn’t feel like even trying. Carried that mood around with me for several days then, as I was remembering an old shaggy dog story about a farmer driving into town early in the morning to get his daily coffee and gossip at the local cafe, I remembered something basic about my assignment with this magazine.
Here’s that story: I recalled Clem Filard, the farmer, tell the judge,
“But Judy, your honor, I’ve been going into town every morning for 20 years and ain’t never once did Arvid ever stop at that 4-way.”
And Arvid just nodded his head and pointed to the new patrolman.
So the Judge turns to the uniform and says, “Officer Hasselblad, you’re new here so please allow me to explain. If Clem were to go out for 20 years and always have his old Model D tractor start, even though he knows the magneto is faulty, we wouldn’t fault him for not trying to fix the magneto now would we?”
“I don’t understand, your honor.”
The judge sighed. “You’ve heard that old adage, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it? Well here in Shuck County we have our own variation, and it goes like this – leave well enough alone, success is often fragile.”
“I don’t understand… Your honor.”
“Ok, we’ll try it your way. On Wednesday morning last – your first day of duty in our fair county, did you sit in your patrol car, at Lonely Flats Junction, with a radar gun and catch Arvid Phlegm driving cautiously through a 4-way stop sign?”
“Yes, your honor.” he said, nodding.
“And what did you do?”
“I pulled him over and gave him a written warning. It said that the next time he was caught running that stop sign he would get a ticket.”
“And, at that same time, did you happen to see a rusty International pickup go by?”
“Yes, your honor. It was Clem Filard.”
“Is he present in this courtroom?”
“Yes, your honor, he’s sitting right over there, he’s the defendant.”
“That morning, did he run the stop sign as well?”
“I, I, I don’t know, your honor. I was too busy writing the warning for Mr. Phlegm. But I did notice that as he drove by Mr. Filard was laughing and wagging his finger our way.”
“Ok, so I get the picture Officer, do you?”
“Alright, moving along. Officer, Friday morning last – please tell the court exactly what happened.”
“It was 5:30 am.”
“Excuse me, what was the visibility?”
“Crystal clear your honor.”
“Meaning, I was parked 300 yards back from the intersection, towards town, facing the intersection and I could see everything in all directions for a mile or more.”
“And what did you see?”
“At 5:35 am I saw two pickup trucks in a row approaching the Junction 4-way stop.”
“In a row?”
“Yes, your honor, the front pickup appeared to be Arvid Phlegm in his blue Ford. And right behind him, pretty close, came Clem Filard’s red International.
“What did you gauge their speed to be?”
“Maybe twenty five mph but it was obvious they were slowing down on the intersection approach.”
“Officer Hasselblad, did you see any other vehicles at that time?”
“No your honor, as I said I could see a long, long ways and there were no other vehicles.”
“Now, excuse me a minute officer. Clem, do you agree with everything the officer has said?”
“He nailed it puurfect, Judy, your honor.”
“So, Clem, how do you explain running into the back of Mr. Phlegm’s truck?”
“Well Judy, your honor, sir, I mean Judy ma’am, every morning, ‘ceptin’ Sundays, for nigh on 20 year I have followed Arvid into town for coffee and news and never once has he ever stopped at Lonely Flats Junction!”
I have friends and family that groan and look away when I tell that story, groan and look away but I can tell they still enjoy it even if only a little. In my recall, this time around, that’s the point where I found myself nodding as I remembered my job as editor; it’s to tell stories, maybe make a point or two while hopefully lightening up the moment, get us to look past our worries and all the junk, terror, stupidity and sadness of the world. And I have done this volunteer work – success or no – with enthusiasm, for a long time. But these todays the enthusiasm is sapped, drained by a thin emptiness. I have no way of knowing whether the condition be short-lived or permanent. I do know these days I come to the task of writing this particular editorial in a most peculiar frame of mind. I don’t want to bother with the assignment. I would rather spend the same amount of time working on my farming, or painting. I guess I’m just tired of writing for readers, writing with any expectation of being read. Pretty much no way to measure if the words meet with anyone anywhere. No reactions, no responses, no arguments. The engagement is missing. I hear myself thinking ‘why bother’?
Writing these editorials has been, for almost 44 years, an abstracted meeting of sorts with readers, you mostly. I could reasonably imagine that a bunch of folk, or you, read what I wrote, agreeing or disagreeing but reading nonetheless. That mental picture of someone unseen and unheard actually engaging with the ideas and notions, that was thrilling. Then, starting ten years back, fewer and fewer people took to reading anything, let alone my small efforts. And yet I kept writing and putting them in here.
So, what turned up the volume on my discontent? It’s been coming for quite a while, I think I’ve been whispering to myself about it. I found myself this morning in the midst of a terrible and tangible dream. I was in a hospital bed surrounded by strangers. They were doctors, aids, nurses plus pretend family members and pretend friends. I had no clue why I was there except that tubes came through bandages around my throat and chest. I tried to talk but no sound came out. They all looked at me with complete indifference. I tried to talk. Then I tried to yell. Then I realized what I was trying to say: “Who’s looking after my cows and my horses?” I woke myself up with sheer force. I had things to do. I’m the one responsible for the care and feeding of so many. I’m the one to answer if a need is called out. And I have been feeling the urgency to go care for my own. Then the shaggy dog story interrupted my thoughts and drug me back in:
After court Officer Hasselblad stopped at the downtown cafe for a bite of lunch and was surprised to see, sitting in the corner booth, Judge Judy with Clem and Arvid. She called out and asked him to join them.
Standing at the big booth Hassleblad said; “I’m sorry your honor, but I don’t think it would be proper to join you seeing as we were just in court on opposing sides and all.”
“Sit down, I insist. The case has been resolved. Maybe we should consider this an in camera discussion ahead of what I’m guessing will likely be a return to court on other subsequent charges.”
He sat down slowly as she turned to a frowning Mr. Filard, “Clem how’s farming these days? Were you ever able to get some hired help?”
“Oh you know, Judy, it’s ‘bout the same. I go slower but get there smarter each time. I do just what I need to do. No wasted steps, that’s my motto.” Looking straight at Hassleblad he added, “and it’s a waste of time to stop for them Lonely Flat’s stop signs when there’s never no need.”
“But, forgive me your honor, it’s the law sir.”
She changing subject, “Clem, is your son doing any better? Can he lend a hand?”
“His hand is welded to the tv controller. Don’t need him. Grandaughter Sally helps when she has time or I get backed up. Then there’s always Arvid when he ain’t causing me to run into his bumper.”
“What’ll it be folks, separate checks?” asked the young aproned miss.
“Yes, separate checks,” chimed in the officer.
“Honey, any chance you do bumper repairs?” added Arvid grinning at the waitress. Judge Judy glared at Arvid.
“Make it four specials, I gots to get back to cultivating,” insisted Clem.
“When I heard about that fight in the parking lot of the livestock auction yard, I thought of you Arvid.”
“Twernt me this time. Jim Ed Brewster got into it with that out-of-state horsetrader who sold him a runaway Belgian team. Were only right Judy, he needed to answer for what he’d done. Only way things stay upright.”
“You know better than that Arvid. That’s not the way the law works. Two people disagree like that, where life and limb are at risk, a designated third party needs to hear it all out and meter justice.”
“I volunteer,” said Clem, “I’d love to meter justice to that horsetrader.”
“You want to add your thoughts, Officer?” asked the Judge.
“Laws are laws, doesn’t matter if it’s an inconvenient stop sign or a city ordinance about disturbing the peace. If you start making exceptions things break down into anarchy right away.”
The waitress listened as she poured the coffee then chimed in. “Well, all I know is that most of them laws is as dumb as the yokels who wrote them. Without smart judges like Judy here, things would grind to a stupid halt. My pappy says, ‘ain’t a law wrote what couldn’t be found lacking’.”
“So Mr. Phlegm you say it’s about accountability? About whose to answer?” asked the coffee sipping judge.
“Yes, Judy, I do. Take these big corporations that are destroying our little towns out here on the prairie, ain’t nobody there responsible for the consequences. No liability. And most of my younger farmer neighbors have forfeited any choice because they are so darn far in debt.”
“And,” offered the waitress looking around to see where her boss was at, “these big corporate farmers are poisoning people, the planet, the air, everything. No way you can get them to answer for anything. Beside they don’t tip worth a hoot.”
“You’re a feisty little snip,” offered Clem, “where you stand on this doctor/ hospital garbage? I say they’re just as bad. It’s corporate, far as I can see. When they made medicine a for-profit business they started killing folk, making ‘em sicker, and bankrupting the little guys. And ain’t no one to answer for it.”
“Order up!” came the shout from the kitchen, and the waitress left.
“I’ve been thinking about all of this and I’ve come to the conclusion that Officer Hasselblad here is the one who should be owning up on this fender bender,” said Arvid.
“Now wait a minute, this is ridiculous. I did not break any laws, you both did.”
“Well that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it? We’re talking about who’s gonna answer for what happened? Might be several of us need to.”
“I see where you’re headed Clem.” Turning, he offered, “might interest you to know, Mr. Officer, that Clem here has already given me money to repair my bumper. But, you see, I didn’t upset the applecart, mess with the routine, throw a wrench into normal. You did when you insisted that I had to come to a complete stop at that sign regardless of conditions.”
“Conditions? What are you talking about. You ran a stop sign!”
“Calm down young man. I didn’t run it, I crawled through it. Arvid and I have had an understanding for umpteen years. Early in the morning we follow each other into town, we look both ways and if we’d seen a car we would have stopped. I was the only one also looking straight ahead that morning and when I saw you waiting to write me a ticket, I stopped immediately.”
Arvid smiles and thumps the table, “By golly, I say officer Hassleblad, the least you could do is buy our lunch.”
As the waitress set down the plates she added, “I’m just wondering whose gonna leave the tip?”
Clem responded, “I’d leave you a big tip if you could get these huge corporations to back out of our farming.”
To which she added, as a dare and without looking up, “You gonna pay my tuition? Seems like plenty of people donate money to get bozos elected, why can’t they donate to people like me who want to learn better ways to fix things?”
Arvid and Clem stretched their faces down and nodded to one another.
The judge smiled and offered, “Young lady you have given us plenty to talk about over lunch. I say we go dutch treat and I’ll take care of the tip.”
“Not so fast” said Arvid over Clem’s protestations.
It was that story that brought me to my senses. I love this publication and every single person who’s ever picked up a copy. It’s proven, we’ve proven, it will keep going for a very long time. I’m old and cranky, but I’ve no right to complain because this business has mostly allowed me plenty of time to take care of my horses and cows. And it has always given us plenty to talk about over lunch. – LRM