There’s no business that gives a person the opportunity to humiliate himself in public quite the way farming does. No other line of work offers the range of options for self-destruction while entertaining neighbours and passing motorists.
Whatever a farmer is doing, he is always thinking about something else, which opens up a universe of possibilities for mayhem. Many of us opt for the simple unlatched gate, spilling a herd of cattle onto the highway. Others choose to leave water hoses running while we sprint to the telephone. Then there is the ever-popular failure to remember to stow the grain auger on the combine for the drive home. How many farmers have misinterpreted the enthusiastic waves of oncoming drivers for a spontaneous outpouring of goodwill to agriculture, not realizing that the auger is sporting an assortment of tree branches and a string of Christmas lights?
From time to time, every farmer experiences what the ancient Greeks called “the full catastrophe”, which usually involves some major mechanical breakdown, with or without a huge pile of spilled grain, on any well-traveled road in the community. You can see it coming almost before it happens but that doesn’t mean you can do anything to stop it. You stand there as emotional waves wash over you: helplessness, anger, guilt, humiliation and fear. And you ask, why does it always happen in broad daylight in full view of the neighbours?
My equipment is so ancient and my holdings so small that I seldom venture beyond the gate with a load of anything. My wrecks tend to be private affairs attended by close friends and family. One time, I was peering out the window of the kitchen at my poor old mare, Parsnip, who was standing under the sodium light in the yard in the middle of a howling blizzard, with a layer of ice from her ears to her tail. I took pity on her, went out, snapped a rope on her halter and led her through the deep snow across the yard to a dry stall in the stable. Suddenly, she pulled back and began to thrash violently in the snow. I realized with a sinking feeling that I had just crossed a pipe bale elevator buried under the snow and she had her foot caught in it.
Everybody reacts differently to a crisis. I am always gripped by several seconds of ice-cold calm that effectively paralyzes me. Not for me the quick grab that saves a toddler from a face-plant on the flagstones. The family doesn’t expect me to make three nimble steps to rescue a toppling glass decanter on the buffet. But in a bona fide train wreck, I have a great advantage over many others because my mind rapidly rolls through all the damage scenarios and rescue options available, like one of those clunky 1950’s computers they used to use at universities to calculate probabilities. When I emerge from my trance I usually do something useful.
My wife is exactly the opposite. She has the reflexes of a National Hockey League goalie. She shouts at me to “Do something!” and rushes past me into the danger zone. My daughter screams and runs for the house. My two terriers, Get Off and Get Out, arrive at the scene within seconds, happily compounding the difficulty and firing shots in the air.
On this occasion with the horse, I was alone in the dark. I said ‘whoa’ as gently as I could and still be heard over the howling wind and for once, she did. This is almost unknown in horse wrecks. She stood quivering, as I tied her up to the rack of a haywagon beside me. Then I felt down in the snow and found that somehow she had managed to jam her back hoof between the chain and the track. I grabbed the chain with both hands and reefed up on it as hard as I could. She pulled free, leaving a strip of skin off her foot and a strip of my thumb sticking to the track. We made our way back to the stable together where we ministered to our wounds with Dettol and got sociable again.
Stories like these are being played out on farms across the continent every day. We all know better than what it was we just did, and, if we’re lucky, we will be allowed to limp back to the house with the injured hand wrapped in a rag and receive the inevitable admonition from Herself:
“You’ve got to be more careful!”
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