Johnnie is in a web of tormenting relationships. He trusts his grandfather and together they voice bitterness over the enforced life on the farm. In between are Jody and Martha, married to the farm and each other. Their world is being ripped apart and theirs is one of the last family farms remaining in Iowa. Johnnie had been betrothed as a child but that family has gone under. Boys and girls today do not even risk holding hands.
“Did I ask to be born? You have your farm but what do I have?” He rolled his eyes and looked up at the ceiling as his mother responded. “You are so fortunate to have been born. You still have so much going for yourself. Just last year you were doing well in school. We used to study together. Remember?” “Mom, that was like two years ago.” By his sense of it, having lived so long in tension and constant change having gone through so much the physiological effect in that time, two years, was the experience of several lifetimes. What is more, she should have known that. That his mother who was as old as shale remembered something was proof that it was long ago, any embarrassing cute thing that she remembered had to be something he out grew, his ancient self who in the present turmoil he would not be able to recognize, or want to. John only knew how he felt now. Day after day he lied when he told her he had no homework in high school. He hid his failing grades just to create his own situation for which he wanted the private space at home where he could manage his personal problems from school. When he was a freshman his recurring nightmare was his mother bringing cookies to high school, sitting in the back of the classroom and volunteering for every classroom parent chore. John was embarrassed by his parents whose big claim was that they cared about him. It was impossible to keep any but the most intimate secrets at home, in close quarters for three people. Anything spoken between parents might as well be broadcast. John had developed a permanent cringe. They thought if they whispered about their demons their child would be too involved in his own world to hear. He observed and listened to them. He heard his mother’s loathing of her own mother and his father who constantly whined about Grandpa. John was too embarrassed to laugh with his friends about his home life like they did about theirs. He wished his grandfather was his father.
As the lowest and most defeated member of the family John told his parents not to blame themselves, he said he was making every effort he could to be a loser. He knew his family were rich farmers because his friends told him and later his reasoning confirmed it as all of the farms nearby had closed. That made him different when the most important thing was to be like everyone, John decided to make a fool of himself so that he might better fit in. He wanted to be away from his mother who did everything for him and had always been so close the air seemed to taste of her. She believed her job was to guide him as well as house, feed and protect. Guidance was her most important job since no matter what the outside circumstances were it was her guiding hand over which she had the most control.
He had been drilled from birth with all of the school skills his mother thought he would need. She told what she remembered from her pleated skirt and blue blazer days at middle school. John was proud to be a leader, answering all of the teacher’s questions, sitting straight at his desk with his hands folded until his knuckles turned white. He was a kindergarten child when he first felt the eyes of others turning to him for answers. His mother’s heritage of social responsibility, likewise her own altruistic qualities and a sense of moral responsibility surfaced in John. At ten he was a speech maker while the other children snorted like little hogs. A detached point of view made him feel set apart as he judged the world and offering it direction. He expressed the values learned at the kitchen table. Things got rough for John in middle school where they began separating boys and girls. He learned to keep the value judgments that his mother was impressing on him to himself after being beaten enough times by the kids who he called unwashed and inbred. His school mates were the
owner class of the town. A farmer rarely went to high school. What he learned most from middle school was that he is the product of two distinctly different but similar dirt clods. In high school John was a different dirt clod himself. The difference being he knew it. The jocks and motor heads in high school were only vaguely aware of anything at anytime, and at some point the herd gaze fell on John. It was his own decision that he would rather have a few friends in school and live than to be the futurist and social engineer his mother was shaping him to be under the spiked boot of 300 lb football players. John was a mild bad boy in an elite school of the smartest and richest Now a radical Jeffersonian farmer. He envied Jefferson’s freedom to travel the world. The voice of judgment which he heard became internalized and because of that voice he never became as close to his friends as he wanted. He felt rejected by his friends because he could never be as close to them as he thought they were with each other. He watched from a distance his friends’ tortured lives. He envied their mean circumstances, the squalor, abuse, poverty, and desperation. Standing in an empty field on many a winter’s night he recognized the voices he heard from town, schoolmates screaming in the night. John’s so-called successful family was no better. His mother was so obsessed with having food to hand out, bread, applesauce, preserved meats, she delivered food around the county because they were farmers they had a bigger fuel allotment. While kids at school thought they saw John with his family joy riding, if they saw anyone it was his mother scavenging flour to bake more loaves or making deals for yeast, bottled gas, eggs, milk and flour. Trading whatever they didn’t need for food for the hungry and homeless. She did not know where to turn when John needed new clothes. Despite what people said about his family being rich John was far from being the best dressed. His were some of the oldest and most worn clothes of anyone he knew, hand me downs from strangers. Children’s clothes who got sick and died and on Xmas their unused
toys bought for the dead children by a parent who died or whose kid died before the holidays. John’s father was always out in the field or the tractor barn, the light in the tractor barn was on half of the night. His father worked hard and his mother gave everything away. That was as much as the sixteen year old could decipher of the social system and the reason people acted as they did. He was able to satisfy the requirements of the friends his age and create the environment he needed at home by being a clown and troublemaker in school. John resolved the constant problem he faced as an individual who needed to find his place in two different societies, school and home. With one action it seems he had done that, a rather elegant solution that made him feel proud to be a fool. When the boys got in trouble the principal called John’s parents because he knew John was the only one with parents who might respond. It was a cruel and efficient move that also satisfied Principal Pelter’s curiosity. John Miller’s permanent record listed his parent’s income which was impressive and his mother’s suspicious activities. The librarian and the security guards reported John was the leader and the biggest clown of the three, he was also the most nervous after the boys were apprehended. Being escorted to the office by guards gave John and his friends one more thing to laugh about in the hall and it made for one more occasion for his parents to talk to him without knowing what they are talking about. Waiting on the bench outside the principal’s door the boys made sure John got the middle seat so they could give him the treatment. They poked at him and made the sort of noises in his direction which as the principal observed, these rural kids were so good at. Each boy looked and acted like a slightly askew version of the other. Even without a dress code the boys all tended to look and dress alike. Girls on the other hand distinguished themselves by each trying to look different. Boys wearing blue jeans or khakis all disappeared into the background while the girls were a flutter of primary
colors except a few who preferred black. Girls were only required in school to tone down the make-up and show their faces. The procedure for interrogation of students did not change with a school’s location, city, suburbs or even here. Mr. Pelter called the boys in singly and sent them out with escort to create the feeling of suspicion and paranoia between them, he called the Miller boy last. “I have it all on my security tape.” The principal played a timed loop on the screen, the slapstick of teenage boys, the tall one tripping the short one, John, who fell onto a small table and landed on his hands and knees crushing something, it was all grainy, in black and white and nothing could be distinguished. Without witnesses the tape could have been anyone. The ungainly looking one of the three did nothing in the tape but be nearby and looking on. “I don’t think your parents are going to be too happy to see this.” John, the smallest of the three was filmed laughing on all fours above the display model on which he collapsed with exaggerated guffaws. The explanation was the weekly game they played as the girls were marched out of the library and the boys’ class marched in. The girls whose painted eye lids and plucked eyebrows pointed like arrows to double and triple twirled peaks of hair and their cheeks were iridescent with day glow paint they came into view like traffic lights above crisp moist and usually bright red lips. John’s action let the young ladies know the success of their efforts. Blinded by passion John was an easy victim when Mike Warner’s foot stuck under his. After he fell clumsily he could not help but play it into a death scene. As for the Native American lodge made of newspaper glued to wire and painted brown to look like buffalo hide and green sponges shaped with scissors into shrubbery looking far older than the twenty years it stood by the library door was crushed by John’s fall and spread in pieces all around him. Plastic ponies lay on their side.
His father who was always so serious would never understand how his son could act this way. He never did anything stupid in front of girls. “My father is working and my mother is off handing out sandwiches.” John told the principal and hoped it was true. “Then you will wait outside my door until one of them comes to school.” John expected to be escorted out while the Principal Pelter waited on the phone. “Mrs. Miller, this is the school principal calling.” What could be worse than destruction of school property, John wondered. “It was a hateful destruction of a depiction of native life.” John was content to sit on the bench until his parents came. When they flanked him he wanted to get up. “Let me look at you,” his mother grabbed his arm, ”are you all right?” John’s father had never been able understand a child not wanting to be like his parents, he often confessed that. His mother only wanted to know who it was John was accused of hating and why. She knew her child could not be guilty. Just as she had been taught by her mother to be kind to all of the little people underneath she was taught the same of the different races. While she taught her son to live with and not above people she taught him to respect all others. While containing her yet to be directed anger Martha wondered, is this the first display of a trait John inherited from her to feel disgust and the urge to get as far away as possible from home. Mrs. Gladstone, the principal’s secretary who knew all of the students and none of the parents when Jody went there did not know who he was until he said they were John’s parents. John sat between Martha and Jody on the wooden bench adjacent to the door to Principal Pelter’s office. Since John was twelve and began ripening like cheese into a feisty pre-adolescent they seldom went anywhere, or did anything that could identify them as a family, despite the
circumstance Jody felt proud being seen with his son. John stood, it was obvious he did not want to take a chance of any of his friends seeing him with his folks. Urgently he twisted and jerked out of the seat. John had always been a moody and difficult child. He never wanted to be dad’s pal, he wasn’t interested in tractor rides. When Jody was a boy all it took was a disapproving look from his father and he was crushed. Martha did not know what to do about his behavior. She had not been a discipline problem for her parents. She internalized her revulsion until eighteen when she went away to the least likely school a girl from an old Virginian moneyed family might be expected to attend. There were years of studied silence in which she discovered herself, met Jody and had a child. Once established as an independent adult she rebuilt the relationship with her family. Her son’s disposition was uniquely his own. The meeting with the principal was for 9:30 and Jody nudged his wife every minute the hand slipped further past the six and after five minutes he got up to pester the receptionists. “He will be with you shortly.” The crooked old lady barely looked his way. “This is on purpose. He’s making us wait just to impress us that he can.” After Jody sat back on the bench and nudged Martha twice more until she got up. “Will you please tell the principal we are waiting. My husband is needed on the farm.” “I’ll remind him again.” The secretaries gnarled arthritic hands were as large as the side of her face as she held the phone. Martha glared at the lady when she looked up. “Go right in.” “We had a Bozo like this for a principal when I went here.” Jody said as he stood, not caring who heard. Just being in that office awoke resentment from his own teen years. In his youth Jody was a mild one and not a wild one yet he had the same things irritating him as did the kids who
got into trouble. Mr. Pelter was near the door as it opened toward him and Jody was now concerned if he had heard the ’Bozo’ comment, he gave Martha a quick look of foolish embarrassment. His handshake was disconcerting to Jody, too long for a stranger, not proper enough for an authority figure, soft and sickly, irksome enough for him to watch how he shook his wife’s hand. He pressed her fingertips between his thumb and fingertips, a dainty shake, his tight smile turned to a leer. This man was not to be trusted, Jody felt at once and between him and Martha in silent communication they immediately reached the a consensus that they would not take this man’s word over that of their own son. Mr. Pelter had the look of another in the parade of principals in sharp suits and polished shoes who had marched in and slouched out of the county school district. This rural district was a planned first step, no more than a stopover in a procession headed to one of the coasts or the sun belt for higher paying urban and suburban positions. He must live in one of the rental apartments in town and had a set of weights in one of the spare bedrooms because there was not a health club in this county. Mr. P took every opportunity to attend professional training, seminars and leadership development courses where he spent half of the time at the conference looking for his next job and the evenings went out binge drinking on the prowl for one night stands. The University tried to cultivate him as a leader but so far he was no more than a clothes horse. He wants power but this is the best he can do, intermediary between the town committees who decided policy and teachers who heard it all before, students who heard nothing and the irate public. Jody and Martha had attended School Committee hearings before Martha became sick. She thought this school was as out of touch with truly educating the kids as was the one she attended but worse. Here they excluded and ruled against what was heretical,
science, and history, to only teach survival skills. Her old school weighed down the kids with what they needed to know but was worthless, etiquette, television, and how to be a good consumer. Survival skills were appropriate in this region where the climate was sometimes harsh, healthy wheat shipped to be processed and returned as moldy bread, and electrical service was intermittent. Father returned to his farm work, he was too busy or too tired to involve himself, John was sent to his room to sit and do nothing before his mother knocked on the door and insisted to came in to help him write his punitive essay. “It’s not a punishment essay,” his mother corrected him, “it’s an apology. Like it or not your principal caught you laughing about the destruction of school property.” “It was just a card board box and papier-mâché. You’re the one who should be apologizing. Your farm is on Indian land, isn’t it.” At that point John’s mother realized he was correct and she proceeded with John’s guidance to write her own letter of apology. His mother showed his father the letter for him to add the specifics but as far a he knew the stealing went on years earlier during the time of Andrew Jackson and that the original farm was bought from homesteaders after the civil war. The first Miller had been a German officer who came to train the Union Army. The first farm was bought many years later. John listening from his room and felt slightly noble learning that his ancestor fought to end slavery. And his father pointed out that it seemed unlikely that his principal who everyone knew was from California had any native American blood as he claimed. Every native American his father ever met always identified himself by his tribe and Mr. P did not mention a tribe. “Maybe his father was a traveling salesman.” His father added for good measure. There was a rare smiles and laughter between the three of them but nothing changed. John went back to his friends who he envied for having one parent who neglect
them at home and did not have to answer any questions and above all had the freedom from responsibilities their poverty granted. Those kids did not have to be thankful for things they resented. When his father was not exhausted enough from work he made it a point to keep his farm tidy, to look better than most of the neighbors. The nearest neighbor was Grandpa. John watched his father watching the Agri-Corp farm chemical ads on TV, he was a slave to whatever they sold him just like the rest of the farmers who produced more food than the world could consume just to have a little more to sell than their neighbors. It was as uninspiring to John as the fact that his parents were still together. It was exciting when parents split up. He threw his mother’s campaign to feed the homeless in her face by pointing out all the empty spare rooms in their house. Her response was that she feared for the family’s safety. If there was any relative he could identify with it had to be the only other discontented one who lived a mile down the road, his quiet and cynical grandfather. He had a stirring memory of his grandfather long ago whispering a secret with hot moist breath pouring in his ear, grandpa swore John to silence, he could remember the confidential wink he periodically got from the old man for many years to follow but now he could not remember over what. But it he was sure it was a great secret that they shared when John was a kid. In a time when public figures kept the lowest profiles possible and politicians offered no leadership, most people in John’s high school Social Studies class could not name the current President. His grandfather was John’s hero. Grandpa called him Johnnie and one of his grandfather’s secret winks, usually followed one of grandpa’s difficult sprees, meant the world to the boy. It was after all
his father’s father. As grandpa was a difficult man John or Johnnie made a decision to be a difficult youth. It seemed his grandfather had for a long time been tired of the farming life but now kept at it for the sake of Jody and the rest of the family. So in protest grandpa had become one of those farmers with a cluttered front yard. John still had the girlfriend that was selected for him at birth. He and Missy got to be friends when they were still young enough to play together. Chastity was common, for several generation they believed in a direct correlation between sexual experience and several strains of incurable and for certain cases untreatable diseases. Once government and the medical industry placed a dollar value on human life they were able to draw a line separating who and what conditions were treatable. The number of dollars changed with the economy. There was never a good year to contract H.I.V. and treatment for cancer after fifty was questionable. As a result Missy was more than his betrothed, for rural people they often had marriages between children not older than 14 and virginity was once again respectable. Sex was also the agent that spread many diseases of a lingering death because old cures no longer worked, and others became incurable because such highly refined medication was not affordable. The health officials found it more effective to disseminate the terrible rumors than the facts, a strategy to which was agreeable to these farmers. Missy painted her face heavily like most girls, there was a time when she was everything John’s parents wanted for him which John never got to know if he wanted for himself or with her. Missy’s parents were once nearby farmers but they lost the farm, before that her mother took off which was when the visits to the Miller farm ended. Now that Missy and her father lived in town if he wished John could visit on
his own. Some of the other girls at school were far more interesting to him but he did not want to get married. He was frustrated by wanting a girlfriend but not wanting to get married. As a couple John and Missy remained chaste. Recently John had been toying with the idea of dumping Missy. Instead John dumbed himself down and got in trouble with other boys. Everything was for laughs, to get the laughs while they were still young. A grim future ahead of them was fairly evident although their small town was well off unlike the cities from were wave after wave of homeless emanated. It made no sense how apartment complexes could be empty while the unemployed in breadlines during the day waited at night for a mat to sleep on in the street. At least in the rural areas an evicted family one day could squat that night in an abandoned home in town and in time return to squat in their old farm house from where they could watch others work their old land. His mother’s mission was to hand out sandwiches to the poor in town. She and Grandpa complained about the politicians to whom everything was an omen for impending and inevitable economic recovery, even the ten year anniversary of the recession. According to them all that was left of the economy was food production and government jobs. Johnnie waited in the little shed at the end of his driveway for the school bus. The same shed he waited in on his first day of school although he did not remember he knew it. His parents never tired of reminding him. When they got to town it had stopped raining and so John made one of his smooth moves around the side of the bus and across the street darting through two abutting backyards and into the next street. In his mind it was a smooth move but there was little risk, attendance was hardly enforced and no one seemed to care. Approaching Main Street he saw mothers with children in the park. Dirty children ran wild as
mothers spread out sleeping bags, blankets and wet clothes to try and get them dry during this rare outbreak of sunshine. The shapes of homeless men could be seen in the alleys between the stores on Main Street, some had worked for a little money and got drunk, others hurried home to a tent clutching a loaf of bread and a jar of milk. Heavy loaves of bread and jugs from home of watery milk was all those kids with swollen knees and elbows lived on. Main Street always smelled of iodine now from the weekly spraying. The spraying was supposedly for public health but its real intention was to humiliate the homeless, mark them and move them out of town, that was what Johnnie’s mother told him. It seemed now everyone looked forward to the spraying like a Saturday night bath. Unless he ran into someone he knew or found something else to do on the way Johnnie was heading to visit Missy in the small house where she and her father now lived. She stopped going to school years ago to take care of her father who was drunk on homemade corn mash all the time. The arranged marriage was hardly spoken of any longer but they were two people familiar with each other and old habits die hard. After her mother left to pursue the life of a career woman in some big city the idea that this was a clean family fell by the wayside. When John came in Missy made him another pot of coffee from those same grinds after adding a little bit of burned corn. Johnnie drank some to be nice. “Your mother was by the other day. She looks good, I was glad to see her.” John nodded thinking it was a good thing she was not coming by today. Even if the school did not care much about attendance, his mother expected him to finish high school with an education and go on to college. “I still got a couple of your mother’s sandwiches if you’re hungry.” “I ate at home this morning.” John begged off out of pity. The coffee was making his stomach growl, “Do you
have any milk for the coffee?” “Sorry, fresh out. I’m going to send dad down to stand on line later.” “It’s such a nice day. Care to go for a walk.” “I can’t,” she indicated her father who was sleeping in front of the weather channel. Most likely dreaming of the old days on his farm. It seemed like a long time ago that she was his intended. The two mothers would have coffee and the two children would be left to play. Missy played with her toy baby and John tried to join in. He had never really put much thought to having a baby, as years went by they went for walks and talked of other things yet he always felt uncomfortable when the subject of their future child came up. John always had a secret feeling that he wanted to find what his life was about by himself. Not from Missy and not from his father. It was like the dinner table, if someone said ‘Eat it‘, he wouldn’t. He got to an age rather early when he had to be dragged to visit Missy and her family. He told his mother that something about Missy’s mother was creepy, her jerky mannerisms and her darting eyes. The house smelled funny too and the visits were boring. Now he was glad he was never rude when he got there. He was glad he remained friends with Missy. They had talked about where babies come from, neither knew and it was disgusting to suspect the ’you know where’ parts, the source of all filth, disease and evil. They visited less often after her mother left then finally not at all after they lost the farm and moved to town. Missy had always wanted something to take care of, John was glad it was not him and it would not be their baby. Things had worked out alright for Missy, she now cared for her father. At the door John held Missy’s fingers between his for a second and it spoke of the world that might have been. Along with the marital arrangement was the deathly fear of sex. John could only imagine himself being a virgin for the
rest of his life, as for Missy, he did not know enough to speculate. “Have a nice walk.” She said closing the door. She looked nice for that one moment, people look better with sun on them, even the homeless had a happy glow in broken sunlight. Missy was squinting at the outside light but John imagined she could have also been smiling. His luck, he thought at the sight of approaching weather, as he turned the corner back onto Main Street clouds blocked the sun, then followed the loud steady drum and hiss of approaching rain, cold and encircling, he trotted then ran back toward school as the distant sidewalk darkened from the water racing toward him. Sheets of rain running off the school roof were blowing onto him. “Let me in.” He pounded the glass door while the security guard smiled at him. The guard opened the door a crack, “Principal’s orders, no one gets in after eight.” The guard was clearly getting a great deal of enjoyment out of this. Deciding that he could not get any more wet than he was Johnnie began tapping on windows. When he saw the back of the principal at his desk he stood there and kept tapping until he was no longer ignored. Johnnie knew he had gotten through when the security guard, now wet like himself and no longer smiling grabbed Johnnie’s arm and dragged him to Principal Pelter’s office. “He said that you weren’t letting anyone in the school. I’m going to tell my mother that you locked me out in the rain.” “Does your mother know that you were bunking school today?” “Yes, she does, she told me to go visit my fiancée whose father is sick. My mother is going to the next Board of Education meeting and she’s going to make sure you lose your job.” “I don’t think your mother can do that. I have a right to lock the doors to keep the student population safe.” “My mother is on the School Board, she can get you fired. She could probably have you arrested for locking me
out. I have student‘s rights. I’m all wet.” “Go see the nurse, mama’s boy. She has towels and dry clothes.” “If I get sick you will be in big trouble.” John was at the point with his parents were they barely communicated at all. If there was anyone he could talk with at home it might be his mother but ideally it would be his grandfather, Big Ed. John admired the way his grandpa turned phrases that were nasty, bitter. hopeless and funny. John imagined that he understood his grandfather who was contrary and sarcastic to everyone including grandma, but especially to his son, Jody, John’s dad. Grumpy and sluggish Grandpa thought everything was miserable, probably not worth the effort and likely to turn out wrong. John laughed at everything his grandfather said and tried to sound just like him for as long as he could remember. Of course talking to his grandfather was an ominous thought, when he visited Grandpa he mostly listened and agreed. John feared his own manner of speaking was not yet manly enough. It seemed to John the only thing he admired about his own father was that he could defend himself when he spoke with Big Ed. John knew by heart what he called his grandfather’s ‘big speech’ hearing it first when he was young, his grandfather started by asking John’s father, “Why do you want your son to grow up to be a farmer?” To a small boy listening it was the funniest thing he ever heard, “This farm killed my father, there’s no money to be made in it anymore. You place yourself in a toxic environment and run the most dangerous equipment in the world and risk your life for what? To pay the bank so you can be your own boss and make no money year after year.” Killing yourself to be your own boss was a wildly comedic concept to John as an eight year old who was being pulled in different directions by the different adults around him who often asked about his plans for the future. “Did I ever show you my short fingers?” It was like a trick before his eyes, half a pinky and the top of a
ring finger both blunted. Grandfather did not considered the sight of human mutilation a treat for a young boy but John laughed. “My father was killed by a piece of equipment.” Grandpa added for zest. “He doesn’t need to hear this.” Jody struggled with his mother but she still carried him out of the room. But he could hear Big Ed, “I saw my father cut to ribbons. He bled to death in agony, caught by the chopper blades. You should be glad that your son doesn‘t want to be a farmer. I don’t wish this life on my worst enemy.” John was relieved that his grandfather would probably not hear about him bunking school. If the breakdown of family communication had a good side that it was likely to be his parents not telling how much trouble he was having in school. Just the fact that they were in high school was an embarrassment, that John and the other boys weren’t tough enough to live on the street and that their parents still had faith in the system and imagined that their child might make the necessary steps to rise through the system to some day have a house and to buy food maybe have an important job that would provide them with plenty of fuel stamps and a personal car. John and his friends at school played the complex game of being on line for the goods while denouncing the life that would give them those things. His mother having organized her little army of food givers was proof that someone who was on the inside could improve things but the fact that it was his mother doing it made being a protester unappealing. For the teens who were still optimistic that the future would have a place for them they had the football team, the gun club or the bible belters who used martial arts to make sure an eye was traded for an eye, but for John and his friends there was just the blanket of laughter and mockery they hid under. They weren’t in school for the sake of their future but rather for the free meals.
Those who preached survival of the fittest like Principal Pelter made a point of letting everyone know that John was not from a typical Iowa family, his family are still farmers. Out of date hold outs who thought they were better than the rest. They are making a fortune by exploiting the land. It was easy to despise the family farmer although the Agriculture done by corporations was vague and maybe because of its size and facelessness did not offer a compelling target. That which was package and labeled, put into palms size instantly edible form became loveable. It was jealousy over wealth, real or imagined and the security they thought the farm family had on their land. A typical consumer had no idea of the torturous route from production to sale the small farmer had to endure. Agri-Corp supported politicians put through laws and regulations to further snare competition, Agri-Corp was the devourer of the last refuge of the small farmer, the land.
John new that his family was splintered and full of anger and tension. That’s what he loved about his grandfather who never spoke well of anyone. After bunking school in the morning John decided to visit his grandfather before going home. At least he would a have a few laughs before he got grounded. He and grandpa put heaping table spoons of instant coffee into mugs then grandpa poured the boiling water and they poured in mountains of powdered artificial cream. “Here comes your dad. He is the biggest crybaby. Never comes over to be sociable, it’s always a problem. Same way since he was a kid, always had something to cry about.” There was a quick double knock then Jody opened the door for himself without missing a beat. “Hey dad, I got a problem.” John and grandpa both had blank expressions like there was no conspiracy between them. “What did I tell you?”
grandpa said to John. John nodded his head solemnly. Dad and grandpa talked about a shortage of good seed. John paid little attention until his grandfather turned to him. “This is the Godless marriage between nature, science, the farmer and business. Ten years ago he wouldn’t touch this manufactured planting material and now every aggressive young farmer wants to grow plants with sterile triploid seeds, one kernel is the size of a man’s thumb and one ear big enough to feed an entire family at a barbeque.” John’s father spoke as though noticing him for the first time, “You need to get home, young man. We got a call that you bunked school today.” “I went to school, I just went to see Missy’s family in town.” He knew that would fall on the conversation like a shroud. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen them.” Everyone was silent with their own thoughts until Grandpa jumped onto the subject. “Now don’t start telling me losing his farm was just the free market eliminating inefficiency. That fellow was as good a farmer as anyone, it was just bad luck anyone of us can be next.” Turning to John, “That is why you better not screw around in school. You don’t want to end up like these farmers. At the mercy of the bank and the weather and prices. I think we should all sell out and go south where it‘s dry.” “My Dad says he wasn’t a good farmer.” John could not help himself, dissatisfied by the lack of confrontation, he wanted them to go at it. “Well no one is as good a farmer as your father.” Grandpa said, in a different kind of mood, “He would sit on my lap on the tractor when he was a little boy and tell me everything I was doing wrong. That’s why I had to get him his own tractor and give him his own acreage to farm before he was a teenager and could reach up to slit my throat.” Jody approached the door choked with frustration, “Dad, you can’t help me?” “I don’t know anything about that fancy genetically
improved so called corn. I can’t be bothered with all the extra fungicide sprays, going out and reapplying every other day after a rain or ten inches of new growth.” Grandpa grew concerned, “You’d be out spraying twice in one day on a day like this.” Then mocking, “If you had gotten your corn planted in time.“ He turned to John, “That’s why you better not screw up in school. You want to be out on equipment in this rain. Sliding around in the mud. Farm equipment is deadly dangerous. You stay in school, go to college and get a real job that pays every week instead of once a year. Leave the farming to businessmen and high school drop outs.” “Come on boy, you got to go. Your mother has dinner waiting for us.” John stood, his eyes were rolling from super coffee that was half drunk and grandpa was waiting for answered, “I don’t want to be a farmer.” Inside the truck the windshield steamed up, Jody adjusted the air system and drove slowly through another sudden downpour. “Your grandfather’s father was killed by a piece of equipment. He was a boy and he saw it happen. My great uncle told me it was brutal. His insurance saved the farm. We probably would still be making payments on this land if your great grandfather didn’t have that insurance.” The words were thoughtless, an echo coming out of his father’s mouth. John had heard this story several million times in some form since he was a child. In high school he had learned about the farm crisis of old. Revised history in the school books taught that the tragedy of those times might have been avoided if the risk of farming had been managed by banks and corporations as they are today. That the best way to produce food was for large companies to do it. Family farms were an inefficient left over from settler days. The tragedy of farming were the farmer suicides because the producers of food in America could not afford to feed their own families. Then it stood to reason that what they told him at home was also a lie. What happened was no equipment
accident. John’s teenage defiance of his family grew from the resentment of being a child and having been told these stories and still they expected him to be loyal to his family who lied to him. If he was told without doubt his great grandfather committed suicide to pay the production debt on the farm he would be confused about what to believe. The insecure child who saw father and forefathers as wise and strong could not allow it. “How do you feel today dad?” “I feel fine, I feel fit.” Jody leans over his son’s shoulder, “What’s this?” “It’s mine dad.” John attempts to pull the carton of cigarettes from his father’s hand but it was no contest. “Dad. What did the doctor say?” “I’m proud to tell you, I have some of the highest blood pressure he’s ever seen. The blood is not flowing, it’s just seeping through my veins. So thick it oozes.” Both grandfather and grandson laughed. “Where’s mom?” “Avoiding me.” The grandpa answered. “You need to get home. Your grandfather has to rest.” “Don’t drag my grandson away from me, we were just talking about sex. There is a lot he doesn’t know and maybe you don’t know either. That’s what the generation today doesn’t understand, or their parents. You have got to live every minute, drink the cream and squeeze all the flavor out of life. I feel sorry for you kids today, so afraid of everything. Life is not worth living if you are going to live in fear and hide in the shadows. You can’t stretch out your time on what’s left of the earth by not taking any chances. The boy was telling me how some of the couples today put on gloves before holding hands. Matching gloves mind you for couples who are steady. When I was young we took our chances, we took the most chances we could get away with to see how far we could go. It was a challenge for us to bite off more
than we could chew.” “Dad, the family wants you around for a few more years.” “Why, so you can put me to work because everyone in the family needs to work, to pay a few bills and try one more year to keep our head above water? I’m going to show you what’s wrong with you and your entire generation. Johnnie, open that refrigerator door.” In awestruck silence the boy quickly stood and did as he was told. “There it is, my heavy cream you took from me last time. You took it off the table and put it away. You didn’t pour it down the drain to keep it from me or throw the container against the wall to show me how concerned and pissed off you are. No, nothing goes to waste and no one gets excited anymore because your gutless generation wants to crawl on its belly a few extra years before falling in the grave. If that’s living the way you want me to live - I don’t want it.” “Oh God.” From the next room came the sound of grandmother’s exasperation, the breakfront rattling and the clink of glass against glass. “How are you mom?” “Fine son.” After a pause the sound of TV in the living room turned down. “I need your dad, we’re a family and we want to survive. These are tough times and we want to send Johnnie to college.” She called from the living room. “Son, when you wanted to become a farmer I should have just handed you the keys and drove away.” “Amen.” Grandma called from the other room. John knew that neither his father or his grandfather could survive the way people had to survive these days. To be idle, aimless, standing on line all day for food. They were both overflowing with disappointment and were pulling each other down in a circle of blame. At least grandfather had stories about how things were and how they should be but his father was blindsided and only had the deeply disturbing
idea that everything is wrong and nothing in the world he could do would change that. John felt his mother who handed out sandwiches to the hungry was the only one with a vague notion of reality but no idea how to survive in it. “We had just had that one good year to offset a lot of bad years. I could have gotten out at a perfect time but you made me feel all sentimental. And I did not want to sell the whole thing to you like I should have and been a savvy business man at the expense of my own child. You were there with your bride and there I was instead of being smart and retiring then, I thought I could be a gentleman farmer with a grandchild on my knee.” “We have to go dad.” Jody now pushed John out the door. They had heard the rest of this story so often they all knew it by heart. Grandfather would go on about the second worst economic thing, first worse is losing a crop. The second worse is what happened to them, they had one bumper crop after another, so much corn was grown in Iowa over those years that no one could make any money. Producing a huge crop worth nothing meant the farmers had to work like slaves year after year. Jody, a college boy was one of the production leaders of the county. His father however would not follow suit. It seemed to him like others had a plan for him to work until he dropped. That would usually tick off father and he and grandpa would launch into the big fight where in the end everyone blamed grandpa for being closed and unknowable. But he would try to explain, he saw his father killed by the cutter. It was wrenching exhausting to listen. John himself was so tired by the end that the words and passions just hung like clothes on a clothesline. He had yet to reach the age when he could understand it. “I’m glad we got out of there.” His father said. “Dad, what would happen if you did throw grandpa’s container of cream at the wall?” “Grandma would probably go for a gun.” Jody joked. “Yeah!” John said with enthusiasm and pulled his feet
up onto the seat to ride like a little kid and have some wild imaginings. “Where did you go today?” “Huh?” As though disturbed from sleep. “We got the call from school, where were you this morning?” “I went to visit Missy and her father.” “They were good folks.” “They still are.” John began defensively then switched to an attack, “Just because her father couldn’t pay some bills and had to sell his farm and his wife left him doesn’t make him a bad person.” “Listen John, I knew Tom just like you know Missy, since we were children before school age. But I can’t talk to him anymore. There is something that changes a man after losing that much.” “Did he always drink booze, he was sleeping on the couch this morning, it smelled like bad stuff.” John added, sorry for getting his dad so worked up. “That’s not what changes a person overnight.” His father sounded very insistent. Again John regretted his words, only in recent months had it dawned on him the significance of his grandmother’s constant wine and cocktails. The fragrance of a perfume cloud surrounding her. They were home, John ran into the house in the hopes of getting past his mother unnoticed. Now John’s father stood back to let his mother handle the discipline. Jody has his farm and the things he does with his hands, his own skills to hone and improve but for Martha half of her ambition was in perfecting her son John. There are times when radical leftists and arch conservative may find themselves on the same course of action but for different reasons. Because it was what she wanted to do Martha was able to justify being a stay at home mother, not because it was her place. Going to school and conforming as a hedge against a questionable future
was not supported by her philosophy. In her youth it was instinctual for her to enter every competition at school and she out performed the others but her son who did not like going to school also did not do well. She felt bad saying things that were hollow for her and John picked up on the feeling. His mother’s request was more effective than any threat or reasoning his father could come up with, she made him feel like he had to try and do better. Martha would have been aghast to learn that she made her son feel guilty. Martha’s mother never made Martha feel guilt. She made Martha hate herself and hate her. John never felt so strongly toward his mother who was most of the time gentle and nurturing. School was a very basic expectation, it was also a troubling and unsure time, school was a stressful place and John told his mother and himself in all honesty he would try harder to do better and take it all more seriously. Mother pointed out to John how many of the homeless who she helped were lacking in basic education and that made them unemployable. The younger generations had missed out on many things, Grandpa was right, they had missed the freedom and licentiousness of his time. Once they feared an over populated world now the fear was under population. Jody wanted to teach John to drive a car at twelve as was done when he was a kid but Martha forbade it. “He would have to travel with a gun,” she said, “and I won’t allow that.” A gun to protect himself from the hungry and homeless. Kids today must like to stay at home was John’s conclusion regarding that situation. You can’t miss what you never had, Jody tried to apply what he felt for his son to himself, yet he did miss having his son with him on the tractor and working on equipment as he did with his father. He so looked forward to that when he saw the child born to them was a boy that he ached for it in the first years after when John showed a fear of loud tools and equipment and a preference for staying home instead of getting in the tractor bubble with Jody.
Parents were not culpable and they had no obligations. Being disconnected from their lives John felt the forces which allowed his comfortable distance were also responsibility for circumstances they lived under and the suffering innocents around them. That was the unspoken lesson he learned in his own way but would not share with his mother.