About 30 years ago, when my first book came out, I was invited to do a reading of my farm stories in front of a sophisticated literary luncheon in the city. The first speaker was an investigative journalist who had written a scathing exposé of then-prime minister Brian Mulroney. When she was finished, I nervously stood up and began talking about the old guys I grew up with on the Seventh Line of Mono Township.
The room, which had been silent up to that point, started to laugh. I saw broad smiles of recognition and realized that many in the audience had some personal connection to the farm. I received warm applause at the end and when I sat down, two people came up and asked me to come and speak at another banquet.
That lunch placed me firmly on the speaking circuit. Since then, I have never been more than a week or two away from some platform in the hinterland. I am not an A-list speaker; you will not find me in big-city hotel conference rooms. My work takes me more often to legion halls, Best Western dining rooms, hockey arenas, auction barns and beef barbecue picnics.
My skills are sorely tested at times. I have struggled with terrible sound systems, shrieking babies, smashing plates in the kitchen, a bagpiper circling outside the tent, roars from a crowd of 2,000 people . . . next door. They were not listening to me. They were watching a midget toss and everyone was having a whale of a time. At the Sheep and Wool Fair in Markdale, Ont., I tried to address a crowd on the other side of the arena across an acre of sheep in pens. I stood up on the auction platform and every time I made the crowd laugh, the sheep would start to baa. I eventually gave up but the crowd found it hysterically funny watching me try to shush them after each joke.
I appeared at one very late-season outdoor barbecue with snow whirling through the crowd. I nearly left the profession after playing to a dead-silent Mennonite Christmas party. (But I was heartened when their leader called me the next day to say that everyone had a wonderful time and would I come back again next year?) On an elevated platform up near the ceiling of an arena, I spoke to a huge crowd at a pork barbecue. I had a great view of the crowd but the barbecue smoke made it hard to breathe and every time I took a breath I risked inhaling a fly.
Farm meetings traditionally take place in the worst weather and are never cancelled. I have crawled through blizzards and worked around police roadblocks, knowing that even nuclear winter will not interrupt a soil and crop meeting. We live in our own private snow globe here on Georgian Bay, and usually the trick is just to get out of our valley and find out what the weather is doing that day in the rest of Ontario. My winter driving checklist includes snow tires, insulated shoes, a spare shirt (in case of turkey gravy accidents) and lately, over my protests, a cell phone. But I don’t need any entertainment devices in the car. Sometimes on the long drive home I might listen to some far-off baseball game. But I usually drive in blissful silence.
As a writer, I count myself blessed because I like my audience. If someone comes up to me to say how much they enjoy my humour about the farm, chances are they’re the sort of people you would have home for dinner. I’m not sure if Stephen King can say the same about his audience. I like sitting at linoleum covered tables piled with platters of grey roast beef, steamed peas and mashed potatoes and visiting with people for whom visiting is an essential part of life. I share their wintry sense of humour and love to swap war stories from the farm.
After 30 years and well over a thousand speeches, I sometimes wonder if it isn’t time to call it quits. I don’t sleep as well in a hotel as I do in my own bed because there are no hotels which can lend me a big, fluffy 100 lb. dog like my Dexter for the night. But then the phone rings and a lovely voice asks me if I’m free for the 50th anniversary of the Holstein Club Ladies Night next March and my wife looks at me and smiles. “Well, you gotta do that.”
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.