Not long after we moved onto our country property, I thought I’d amble over and see Fred Number Two. We had just bought the property from Fred Number one, and I thought it best to get to know both Freds, since they were our new neighbors and being neighborly was, of course, one of the hallmarks of country folk.
So when I saw Fred Number Two fixing his fence, I ambled over the road to introduce myself. I’d been practicing ambling for several weeks now and had, if I might say so, quite gotten the hang of it. Men in the country don’t walk like city folk and are suspicious of those who do. A real country man walks slowly and deliberately, as if he just got back from a long ride on a horse wearing too-tight jeans (on the man, not the horse).
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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“Howya doin’? M’name’s Ben. Jes’ moved in,” I said in my best attempt to mimic the dialect of the natives.
Fred looked up from rewiring the fence that had come undone through the efforts of his ornery black stallion and gave a slight but cautious howdy-nod. He looked a bit nervous, so I thought I’d reel off a few pleasantries.
“Sure is beautiful here. My daughters just love watching your horses,” I said, forgetting to play provincial.
Fred straightened up and smiled a bit. “Yep. I seen ’em out there lookin’. I’m tellin’ ya’ now, y’oughta keep them kids away from th’ road. Don’t wannum t’git hit.”
I gave a cordial laugh.
“They, uh, they said you was a perfesser,” he hadded, seeming a bit tongue-tied.
“Yea,” I said, narrowing my eyes and looking off through the air of superiority now rising around me. Poor fellow, I thought. Obviously he’s a little in awe of my education and station in life. “I used to teach full-time, but I only do it part-time now. I quit so that I could write full-time,” I added, glancing to see what effect my even more majestic status as a writer would have upon him. Professor and writer! No wonder he’s acting the sheep! “Got a book coming out soon,” I couldn’t resist adding.
“Hmph,” he grunted, raising his eyebrows in admiration.
Well, we talked a bit more, said our see-ya’-laters, and parted ways, I to my humble abode and he to his fence. Quite forgetting to amble, I strutted back over, inflated with a glowing sense of self-importance. I did not as yet see the various falls, each in its own season, that would soon goeth after my pride with a vengeance.
The good Lord sent the first pin to begin the painful process of deflation in the form of a riding lawnmower. A riding lawnmower is the horse of the modern country dweller, and the large yard is his perpetual summer grazing trail. Young men learn to ride early and to tear apart and rebuild, with loving pleasure, these great machines, treating them with an affection that, in a previous age, was lavished on the family steed.
I didn’t want to get one. I had always used an old-fashioned motorless push mower on principle — actually, on two principles. First, as far as technology goes, I’m a bit of a Luddite, preferring for the sake of living a simple life to cling to the lowest mechanical rung. Second, motors of any kind are, to my unmechanical mind, terra incognita rather than terra firma. Blessed with an acre-and-a-third of grass, however, I knew I had no choice but to throw such principles to the wind. So I bought a rather lugubrious looking used Cub Cadet at an auction and led it home to graze my fast-growing pasture.
The next day, I filled her with gas, gave her a reassuring pat on the withers, saddled up, and turned the key. Black smoke curled out from the steed’s teeth, and I was off, putting her through the paces, riding and humming a tune. Three times around the lawn, and the wretched machine coughed, backfired, and died. No amount of coaxing or suppressed cursing could bring her to life. Within minutes, dark clouds of insult, which had blown in from the north, began to rain on my injury. I called my son, put the mower in neutral, and we pushed it through drenching sheets of rain the length of the lawn back to the shed.
“Looks like the perfesser got himself a push mower,” I imagined Fred saying as he gazed happily out his front window.
The next day, after the rain dried sufficiently, I led the insidious nag out of the stable and started her up again. Jamming her into gear, I roared out of a cloud of black smoke and attacked the unbitten grass at full speed. Three times round the yard, and she sputtered to silence.
I de-saddled and lifted the hood. Just as I feared: parts, and lots of them. I bent over the engine, hoping to find something clearly marked, “Put me back in that slot,” or better, matching color-coded pieces, one brightly colored set of which had rattled loose. To my evident distress, there was just an indiscriminate scree of grease-smeared tanglements, tubes, and whatnots. I poked around disconsolately, waiting for inspiration.
“Stallin’ out on yuh, is’t?”
It was Fred Number One. Sensing that I was drowning in my own ignorance, he had materialized to see if he could throw me an anchor.
“Yea,” I drawled, forcing a smile out through my embarrassment.
“Sounds t’me like the car’brater’s chokin’. Did yuh check the sed’min pan? M’be yuh shud spray out yuh valves, or m’be it’s jes th’ fuel lahn or filt’r. I know som’times ittle drag back th’ car’bn intuh th’ filter, and then ittle sputter out on yuh like that.”
I blanched as I tried to follow this incomprehensible stream of mechanical wisdom, my manhood draining out of me like oil from a bad gasket. I emitted a pensive sounding “Hmmm” to buy time as I scanned the engine, hoping to hear a “Psst, buddy, over here! I’m the carburetor.”
Feeling the hot mordant of humility fixing my reddening cheeks, I remonstrated myself inwardly: “What man does not know what a carburetor is? Art thou not a man? Apparently notteth. Nay, thou art a merest boy. Oh sickly, feckless waif, where shalt thou find feck? Whence did thou . . .”
“Well, did yuh check th’ car’brater and th’ sed’min pan?” Fred said, interrupting my hidden inner turmoil. “Yuh better check th’ fuel filt’r, too.”
Time dilated as I tried to cobble some manful answer. In my frantic imagination, I leaped upon the seat of the Cadet. “Frederick, you perhaps are not aware that nearly half of my dissertation was in Greek, and the other half was in even more impenetrable English. I have translated the Latin convolutions of that inestimable orator and statesman Cicero, I have waded valiantly through Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, I have dwelled in the solemn and sacred inner recesses of Euclid, and I have followed Dante from the depths of cold and unrepentant hell to the spiraling glories of Paradise. These things have I done, and more. Not once, in all this, did I ever encounter a carburetor, and I have been the better for it.”
But time deflated just as quickly, as my imagination was doused by the cold reailty that I publicly failed question No. 1 on the country test for manhood. “To tell the truth, Fred,” and, oh, how humiliating a truth it was to confess, “I don’t know what a carburetor is.”
“Here, lemme show yuh. This here’s th’ car’brater.” He began his lesson with a barely suppressed smile, enjoying the pathetic, whining sound of hot air being let out of the perfesser. So I became a child, for every boy in the country learns early on the great mysteries of motor repair, and I had come, by country standards, about 35 years late in life to my lesson.
The second lesson in humility was administered in several painful doses at the local feed store. Now I do know a thing or two about gardening, as my wife and I have had a little garden wherever we have lived. In contrast to my pitiful and unmanly ignorance of mechanics, I felt fairly fluent in the language of the gentleman farmer. Indeed, we’d been successful in a combination of mulching and a French Intensive gardening method, so I even considered myself a notch above the natives.
The local feed store in any small, rural town is where the real men hang out, and Scroomby’s Feed and Seed was no exception. Not only did it stock the basics for the gentleman farmer and the hardware and tools for light household repair, but it had a coffee counter up front where the cream of the town’s old guard gathered for daily ruminations on politics, the weather, and the sorry state of the nation.
Not long after my aforesaid humbling I decided that a trip to the feed store for some mulching hay would restore some measure of peace to my damaged pride. I pulled into Scroomby’s unpaved lot, stirring a respectable cloud of dust with my Ford F-150, the standard truck of the country-dwelling male. I ambled slow-like through the open front door, surveyed the interior, and nodded my hello to the line of coffee-soakers bellied up to the counter.
“How c’n I hep yuh t’day?” asked a rather grizzled, flop-hatted man I took to be Scroomby himself standing sentinel over the register.
“Oh, jus’ thought I’d bed down my garden,” I said carelessly, acting the native as best I could. “How much are those bales of hay you got out front?”
The java-inspired conversation immediately stopped, the men turning slowly toward the front, looking at me as if I were wearing a diadem, tutu, and pink slippers.
“Hay?!” Scroomby gazed at me, unable to fathom how so much stupidity could be condensed within so small a frame. “We hain’t got no hay. That’s straw.”
I nervously adjusted my faux pearl diadem and hiked up my tutu a bit. “Yea, uh, how much is a bale of straw?” I asked, trying to force a masculine tone out of my tightening throat, unhappily causing my voice to sound instead like Truman Capote on helium.
“Three dollars a bale,” said Scroomby, scratching his craw.
“I’ll take four.” I handed him my money, bid a hasty and defeated adieu, loaded the bales, and drove off determined not to suffer such a scorching again.
Now every country boy knows the difference between hay and straw. As a lad, I had sung about turkeys, some of which were, for reasons that presently escape me, in the hay while others preferred straw. Unfortunately, this hadn’t been enough to bring out the subtle difference between the two. I didn’t dare ask the Freds, either, so I took an academic tack instead:
hay (hā) n. [ME. Hei < OE hieg (akin to G. heu) < base of OE. Heawan, to cut (see HEW)] 1. Grass, alfalfa, clover, etc. cut and dried for use as fodder.
straw (stró) n. [ME Stra < OE. Streaw, akin to streawian: see STREW] 1. Hollow stalks or stems of grain after threshing, collectively: used for fodder, for bedding, for making hats, etc.
“Ahhh,” I sighed with relief, looking up from the dictionary. “So that’s the difference.”
Unfortunately, this mere onetime academic exercise was woefully insufficient to pound the difference into my all-too-forgetful professorial skull, and so it was guaranteed that the next visit to Scroomby’s would reap an even greater harvest of embarrassment.
“I’ll take a coupla bales of hay too,” I said absently, as I shoved an assortment of screws and bolts toward Scroomby to be weighed.
Sudden silence, as Styrofoam cups were lowered to the counter. Scroomby looked at me as if I were dressed like Carmen Miranda.
“Hay?!” he winced, pained at my invincible ignorance. “We hain’t got no hay. That’s straw.”
“Straw, I mean,” I said in woeful defeat, realizing I had come intellectually unprepared. I paid, adjusted the fruit basket on my head, and slunk out, careful not to catch my heels on the door ledge and vowing through clenched teeth never to make that mistake again.
Luckily, I happened upon a plan as I bounced over the back roads to home. I am, I confess, not altogether ungifted in regard to waxing poesy; indeed, as far as poesy goes, mine is some of the waxiest. Give me a few words, the slimmest inspiration, and I can toss together a sweatless rhyme in three barks of a doggerel. By my very wits, I would make sure never to be caught haying straw again.
The muses did not disappoint: Even before I pulled into my own driveway, they poured an admirable mnemonic ditty into my soul:
When aphids crawl in heat of spring,
And garden’s straw henceforth ye bring,
Do not seek hay at Scroomby’s Feed
Let this be your manful creed.
Marvelous! Foolproof! I would simply practice this delightful quatrain until it was carved upon the walls of my soul.
We had a rather large garden, and a fresh mulching between the rows meant that I was soon enough ready for a trip to Scroomby’s — a triumphant trip, I wagered. I sang the lines over and over, as I bounced down the road in the Ford. Light of heart, I pulled into the gravel lot and ambled straight in, fairly dripping with confidence.
“Hey, bud! How’r ya’ doin’ t’day?” asked Scroomby cheerfully as I approached the counter.
“Hey there!” one of the coffee-soppers added.
“Hey, what’s up?” a second and third chimed in.
“Huh?” I clouded over, the sun of my confidence eclipsed by unforeseen confusion. I fumbled about in my febrile brain for the lifelines of my poem. “Uh . . . I need a couple of bales of . . .”
They all sat there like cats, waiting with their tails twitching for the mouse to move. Unnerved, I suddenly gushed out:
Hew the hay, and strew the straw
When aphids of the leafies crawl;
Scroomby’s has your every need,
Hay’s the one without the seed.
I looked down the line of men at the counter and watched in slow motion as eyebrows raised and heads gave a barely perceptible shake. White cups were lifted as eyes politely shifted away from the carnage at the counter.
Scroomby gazed at me thoughtfully for a half-minute, tracing the telltale phrenological lines of insanity on my sweating forehead. “So . . . what’ll you have?” he asked, breaking the torture of silence.
I watched in horror as I pushed the word “hay” over my teeth and out of my mouth.
“Hay?!” Scroomby leaned forward. “We hain’t got no hay. That’s straw.”
Disconsolately, I paid, put my money back in my petticoat, tightened the strings on my bonnet, gathered my skirts, and shuffled out. “A thousand curses on the gift of the muses,” I muttered ungratefully as I loaded the bales.
Long before we actually made the move to the country, I had decided that I was going to have no part of a chain saw. I hated the horrid noise, and to be quite frank, I was also afraid of its savage, unforgiving teeth. No such noisesome beast for me. I would seek the simple life, sawing wood the old-fashioned way, with a most marvelous piece of pure engineering: the two-man crosscut saw.
I leafed through my Lehman’s Old-Fashioned catalog, filled with visions of zizzing meditatively with my strapping son, effortlessly slicing off log after log as we drank in the pure forest air. And there it was, on page 47, item number 3357. I eagerly read the description, a convert before even a word was preached.
“A hand saw is a lot slower than a chain saw, but it’s also a lot quieter, lighter and there are no noxious fumes.” Exactly. “It runs on the power you generate, not some gas guzzling engine. Listen to the sounds of the woodlot while you cut!”
Precisely! Yes, I could see that the catalog and I were of one placid mind. Wasting no time, I called right up to place my order.
“So, how frequently do you have to sharpen these things?” I asked the man on the other end.
“Oh, about every time you go out, depending on how much you cut,” came the reply. “But, I’ll tell ya’. Lotta folks get this saw, and use it a coupla times, then it’s back to the chain saw, if you know what I mean.”
“Ha!” I unleashed a derisory snort. This man obviously didn’t know to whom he was speaking. “Don’t worry. That won’t happen to me,” I informed him.
The saw came in about a week, a marvel of engineering. Glorious rows of keenly beveled cutter teeth, interspersed with ingenious rakers designed to clear the chips from the gash. I gazed over the manual, the cover of which showed old-time loggers — men with serious mustaches, mind you! — leaning in cross-armed confidence against a half-vanquished trunk. I pictured myself among them, felling prodigious timbers as we cleaved the air with hearty laughs and filled the woods with manly working songs.
My son and I got up early the following Saturday. After a breakfast fit for such loggers as we, we headed out, sporting our new saw, to give our mettles a test. We planned to cut a thin slice off a fallen locust to use as a base to hold our Advent candles. After that, I thought we’d keep sawing a while, accompanied by the mellifluous sounds of the woodlot, until we had about a truckload for the woodstove.
The late autumn air was sharp. Just the right bite of cold for such delightful work. As we unsheathed the great weapon, the words of the salesman seemed to drift in on the wind, curl around my confidence, and whisper, “Lotta folks get this saw, and use it a coupla times, then it’s back to the chain saw, if you know what I mean.”
“Ha!” I returned the challenge. “Ha, I say, Ha! Ha, to the west wind! To the east, Ha! To the north and south, I say again, Ha! You’ll soon see who’s the luftmensch — if you know what I mean!” Having sufficiently ha-ed the doubting whispers into submission, I took up the saw, and we commenced.
Now you city folk are undoubtedly as ignorant about the different kinds of wood as I was. There are soft woods and hard woods, and everything in between. As it turns out, sawing a locust tree with a crosscut is more or less akin to trying to hack through a steel flagpole with a wedge of cheese (the respective sharpness of the cheese notwithstanding).
After about ten minutes of my son and I dragging the blade across the locust, I noticed that my heart was actually on the outside of my body, beating like a dancing jackhammer about a cubit in front of what was left of my chest.
“Let’s take a rest,” I wheezed. As my heart receded back to its home, I examined with some chagrin the slight nick on the log our labors had yielded.
“Lotta folks get this saw . . .” a bird chirped as it alighted on a nearby branch.
“Ha,” I coughed, and we took up the saw again.
About an hour later, lathered from cap to boot with sweat, I called it quits. With no little regret, I eyed our humble pile: one slightly crooked slice, and two meager logs for the fire.
Yet, I would not give up, and my son and I did have some success sawing through less adamantine lumber. But, humility upon humility, as the weather turned, the woodpile disappeared far more quickly than our meager efforts could restore.
I swallowed the bitter prophecy and bought a chain saw.
Like many first-time homesteaders, our ideas about what it meant to live on the land came from reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Charles Ingalls, Laura’s redoubtable, flapless father, was my model of countrified manliness. Building a house with his own hands, making furniture from slabs of freshly hewn oak, tilling the good earth with plough and oxen, playing the fiddle as his children drifted off into gentle sleep, and always ready to square-jaw any danger and distress with cheerful, decisive action. A man’s man indeed.
Well, we did build a log cabin, but my own hands were busy typing out a living, and so I was unable to hoist even a single precut timber into place. I did strip and refinish a cabinet, but the rest of the furniture came from yard sales. We were able to put in a garden, but the closest I could get to fiddling was humming Marian hymns to my newest little girl, as I tried to settle her late-night hysteria enough so that my wife could nurse her.
Dangers? There are wild animals all around, but not dangerous ones. I redirected a rather inquisitive skunk one night. I chucked a rock at a groundhog bent on sampling the garden. Nothing to cause the chest to swell.
But quite unexpectedly one cold winter afternoon, I was called to duty, a bona fide test — the kind of thing that you read about but that never really happens to anyone you know.
I heard screeching from up in the clearing . . . epic shrieking. I looked out the window and saw the dark, fleeing form of one of my daughters. Scanning the horizon for the cause, I saw two menacing wolves, wild dogs, coyotes — some kind of fiendish canine — bolting after my little girl. Those of you who have never experienced such a vision cannot understand how horrifying a sight it is to see 50 or 60 yards away one of your children pursued by a wild animal.
Now I confess, I was still more of a professor that a homesteader, and that meant my first impulse was to think about the situation, taking time to weigh the best plan while I put on my hat, coat, and boots. With some violence, I beat down this impulse and frantically asked myself, “What would Pa Ingalls do?”
“Idiot!” I answered. “He’d rush without hesitation out of the house and into the snow, even if he were in his long johns and bare feet, grab the nearest hefty stick, give chase to those savage animals, and beat them into next Thursday. Then of course, he’d come back whistling a restorative kind of tune, carrying his daughter on his broad shoulders.” So, against every ingrained habit, I leaped out of the house as I was and went careening down the hill.
I soon realized that, unlike Charles Ingalls, I happened to be wearing my fluffy house slippers at the time. Thus, instead of manfully galloping after the evil creatures, I whooshed spastically down the hill, spinning and waving my arms like a drunken ice skater shot out of a howitzer. After flapping ungraciously to the bottom, I desperately searched the ground for a stout cudgel fit for slaughter. In stories, cudgels always lie about conveniently, scooting into position just as danger arises. In real life, utterly inappropriate sticks and unmanageable logs, sensing desperation, crowd around like a flock of pigeons seeking food.
I seized the best of this bad lot, and sprang up the hill ahead, trying to reach my screaming daughter. It was in trying to run up an icy hill that I was thoroughly introduced to the etymology of “slipper.” Most of my head of steam was wasted on cartoon-fashion, violent running-like motions only slightly more effective than crawling.
Desperately, I looked up from my labors, expecting to see that, in my ridiculous delay, the wolves were now shredding the life from my daughter as I helplessly sought little islands of friction. It was then that I noted that the wolves were actually Fred Number One’s two beagles, who had taken some time off chasing rabbits to have some fun running down hapless children. They were not exactly bloodthirsty in intent. They just wanted to chase something that would scratch them in return. I felt like scratching them with my ersatz cudgel, but I realized that, in the end, visions of beagle bludgeoning arose from the frustrations of my own well-dowsed pride.
So there you have it, friends, the defenestration of pride. To speak the truth, I have related only very few of the many lessons forced upon me during this year in the country — enough to allow the reader to savor the four seasons of humiliation. Painful as the furnace of mortification may prove, it’s just such searching fires the dross of pride needs for the gold of humility to appear. And perhaps I shall write a longer work on this very subject someday, mindful of course that, as a Mr. Franklin once said, “Declaiming against Pride is not always a sign of Humility,” but hopeful all the same that “whoever humbles himself will be exalted.