Sometimes I wish I could remember her name.
It was 5:21 a.m. and my wife’s cat clawed my toes to get me up, because he wanted to go outside.
I have no idea why we have a cat that is best suited to be living with a family of dairy farmers, people who LIKE being up at 5:00 a.m.
But it is what it is, and after I let the cat out, I laid in bed wide awake, with memories racing through my brain. Luckily, I seem to have gotten past that stupid thing I did in fifth grade, but plenty else rattled around to keep me occupied.
I thought about Wally Roselund for a while. He was a friend of my father’s, a lodge brother, and sometimes he’d come out and help on the farm. When I was about twelve, we were in the middle of wheat harvest. This was the mid-1960s, and at that time we hauled grain in a wagon, about 100 bushels at a time. When you got to the elevator, a machine basically like an escalator, you set a hydraulic jack on the front of the wagon, slowly pumped the handle, and lifted the box until all the grain ran out. It wasn’t fast, or particularly easy, but it was what we had. The day I remember, the jack was broken, and the only alternative was to shovel the grain out by hand.
Think shoveling snow, if the snow weighed four times as much and your sidewalk was six feet wide and buried four feet deep. I was whining, as only a twelve-year-old doing manual labor can whine, and Wally, although a remarkably kind and soft-spoken man, finally said, “And here I was, just grateful that we had an elevator.”
You see, when Wally was my age, the way he got grain under cover was to back the wagon into a shed, shovel it up over his head onto a wide board, where someone else shoveled it over THEIR head into the bin.
My guess is that method was even less fun than it sounds.
It was the closest thing to a rebuke I ever got from Wally, and it’s a lesson that’s stuck with me for over half a century. Sometimes, the work just needs to be done. My guess is the wagon jack was fixed by the next morning, but at that moment, the grain needed to go in the bin and no amount of whining was going to change that. The only thing whining would do was make the job worse and the day longer.
Remembering Wally made me smile, but then my brain jumped the tracks, the way it can when you’re wide awake in the dark. I remembered the only writing class I’d ever had. It was at least thirty years ago, a correspondence course on essay writing through the University of Minnesota. I’d write about 600 words, put them in the mail, and a week later receive comments from an adjunct professor.
At the end of the class, for which I received excellent grades, I kind of poured out my heart to the instructor. I knew I was a pig farmer from a small place, but I really kind of thought I was a writer, too.
It was scary to put such an audacious goal in writing. A week later, I received her advice and it read, “Good luck with the pigs.”
A few decades later, after a million or so words that people have paid me for writing, I should let that one go, but I haven’t. It was such a casually brutal thing to say, and there was no need for it. It’s something that’s made me careful about the way I respond to hearing other people’s dreams, because no matter how unlikely they may sound, they aren’t any more unlikely than my life. Sometimes I wish I could remember the professor’s name so I could update her on the accuracy of her advice, but I forgot it a long, long time ago.
Wally, though...Wally I’ll remember forever.
Copyright 2021 Brent Olson
Those early morning "think alongs" can be killers, or they can be interesting enough for a great piece of writing. I do remember the name, Marjorie Norton, for she was the guidance counselor who told me to just stay home and farm with my dad, that I was certainly not college material. I earned the degree, then embarked on a nearly 50 year journalism career with credits in nearly 100 magazines and stints at three daily newspapers, a great publishing house, an ad agency and finally a country weekly, which was way too much fun. I'm also pleased to be one of the few Big Stone County residents to have won AAEA plaques along with NAMA and Pictures of the Year recognitions, along with too many state newspaper awards in Iowa, Colorado and Minnesota to remember. Oh, and Marjorie, I was also the first "ag" writer to win two Oscars in Agriculture. So there!
I hope the instructor understood that raising pigs successfully, also requires a certain business acumen. Otherwise, she was being derisive on two levels. I am sure she became aware of your success as you flourished as a writer. That would of course require that she remember her students by name and possess a modicum of empathy. Keep the pen in motion!
Wonderful messages, Brent. I think of Wally as well but for a totally different reason. I have my dad’s cribbage board that was made by Wally. I think of him whenever I play. He was such a kind man and Edith a wonderful woman.
And this is precisely why we teachers, from early childhood to college, need to check our thinking, our judgements, and beliefs at the door and remember that a remark, positive or negative, can stay with a human for a very long time.
The above made me think of another piece you wrote about a stone barn near where you live and the man you know who helped pour the floor. As for the pigs, you were always a writer, but at the time, you made your money as a pig farmer. You just had to say to yourself and the world you were a writer, and that took time and effort to develop. I always enjoy reading what you write.
She overstepped her position for sure, but we never know what might be the motivator ?
Beautiful....and from the little I know of you from your writing, I doubt any 'rebuke' the instructor might receive from you would be in any way as hurtful as her words to you.
Thank you Brent. Once again your writing touched me. Now I live in Madison Wisconsin and I’m reading “Crossing to Safety” for the second time. It is so much fun to read it now that I live in Madison, having moved from Luverne ,Minnesota ten years ago. I grew up on a farm in southeastern Minnesota. I was the the sole daughter, having three brothers. I wasn’t involved in the hard work of the farm but instead practice my piano and saxophone and relished learning in my small high school and then enrolling at Luther College.
What a treat is mine, reading Wallace Stegner and Brent Olson on this cloudy morning. Life is good when I am able to put Afghanistan forest fires, hurricane Ida out of mind for an hour or two. I am grateful.
I really enjoy your writing and your perspectives on life from a country boys life on a farm. I grew up in the country and enjoyed reading your books and articles over the years.
This article reminds me of how I wanted to take shop classes in high school and my mom said it was not a something you will ever take and learn to use your mind. So I tried the University for 2 years and found a job helping build a church in Cannon Falls as an apprentice carpenter. 50 years later, I still enjoy building and creating things as a carpenter and enjoyed my career path as a skilled craftsmen. Just like learned my skills as a carpenter by practicing them, you mastered your writing skills by practicing and honing them over the years.
I am glad that my son and his wife gave me your books many years ago.
Thanks again for such good writing, it is good this has turned out better than the pigs!