Originally created 08/03/97

Bill Kirby: Farm life teaches patience



The agricultural population produces a class of citizen least given to evil designs.

- Pliny the Elder

When I was young and summer rolled around, I'd start pestering my parents to send me to a summer camp.

Summer camps had lots of things young boys liked - swimming, canoes, archery and T-shirts.

But they also cost money and my folks' idea of a compromise was to send me to my great uncle's farm for a week.

This was not my idea of a summer camp. In fact, the only facet it shared with the more exotic sylvan retreats was lack of television. But away I went.

Why my Uncle Russell and Aunt Katie would even consent to put up with me is still a mystery.

I was at that awkward age at which one tends to break things.

I also was a curious child who liked to ask lots of questions.

This contrasted with my uncle who was prone to great periods of silence and did not believe in explaining each action before it was taken.

Although he did not talk much, I think I amused him. When I began my yammering about the mysteries of barnyard protocol, his eyes would twinkle and the slightest shadow of a smirk would cross his face. He'd often just ignore me until the answer became obvious.

It was years later before I learned that he had a college degree and had once been a county extension agent before deciding it was easier to advise yourself than others.

He was blessed with that most important attribute of garden work - the cast-iron back with a hinge in it. And of course he had the patience with which all farmers seem to be been born.

It was something that came in handy when he was undergoing interrogations from a 10-year-old.

For instance, I once asked why we had to get up early to milk the cows while it was still dark.

He stopped in mid-squirt. Cocked his head in my direction and answered, "They're very modest."

I once asked if he was an "organic" farmer growing all-natural products.

"Well," he reminded me, "that stuff you cleaned out of the stall this morning was all-natural, too."

I asked him how he knew so much about the weather. He said he got his information from the tail of a mule.

If the tail was wet, it was probably raining. If it was swaying, it was windy. If it was frozen stiff, it was cold.

And if the mule was suddenly missing a tail, he told me seriously, "Head for the cellar!"

The mule business interested me, mostly because my uncle kept telling me this balky animal was smarter than a certain nephew.

He also showed me how to give it large pills by inserting a tube down its throat, putting the pill in it, then blowing on it like a bugle.

But, he warned me, such a manuever was not without risk.

"Why?" I asked. "Will he kick?"

"Worse than that," my uncle said. "He might blow first."

My eyes widened in childish alarm.

His seemed only to twinkle. And ever so slightly, he smiled.