A Farmer’s Issues Of Trust
I was just a kid when my city folk family visited the 400+ acre farm in the summers. It belonged to Waymon Ethridge, a strong hardworking man. He wore fraying straw hats that hid a full head of sweat-flattened white hair and baggy faded blue jean overalls of which one strap was tamed over his shoulder, hooked into place with the metal fastener gripping a silver rivet of the front bib. The other strap seemed feral, hanging down his back slapping at his behind like the whip of a jockey seemingly cajoling him along. Sometimes it pulled at the triangle point of the collar of his blue work shirt and exposed a farmer’s tan neck. The stark white chest flesh hosted a tuft of white hair that peeked up in the shirt opening. Each blue sleeve was buttoned down tightly at his browned wrists whose leathered hands regularly reached for a blue bandana stuffed in a back pocket in order to mop a sweaty wrinkled brow. In brown laced-up boots, he walked with a hitch in his step as one knee percussed a bone on bone beat. His left hip showed signs of being a little slow in the saddle too, but at the age of 60 or so he moved around the property without complaining, to anyone, and trusting no one but himself to tend to the regular chores of his land.
Waymon was a proud Kentuckian, a farmer living on the land of the Blue Grass State, home to the Kentucky Derby, a point of pride referred to often. His expanse of land butted up to the State Penitentiary. He offered field hand work to parolee’s from the Farm Center, but trusted only one at a time to squat in one of the shacks on the farm. For the most part he worked his land virtually by himself garnering only occasional help from neighboring farmers or my older cousin and uncle when extra duties, such as branding, butchering, and crop reaping or tobacco hanging necessitated extra help.
He always rose before dawn to be in the tobacco and cornfields by first light. Sometimes the summer squalls would wreak some serious havoc for him to clean up. After tending the fields, he slopped the pigs and tidied the muck in the sty after having already loaded a wagon full of dried cob corn and making the delivery to the Holstein herd. Ending the early morning ritual was draining the udder of the Jersey cow into a deep, shiny stainless steel pail before making his way up the straight worn path from the main barn deftly carting the sloshing liquid and instinctively stepping over fresh cow paddies on his way into the house. All this was completed before he even ate his own breakfast. “Animals gotta be tended to first,” he always said.
During talk about her garden and chicken chores with his wife Cora Lee, Waymon ate a farmer’s breakfast of smokehouse bacon, fresh chicken eggs, and fried potatoes with Wonder bread toast and fresh churned butter; he topped his toast with homemade blackberry preserves. He sopped up the runny yoke and shoveled in the food as quick as a lick and was back on his International Harvester tractor coaxing the faded red machine to start with the first push of the black START button. More often, though, he had to pull on the circular plastic disk marked CHOKE before the machine would finally rumble to a start. Waymon had trust issues, but none of them had to do with the success of his farm. He worked hard, and he trusted himself.
Waymon’s trust issues were unknown to me until the day a weekly chore and curiosity uncovered hidden proof in his winter room; it housed his four-poster bed, a Paul Bunyan with massive spherical finials that dwarfed my child hands when trying to palm them. Armed with a gray dust mop to superficially swoosh across the wooden floors, I nudged the braided rug a bit too hard, which pushed the tightly cinched woolen oval out of its place. That’s where I discovered the dozens of fanned-out and neatly organized groups of one hundred dollar bills. A king’s ransom was hidden in plain sight underneath the feet of heavy-footed children and sure-footed women taking turns dry mopping floors and enjoying catnaps in the heat of day!
It was a fortune compared to the dimes I received for the chores I did around the place, and I immediately thought of all the toys and candy I could buy with just one of those bills presented to the lady at Woolworth’s the next time we went into town. My mother took issue with me finding the money and warned me not to tell anyone after I told her what I had discovered. She ordered me further with instructions to never look under the rugs again. She threatened me with bodily harm if I ever took any of it stating, “We all know how much is there, if any comes up missing, well…” and she lifted her chin pointing her eyes toward the window that framed the huge weeping willow tree and its full canopy of branches. From many experiences I knew what that meant. I would have to walk out to the giant, cut one branch and strip it of its long slender leaves, and bring it back for a meeting with the back of my bare thighs. Later I learned Waymon had lived through the Great Depression and had struggled after the banks crashed. His distrust for the system prompted him to stash his money on his land, his room being one of the safest places he knew. He had trust issues indeed, the biggest one his lack of trust in banks.
On the farm there was a Palomino horse. “He’s too unpredictable,” he argued. The ivory horse was so cantankerous he didn’t even get a name, just The Palomino. I remember one time my dad, a rare visitor to the farm, pleaded with Waymon to let him ride that horse. Waymon did his best to talk dad out of it the entire time he pulled the tack off the walls in the tractor barn and saddled up the stallion. “I guess if you reckon you can do this, you’ll do it!” his words laced with mistrust, and the rise of his voice almost like a final question, a way out for dad to change his mind. Waymon led that Palomino to the spacious backyard. Dad mounted that Palomino and rode for a little bit, ducking the low branches of trees and fighting with the reins the whole time. That horse ran wild with resolve to get dad off its back, but dad held on with just the same stubborn determination to stay on. Waving his hands methodically seeming to read every move the horse made, Waymon coaxed that Palomino with a series of “Whoa there’s” to a stop and never saddled that beast again for dad. I only saw him ride the Palomino once after that. It was when he rode in the Eddyville Founder’s Parade. He had trouble with that Palomino. Not trusting that creature was smart.
Waymon didn’t trust his well. He was the first to get a bath every day and the rest of us, my two sisters and brother, would follow. Most of the time three little bodies to one full tub of water was the rule. “We gotta conserve water; the aquifer is low,” was the explanation he gave and the reason why I regularly bathed with my two sisters in tepid, murky water where dingy, powder-like Ivory soap bubbles surfed the top of the water’s tension. When the monsoons hit with regularity later in the summer, the trust widened somewhat, and we could enjoy solo baths, tubs half full of course.
Waymon trusted me to respect the Shetland ponies he borrowed. He warned that Shetlands had bad tempers, and I should take care around them. He carefully instructed me how to approach them and how to ride. Bareback two at a time was okay and probably better. One could keep an eye on the other. I lived up to his trust for years until the summer I forgot to heed his warning and rode by myself. I dismounted the painted pony when my white Thom McCann tinny came untied and dropped off my foot. I bent down to pick it up, and the pony chomped down on my shoulder leaving a half set of teeth marks in my flesh and terror planted deep in my psyche. He trusted me not to ask for another pony after that, and I never did.
There was no trust in Fords because Waymon was a Chevy man. But the farm wore out even a Chevy, and he would get a new one every two years or so. He trusted a Chevy to work as hard as he did but not as long. “They are work horses,” he bragged. He trusted young girls to drive his Chevy if they didn’t tell their mothers. He trusted the wheel in granny gear to any young child with an eye toward adventure and bored with the riding lawn mower. Yes, Waymon had negative trust issues. That’s a fact. But some of his trust issues leaned in positive ways, ways that a young girl took for granted then but a woman remembers as endearing.
He trusted me to sit with him under the apple tree in the expansive backyard with its towering 50 year-old black walnut trees lining one side and weeping willows guarding the corners on the opposite. He trusted me to listen to his wisdom about the ways the world worked and what I should do in it. Sometimes we did this together peeking at the chicken coop behind the shrub covered fence line and watching the chickens peck and feed their gizzards after their lunch snack, watching the tasseled garden corn reach to the summer sun, and sucking the sweet green juices of young grass shoots. Sometimes the talk was about plans for after dinner. The lists of chores whistled through the spaces in his mouth. Unlike the dozens of fruit loaded trees in the orchard nearby, his head held onto only a few remaining teeth. There were just enough left to eat slices he carved from just plucked apples using his ivory handled penknife. Taking the peeled apple flesh from his weathered fingers in a one for me one for you fashion, we popped pieces in our mouths until he tired and covered his face with his hat to steal an afternoon nap snoring rhythmically in the sweet summer breeze. He trusted that I enjoyed his company.
He trusted me to ride the red tractor, holding tightly to the rounded wheel walls, fingers curled around and locked under the edges, bouncing while swatting the grasshoppers that hitched a ride perched next to me, hanging in my short red mane, or clinging to my hairy white legs. We traversed the fields checking fence lines, barns, and watermelon patches, thumping the fruit to see if it was ripe. “You listen for a hollow sound,” he instructed. Most of the time we came back empty handed of fruit but always full of information like how the corn was almost ready for reaping, or the tobacco was ready for cutting and hanging, or that the creek line had blackberry brambles bursting with the plump, dark bumpy fruit. Ripe blackberry reports meant we were to grab a bucket, put on jeans and long sleeved white cotton shirts, shoes and socks, while taking great care to button the sleeves and rubber band the pant legs to keep the blood-sucking ticks off of uncovered skin. Waymon trusted there would be warm blackberry cobbler and vanilla ice milk for supper those nights. He was right most of the time.
Waymon trusted that occasionally he would have company in the basement, the room where he chose to sleep in the summer where four loud children and two chatting women wouldn’t keep him awake when he retired to his dreams, sometimes as early as 6:00 in the evening when the sun was just beginning to think of burning his last breath of day. On nights when city kids were strangled from the still and sweltering humid heat, a tired farmer shared his space where he snored without rattling windows. The gulping washing and ringing machines and the trampling feet going up and down the steep stairs to hang the overflow of wet clothes were paused, leaving the cool damp air of the sump pump and the natural condensation and mustiness to sink into the sheets and swathe the sufferers into their own dreams. Waymon trusted that kind of comfort for himself and entrusted it to young children.
And Waymon had trust issues concerning Doctors. “All they want is your money,” he complained. Then one summer we didn’t go to the farm. “He is sick and can’t be bothered by small children,” is what my mother offered. In 1975 he died. He got The Cancer I remember my mother calling it. I was sad. Even though our visits continued, I would never have fun at the farm after that. Waymon would have lived longer had he trusted the doctors. That’s what everyone said anyway. This was the worst trust issue he ever possessed.
Yes, Waymon had trust issues. A farmer and businessman, a husband, and a father who had the responsibility to work an expanse of land and earn a living trusting in the wisdom that years of experiences and hard work had taught him. He lived by his trust issues undeniably secure in his choices, even though he died by one, too. Waymon Ethridge was a man of great worth, by financial means and of character. I called him Gran Gran. He was my granddad.