“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”— from “The Serenity Prayer”Reinhold …
Imagine my surprise the other day upon running into the old farmer, a rustic looking but gentle soul with whom I had shared lighthearted conversations over the years … and always in somebody’s parking lot.
Once it was over at Food City South. Another time it was at Walmart. Just last year it was on the Courthouse Square. And this time it was a few parking spaces shy of the front door at Tractor Supply Co.
He was coming out. I was going in.
If faded overalls, flannel shirt, straw hat and a pair of scratched, roughed-up, leather work boots make a man, then these made him; that, and the familiar stick of straw hanging from one corner of his mouth.
His round, wrinkled face bore a late-afternoon shadow, one that told the story of a farmer who rose early that morning to start the chores; or, at the very least, a tale of an easygoing outdoorsman who favored a cup of black coffee over razor and shaving mug.
Just as I remembered him … his was an old man’s gait carrying a time-beaten frame. He lumbered slowly across the weathered asphalt toward an aging black pickup — a Dodge, I believe — lined in dents and erratic scrapes, all the product of living off the land.
It wasn’t a cool truck. It was a farmer’s truck, one with a back bumper bent toward the ground at one corner — maybe caused by yanking a stubborn stump with rusty chain or pulling a neighbor’s disabled car out of a ditch.
He carried a wide corn scoop across a slumped shoulder. Its wooden handle shiny and new, the tool still wore its store-bought label, one whose brand I couldn’t make out.
“Well … look who’s come to town on a cold Saturday afternoon!” he exclaimed, his tired gray eyes looking up just in time to see me climbing out of my Kia, a five-year-old model not yet wrapped with the scars of wear and tear, as was his truck.
With a smile, the old farmer called me “young feller,” just like he always did. I’m no young fellow, but this native son of hard times had earned the right to believe it.
“Say, I’m glad I run into you,” he began. “I got an idea, one that maybe you’ll write about in yer paper.”
We shook hands. His grip was the same: strong and lasting, fingers and palm calloused from years of swinging an ax, powering a posthole digger, pounding a hammer, tossing firewood into the pitted bed of his truck or forcing a heavy chainsaw — probably a Stihl — through thick brush and felled tree limbs.
I doubted he ever wore gloves.
Returning his kind smile with one of my own, I greeted him with a cheerful, “How are you doing?” And I asked, “So what’s the idea?”
“I’m startin’ a new group. I’m callin’ it the Freedom From Peanut Butter Foundation.”
I heard the facetious tone. But it wasn’t unkind. It was dry wit, a trait I had seen in my friend before. His grin was as wide as Mouse Creek so I knew the dialogue remained light.
“Does this have anything to do with the Freedom From Religion Foundation?” I asked, my tone just as light. I figured he was talking about the brouhaha over at Bear Stadium, and the complaint about a student’s prayer being broadcast over the loudspeaker before a Bradley Central football game.
“Maybe so,” he acknowledged. “One’a my grandbabies — just a little thang — almost choked on peanut butter some time back. Skeered me to death. So I got mad at the peanut butter. I got offended, you might say. So I want it off the shelf. Reckon you kin help with that? Yer paper wrote about that scrape over the prayer.”
His tone remained jovial, but I knew he was making a point. He was a humble, Christian man who knew the inside of a church. He and his wife, Ruth, attended services regularly as their health allowed.
“What’s yer thinkin’ on that?” my friend asked.
“You mean the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Freedom From Peanut Butter?” I asked.
“The first one. You fer prayer at the games or agin’ it? ‘Course, as a newspaperman you prob’ly can’t say your opinion.”
With a nod, I assured him it was OK … but I reminded him as an editor, regardless of how I felt personally, I had to be fair to both sides. Both deserved to be heard.
“I’m no expert on what’s going on, but here’s my take on it,” I offered. “The issue is not just prayer. It’s broadcasting prayer over the loudspeaker. The U.S. Supreme Court says — from that Texas court case back in 2000 — that you can’t do that.”
“How do YOU feel about it?”
I sighed somewhere deep inside. But he was a cordial fellow and I knew his heart was in the right place. He was salt of the earth, the best kind.
“If the Supreme Court says you can’t do it, then it’s law,” I answered. “I support following the law. But I also believe there are ways, legal ways, around it. Or, just hire a lawyer and get it back to the Supreme Court … if they’ll hear it. Get the law changed. But I don’t know how all that works.”
“And whut if it is wuzn’t the law?”
“Then I’d say pray all you want and crank up the volume on that public address system as loud as it’ll go,” I replied. “I’m for the prayer, but I’m not for breaking the law. If we intentionally break the law — even for public prayer in our faith-based community, which I love dearly — then what do we say to our kids … that it’s OK to ignore the rules?”
“Like I said,” I added, “if we don’t like the law, then change the law. If we can’t change it, then work with it. Find a compromise. There’s bound to be a common ground if folks will just work together.”
He nodded in thought, but this was a man of deep conviction. Faith meant a lot in his family, and if they wanted to pray then they wanted to pray … whenever and wherever.
But he also had a sense of humor.
“So what about the Freedom From Peanut Butter Foundation?” he mused, the smile returning, the piece of straw sliding to his mouth’s other corner without a touch of his hand. I still didn’t know how he did it.
“Talk to the folks at Jif," I said with a grin. “See what they have to say. But don’t pin your hopes on the Supreme Court. They have too much on their plate already.”
We shook hands again. His grip was firm and his face was fatherly. He reminded me of my dad. Maybe it’s why I liked him.
“Well, I gotta git home," he said. “Ruth’ll have supper on the table.”
Our hands still clasped, I cupped my left one across the back of his right, forming a tight ball of respect.
“You take care of yourself,” I offered.
Placing the bulky shovel into the bed of his truck, he climbed into the cab … a chilling creak from the sagging old, stubborn door as it swung open, and then slammed shut.
Through lowered window, he asked, “Do you pray?”
Not expecting the question, I answered with a nod.
“Yes sir,” I told him. “Mostly in groups, not so much alone."
“How does it make you feel?”
“… Good,” I hesitated. “It makes me feel good.”
Silence, and then his knowing nod.
“Young feller, you an’ and the wife kum see us,” he said, speaking over the groan of a sluggish engine. “My Ruth, she fries up a mean batch of chicken. Me and her both … we enjoy readin’ yer paper, ‘specially right after the supper dishes.”
The old Dodge sputtered across the parking lot. With soiled hand stained by a farmer’s everyday life of earth and iron, he waved goodbye through the open window. I returned the gesture.
Taking a step toward the door of the Tractor Supply store, I tried to remember the last time I ate fried chicken. I could not.
(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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