There was a funeral today in a small church in a small town whose best days are gone yet every pew was filled with those who came to pay final respects to the man with the big farmer hands who died just a few days short of his 88th birthday.
From a house across the street an old man wearing a VFW cap shuffled uneasily toward the church where he joined others with identical caps, including the veteran who struggled to hold the American flag outright as he limped down the middle aisle of the church. Seven other older men wearing flowing red capes and black and white plumed hats filed in to honor their former Knights of Columbus brethren.
Hundreds crowded into the church, some kneeling, some sitting, old and young. Three of the four priests conducting the service were black South Africans with strong accents who the farmer had met and befriended through family connections. Race, religion, age, political persuasion - none of this mattered.
"Dad was a veteran, a farmer, a catholic, a father and a faithful husband," a daughter said during her eulogy. "He loved the land." Although he seldom missed Sunday church, his daughter believed that his most meaningful talks with his Maker occurred while he was out on the land alone. Except for four years of service in WWII, his entire life was spent on the farm.
The line of cars and trucks that left the church from which he was baptized, married and buried and wound its way past the school he attended as a kid and the playground where three young boys were playing basketball, then across the highway on the edge of town where a deputy sheriff blocked traffic for the funeral procession, was long. The drive to the country cemetery was short.
The man with the big farmer hands was laid to rest beneath a sprawling birch tree on the edge of a small cemetery just a few feet from a road that he had traveled thousands of times during his life. He lies surrounded now by the very crop fields where on so many days over so many years he worked sun-up to sundown, less than a half-mile from the farm where he and his wife of 62 years raised five children.
Her father, the daughter noted, was very much a "straight shooter and a man of his word. His firm handshake was as good as a signed document. That's not to say you always agreed with him or wanted to hear what he had to say. He spoke his mind. You always knew where he stood."
At the conclusion of the burial service, after the color guard fired their rifles, his wife clutched the folded flag that had draped his casket to her chest and used it to wipe her tears. A moment later it was over and people began to drift away. As I drove from the cemetery, past the family farm, I reflected on his daughter's words. Yes, he was a straight shooter. And he respected anyone else who could shoot back just as straight.
Over the years he and I, the life-long farmer and the DNR guy, shared a number of friendly lawn chair conversations at family get-togethers. We did not always agree but we both shot straight - with respect. At the end of the day, we were a little better able to see the world through the other's eyes.
As I continued down the Round Grove Township road I noticed that most of the roadside ditches had been mowed. Further along, two men were installing more tile in a field. And most of the fields were planted right up to the very edge of the drainage ditches. The man with the big farmer hands and I would probably disagree on the merits of all this - respectfully so.
I never expected to prompt a man who had lived on a farm for more than 80 years to dramatically change his farming practices. He farmed the way he knew best, with good intentions, and he did not take kindly to being told that the way he had been doing something all his life was wrong and he had to change. Show him a better way, however, and he would adapt.
Fishing, and to a lesser extent hunting, is a favorite hobby of many farmers, as it was for this affable family man. In his retirement years especially, he loved to fish with his grandkids. A miniature rod and reel was affixed to the inside of his casket cover, alongside a replica of a John Deere tractor. Fishing, hunting, and farming, inextricably linked, albeit in sometimes-conflicted ways.
Funerals can have a way of putting things into perspective. On this day in this small church, we all sat side by side to pay respects to a humble man of the earth. It mattered not that we were of different ages, races, religions, and political persuasions. Nor did it matter that his way of loving the earth was somewhat different than mine.
"When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze....
Then sings my soul...." (How Great Thou Art)