Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Victor, a guy I know, has died. How many hay farmers do you know who show up to help you load? I never saw him but when he was getting on a tractor or getting off, or tinkering with the infernal bailer, or dragging a tedder around in a big river bottom field on a sunny day.
His house is a two story colonial, recently built and well kept. You might think of him as a modern Maine Squire. He owns the F350 Diesel, the John Deere tractor. All of his equipment is in tip-top shape. The yard is well kept, too—gardens well tended behind the house. The barn is big enough to cover 20,000 bales. It is well-founded and the roof is metal. The fields are river bottom, tending to be damp in places in Spring, but rich and fertile in late summer. Victor always got plenty of second crop, and in some years a third mowing. He worked at the mill; haying was the "hobby". He was always good for a couple months credit, and if in the midst of a hard time, you should go over, no grudges were held. You paid, and then back to business as usual. Doesn't sound at all like a man who'd one day forget to stay alive.
There were rumors about family problems. His wife's family included well known local and state political figures and successful business people. So the dangers of marrying from above. What was this farming all about, she'd like to know? She never liked it. The kids were not interested. Why did he give all that credit late in the year? He had bills to pay, too. Wait for X to pay so that he could pay Y? Farming was a dead end; nobody ever made any money at it. It was 24/7 work, and a dead end, even if you were really smart. The farming kids suffered; there was no money for school, no money for the dentist. Even a good-looking kid smelled manure and moldy hay dust. No animals in Victor's wife's house, and muddy boots left outside, please. And just as well the farmer friends chatted on the porch.
So there was that. The rumor was that she had left. And now he had the bills. You've got bills, you've gotta work, sick or not. That's the way Victor had been brought up.
This year Spring proceeded into mid-June with a prolonged rainy spell. The fields were still too wet for haying last week of June most places. But Victor, as usual, was the first to bale. The days were now long and sunny; a high bright sky dominated; a fresh, dry westerly dipped across the field, dragging away excess moisture like a sponge. A few days the higher ground was dry enough to be mowed. One more tedding might have helped. But it was late afternoon, and if left much longer in the afternoon, baling would carry on past dark. If baling were left till next day, the cool morning would leave dew enough for another tedding before, finally, baling. The crew was anxious to know what the boss would decide. Victor was lucky to get the crew he had. The afternoon was hot. He put off baling till the last. He had three or four customers on the way. The grass in this high spot was broad leaved, few ferns or stems. Early first crop is nutritious stuff. Victor picked up a handful and it twirled in the steady breeze just enough before sinking. There were a thousand bales. Time is money. He started baling.
Before I, the last customer, had arrived, Victor had sold 400 bales, and he and his crew were occupied with stacking the rest on the carts. He had left 100 bales on the ground, which was what I expected to buy. I always buy enough of this early first crop to last till second cut. The goats love second cut. They eat it enthusiastically and waste hardly a shred. Goats are notorious wasters; they pick at the hay feeder like finicky teenagers. But by this time of year they are anxious to get fresh hay. If it is first crop, but just too tough or stemmy, or maybe not exactly right somehow, they will look at me as if I am trying to kill them. But I could tell in a minute the girls would eat this stuff.
Even then on that day, the first day of baling, Victor didn't look so good. His chest looked beaten down. When he coughed, he hid his mouth behind his fist, and swallowed his breath. First we did the business. I had enough cash for fifty bales. Would he fill up my trailer? I'd pay off the last fifty bales in a week or two. "Sure, sure. Come on, we'll help you load."
That should be all you need to know. Victor lived his deals to the letter. Part of the deal was to help the fellow to load, not to turn your back and let him fend for himself. So he'd pitch in. "You keep count," he said. Once in awhile I'd hear him grumble, "How many you got?" I often had the feeling I could have said anything, and he'd have said "Yep. Okay." Men tell you who they are in their acts, in how they live their lives. Their words are ninety percent bullshit. This is always true and you can count on it.
I had heard that he had lung cancer. It was common knowledge by then. But why should I broach the subject? The man was at his work and busy with the thoughts of the moment.
But he must have observed the curious glances.
"Doctor says chemo next week," Victor offered. "Next Tuesday. Figure I'll get 4,000 bales this weekend, another 3 or 4 thousand next weekend. Might have to take a few days off."
"What? Chemo! You're gonna be sick."
"Gotta work. No money." He frisked together his fingertips.
Knowing the man, I should have paid more attention. I thought: his body will take care of that, then when his body lets him, the best thing is to get up and get going again, anyway. I personally favor the John Wayne approach to sickness, that you should get the extra-strength Tylenols emailed to you with the germs. But how could he think he'd be able to carry on this summer the way he had previous summers?
"Naw. Kick up." I said. "The grass will grow just fine. Let the doctors put you back on your feet. They are wonders, them doctors."
"They're wonders all right."
"When you feel better, cut and leave it. Can't help but make next year's crop greener, right?"
"No. Can't let a crop pass. No money."
Of course, I knew it wouldn't work out. Then I started thinking, me, Mr. Big Thinker. What would I do in his situation? There isn't a heck-of-a-lot of money hanging around in my house. I think there is just barely enough to retire on. Maybe. If I am lucky. I might be able to explore. I shouldn't have to depend on the kids. I should be able to leave something behind. But when the medical bills start tumbling in, I'd have to pay, because that is my habit, to pay my bills. The experts advise owners of underwater mortgages to dump and run. Medical bills can skyrocket to the stratosphere. What do the experts advise for that? What does the cure really cost if two clean-up rags cost fifty bucks? And then the hospitals are riddled with weird bugs. Take a pill, get a shot and wonder. Two years of cancer treatments, assuming you don't catch the deadly hospital fungus, covered with average insurance, the kind you end up with at work, and you could be looking at fifty grand in bills. Suppose the Doctors give you two years. If you are deep into your sixties, why bother? Think about it. Even assuming a miraculously successful treatment, American life expectancy is 73 to 76, the lowest in the affluent world. If you've made it to 66 before you get sick, present retirement age, that means you can figure on, given amazing good luck an additional ten years. Most likely it will be five years. Man, to tell you the truth, before the big bill comes in, that hayfield at the end of the rainbow looks passible for a fellow to drop dead in.
And thus I was wondering as I was talking to Victor.
When the other fellows finished loading the carts, they came over to help load me, and Victor stepped aside because frankly he looked like he was gonna fall over.
"So anyway, I figure I'll probably need a few days after the chemo, then back to normal weekend after next."
"Sure," I says, "somebody'll wind you up, get you going."
He struggled not to laugh because it might start a coughing fit.
"Might not have my usual get up and go."
"Might not," I says.
Shortly, my truck and trailer were loaded. I left but parked on a little bluff over the field and took some pictures. I love that field. I could see why a fellow would rather die than stop haying it. The river is off there far in the distance in front of those shady, tree covered hills. Last I saw of Victor, I was driving by, he was staring at his tractor, as if he was trying to figure out where he was. Then he turned around suddenly, walked away, shrugging, and he threw out his arms in confusion and walked toward the house.
I drove home wondering if life was worth ten-thousand a year. I suppose depending on whether or not you have the ten-thousand. What old man would want to ruin his sons' and daughters' inheritance with a big medical bill? Besides, the wife, whom he had been tied to whether for good or ill for forty years, who had born those sons and daughters, was still alive.
Why be surprised that he died in a hay field? He went out into the middle of it and dropped dead. The doctors predicted he'd have a couple of good years after the chemo, and so on; the doctors are capable of wonders; a few years, say two, taken one day at a time, is a few days; and each day might have a good use put to it. Was he shortchanging himself? Is it just another case of a man who has worked all his life facing hospital bills which would put him and his family in the hole for generations; just as they were laboriously climbing out? Or maybe he was thinking about the life he would leave that his sickness would prohibit him leading ever again quite the way he was used to. Maybe he just plain didn't want to live that new life. I try hard, but damned if I blame him.