(This week’s column is an excerpt from my book, The King of Highbanks Road, chapter titled Country Folk.)
There were two kinds of people in the Highbanks Road community: all the ones who knew your business and looked on you as a sinner worse than themselves, and the ones who knew all your sins and loved you just the same. Word traveled fast in a community where most telephones were connected on a four-home party line. The stories got juicier as they were retold in the town coffee shops, barbershops, and beauty shops. And on Sunday, everyone was thankful the preacher delivered the weekly message with a bit of hellfire and brimstone because the sorry family sitting next to them needed the corrective word so badly.
Across the United States, there is no better place to find steamy, highly exaggerated gossip than in coffee shops where men gather in rural America. It was my dad’s experience with one of the community’s toughest characters in the summer of 1983 that kept him away from those shops for a good three months.
That character was Elmer Duncan and the best strategy for getting along with Elmer was just walking in the other direction. Narrow waist, broad shoulders, chiseled face, and long, golden hair like a Greek god, Elmer was forever young. He worked as a tractor-driving hired hand from one farm to another, a temper so bad he never lasted long in a single place. He relished his bad-boy role in standard uniform seven days a week – Levi jeans and a sleeveless ribbed t-shirt (they called it a wife-beater in those days). When you saw him cruising the dirt roads in his early model Chevy pickup Elmer was most likely drinking, and depending on the week he’d had, possibly looking for a fight.
This is not the kind of man for whom my father had a great affinity. He hated a cocky soul.
The men and women who lead American farm families are some of the best people you’ll ever know. They are moral, hardworking, generous, welcoming, and unpretentious. And they are generally mild-mannered with the exception of a few weeks each June when circumstances come together for a perfect storm of stress-induced emotion. It’s the farm frenzy. A two- to three-week period when there’s a harvest, replanting, and ongoing work to keep the existing crops clean. It’s like being all-in at the poker table.
Everything rides on the circumstances and 24 hours is too short a day. Everyone’s tired, ready for a break, and on edge. I’ve seen farmers who were deacons at the First Baptist Church go on a cussing tirade in the summer rush. And David Watkins was no church deacon.
It was on a late Saturday afternoon during this time when my father walked into the house looking as if he’d tumbled down some rocky Ozark mountaintop. Busted lip, left eye swollen shut, and deep, bloody lacerations everywhere else, he was like a tomcat home from a three-week countryside prowl-about. He wasn’t angry or even highly agitated, just desperately in need of some first aid. With an appearance that betrayed him, there was no way he could get around telling the story.
Headed home from the “Corner Farm” Dad was driving a tractor with a six-row cultivator in tow, and Elmer was oncoming in his prized blue Chevy. Any set of circumstances can make it difficult for a farmer to pull to the side, and country protocol is generally that the oncoming vehicle does all it can to make easy passage for the tractor. But Elmer wasn’t interested in protocol. He wanted to hold his side of the road putting Dad in an impossible position.
Striking a match to tinder comes to mind.
Eyes dead set on one another, my father dismounted the tractor, and Elmer exited the blue Chevy not even bothering to close the door. Intently, the two middle-aged men walked straight toward one another as rural gladiators, no word exchange necessary. It was a season when my dad was 50, overweight, overconfident and Elmer was in the prime of his meanness and toughness. Of course that never crossed David Watkins’ mind.
All reason goes out the window when two men like this are looking for a fight.
They were intent on teaching one another a lesson. As they met Elmer threw a sharp right jab square to my Dad’s left eye. It put him on the ground immediately. Dazed, he got up and headed toward Elmer again and managed to wrestle him to the ground. From there, Elmer got on top and beat him just enough so that he knew he’d been in a good fight and lost.
It was over before it began. If anything, I always appreciated that Elmer didn’t kill him.
Predictably in the months that followed, my father never once regretted the fight, that he might have been killed, or that it was an embarrassment to the family. What he most lamented was not getting off the tractor with a three-quarter inch wrench that Elmer surely would have used to kill him.
This all became the stuff of legend in our small town.
Several years later Elmer was speeding 90 miles an hour down the highway when he swerved his motorcycle to dodge some roadkill. He lost control, flipped end-over-end and he rolled across the asphalt for a hundred yards. They picked Elmer up in pieces so there was something for the coffin.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a writer/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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