The Old Man
On Saturday, the Old Man drove slowly down the gravel road toward John Russell’s farm.
The large trees canopied the road, creating a pleasant shade in the hot June sun. He turned into the driveway and shut off the old truck’s engine. Behind the house, he saw the young man watching him. John was wearing faded jeans and no shirt. The sun had burned his shoulders, and the Old Man figured that the kid was working on the nearby tractor. “It was a funny thing,” reckoned the Old Man. Farmers can always spot a tractor that’s down, even when there’s no visible sign of needed repair.
“Name’s Sam Kenton,” said the Old Man, as he neared the boy by the tractor.
“Yes sir, Mr. Kenton,” smiled John Russell. “I remember you from turkey season. I finally got that old gobbler we were hunting.”
“I heard you did, son, and I was proud to hear it. Got tractor problems?”
“Yes sir. The starter’s acting up, but I think I’ve got it fixed now.”
“Well, good... I reckon I’ve fixed every part here is on these old tractors. If you ever get stumped by something... give a call. Wonderful thing about growing old is that over time you learn how to fix things.”
John Russell smiled. “I can see how that is true. Sometimes I feel old. Sometimes I don’t. Would you care for some water?”
“Yes sir, son. That would be nice.”
“Let’s go up to the porch. We have good water here... makes the best iced tea you ever tasted. My mom used to make a big pitcher of it with lots of lemon and it sure was good.”
The Old Man talked as they walked toward the porch. “Where is your Mom?”
John half-smiled at the Old Man. “She passed away in December.”
“I’m sorry, John. I really am.”
“I’m sad,” said the kid, “but not sorry.”
They reached the porch and John Russell stopped. “You see, my Mom taught me about heaven. She taught me about death and how to look at it. I was awfully lucky to have her for seventeen years. She was not old, but she knew how to fix things, too. She was the bravest person I’ve ever known.” He paused and said, “Have a seat, Mr. Kenton. I’ll get us some water.” He disappeared inside the house.
The Old Man sat in a wooden rocker and immediately noticed the shotgun leaning against the wall. He could see flashes of shiny brass at the rear of the magazine.
John emerged with two large glasses of water. He handed one to the Old Man. Sam Kenton pointed at the shotgun with the glass.
“Expecting problems, son?”
The boy drank then answered. “No sir, but I have had some varmint problems lately.”
The Old Man rocked. “How are you makin’ it out here by yourself, John? I mean school and all.”
“Well, school’s almost out... next Friday as a matter of fact. I graduate. I work part-time for Mr. Johnson. I’m gonna farm some, trap some, hunt and fish a lot, and pray I can make it. The house and farm are paid for, thank goodness. I’m just going to take some time, and maybe I’ll figure out what would be good for me to do. I’m in no hurry.”
“Good water,” winked the Old Man. He paused. “You know, it’s unusual to meet a man of your age with such surety in his voice. How did you come by such a lifestyle?”
John Russell sat on the porch rail.
“I’m lucky I guess, Mr. Kenton. You see my father died when I was one year old, and because Mom never married again, the only father I ever knew was the one she told me about... and she loved to talk about him. She would sit and talk about him all the time....”
The Old Man could see the excitement in the boy’s eyes as he talked, and the more he listened, the more he felt the boy’s confidence.
“... and she told me about little things... those things that most people wouldn’t ever remember, but to me they were the most important parts. She told me about how he farmed... not just that he worked hard farming, but how he worked... how he thought... why he hunted... why he fished... and suddenly one day it all fell into place. When I was old enough to understand, his personality became very real. Then, she gave me a letter that he wrote to me from Viet Nam. I never saw my father that I remember, but in that letter I could see him... because I already knew him through my mother.”
Sam Kenton wanted to talk, but he was almost afraid to try.
“What... did your father say to you?”
John Russell laughed out loud, and the Old Man thought that perhaps he was the first person to ever see the boy laugh.
“He talked about tractors! Really... it was twenty-four pages long, and he talked about tractors and soil and trees and quail and dogs and groundhogs and the weather and....”
The boy’s eyes were quietly very wet. The tears streamed from his swollen eye, but he never quit talking. “... and houses and women and friends.”
John Russell stopped. “Mr. Kenton, you may think that I’m crying’ cause I’m sad, but I’m not. It’s just that I’ve never told this to anyone and when you actually say it... well....”
The Old Man sipped the water, and it burned when he swallowed.
“... And, oh yeah!” the boy continued, “he told me about the people over there, and he didn’t describe
them like you hear on T.V. He told me about how they farmed and worked and played. ‘They are just poor farmers,’ he said. In the twenty-four pages of the letter, he only gave me one piece of advice.
‘It was good advice,’ he said, ‘because his father had given it to him, and as long as he followed that advice, he had never regretted anything.’ He told me that he had no regrets in his life.”
John Russell smiled at the Old Man. “He said, ‘Never, but never do anything without a good reason.’ “I’ve tried real hard to live by that advice, but maybe I’m in trouble now because of it.”
The Old Man smiled. “Trouble? You’re in no trouble.... You’re lucky; they did not bring charges against you, son.”
John looked quizzically at the Old Man. “You know about the other night?”
“I know,” said the Old Man, “and I came out to tell you everything seems to be all right. You protected your property from vandals, and you gave information that led to the arrest of deer poachers. That’s not to say that you did everything right, mind you, but under the circumstances, there will be no charges brought against you. I just thought you’d like to know.”
John looked at the porch floor and then back up at the Old Man.
“Thank you,” replied the Old Man. “By the way, would you care if an old man went with you to that graduation?”
Forty yards from the corner of the house, a groundhog peeked over the packed soil at the entrance to his den. He stood stone like, without any movement at all for twenty seconds. The sun shone directly on his flat head as he looked toward the porch where the two men were sitting. He detected no danger from the house, but the contrast of the cool ground at his feet and the hot sun on his head made him quickly disappear below. He simply had no good reason to come out.