There used to be a dairy farm in West Kentucky, two-hundred-and-fifty acres of rolling red clay farmland set on three levels. The central part, where the house and most of the barns stood, was fairly level. Fescue pastures bordered the small woods and creek to the south, marking the edge of the upland swing. Alfalfa spread east of the barn and in the arrow-shaped field at the top of the hill south of the house and west of the gravel road. At the north end of the farm, the flat bottomlands usually hosted corn or soybeans with a larger woods framing the east edge of the place. From time to time, sod would be plowed under for grain crops and the small plots of tobacco would occasionally move from one corner to another.
The fields were well-tended, the corn cultivated, pastures generally kept cleared by grazing and the occasional chopping of thistles. Alfalfa, tended by taproots as long as ten or twelve feet, grew so thickly weeds didn’t have much of a chance. Though the tobacco allotment was relatively small—barely two acres altogether for burley and dark-fired—the crop required intense hand labor. Except for the harvest of hay and the killer weed (tobacco), the family supplied its own labor for all chores: milking, gardening, cooking and canning, gathering eggs and plucking chickens, felling trees for firewood. Children born into that family were born into work; it was simply the way of things.
By careful application of selective memory, it’s easy to miss those days.
Driving the tractors, operating the machinery, fishing in the pond, playing in the creek, stacking hay and building tunnels, forts and hideaways in the hay loft. We ate fresh beef and cured pork, laid in canned goods for the winter, wore patched jeans and homemade shirts. In the winter, we chopped through the ice in the pond, felt our toes go numb in the cold of the unheated milk barn, made snow cream and drank hot custard during the holidays.
I knew nothing of the worries of the world then, hadn’t an inkling. Except for the fear that Russia was going to attack and that nuclear missiles would fall out of the sky and we would all die in a blinding flash of fury, I had barely a care in the world. Give me a cane pole on a sunny day or a good book on a rainy one and I was happy as a mocking bird.
I know there were such things as making mortgage payments, paying off hospital bills, worrying about the price of milk, the price of gas, the price of fertilizer, the price of seed, the support prices for wheat and corn, repairing the equipment or having to replace it. Hospital bills and doctor bills and tractor payments. I know now that those were constant issues but back then, such awareness never dented the thin edges of my own personal reality.
I knew only to do what I was told, get up when called the first time, wash my hands before coming to the table, believe the Bible and mind my manners. Actually, it was a pretty effective arrangement and not a bad foundation for what would follow over the next sixty years.