My father-in-law, Earnest, was a farmer, and one of the most aggravating men who ever lived.
Earnest was born during the 1930’s Depression and Oklahoma Dust Bowl into a family of impoverished sharecroppers. His dad supplemented farming by working as a carpenter and on road crews to feed his family, but he didn’t get any richer. When Earnest was thirteen-years-old his dad got sick, so he left school to take his father’s place making a living for his four younger siblings. He hired out as a farm laborer, even plowing behind mules at times.
Along the way, my father-in-law learned other trades, including carpentry, which paid the bills much better than sharecropping. He married and had kids and lived his life, but he loved farming more than anything. He nearly bled red Oklahoma dirt. Finally, in his fifties, he got back into farming with some old machinery and a quarter-section of land (160 acres) on which he grew wheat and cotton. He ran cattle on other pieces of rented pasture and he was as happy as a king with a mighty kingdom.
Earnest was stringy and tough, with a work ethic almost unknown today. He was a gifted carpenter and cabinet maker. He actually believed the Bible as it is written, considering the commandments to be…well, commandments…not suggestions. He was violently honest, as in: “Yes, I do, too, owe you this penny. You can either take it, or have it for dinner, but I’m not gonna owe nobody nothin’.” He loved to tease and he laughed uproariously at his own jokes. He loved his family more than his life. He’d give anybody the shirt off his back.
He would’ve taken a bullet for me–his daughter-in-law–without hesitation. Still, he was one of the most aggravating men I knew.
He called me Snooks. (Imagine. Even today, my sons call me Snooks and snicker.) He stuck his nose in my business and made suggestions. He tried to sneak money to me–or even pay our bills sometimes–when he thought we were in a bind. He teased me when I had unfortunate mishaps with my cooking and many other things. He slipped his three grandsons candy, or coffee, or whatever they wanted. He gave me nutritional advice–he who ate sausage biscuits every morning at the gas station.
The two of us used to have heated political debates. An especially lively one was about Ross Perot. If you are less than forty-years-old, you probably have no idea who Ross Perot was, but if you are over forty and a Republican, you remember he was the little guy with big ears and a bigger mouth who got Bill Clinton elected instead of George W Bush’s old man, George H W Bush. I tried to tell Earnest he was throwing his vote away on Ross Perot, but once he got something stuck in his head, he’d waller it into the ground.
Technology baffled my father-in-law. The first cell phone he bought in 1998 took all my patience to watch him try to get it hauled out of the front pocket of his bib overalls, flip it open, and try to figure out how to answer. Every time. I mean, he wasn’t trying to de-fuse a bomb, or anything, was he? And then he yelled into the device like the person he spoke to was across the seas.
As someone who had plowed behind mules and worked on a harvest crew–using open topped combines and moving wheat with shovels instead of power augers–a combine like ours (below), was a marvel for him to behold. He’d go on and on about Gramps’ and my marvelous farming equipment, while to me, we owned aging pieces of junk that cost us a fortune in repair bills.
The most aggravating thing my father-in-law did, however–hands down–was sometimes when I’d stagger out of the bedroom about daylight, he would be sitting on the couch reading the High Plains Journal. He’d look at me in all my affronted glory and make some remark about me sleepin’ all day. Then he’d laugh his head off, tickled to death. Very, very annoying.
The years passed and I was busy. I couldn’t pay attention to him all the time. Besides, aggravating old farmers tend to live forever, don’t they?
I don’t remember when he stopped teasing and laughing. When he lost interest in his cattle and how the cotton crop was shaping up. When he stopped sitting on our couch at daylight. Just, somewhere along the way, he gradually turned into a dried up old man who wasn’t happy anymore. I wasn’t wise enough then to see the agricultural, social, and technological revolutions he’d lived through in his lifetime had left him behind. Confused and alienated, he longed for a simpler time.
He died in 2004, but if he’d lived he would’ve been eighty-years-old last Sunday. And y’all want to know the strangest thing about that aggravating old farmer and me?
He gave me many of the best parts of my life–and now that it’s too late–I’d give everything I own to walk out of the bedroom about daylight some morning and find him sitting on my couch again.
God bless all y’all and enjoy Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs doin’ Earnest’s favorite song, Where the Soul of Man Never Dies.
*These artists don’t necessarily endorse my blog, I just like’ em.