My Dad was a farmer. In my world that wasn’t unusual. Most of the adults I knew were farmers, sold stuff to farmers, or bought crops or livestock from farmers. At least that was my view of the world in my youth. What was unusual were my Dad’s hands.
Farmers shake hands to say “hello” or “goodbye”. It was also what they did when making a commitment. Plenty of times, after shaking my Dad’s hand, men stuck their hand out to me. I didn’t think much of it, but I sure was proud to be treated the same as my Dad. What I did think about was how big and dirty my Dad’s hands were compared to other men’s hands. My Dad was a normal sized man, but I remember him having big hands. I’m not sure if that’s true or just the impression of a young son. What I am certain of is that my Dad’s hands were always dirty after a day’s work. I can still picture my Dad standing at the bathroom sink scrubbing his hands for what seemed like hours every day when he came home.
One summer when I was 6 or 7, I spent a day on the farm with Dad. I decided it was time that I start looking like my Dad after a day’s work. The “look” that said “farmer” was those dirty hands. I had spent lots of days on the farm with my Dad, but at the end of the day, one pass with a bar of soap and my hands were clean. No scrubbing, let alone multiple scrubbings, necessary. This day would be different. I was determined to match my Dad: job for job, dirt for dirt, and grime for grime. I was committed to arriving home looking like I’d earned my farmer stripes.
I remember the day started working on the tractor. I puttered around the tractor, staying out of Dad’s way, but close enough to hand him a wrench or a part or a grease gun. I touched the tools, I touched the tractor engine, I touched the tires. I loved that Massey Ferguson – it was big, red, and awesome. After a couple hours though, it was clear I was falling far behind on my goal of matching my Dad’s dirty hands.
After fixing the tractor we had to change some irrigation water. In those days, that meant ditches and dams and tubes. I was big enough to throw a 2 inch tube and I loved irrigating crops, especially rows of corn. It was exhilarating to get that water running down all those rows – after a couple hours I could walk the ditch and see that I’d accomplished something. Unfortunately, throwing tubes was the absolute cure to dirty hands. When we got back in the truck, I remember my Dad’s hands on the steering wheel – dirty! I looked at my own – they were so clean, I could have been headed to church. I remember sitting on the tailgate of the old Chevy truck, eating lunch. Dad with his dirty hands, me with my clean hands, eating our sandwiches. I had long since learned to unfold the top of the sandwich bag and hold the bag not the sandwich. A necessity of men with dirty hands. I remember thinking I could have taken my sandwich out of the bag, held it with my bare hand, and run no risk of eating any dirt.
After lunch, things got desperate and when I get desperate, I get creative. While Dad was checking the headgate, I got in the back of the truck and explored my options. There were a couple of grimy 5 gallon cans of oil. Their tops were as grimy as I wanted to be. The grime just didn’t want to come off those cans and stick to my hands though, so I took the cap off one and poured some oil onto the top of the other. A couple squirts of the grease gun and I proceeded to make oil based mud pies.
By the time Dad came back, my hands were black. I remember Dad walking up looking at my hands and, not saying a word climbing into the truck. At the time, I figured he didn’t notice the mess I’d made. Knowing what I know now, I realize Dad sized up the situation, knew what I was doing & knew it wasn’t hurting anything, so let me have my dirty hands.
I remember proudly arriving home with my dirty hands, every bit the equal of Dad’s. Standing at the sink, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing again, I had lots of time to think. The pain of that scrub brush was multiplied by the realization that I hadn’t earned those dirty hands like Dad had. The gratification I had felt for having dirty hands faded faster than the dirt.
I thought through the day and realized what I had earned were those clean hands by watering the corn. After that day, I paid no attention to the dirt on my hands, my attention was on getting the water to the end of the row of corn. It’s the result, not the show, that matters. As usual, my Dad had taught me a lesson by example, not talk. And as usual, I had to learn it in my own way.