I was driving through farm country in west Texas recently and passed a pickup truck parked by the side of the road, hood up, a red bandanna festooned on the radio antenna and as immobile as the occasional armadillo that comes to pavement to die. Less than a mile further I noticed a man hobbling along the roadside, apparently in great pain.
So, being more charitable than cautious, I stopped and offered him a ride. He accepted, after giving the Firestone tires on my Explorer more than a cursory glance.
He settled into the seat with an audible sigh and closed his eyes a second or two before he spoke. He thanked me for stopping and apologized for any trouble I might go to.
I just asked where I could drop him off and he gave me directions to his farmstead, some five miles distant from where his truck had broken down.
I was more than a bit concerned for his welfare. He still seemed to be in quite a bit of pain so I asked if I could take him to an emergency room or his personal doctor.
“No, much obliged. I'll be all right.”
I persisted and allowed as how he seemed to be hurting pretty bad “That's true enough,” he replied. “But it's just these work shoes are a bit tight.”
I remained anxious and wondered if I might not be transporting this middle-aged gentleman on his last earthly excursion. And, being a journalist anyway, equipped with all the snoopiness that comes with the job, I asked him about the shoes.
“Surely,” I said, “even though prices are low, a farmer can afford to buy shoes that fit better than those.”
He said that wasn't the issue and explained. “I always buy my shoes two sizes too small.”
That made no sense so I asked him to enlighten me further.
“Well,” he said, “I been farming all my life, near 40 years, and I ain't never going to get rich. Matter of fact, I just scrape by most years and the past three, with drought, bugs and low prices, I've built up considerable debt. That old truck breaks down just about twice a week and I have to walk home. My farm equipment ain't much better.
“On top of that I got a nagging wife who will not be content with anything I do and constantly gives me grief of one kind or another about the most inconsequential things.
“Then, I got two daughters, one that's toad frog ugly and the other rattlesnake mean. Both are getting on in years, and seems like no decent man is ever likely to marry either one of them and take her off my hands.
“It's downright depressing, working hard all these years with nothing much to show for it and then getting not so much as a thank you kindly from my nagging wife or mean and ugly daughters.
“That's why I buy my brogans too small. Every night, when I finish up plowing, planting or picking, I limp into the house, eat whatever passes for dinner that the wife and daughters put on the table and then hobble into my den and sit down.
“I get to thinking about the poor crop, the sorry truck, the old tractors and the low cotton prices. And I wonder if my wife will ever quit nagging or if my daughters will ever get married or just leave.
“Then I take off my shoes. Danged if I don't feel like I've died and gone to heaven.”
I'd like to take credit for making up that little parable but I stole it, and embellished it, from some long forgotten acquaintance who passed it along to me some 20 years ago, during a similar period of agricultural recession.
I don't know any nagging farm wives or mean and ugly daughters, but I suspect such exist, probably in the cold Northeast. I do know that times have been tough on a lot of Southwestern farms for the past few years and that many farmers have tried a lot of different ways to ease the burdens.
I also recall that the poor ag economy that spawned this story eventually subsided, as will this one. In the meantime, whatever eases the pain. Personally, I'd rather go fishing.