Stupidity Has It’s Virtues

Graydon with CookieHello, Blog World: Andy just rewrote this (substantially) and wanted to share it here. Soon (or already) there should be some adorable photos of our new lambs, they have nothing to do with this story! -Julia

The Mennonites heard that Charlie had hired a long-haired kid from California and put a ban of silence on me before I even opened my mouth. The men could talk to me if they wished, but the kids, no. It would have been irresponsible of the community to allow a drug-addled freak from California to seduce their sons and daughters onto the path of Satan. The irony was that with Ken Kesey of Merry Prankster fame living in nearby Springfield, and student communities in both Corvallis to the north and Eugene to the south, there were more hippies running loose in Oregon than where I’d come from in California.

It was June of 1977. The day after my high school graduation I took the dog bus from Salinas to Corvallis, for a chance to learn what farming was like with draft animals. I called the Jensens from a friend’s house in Corvallis to get directions. Charlie’s wife Esther answered..

“Oh, you can’t miss it,” she said, and rattled off the names of half a dozen country lanes I would follow to reach their farm. “The house is white and the barn is red.”

I eventually found the farm, no thanks to Esther. In that part of the Williamette Valley all the houses were white and all the barns were red. The fields were green, too, the cows doe-eyed and placid, and there weren’t even any or beer cans in the ditches or bullet holes in the road signs—the whole neighborhood looked like a mock-up for an advertisement from the dairy council to promote drinking milk at breakfast.

We pulled into a storybook farmyard to ask directions to Charlie’s house. The farmer looked at me curiously from under his straw hat and then gave me precise directions. I arrived shortly thereafter at the Jensen’s farm. After greeting me, and confirming that I didn’t smoke anything, Charlie and Esther showed me the room I’d be occupying for the summer. Charlie explained that his was the only farm left in the entire area not owned by the Mennonites.

Cookie with MomMennonites are “plain folk.” They accept the use of modern technologies in their communities so long as they are of a productive nature, like hay balers, tractors, or other such utensils. But they draw the line at devilish communication devices like radios, television, and they permit few if any gestures of vanity. Their children are taught inside the community, they marry inside the community and in time they raise a family inside the community, perhaps purchasing a property adjacent to the community and thus expanding its boundaries. Mennonites don’t get drunk and drive around the neighborhood blasting road signs with shotguns and flinging beer cans in the ditches. Their communities are clean and well ordered with very low crime rates. No one knows how much crime they have because Mennonites don’t go to the sheriff or the courts with their problems, and they don’t gossip with outsiders. Their women wear simple, long dresses of gray or blue fastened with snaps, not buttons, so as to not be tempted into putting on airs.

As Charlie and Esther talked it became clear I had been hired not so much for my experience, which was limited compared to any of the local Mennonite farm boys they could have hired, but because I was an outsider. Charlie could always talk about farming if he encountered a neighbor, but Esther had ear rings, and she felt judged. She didn’t want any farm hand reporting the sinful details of their private lives to the neighbors. Not that the Jensens lived like libertines. Charlie drank one can of been every day after ten hours of work in the fields. When dinner was over he might settle down to watch professional wrestling on the tube for a bit before going to bed early. Esther was embarrassed once when Charlie left a pack of playing cards in the living room that had naughty pictures of naked ladies on the back. Given that no one for ten miles would even talk to me besides Charlie and Ester I wouldn’t be gossiping with the neighbors about the erotic ramifications of the Page of Spades even if I’d wanted to.

Charlie wasn’t thrilled with my long hair and he didn’t hide his feelings. His hobby of farming with draft horses was not inspired by the hippie back-to-the land movement of the late sixties—Charlie had never left the land. I smile to think of it now, after spending years in the field myself, to think that anyone would “retire” from farming with tractors only to take up farming with horses. Even throwing the oiled black leather harness over the back of a draft horse is like tossing a sack of cement mix over a minivan. Except that the minivan won’t paw, snort, stamp, kick, or bite.

Working for Charlie was a history lesson. He was older than my father by a generation, and as a young man growing up in a sod house on the Nebraska plains he’d breathed the Dust Bowl deep. He came to Oregon with nothing. He worked ceaselessly, saved every penny, grew his own food, and was eventually bought a beautiful farm on the banks of the Williamette River. Charlie believed in work, and working with draft horses was his meditation—he only used the tractors when the situation was urgent. Charlie kept several teams of Percherons. They were beautiful beasts, mild tempered and intelligent as horses go, patient, and willing to work A tractor is just a chunk of steel, grease and rubber, as stupid as stone. Stupidity has its virtues.

One morning at dawn I was raking hay with the team of Percherons. Driving a team is not an easy chore, and it helps to be smarter than the horses. Even then, holding up the heavy leather reins gets tiring quickly. Raking hay is the simplest of tasks, but I stood proud as the horses grunted and puffed and the hay rake clicked along. It was a gorgeous, calm morning. No modern sight or sound intruded on my reverie.

I began to hear voices. Not angry, delusional, schizophrenic voices from inside my head, but silvery, happy, laughing voices above my head. I looked up into the blue sky and my jaw went slack in amazement. There, floating dreamily above me like an iridescent bubble, was a beautiful, rainbow colored, hot air balloon.

The pilot flipped on the propane burners to heat the air and raise the balloon over the trees at the field’s edge. The sudden roar of the gas jets spooked the horses. They lunged forward in fear. The hay rake bucked and crashed, frightening the horses even more. We raced wildly across the field. Soon the harness began to shred and tangle, then the whole apparatus cart wheeled. Lawyers, guns and money can’t stop horses when they panic like that. I was lucky to end up on my butt in the stubble, alive. The horses thrashed off, dragging the wrecked hay rake behind them, until they were exhausted.

I admired Charlie’s dextrous ability with any tool and his gentle mastery of the horses. He tolerated me, and was even warm when the subject was how to harness a team, how to guide a team, or how to care for them after a days work was done. I didn’t fare so well with his wife, Esther. She’d worked for years cooking meals for unappreciative kids at the local high school cafeteria. It was my fate to carry the cross for all the disrespect those kids heaped on her and get chewed out for all the food they wasted. “B-b-b-bitchin’ bout my g-g-generation.” She didn’t give Charlie much of a break either. I talked to the horses. It was a long summer.

So it was with sincere happiness that I waved goodby to Charlie and Esther as they pulled their horse trailer out of the yard one day. They were taking a team of draft horses to a pulling meet in Eastern Oregon and would be out of touch for two weeks. (This was pre-cell phone, and the obscure rodeo grounds in the desert outside of Bend didn’t have pay phones.) Two weeks to myself, and all I would have to do would be to feed the dog, feed the turkeys, feed the cattle, feed the horses, water the corn, water the alfalfa, water the pasture, mow the lawn, and check the oil levels on the pump. And also paint the house.

“Two coats at least,” Charlie told me the day before. “More if you don’t run out of paint.”

I’d nodded.

“Do a nice job,” Charlie said as he showed me the pyramid of paint cans hidden in the barn. “I want Esther to be surprised when we come back.” Esther had been nagging him all summer about how the peeling paint made their house look shabby, compared to the neighbors.

I set to my chores with alacrity, and almost before I knew it I came to the pyramid of paint cans hidden in the barn. I opened one up.

“There must be some mistake,” I thought as I pupped the lid. The paint was a lurid, phosphorescent chartreuse. So I uncapped another can. And another. And another. Gallon after gallon of chartreuse paint. I was in a quandary. I couldn’t paint the house chartreuse. Just imagine what the neighbors would say. Esther would kill me. And yet, if I neglected to paint the house because the color of the paint was in poor taste Charlie would fire me for being lazy. And who was I, anyway, to question my employer’s tastes about exterior decorating?

It was possible that a paint store employee had made a mistake. But, given that Charlie was cheap to the bone, it was equally possible, even probable, this paint had been “on special” at the hardware store, priced to move and never come back. Charlie had wanted to surprise his wife, so she may not have had an opportunity to pass judgement. Given her sharp tongue I could just imagine what she’d say. Well, perhaps the paint would dry to a serene pastel. I’d just paint a board and see how it looked in the morning. I climbed the ladder with my bucket and my brush. I heard voices. A gaggle of teen-aged Mennonite girls were walking past, cute as buttons under their blue-grey bonnets, heading home after a day picking wild black berries by the river. I waved. They didn’t wave back.

Next morning after feeding the animals I checked the dry paint on my trial board. Violent, jarring, emergency day glo. I considered my options. I was going to be fired for doing my job, or fired for not doing it. Either way I’d be happy to leave. My mood brightened, though in no way did it approach the intensity of the paint. I began with one small garage wall, stopping back occasionally to admire the effect. All of a sudden I was startled by the scandalized squeals of the rosy cheeked Mennonite girls on their way back to the berries. I looked down from the ladder to see them pointing at the wall, bonnets bobbing, buckets tossed to the ground. My mind was made up. I’d impress the girls!. No half measures! With long, straight confident brush strokes I set to my task with enthusiasm.

Three days later I stepped back to admire my handiwork— a sizzling, neon, two story, yellow-green farmhouse, erupting up out of the green grass and placid cows of the bucolic Oregon country side like a sulphurous middle finger..

“I like it” I said to myself. “ A chartreuse house with a red barn. My dada masterpiece.”

4 Responses to “Stupidity Has It’s Virtues”

  1. 1 Tim Bray

    Well, don’t leave us hanging in suspense - what happened when they returned?

  2. 2 Flor

    I agree. Did they mean to paint the house that color??

  3. 3 andy

    Long story short, Charlie and Esther returned in the middle of the night. The next morning Charlie and I went out to do the chores and he inspected my work. He was satisfied. We came back in for breakfast and Esther was as emergency day-glow red with rage as her house was chartreuse. Charlie took the brunt of the abuse because he had, in fact, valued a few pennies saved on paint sold on special more than his wife’s sensibilities. But I was in trouble because “I knew better.” I was not fired. A huge fire, the Marble Cone fire, which burned over 180,000 acres in Monterey County, was drawing near our house in California at the time. So, with a rather large cloud over me in Oregon I quit and returned to Monterey County to see if my parents needed help evacuating. The next winter my whole family visited Charlie and Esther in Oregon and their house was white again. Charlie ended up being photographed by Time Magazine for one of their lifestyle pieces, which made the Jensens very proud. Charlie also developed a little retirement business hauling brides to a rural church in a horse drawn carriage, which gave him a lot of pleasure and a chance to show of his beautiful horses. The brides were thrilled to get a romantic ride, Charlie enjoyed absorbing the positive female energy, and Esther was glad to get him out of the (white) house, so I guess everything worked out for everyone.

  4. 4 Jessica

    That’s really a lovely story. I look forward to more posts.

    Gratuitous lamb pictures don’t hurt either.

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