December 25, 2012
(Heads up. Consider this a PG-13 Christmas reflection—for language not nudity!)
We were sweating when he showed up. Donald and I thought we were hitting it pretty hard, but it was daddy who did the hard work. Daddy, like so many men who’ve spent their working life out-of-doors, sweated freely. We kids wondered how he could let sweat would run down his nose, ready to drip off at any moment, and go on working as if it were not there. Hard physical work mattered for daddy. He clearly knew the men who worked day in and day out with their hands and body were folk to be respected. He also understood the importance of education. Education was important for daddy for a couple of reasons. One reason, knowledge matters to the wholeness of a person. Knowledge allows the mind to break through the edges of wondering to fields of questioning. Daddy didn’t make it beyond high school. The war came along and like thousands of other young men when the war ended and he came out of the service he went straight to work. However, I grew up seeing the daily newspaper read end to end each day, an ear-marked monthly farming magazine, and books on math and science. The second reason was he understood what respect there was for those who worked physically was quickly waning. Soon society would hold those who worked a fenceline, placed concrete, framed buildings, or grew food would be financially displace in favor of those who worked in an air conditioned office. Though the physical work of daddy’s life was hard, he didn’t act as if it were. Rather, while he knew there could be too much of it for any person, hard work mattered and was good. But I digress…we were digging fence postholes in ground full of rock that summer afternoon, when he showed up.
Best I remember, Don and I always enjoyed Mr. Morton dropping by. A depression era Okie, Mr. Morton had known a hard life. A kind man with a hard edge, he made his way from Oklahoma to California after serving in the Korean War. He was and is the only man I’ve known who fit the saying, “He made millions, lost millions, and made them again.” Unlike daddy who made his thoughts known, but was quiet, Mr. Morton was loquacious and rowdy. I’d never known any adult before who could cuss six ways from Sunday, be serious, and laughing in the same sentence. He came up with some of the best off-color rural phrases, many of which I enjoy using to this day; though my community in which I can use them is getting smaller by the day. And it is from him I learned the word fuck could be used in most any sentence and can be as endearing as it is aggressive. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Mr. Morton had a fair disdain for societal norms. He was also a man who lived in a manner that one never knew his wealth, except, for the generosity he showed his children, his boots, his hat, and his Mercedes. Yet, these boots, hat, and Mercedes didn’t fit societal norms. His purchases were practical; they might have cost a fair penny, but they were practical. His boots, for instance, may have cost a bit, but they didn’t stop him from walking the cow pasture, stepping in a pile cow shit, cussing out the cow for shitting in that particular spot, and go right on telling a story and laughing without giving those shit cover boots another thought. The same held true with the Mercedes. More than once Don and I found ourselves in the backseat with his boys bouncing across a pasture after one cow or another with Mr. Morton cussing both the potholes and the cow he was trying to corral—For Mr. Morton, leather is leather and it made a lot more sense rounding up a cow sitting on a leather seat than the leather of some persnickety horse. On this particular afternoon as Don and I watched him drive across the dry dirt field, we smiled because we knew this rambling freewheeling Okie and our restrained west Texan daddy would shoot-the-bull for a while. This meant we’d get break from the work, and maybe, a story that would put mamma on edge—should she know! Worst case, we’d get time to kick-back, talk about whatever ten and eleven year-old boys talk about, and throw stones at the rock beneath the sagebrush.
Mr. Morton never called before he came by the place; he just showed up. Of course the same held true when daddy visited him. This was a relationship, which, though both homes had one of those black rotary phones, with a handset in the cradle, and a dial with black numbers, there were few phone calls between daddy and Mr. Morton. I think it had a lot to do with being depression era children. Being a time when of few phones in rural homes, neither daddy nor Mr. Morton had home phones. This lack of phones meant, neighbors just showed up. Not all visits were a surprise though. Folks often arranged a visit the last time they were in town or at church on Sunday. But so very often, visits occurred because a neighbor was walking, riding, or driving by the place and they had a minute or two to drop in and say hi. Those spur of the moment visitations created relationships and communities that, for the most part, are lost—After all, unique relationships develop when folk just show up, because, there is little telling what you might be in the middle of…maybe fence building, but then again, those rural farming families of eight, nine, or ten were not all created at night!
Any longer, though, few folk just show up. In our rural landscape, we watched the rotary phone with its curly tail plugged into the wall, become the push-button phone, which then became the cell phone. By adulthood, my generation was very adept with the phone and it became normal to call your neighbor before just dropping by. Unlike Don and I, our children seldom got a break from chores with daddy because by the time Mr. Morton showed up we’d already had a phone call and had arranged chores they could get done without us. “Just the changing times” one might say, but I think this lack of just dropping in is affecting relationships of neighbor, family, and community.
The fear of just dropping in before calling, I see this in myself. There are times I find myself driving down Fort Road with a spare moment on my hands and I think about dropping in on a neighbor. Then I remember today’s etiquette of calling ahead before visiting, so, instead of just dropping in I just stay on the road. One might say, “Well you have a cell phone, you could call!” True enough, but what do you say, “Hey, I don’t have anything better to do and I thought I’d drop by?” Now, that’ll make ‘em feel good! And what about my friends in their twenties who’d a whole lot rather have you text before you call before you drop in? Yet, as I see it, folk and community have a great need for the unexpected drop in. You get a hint of the need in most any coffee shop on most any day. Sit and listen, sometime, to the conversation at your neighboring table (if it isn’t a business meeting). More often than not, these folk are not talking about world changing events, rather, they are shooting-the-bull, laughing, talking about family and, most of all, enjoying one another’s company. There is a great need to be with others without having any agenda and no time to prepare thoughts, and just be neighbor—kinda like two boys throwing stones at a rock under the sagebrush.
Certainly cell phones and to social networks like Facebook have their upside, but they shouldn’t get confused with a face to face conversations over the fenceline or across the coffee table. There is something about having your neighbor show up without any notice, calling you away from your work, and bestowing a surprised blessing upon you of shooting-the-bull. Best of all, because of the unpreparedness of the visit, you and neighbor become known to one another for your screwy thoughts as well as the insightful ones, and that truly enriches relationship. And on a good day, your neighbor steals you away from work, places you in the backseat of a Mercedes and rockets across a hoof-dented, gopher-infested pasture leaving your butt as much in the air as on the leather seat.
In this time of short days, when neighbors are tucked in their home against the long cold winter night I like to imagine what might happen should neighbors, cell phone be damned, just drop in on their neighbor. Probably an interesting story or two…Like the one of three or four old boys who just dropped in one day on newly birthed parents. They gathered them up and invited them onto the backseat of a bouncing Mercedes. Inside, they gave them three gifts—two of which were nice smelling oils…always a good thing with a baby in the car—which lifted their newborn spirits. Then real fun began as they bounced their way across the landscape, for with each bounce the parents captured a glimpse of life with baby beyond the front windshield. The clarity of life ahead was questionable from that bouncing backseat, but clarity mattered little for in the front seat was an old Okie cussing, laughing, and spurring life on across the landscape!
© David B. Bell 2012