It abruptly occurred to me not too long ago that I am personally acquainted with far, far more dead people than I am with live ones. That does not at all trouble me. Rather, I regard it as a curiosity that I never anticipated it. I have no idea how this realization will come to you. It came home to me when I noticed that I have recollections of things said by personal acquaintances now dead and no recollection of anything said by a personal acquaintance now alive that was worth the time expended listening to it. My wife is the one notable exception of course.
Tommy Schofield worked as the hired man when I was a lad on the neighboring farm to the south. He and his wife, a childless couple, lived in a small house down by the road. The big house was at the end of the drive far in the rear. Tommy was of Scotch descent, a tough diminutive man capable of brutal physical labor day in and day out. He was a throwback. Tommy planted his boss’s corn fields with a horse-drawn planter, the last in these parts to do so. With that rig he was a master at planting a “cross-checked” field. Some years ago I attempted a detailed explanation of that process as a sort of personal drill in expository writing with decidedly mixed results. I shall spare you those details here. Suffice it for our purposes to say that a cross-checked field is one in which the corn is planted in evenly spaced hills, three kernels more or less to the hill. With the use of rather elaborate artifices, those hills of corn are lined up in rows not only up and down the field but also diagonally across the field.
A cross-checked field could then be cultivated with a horse-drawn cultivator like Tommy’s fueled by oats or a tractor-mounted one fueled by cheap gasoline to hoe out the weeds. Those cultivators could traverse the field up and down the field or diagonally across the field thus getting at all the weeds between the hills. This was done over and over until the corn was too high for the cultivator but also safely ahead of the weeds. All of that is quaint anachronism. The seed corn is now drilled in a constant stream into rows that run in only one direction. Herbicides are applied to control the weeds and do they ever.
A well done cross-checked field also became an arresting piece of op art as the corn grew. When one drove up on a cross-checked field on the road beside the diagonal rows first began to skitter by. Then those rows quickly dissolved from view and the horizontal rows began to skitter by, a striking and pleasing visual effect.
Tommy’s manner of planting fascinated me. When I saw him at work down there, I often saddled up the pony as the pony dodged, dipped, and shuffled trying either to nip me or stand on my foot and remove another toenail. I rode to the far fence line through waves of enormous, alarmed grasshoppers to watch more closely. The very few grasshoppers out there today are puny, sickly things. Pesticides are incredibly efficient. In any event Tommy would invariably pull up his team at the fence line for a brief chat while those huge Belgians stood patiently, stock still save for their tails. He was enormously amused with that hatchet-faced, pot-bellied pony.
Tommy favored Key blue denim bib overalls above his brogans rather than hickory-striped OshKosh B’gosh overalls, the fashion extant at the time. He rolled his own and kept his flat can of Prince Albert tobacco and the papers in the bib pocket of the overalls for easy access. In the field he could roll a cigarette, for the most part with one hand, in a gale force wind. That was also a fascinating thing for a boy to watch. He noticed this on one occasion, fixed me with his squinty gaze, and delivered this as nearly as I can quote it:
Young man, one of these days you are going to decide to try tobacco. That’s fine, but do me and yourself a favor. Roll your own. These will never hurt you. Do not smoke those ready-made, store-bought cigarettes. They will make you sick.
That may not be perfect but there is no doubt in my mind that the favor to be done was framed as first to him and then to myself. Odd.
A couple years later Tommy also offered me wisdom on alcohol some days after he had gotten plastered while alone all day inside a silo with a jug of homemade. Someone had offered him the jug during a collective silo filling endeavor at another neighbor’s farm. When the dilemma was discovered at the end of the day by the other farmers on that job, there was much murmured plotting as to how first to get Tommy out of the silo–he was at that point far up there lounging in fresh silage at serious altitude–then sober him up and get him home to milk the cows without his boss discovering the state of affairs. The boss was a fierce and frightening fundamentalist Evangelical. Space does not permit the details of it, but the point is that at the age of twelve I had never known anyone who ever drank at all . . . or at the least ever around me. That was my first exposure.
I wonder whether there is or ever was any human being, other than perhaps some insufferable dweeb, who has embraced the sage advice of elders and then voluntarily implemented it in his or her own life. “Experience is the best teacher” seems to me a feckless way to put the proposition. Experience is the only teacher. I would refine that further because nobody has ever learned a damned thing from a pleasant experience. Pain is the only teacher.