Bite the Dog that Bit You
“Pain is weakness leaving the body.” – Don ‘the Goods’ Ready
I’m not afraid of too many things. Actually, I’m afraid of wasps. And teenagers texting while driving. And skin tags. And polar bears. And curdled cream that I accidentally put in my coffee the other day. Other than that, I’m not afraid of too many things.
I had a bike accident 18 months ago. I wish I could say it wasn’t my fault or that I was coming down a mountain descent at 50 m.p.h. or that some idiot driver ran a stop sign and hit me. The truth is, it was my fault, there were no other vehicles involved and I was going 3 m.p.h. I was turning left into the parking lot of the bike shop to meet my group for a Saturday morning ride. My front tire hit a patch of pea gravel and slipped out from beneath me so quickly that I couldn’t unclip from my pedal or take my hand off the handle bars to brace myself. I fell hard on my left side and heard my collar bone snap like a dry twig. Nobody in the shop saw me, so I tucked my left arm into my body like a wounded chicken, got back on my bike and started riding the two miles back to our condo. With a half mile to go, I thought I might faint, so I got off my bike and walked the rest of the way home.
My wife drove me to the emergency room where x-rays showed that my clavicle was broken into three jagged pieces. The ER doc told me I’d need surgery to rebuild the bone. Five days later I went under the knife. The surgeon inserted an eight-inch metal plate to hold the pieces of bone in place while they healed. This was an inconvenient accident for both me and my wife as we were scheduled to fly to Moscow, Russia, five days later for a business trip. Without consulting anybody (except myself), I decided to make the trip. Armed with a few pain killers, some compression socks for the long flights and a good attitude, I made the journey and we had a great time. Other than the constant weakness leaving my body, it was an awesome trip. When we got home, I let the bones heal and tried to rebuild my strength. I started playing golf seven weeks after the accident but stayed off my bike for most of the next year. Looking back, I admit I was fearful of riding again. Then I thought of Glenn, the farmer I used to work for.
Other than my own dad, Glenn had more influence on me than any other person in my young life. We moved to Wisconsin from Minnesota the summer before my 6th-grade year. My dad had taken a call to serve a small rural parish near Madison. The day we pulled up to our new home, there was a red pickup truck sitting in front of the church. I was in the back seat of our brown Ford station wagon when Glenn walked up to our car and introduced himself. He was of medium height, powerfully built and had curly red hair and a twinkle in his eyes. His skin was burned by the sun and he had the most remarkable hands. They were huge! His fingers were gnarled and strong. He had a smile on his face that I would come to know as a true picture of the kindness and joy in his heart. He saw me sitting in the back seat and asked if I would be interested in helping him bale hay the very next day. I agreed, not really knowing what I was getting myself into.
The next day he drove back to the parsonage to pick me up. I climbed into his truck and he said, “How are you today?” He would greet me with those four words every time he saw me from that day forward. When we got to his farm, there were three or four wagons filled with bales of hay. My first job on Glenn’s farm was to help stack those bales in the hay mow. The temperature inside the barn must have been 110 degrees and it was dusty and dirty. Glenn showed me how to interlock the bales so they wouldn’t topple over and then he went back outside to the wagons and started throwing bales onto the hay elevator while I started stacking them as quickly as I could. It didn’t take very long before I fell behind. Periodically, Glenn would stop unloading and come inside to help me catch up. By the time the afternoon was over, we had unloaded hundreds of hay bales. I was filthy and exhausted but strangely pleased with myself for having survived my first day on the farm. Glenn told me to write down my hours and he would ‘straighten up’ with me when he remembered his checkbook. I kept close track of my hours on a scrap of paper that I kept in the top drawer of my dresser.
Thus began a wonderful relationship. I worked for Glenn the rest of that summer and for many years afterward. He taught me how to operate tractors and other machinery; he let me drive the red truck between his two farms three years before I even had my license. I learned how to milk cows; I cleaned barns, filled silos and shoveled manure from the pig barn and calf pens; I helped with planting, harvesting and stripping tobacco, a unique, labor intensive crop peculiar to that part of the state. I ground feed and spread manure; I prepped fields in the spring and plowed those same fields again in the fall. I worked in the heat, the cold and the rain. I worked after school, weekends and breaks throughout high school.
Then…it happened. It was a Saturday morning in April of ‘78, my senior year in high school. My dad woke me up at 6:30 a.m. and told me Glenn’s wife was on the phone. I hustled downstairs and said, “Hello?”
She was frantic. “Dan,” she said, “Glenn has had a terrible accident. You need to get over here as quickly as you can!” With a pit in my stomach, I got dressed and drove three miles to the farm. By the time I got there, Glenn was already gone. His wife told me what had happened. Early that morning, Glenn had been grinding corn when his pants had gotten snagged in the power take-off shaft that connected the tractor to the feed mill and spun at 1,000 R.P.Ms. His leg had been mangled and he was on his way to the hospital. I walked over to the site of the accident and had the unenviable task of cleaning up the blood and pieces of flesh that remained. As his main hired hand, I gladly helped with the chores that still needed to be done. One of Glenn’s neighbors was an orthopedic surgeon. They had become friends while playing on the same fast-pitch softball team. He worked on Glenn from the beginning and had no choice but to amputate his right leg just above the knee.
Glenn spent a month in the hospital recovering from his accident. After his leg became infected, the doctor had to amputate another 8-inch section to save his life. After several months, Glenn was finally able to return home. He had a prosthetic device designed and built and, not surprising to anybody that knew him, gradually resumed his life as a farmer.
I continued working for Glenn throughout my college years. After I got married, I would pop out to his farm for an occasional visit. “How are you today?” he would always greet me. He continued farming into his late 70s and died in 2013 at the age of 79. That accident, terrible as it was, never kept him from doing what he loved. He farmed with one leg. Sometimes he wore his prosthetic device; sometimes he hobbled around with a pair of crutches. There were very few things that he couldn’t do with one leg that he used to do with two. He played golf into his mid 70s and remained the happy, positive man that everybody knew, loved and respected.
I started riding again a couple months ago … no longer fearful, just more cautious. I thought about Glenn while riding this morning. He knew pain. I’m sure he knew fear. But he never let those things determine his attitude or alter the trajectory of his life as a farmer. I miss him.