Saturday, February 14, 2015

"A Tribute"

A little over a month ago the world lost a good man. Not necessarily famous or wealthy by the world's standards, but then, it doesn't take those things to make a good man.

One of my first real jobs was helping Dan milk cows after school in the evenings when I was maybe fourteen. Dan's barn was a stanchion style barn, with about 46 stalls. I remember at one point milking about 90 head; we would milk half of the cows, turn them out, and get in the other half.

I got three of my front teeth busted off in that barn when I got kicked by a cow when Dan and I were clipping udders one evening. We knew the heifer was high strung, so Dan was holding her tail up in the air while I clipped. (this is supposed to put a cow's kicker out of gear) Well, somehow she managed to kick anyway and she knocked the clippers back into my mouth.

Times were hard on the farm in those days.I'm pretty sure they were way harder than I ever realized at the time. Dan drove truck part time to supplement his income. Legend has it that he kept his boys (Milo and James) back a year from starting first grade so they could help on the farm when they couldn't afford a hired man.

 And there were other pressures too. Enough of them if you would put them all together would be enough to break down a man of lesser caliber. But Dan always seemed to plod on,putting one foot in front of the other and making the best of his circumstances. And he didn't bellyache about things either. And most of the time had that smile shape on his sort of round face. Pretty much exactly like you see in the photo.

Dan was born in upstate New York and moved to this part of Va. along with his parents when he was a young man. He had graduated from high school in New York and his history teacher insisted that he should go on to college and become a history teacher himself. Dan told me that someone asked him once, how he had ever settled in this God-forsaken part of Southside VA. He said he told them that he had moved here in the beginning and had always stayed too poor to move out.

When I was a youngster, Dan sang in a quartet along with my dad and my uncles, Bud and Robert. Dan singing 2nd tenor, my dad baritone, Uncle Bud first tenor, and Uncle Robert bass. Us young guys called them the "Old Fogies Quartet". I thought they made the sweetest music this side of heaven. It was my first introduction to men's quartet music and listening  would send shivers up and down my spine. I can still hear  Dan singing the melody on "Have you waaandered  awaaaaay from your Father's care, heavy hearted and sad do you rooooam". He would slide just a little from the first note of "away" to the second, but he always landed square.  And he always had a little tin container in his suit coat pocket with some mysterious little brown pills of which he would pop one when he was singing. I never found out what they were.

Dan was one of the steadiest truck drivers you could ever see. Back in the day when I thought the only way to run something was  wide open, he would ease up the road shifting gears as smooth as silk. He told me a story once from way back in the days when trucks had (compared to today) ridiculously small engines.And mind you, vacuum brakes which operated off of the intake vacuum of the engine. So what would happen is that you would lose your brakes if you let your rpms get too low.

On this particular occasion he was hauling a really big load of lumber to somewhere in Pennslvania. He had hauled loads of this size before but the loads were at least partially dry. This certain load was green lumber. To make a long story short, he got on a long uphill grade somewhere between Hancock, Maryland and Breezewood, Pennsylvania. He kept going down in the gears until he was in the lowest one he had. And it soon became evident that "grandma gear" wasn't up to it either and he was going to stall. And that's just what happened. To make matters worse the engine started to turn backwards letting the truck start back downhill. And also, of course, no brakes.

As he started to roll back down the hill,  he turned the wheels so the trailer would head into the bank on the side of the road and then jumped out.

Many, many years later on a run north he stopped at a truck stop near this same spot and got to talking with another old trucker while eating his meal. Swapping war stories, I guess you could call it. This other guy told Dan that the funniest thing he had ever seen happen was many years ago there was a trucker trying to get up that big hill just up the road there a little and his truck wouldn't pull it and it started to roll back and the driver jumped out. Dan said he didn't tell him that he and the chap in the unfortunate circumstances were one and the same. (and by the way, Dan continued to drive his beloved old cab-over International for several years after he turned 80)

Dan loved John Deere tractors. He had a 435 with a two cycle  Detroit engine. And a 720 poppin john with a hand clutch. But along about the late 60's he took a big step up and bought one of the first 4020's to come out. Now as far as I'm concerned the 4020 was the best tractor ever made. Six cylinder engine, a sweet running thing it was. Dan was the talk of the neighborhood. A 4020 was the biggest tractor ever to get used on any farm in these parts. A few people wondered why you would ever need such a huge tractor. (of course now a 4020ish size tractor would be viewed as small)

There was once he did something with his 4020 that looking back seems a little out of character. Jack Poindexter, who farmed on Long Island had a huge old steam engine he had restored and that he would fire up on occasion. Dan was probably down on the Island chopping corn silage with his 4020 when they decided to have a pulling contest. I was misfortunate enough to have not been there, so I'm not sure how this got started. Maybe it goes to show that even grown men deal with some peer pressure.

Anyway, they parked the steam engine and the 4020 back to back, hooked a chain between them and commenced pulling. The 4020 spun but couldn't budge the steam engine. The steam engine had the weight and traction advantage but didn't have the power to pull the 4020 backward either. So I guess it was called a draw.

Dan made me feel worth something when I was young and pretty worthless feeling otherwise. He would shake your hand an extra long time and ask how you were doing. Maybe not much more than that, but it meant something to me at the time and looking back now it means a great deal.

I thought of him again this evening as I was driving truck myself, hauling a load of chips. Dan, may you rest in peace from all your labor and may the Lord reward you mightily for your faithfulness.