Friday, January 28, 2011

Tow My Heart Away

"The Reaper - After Millet"
by Van Gogh ( Sept. 1889),
Private Collection, UK
A little scene took place in the driveway on Thursday. It lasted about ten minutes, but it represented the end of a relationship that had endured almost a decade, one that began when our son was still a toddler back in those few remaining months before September 11 ceased to be just another date on the calendar.

I said goodbye to our emerald green 1997 Toyota Corolla which we acquired in April 2001 from a college student. I watched as a decade of our life was chained up to the back of a tow truck.

It was time. The car, while still driveable and trustworthy, was dated. Anyone have use for an in-dash cassette player these days? And when you started the engine it vibrated so much that it felt like one was behind the wheel of a Kenworth.

I wasn't sentimental about this car like I was when we finally parted with our Swedish car that so effectively reminded me of days in Alaska. The Corolla was about basic, around the town, mundane transportation. In a given year we hardly put 5000 miles on it.

I thought about taking a picture, but why bother? This wasn't a grand separation.  It was nothing like the things the aged tow truck driver told me when I innocently asked him how he got into the towing business.

Now here was a story! I was standing in the presence of an old, slightly stooped, graying man who had lost the love of his life. He was the man who used to cut the wheat.

The Harvest
Bringing in the harvest with a high-tech combine.
For 45 years Lonnie (I'll call him) followed the grain belt. He started in the south and he worked his way north all the way into Canada.

He stood out there at the curb, hooking up my car, and simultaneously fondly recollecting the life he'd been squeezed out of by crush of the new economics, which involves so much money that a man catches his breath. And it involves something else: the persistent pattern of technology replacing human beings.

"When I first started out I had a combine that cost $6000. In the end each machine was $320,000. Course the old ones didn't even have a cab, much less air conditioning. The new-uns, they have a row of monitors in the cab  that shows everything going on outside."

A lot of what Lonnie told me involved numbers like this. It's not weather that changes a man's life. One can forge past weather. It's not always illness or injury. With the grace of God one can recover. But numbers! You can't fight the numbers once they cease to be in your favor.

"We had 5 combines and 12 people and a vehicle when we went out. Today to have that many machines would mean I'd have $3 million tied up just in equipment."

"I read last week about someone who bought 60,000 acres of wheat in Canada. Paid $40 million. That's what? $700 an acre? Used to be you could buy land for $45/acre and make $80 acre for the wheat you grew on it. The wheat paid for your land."

"I found an old receipt from 1973. I paid 27 cents for gas and 19 cents for diesel. Nowadays diesel is how much? Way over $3."

"My son is driving a truck these days. He says he'd like to go back to combining, but I tell him not to. It's too hard to make a living...last year we had a good harvest, but the price of wheat was bad."

A Life After Wheat
So Lonnie has been moving along on his gimpy leg for the past six years and driving a tow truck. "I have more money now than I did back then," he tells me. His job? To pick up vehicles like mine that are being donated to charity or, more often, to haul away wrecks after insurance companies have decided they're totaled.

If the air bags "blew," it's quite likely totaled and Lonnie
will be taking it to auction to be sold for parts and scrap.
"Doesn't take much to to total a car these days," he observes. "If  you're in any kind of accident and the front air bags go off, it's $3000 right there to replace them with factory ones."

So there are plenty of cars for Lonnie to haul to the grim place beside the railroad tracks where they'll be broken into parts and scrapped.

At least he doesn't have to pick up vehicles being repossessed from their owners by the bank.

'I know a guy who did that for a while, then quit. He got shot at too many times."

The Way It Was
All things must come to an end. I know this because my grandfather was a farmer. He had some dairy cows, then he grew old and it got too hard to get up and milk Bessie. He got himself some heifers. He continued to raise beef, some alfalfa, and wheat on his little 110-acre farm until he was in his seventies.

This is what it looked like when my grandfather harvested the wheat
on his Oklahoma farm in the 1960s.
I remember going out into the wheat field when I was a kid and following the orange Allis Chalmers combine as its wooden paddles turned and pulled in the tall golden grass. The separated chaff blew out a stack on the side of the combine. The wheat kernels poured into a bin.

Those kernels reminded me of some form of tiny bright treasure. The warm grainy scent was like inhaling a wealth of sorts. You just knew that with such things sprung from the earth, humanity always could always find flavor and sustenance.

All that's left of our '97 Corolla...
oil spots on the driveway.
In Memoriam
It's not what anyone would call tragic to see one farmer like my grandfather or Lonnie retire. It's not desperately sad to part with a car that I don't need anymore.
What does move me to concern and something beyond a cloying form of nostalgia is pondering if an important way of life is being lost.

When the machines become enormous and complicated, and as expensive as a mansion, we drive away the people who once placed their calloused hands tenderly upon the things we long to consume.

What was once of the earth has become a product, a commodity, removed from the smooth, wheaty kernels I remember digging into and letting pour through my fingers.

I'm sorry. I don't want technicians or robots harvesting my food. I want someone like Lonnie who cares about what he's doing. But I don't think that's going to happen as much as before.

You see, we've reassigned Lonnie to the same fate as that man Van Gogh painted over a hundred years ago, the man who had to put down his scythe. Instead of going out into the field to bring in the treasure, the harvester now gets paid to handle the chains and haul off  our dented and smashed trash.

That's quite an inversion and, unfortunately, it's the kind of "news" that's happening every day. Whether I choose to read about it or not. - V.W.


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