Fence building is never fun work, especially during the late summer of 1953. That is the year I’ve turned sixteen and own my first car, a 1935 Ford sedan. As cars go it’s shortcomings are many, but it’s certainly an improvement over my previous methods of getting around – thumbing, bicycling, horseback, walking. Arriving at any given time fifteen miles away without a car is a tall order.
All day I’ve waited for an opportunity to announce my Saturday night plans, but no such opportunity came. Time is short. Though my timing is wrong, I give it my best shot.
“I’ve got a date tonight, Grandpa. I need to get out of here no later than six,” I state, while leaning on the heavy steel rod used for tamping dirt around the newly set fence posts. Grandpa stops digging, leaving his digger in the hole. I’m familiar with his body language. What he’s about to say isn’t going to be what I wish to hear. Turning slowly, Grandpa purses his lips and sends a charge of tobacco juice into the dirt. A small cloud of dust rises, confirming the fact it had been a dry summer. Then he wipes his mouth on the back of a cloth glove. Only then do his clear, blue eyes meet mine. He is angry.
“When I was your age I stayed on the farm and did the work,” he growls. “Didn’t you have a girlfriend?” I blurt, immediately wishing I’d kept my mouth shut.
“Of course I had a girlfriend,” he fairly shouts.
What did she say when you stood her up?”
“My girlfriend became your grandmother,” he replies, his eyebrows knitting. Turning once again to his task, he grabs the post hole digger and digs with renewed vigor. Over his shoulder he adds: “She understood the work came first.”
The dirt is hard and the sun is hot, and the clock is ticking. Setting fence posts from dawn to dusk is thankless. Without a doubt Grandpa dislikes it too, but he sets a vigorous pace and we continue working for another hour, stopping to rest in silence. Grandpa is a stickler for straight things. Far different from his son, my father, who is an alcoholic. With him, pretty good was always good enough. Grandpa must fear those “good enough” traits have rubbed off on me.
Digging is slower than tamping, so I’m waiting more than I’m working. Somehow, I’ve failed to notice that in spite of the damage from hitting stones, both ends of the tamping rod are originally threaded and have holes for cotter keys.
“This tamper used to be something else, didn’t it?” I finally asked.
Grandpa stops digging. As he turns, he again sends a charge of tobacco juice into the dirt. This time, however, I see no anger in his face.
“That was a rear axle to a surrey your grandmother and I used back when we were courting,” he said. Then he fell silent, obviously recalling those faded memories . “It was fitted with a leather dashboard and the top was fringed. I paid $750 for it in Kansas City,” he finally added. “When was that?” I asked, studying the tamping rod with new eyes. “It was 1898.”
“Wow. What happened to the rest of the surrey?”
He didn’t answer right off. At first I thought he didn’t hear my question.
“We wore it out, I guess That’s all there is left,” he finally said. After blinking a time or two, his eyes met mine. “I had little time for courting in the summer months. There was the farm work – crops, livestock. I can’t imagine how we ever had time to wear it out…,” his voice trailing off.
“You courted her during the winter in an open surrey? What did you do?
“Sometimes we played games with friends. Other times we skated on frozen ponds. If we were traveling very far she heated several bags of shelled corn to put around our feet and then put a buffalo robe over our laps.”
The sun was sinking fast, approaching the tree tops and I’d given up hope. One of those studs I’d seen hanging around the drug store was going to horn in while I built fence. I felt sick. I wanted to throw up. Laying his digger aside, he sent another stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. Then he pulled a red handkerchief from his pocket, removed his straw hat and wiped his forehead. I braced myself for setting another dozen posts, but he surprised me. “It’s time you got on your way,” he said after squinting at the sun. Leaving the tools where they lay, I sprinted across the northwest pasture and took a swim in Grandpa’s Old Mississippi Pond, a substitute for a bath. Twenty minutes later I was on my way to see that red head.
Life was good.