I’m not sure what prompted this, on my walk to the bus this morning something triggered a memory in my head.
Years ago I was invited to a family event in beautiful Hoyleton Illinois. For the two of you who aren’t familiar with Hoylton, it’s part of the Nashville-New Minden-Hoyleton metroplex. You might also know the area as “exit 50” on Interstate 64 there in South Central Illinois. It’s a nice place, classic mid-America, small towns surrounded by some of America’s finest farmland. It’s where Mrs S’s parents were born and raised. Although none of ou generation of kids have spent more than a few weeks at at a time there, the connection to the place continued though the parents had left. Both sets of Grandparents lived there and are buried, along with several of the previous generations in that soil.
Hoyleton, Waterville, Balsam Lake, small town America. I’ve never felt all that comfortable in these sorts of places, places where everyone knows everyone and they all go to the same church, or one of the two churches in town. Something about being the big news story of the week just because you’ve arrived there that day makes me feel a little uneasy. I guess I prefer the privacy that big city anonymity brings you.
Mrs S’s grandfather, knowing that I’m an early riser, asked me if I would like to join him and the boys at the local coffee shop in the morning, a daily ritual. I agreed. He said he’d pick me up at 5:30.
On a vacation day.
Grandpa picked me up at exactly 5:30, as I knew he would. Farmers are prompt, or so I assumed. We were staying out by the highway, about 5 miles from town. Sitting in the cab of his late model Chevy truck we rolled across the country side as the sun was just starting to turn the eastern horizon red and orange. It was going to be a muggy day, just like every other day in July. It had thundered the night before and the air was, as they say down there “thick”. The low spots in the fields were holding onto thick clumps of fog, sort of like the clouds had descended to during the night to nap on the ground. Grandpa had the AC in the truck on so high that condensation was dripping down his windshield.
The coffee shop was the only sign of life at time of the day, it’s bright lights spilling out onto the street like one of those paintings you see at Cabela’s or Bass Proshop, the ones that depict a cabin or hunting shack at dusk, warm soothing light pouring out of the windows, an oasis of warmth on a cold blustery day.
Not that it was cold that day, but it was early, and everything else on the street was dark. If the light wasn’t enough the pickups, sedans and odd four wheeler, lawn tractor and utility vehicle made it obvious that if you wanted to find company at 5:30 in the morning, this was the place to do it.
Inside the atmosphere was pretty lively, lots of folks in booths and around tables chatting. I did notice that crack of dawn coffee klatching seems to have something in common with remote control operation, it’s a gender linked trait. The only women in the place were the two waitresses, who by the way, were exactly that; waitresses. The concept of “server” hadn’t been adopted yet in Hoyleton.
Grandpa and I took the last two seats at large table where a group of his contemporaries were discussing the issues of the day. Was introduced to suspicious gazes until Grandpa connected the dots “my daughters daughters husband.” Ahhh, “the guy from California?” “Yup, that one.” This didn’t exactly put me at ease.
After some polite nods the conversation when back to the topic at hand. “How much rain d’ya get at our place Clarence?” “Got half in inch on the fields in New Minden, only about half that on the one south of town. Storms must’a tracked north of us.” The guys proceeded to go around the table and reported on the precise amounts of precipitation that had fallen on their various fields the previous night. I started to realize that before any of these guys, including Grandpa, had come to the shop, at like 5:00am, they’d driven around the county to check their gauges. Either that or they had some kind of rain gauge with remote telemetry to report in moisture totals every day.
The next topic of discussion, the price of hog futures on the Chicago exchange. From what I could gather there was some concerns that the market was softer than expected. The good news, to tie it all back together, if the rain kept coming they’d get a good crop of “short corn”, so feed prices would be low. I never figured out what short corn is.
Within about 3 minutes I realized just how out of my element I was. Each and every one of these guys were international marketers. They were savvy about their products and the markets where they were selling them. They knew about sorghum in China, cattle in Canada and wheat in Russia. Savvy? They were savvy in spades.
I did feel kind of sorry for the poor waitresses, 5:30 in the morning, a full restaurant and no one was ordering anything more than the 50cent bottomless cup of coffee. Takes a lot of cups and a lot of 25 cent tips to make it worth your while to get up a 5:00. The coffee shop, 6 days a week, serves more as a community center than a restaurant. We have the same thing going at the Johnson Bros Pharmacy in Amery Wisconsin. They have a coffee counter in the back where locals gather in the morning to connect and chat. I recently read in Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, that folks who live in communities where connections are encouraged and people take time to chat and care and all that good stuff, live much longer healthier lives than those of us who live in this urban isolation that I’m a part of.
Maybe I need to do more with Masonic Lodge.. I just might live longer.
At about 7:00 it was time to go, the morning coffee bunch was being replaced by the breakfast crowd, namely their wives, and from the restaurants perspective, these were paying customers, and the waitress had not trouble telling us so. Don’t often see a 19 year old girl shooing a bunch of tough old guys out of their favorite haunts. Their wives probably couldn’t do any better.
We got back in the truck and Grandpa took me down the property he farmed south of town. Along the way he pointed out the high school where both my in-laws went to school, it was where they met and where they became high school sweethearts.
He pointed out the county lake and the county 9 hole golf course, he’d never played it, but you know, one of the days when he had more time. Which set me to wondering what he was doing to not have any time.
He showed me around the barn and what used to be a milking parlor. He had given up on dairy cattle years ago, “too much work for an old man.” And old man I might add, who got more than done on any given day before 7:00am that I did in a couple months. He went to a lock box in the shop and grabbed a couple of .410 shotguns. “Lets take a walk” he said. As we walked the outside of the fields he told me about the property and how his father had died when he was quite young. “My brother and I became responsible for the family and we did a lot of things over years.”
His Grandfather had arrived in New Orleans from Germany in the mid 1800’s and he had settled in Washington County. They’d been farming here for a long time. He noted that next winter Grandma had dictated that they would be moving to Arizona, at least for the winters. I’m not sure he was quite on board with that plan, but in the way that men of a certain age often are, it was easier to say “Ok” than to argue about it. Especially if you secretly didn’t mind the idea, it was just the idea of it if that makes sense.
Grandpa told me all about himself that morning. He talked about how he’d done some tenant farming, driven trucks, done handyman work, all sorts of stuff. And as we walked and he talked and I listened, a cat crossed the path a few dozen meters ahead of us. The report of Grandpa’s shotgun scared the crap outta me, it’s not it was all that loud, it was just a .410 after all, I just wasn’t expecting. I didn’t expect to see him shooting cats.
“Damn kitties eat my quail” he said, matter of factually. These weren’t really kitties, these were feral cats, mini lions if you will, wreaking havoc on the local bird population. We didn’t see another one, thank goodness. He showed me the spot where he’d shot a massive 8 point buck a few years before, the antlers are on the wall of our place on Blake Lake.
By 7:45 it was getting pretty muggy. The sun had risen above the trees and the mist had all burned off. “Weeeelll” he said, he had that southern Illinois drawl that’s while not quite a southern accent definitely belies ones country life. “we better get back, Cheryl and the kids outta be stirring around my now.”
We got back to the hotel and met the folks, the kids and Mrs S. We all headed over to the same coffee shop where a few hours before I’d discussed rain and hog futures with a bunch of septuagenarian farmers. Mrs S asked, “what’d you and Grandpa do this morning?” Grandpa answered “Weeel not much, showed of your husband to the locals, they smelled his hand a bit and I showed’m one of the farms.”
She looked at me, “Yup, I’m one of the guys now.” Grandpa patted me on the shoulder, “Slow down there big guy, we just decided not to hang ya today, noth’n mor’n that.” As he have me a wink.
That was the most time I ever spent with man. After that morning we were always around other family or other events got in the way. But from time to time we’d find ourselves at the fridge together alone or or in a car together and he’d tell me how he really like that “little walk he had back in Nashville.” Always made me smile.