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The Flatlander

Tractors, delta dirt and dad


I spent the first 14 years in fear of my Dad.

Then, invested most of my energy the next four, planning and anticipating that glorious day I’d walk away from him.

And the next 25 years, I spent ignoring him, almost as if he never existed, and making sure he knew that he had no say over anything I did or pursued. Those years were a mistake, and I’m lucky that realization came.

It’s a tough relationship in the best circumstances, this father-son dynamic. For my Dad and me, it was especially so. Throw in his qualities of extreme control, zero patience, and a complete lack of concern for teaching. Add my rebellious spirit, outright disdain for rules, and a high tolerance for risk and trying new things. Sprinkle in high testosterone levels and hot-baking summers on an Arkansas cotton farm, and what you really have is a powder keg waiting for a spark.

Fathers and sons on the farm are an especially unique breed. Thank goodness for the women in our lives who understand that. There were times I thought we might kill one another, and times when I prayed for a brother who might share some of the experience. But I was the only son of my parents volatile 45-year marriage. It is just as well, I suppose. It all brings to mind an old phrase: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

On the farm with Dad in 1974.
On the farm with Dad in 1974.

Chopping cotton at 8, and driving a tractor by 13, I endured 12 active years of servitude on that Delta farm. There were no pontoons or long-weekend vacations at the lake. Heck, our little town didn’t even have a swimming pool. And I’m not sure it would have made any difference if we had. Summer “vacation” from school meant work on the farm. One day you were getting your final report card. The next, you were loading 60-pound bushels of soybeans into a John Deere hopper, hopeful a decent song might play on the local radio station, KBIB 1560 AM.

“The voice of Buffalo Island” featured a German immigrant disc jockey with an accent so thick you could never understand a word she said. But she was a nice lady and the wife a highly regarded Korean War veteran, so no one ever said a word, really. But it was a hoot listening to her read the grocery ads. We tuned in on a giant box radio mounted on the frame of our International 806. It had an antenna five feet high. Between the tractor noise, the AM static ,and Margaret’s accent, you might as well have been in a washing machine tub. I digress, but there is so much humor in that scenario. Even so, it was our “normal.”

In early spring we’d begin equipment preparation. There was the inevitable changing of plows on several pieces of equipment. I never did learn to recognize the difference in a 9/16 nut and a 1/2-inch nut by sight, which especially aggravated my father.

And of course, there was the overwhelming joy of his verbal beatings when I’d bring him the wrong tool or hold the light the wrong way when he commanded help. There were many days I envied he way he treated his bird dog.

For many years I held so much against my father, not just ignoring him, but actively working to prove I didn’t need him. The great irony is that there was never a day I didn’t want to make my dad proud. This is innate. There is something inside a boy that wants to make his dad proud.

Oddly, I’ve found it as the strongest influence on my life. Gone for a decade now, I still find myself doing things to make dad proud.
And it’s amazing as we grow older how much of our fathers, we sons can see in ourselves.
Driving down an old dirt road I glance toward the steering wheel and I see my dry, age-spotted hands, some occasional dirt underneath the fingernails. They are the spitting image of my dad’s hands.

I react abruptly to the dog nabbing my sandwich, or spilling a glass of Dr Pepper, and I hear my father’s booming voice shooting off his mouth before his brain could even think. The man had a voice like thunder.
In the garden I make the same licks with a hoe that he would make.

Sometimes, I will break out in an a cappella rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” just like he did out in the cotton patch that sultry July morning.

And just last week, oh what a thrill. For a year and a half now I’ve been doing everything I know to lure the migrating purple martins to the housing on the property we call Tranquility Base. Two pair showed up and I could tell they wanted to stay. I heard them before I saw them. Dad taught me how to listen on the combine that day.

My father, for better or worse, gave me a colorful life. So much, in fact, it’s a storyteller’s dream.

Hug your dad. Hug your son. Happy Father’s Day.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

(Steve Watkins is a staff writer/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at steve@stonecountyleader.com)


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