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I’m suffering a character shortage.

No, I’m not using meth or cheating on my taxes. My hometown is suffering a shortage of characters. I’d be willing to audition for the role, but I’m not sure I have the chops for it.

People nowadays are a little . . . boring.  When I was growing up, there was no end of characters surrounding me.

I used to bale hay for a guy named Melvin. Got a penny a bale, and the youngest guy on the crew was granted the privilege of stuffing the last few bales up into the very rafters of the barn, usually on a hot August day. Melvin always wore coveralls and smoked incessantly. If no ashtray were offered, he would cross one leg over the other, exposing several inches of fish-belly white shin, and carefully knock the ash of the cigarette onto the fabric of his coveralls, and then thoughtfully rub it into the cloth until it disappeared.

He milked cows and lived with his mother until she died. She constantly tried to get him to go out on the town, but he always said just taking care of those girls in the stanchions was enough of a bother.

I’m not sure if he meant that, though, because not long after his mother died, my wife and I ran into him at a 24-hour truck stop.  He was dressed in his best – a suit and a wide, hand-painted tie that had last been in style around 1949. He was stepping out a bit, back to the haunts of his misspent youth. Sadly, in the past half century the clientele, not to mention the music, had changed. The next time I saw him, he was sitting in the card club, drinking coffee and rubbing ashes into the fabric of his coveralls. I don’t know if the women of Big Stone County were ever aware of what a catch they let slip away. If so, they missed their opportunity; he was only on the market for a couple of months before he settled back into the pattern that suited him for the rest of his life.

Another neighbor had a wife he loved very much, even though she had one serious flaw – she was a Republican. I don’t know if they ever talked politics, but he had a worthless dog that he decided to name Nixon.  Having coffee at his house was pretty entertaining. You watched him bide his time, then look out the window and say, “Look at what that dumb, damn Nixon’s doing now.”  Today that approach might be called passive-aggressive.  At the time, I just thought it was hilarious.

I knew another guy named Glenn. If you asked him how he was doing, he’d shrug and say, “Any day above dirt is a good one.”

Although, when pressed, he’d occasionally admit not all was perfect.

He had a pair of bad knees, and toward the end of his life, he ended up very bowlegged. If you mentioned his knees, you’d get another shrug, along with, “I’m so bowlegged I couldn’t even sort hogs.”

Accurate and evocative.

He’d been a bomber pilot in World War II and told me the story about flying over New Guinea. Keep in mind that until World War II, many people thought the interior of New Guinea was unpopulated, so there were folks living there who’d never seen steel, let alone a B17. Glenn and his crew were flying down a river valley, staying low so the Japanese air force wouldn’t see them, and as he rounded a corner, he saw a line of natives crossing a river, with baskets of goods on their heads. Glenn and three other bombers thundered over, and when the planes banked for the next bend in the river, he looked back and saw nothing but floating baskets. Forty years later he still felt guilty about that introduction to the twentieth century.

In civilian life, he became a crop-duster. One day he was heading home and saw a tractor stuck in a field. A half mile farther on, he recognized his neighbor trudging slowly home for help. He didn’t even need to alter course to fly over the neighbor’s house, and as he approached, he saw one of the man’s sons walking across the yard.

He turned off the engine of his plane, opened the window and yelled, “Your dad’s stuck!”

By the time the boy looked up, the plane was half a mile away and out of sight. For a couple of weeks, the family basked in the glory of the Lord speaking directly to them; Glenn just smiled and never said a word.

Characters. You can live without them, but why would you want to?

Copyright 2013 Brent Olson

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