Mondays with Martin: Winding Roads

David Martin

In 1829 the future President Martin Van Buren wrote to then President Andrew Jackson, asking him to slow down on his progressive moves to face the future in the young United States of America.

 

Dear President Jackson:

The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as “railroads.” The federal government MUST preserve the canals for the following reasons:

ONE: if canal boats are supplanted by these new “railroads,” serious unemployment will result. Captains, docks, drivers and lock tenders will be left without means of livelihood, not to mention the numerous farmers now employed growing hay for horses.

TWO: Boat builders would suffer, and towline, whip and harness makers would be left destitute. 

THREE: Canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In the event of the expected trouble with England, the Erie Canal would be the only means by which we could ever move the supplies so vital to waging modern war.

As you may well know, Mr. President, “railroad” carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by “engines” which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock, and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.

Martin Van Buren,

Governor of New York

 

This letter, which was written three years after Thomas Jefferson died, might be the ultimate example of conservative thinking. Really, canal boats are better for the United States than railroads? Now, we know those roaring and snorting engines that “endangered” passengers in 1829 are still vital to our country’s economy, and fifteen miles per hour is no longer “breakneck speed.”

Mankind’s journeys have come in many fashions: horses, bicycles, boats, railroads, automobiles, airplanes, computers, cell phones, and space travel. Whatever our mobility mode, look for the roads less travelled. Life seldom follows a straight line from point A to Z, and our personal journeys add clarity to the telling of our stories. They allow us to have fun with the written word and build the creative corners of our minds that we did not know existed. Each paragraph we write acts like a railroad car of its own, carrying characters, messages, and a cargo of ideas across vistas that complete the breakneck train-ride of our lives.

 

Some people think Monte Walsh was the best western novel ever written (1963). Since the author also wrote Shane (1949), Jack Schaefer captured the timely saga of a dying way of life, where the lonely cowboy meets the changing modern way of living. It is ironic that the Monte Walsh movie of the same name takes place in Harmony, Arizona.

My father always wanted to be a real cowboy, like Tom Mix, Lash Larue, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Shane, and Walsh, but when he returned from WWII with three Purple Hearts, his legs and feet were so damaged by bullets and shrapnel that they were unable to do the hard riding and physical work a cowboy must do every day. He only took his boots off to sleep, because he could hardly walk without their firm, high arch support. I imagine him talking with one of these cowboys, and they are wearing their favorite pair of leather boots.

Dad’s favorite companion was a beautiful Morgan mare named Gin. She ruled every pen and pasture she entered. Her eyes were alert. Her ears were always up. When I looked at her, I could see her thinking about how to survive in a world of animals and humans. Gin lived for thirty-three years, which is old for horses. From her, I learned it is a mistake to assume all animals will react identically to the same stimuli. Some need rewards at every turn. Some only want encouragement to achieve superior results. People are the same.

 

Every day, Mom suffered, because she hoped for an educated life, one that provided a better living, one where people graduated from college and became professionals. She flinched every time she heard the song “Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” That ballad was not her friend. While she let me work with Dad during the day, she made sure I spent an equal amount of time with her in the town library, at piano practice, and doing homework for school. She smiled the most when we had late night chats in the kitchen, puzzling over life’s questions and the abstract ideas I found interesting in the books I read. 

She let me find my own road in life. I wanted to be myself, but I had a hard time learning who that was. I searched for years to discover me. Many of my blue highways did not appear on maps. I rode horses in saddle club contests and learned cowboy lingo. I read Victor Hugo all night and loved the flow of his words. I coached young boys how to put basketballs into nets and took those skills into classrooms to score points with teachers who listened to me. I pumped gas and learned some of the oil business. I balanced a checkbook for the first time and took great pride in being thrifty. I drove grain trucks and felt the land’s treasure riding in the back. I delivered newspapers and brought the world news to my customers’ front doors. I wrote magazine articles, managed a church, studied philosophy, fed cattle, and learned how to adapt in life in order to survive. 

I was frustrated with my imperfections. However, when I discovered “perfection” was just another word, and there were no perfect human beings, no perfect Standard English, no perfect religion, no perfect student, no perfect teacher, no perfect parent, no perfect planet, and no perfect god, I relaxed. I stopped looking for and expecting perfection in myself and others. The word “progress” interested me. If I improved a little each day, that was enough. This realization gave me reason to ride more trains and investigate more winding roads. 

 

One day in my biology high school class, when I was dreaming out loud with friends, I said that I wanted to go to college and do something exciting, but I did not know what to study. 

My teacher heard me and said, “Oh, you are just your father’s son. You will be like him and run his gas station or one of his farms, someday.” I can still hear her tired, raspy voice say those words. They haunt me still.

She hardly ever talked to me, because she was my mother’s and father’s teacher, and she believed I was an average student, having known them. She did not see anything special about them or me, and I did not expect that she ever would. Still, this hurtful comment was not what I hoped to hear from any adult teacher. She was full of negativity, darkness, lack of hope, and I never felt inspired in her classroom. That day, I almost let her kill part of me, my dream of becoming the first person in my family to earn a college education. 

 

After school was out for the summer that year, I was working with Dad, one day, and we walked into his favorite saloon for lunch. He seemed so comfortable that a chill of premonition went down my spine. That bar represented his life and the status quo he liked. I just wanted to eat, get back on the tractor, finish my day’s work, and in the evening go to the library. I wanted to live my life, not his. In high school, I knew that if I wanted to write, I needed to read more. I felt like a little bird with a broken wing, because I could not get off the ground. When healed, I imagined flying high, soaring with words beneath my wings. Mom would like that.

I had plans to read, write about topics that were fun to investigate, and discover substantial information that would pull me into my future adult life. My pearls of joy were those books resting on the rows of shelves. Each volume was a treasure of its own, and I dreamed that one day my name would have a place on a shelf, too. 

That night, a librarian asked me, “Are you a writer?” 

She caught me off guard, and I blushed. “Well, I want to be one, someday, but I don’t know if I have what it takes to get started.” 

She said with a smile, “You won’t know until you try.” 

 

Winding roads have curves, and some have bridges. Forgiveness is a bridge between leaving the past and improving tomorrow. I learned to face difficult times, when I found chaos is where creativity is born. The more I read, the more I changed, and the toughest times taught me the most. Those books led me over rough waters, where I learned to forgive myself. When I opened the books, I imagined light erupting from the pages, and I walked forward into their light. One of the earliest self-affirmation bridges I experienced was when my passion for reading helped me through my toughest year. I read 150 books in 12 months. I felt more confident about a lot of things when that year ended. Those bridges taught me to not let my limitations define me.

Once, Dad looked at me, and without speaking, he asked, “Why do you want to be different?” 

I responded in the same way, “Some of me is you. Some of me is Mom. I just want to be me. That is who I want to be.”

He did not know what to say, so he said nothing.

Years later, I heard Bob Marley sing what I felt: “One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right.”

With these lessons, I grew page by page. I dug deeper. I thought harder. I saw further.

When I was lonely, I found puppies that took me in. Every dog needed a boy or a girl. Children liked their dogs, and dogs liked their boys and girls. Puppies helped me make the best of the way things turned out. They taught me to be humble enough to be coached, and I learned even the youngest and smallest in a litter can learn. The most stubborn puppy changed his attitude, when motivated to do so. When my furry friends were stubborn, I got down on the floor with them, let them lick my face, looked them in both eyes, told them what they had to do, and never let them do otherwise. They did not forget the look in my eyes, the tone of my voice, what I told them, and how much I cared for them. If they didn’t follow my commands, I did not care enough. 

 

Grandfather was a positive role model for me in many ways, and I felt lucky to be around him on the weekends, when Mother and I came for visits on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. When I was a little boy, maybe eight-years-old, reading did not come easily for me, and opening a book required much planning and effort. 

One day, I walked into Grandfather’s library, and there was a half-cut apple on the card-table next to his comfortable reading chair, a steaming cup of coffee, three open books lying next to each other, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” playing on the big radio, and hand-written notes on a large, yellow tablet. As I sat down, the breeze outside ruffled the shades in the open window. 

He was the smartest man I knew, and his interests included agriculture, human evolution, politics, and the St. Louis Cardinals. There was no question I ever asked him that he could not answer. At that age, all I had to do was listen. When he talked, he kept me at the end of his out-stretched arms, and when he felt an important point in the conversation was about to arrive, he squeezed my shoulders for emphasis, so I would know to remember what he said.

We lived in a small town, and as far as I knew, no one important lived there. To most of the townsfolk, Grandfather seemed like any ordinary 60-year-old man, but he felt special to me. Although he farmed every day, I never saw him sweat. How is that possible? I asked my mother that same question. She said she did not know, so I watched him closely. After a few weeks of diligent observation, I could see that he never hurried. He never pushed. He smiled all the time, and he talked to all the animals on the farm. It seemed as if he had the best job in the world. What did this mean? 

Grandfather was an organizer, a planner, and he never did anything or spoke a word, unless he thought about his actions ahead of time. He always got up early, before the sun rose, and when it was the coolest part of the day, he did eight hours of work before noon. Then, he would eat lunch and take a nap. When he worked in the afternoon, he was in the shade, if possible, took ten minutes out of every hour for a cool drink, put his feet up, and rested awhile. His smile always showed up, because he enjoyed what he did. His love for farming was contagious, and we all wanted to help him. 

One day, after lunch, he and I sat on the shady front porch. His eyes were closed, as he rested, before he went back to the field to work. I was listening to a train going down the tracks in the distance, blowing its whistle.

I asked him a question. “Grandpa, will I grow up to be like you?”

He opened his eyes, slowly. “What did you say?”

“Well, you seem so happy all the time, and you like what you do every day. I don’t know anybody else who likes what they do so much. I want to be like that.”

His eyes got bigger, and he laughed. “If I help other people and do a good job at it, that is a good thing, right?”

“Yes.”

“We are a family, and we are supposed to help each other in as many ways as possible. Well, being a conscientious farmer is doing God’s work. Feeding people healthy food is one man’s way of praying. I often feel like an artist of the soil, when I drive my tractor during planting season. I plow, disc, till, plant, weed the rows, and harvest the crops. When I take care of the Earth, it takes care of me. Our heaven might just be below our feet.”

“I’m not sure I understand all of that. Last week, my teacher tried to tell us what a metaphor was. Did you do one of those just now?”

“Maybe.”

“It would be nice, if more people worked with those goals in mind, right?

He stood up to go back to work, arranged his hat, placed his hands on my shoulders, and squeezed them.

Then, he smiled and said, “In the future, instead of planting soybeans, wheat, and corn every spring, wouldn’t it be great to have a tractor that could plant truth, justice, and freedom for all? In the fall, we’d harvest knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom. Those different crops in the barn would come in pretty handy, when we needed them. We must never limit ourselves. We will never know what we can achieve, until we try.”

I replied, “I want a job like that.”

He hugged me, and I saw his eyes twinkle. 

“Don’t over think it, sonny,” he said. “Just begin.” 

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