by William D. Bennett, SSgt, USAF
Pa was a "Florida Cracker," a country fellow who had lived in Florida his entire life. He was 5' 10", 170 pounds, with broad features topped with a thick mane of wavy black hair. His skin was the color of a well-used baseball mitt and was accented by a dark red band across his neck from countless hours in the sun. His hands were calloused from a life of labor, and his skin was scarred from living that life. He was married to the same woman his entire life, had four children with her, and was Pa to seven grandchildren. He epitomized the expression "Salt of the Earth."
He was my Pa. Now he is a memory.
The forty foot oak tree swayed slowly above us in the cool evening breeze. As the sun set, waves of orange and red began to invade the sky. Low, puffy clouds began to glow with a soft, comforting light. Small birds flitted quietly through the isolated stands of oak as peaceful hush fell over the broad, green pasture. Even the herd of cattle seemed to sense the serenity of the moment, apparently content to chew their cud in silence.
The three of us sat in a small plot of land that we had plowed just the week before. We were almost finished laying the irrigation for the "garden," as my Pa called it - it was actually 2 acres. I was charged with threading the sprinkler heads onto the irrigation pipe with his brother, my Uncle Ray. While working, Uncle Ray and I bantered occasionally about school, the crop we planed to plant, how the quail were running this year, and other unremarkable things while Pa used the side of a small sledgehammer to seat sprinkler pipes into their joints. Suddenly, Pa shouted out in his pronounced southern drawl, "GAD-DAMIT, RAY! LOOK WHAT YA MADE ME DO!"
Uncle Ray turned to me with a bewildered and strangely humorous look in his eye and said, "What did I do?" As Uncle Ray and I rolled with laughter, Pa, with his thumb stuck in his mouth, looking like a wrinkled, brown baby, grumbled off towards his ice tea. But, after a long pull from his condensation-covered glass, he smiled.
Another time . . .
The afternoon was hot and humid. The unmoving air felt so thick you could cut it with a butter knife. Even the mosquitoes were sweating. My breath grew heavy as I drug a rusted length of angle-iron out of a tangled scrap heap. I suppose I wasn't moving quite fast enough because Pa yelled from the barn, "Quit your lollygaggin and get that piece over here." As I dropped the length of iron next to him and caught my breath, I peered at the contraption he was making. He had attached eight "fingers" of one and one half foot long metal to a metal box and a steel pipe. Bewildered, I asked him what he was building. He was only too happy to show off his invention.
He drew out a piece of marking chalk and began to draw on the concrete barn floor. He told me he had designed a potato rake. He explained that the metal box was there to provide stability and to cut the dirt while the "fingers" were there to dig up the potatoes and sift the soil. He then mounted the angle iron onto the steel pipe and attached a three-point lift to it. It was at that moment I understood; he was going to just drive over the potato bed and let the tractor do the work.
In his first attempt he attached the device to an old Cub tractor that he had pieced together from three broken Cubs. He revved up the engine, lowered the lift, and away he went. At first it seemed his contraption might work, but then, with a sudden lurch and a violent sputter, the Cub ground to a halt. The potato rake had buried itself into the ground after only two feet. With a look of consternation, Pa went back to the drawing board.
After another trip to the scrap pile, Pa had a modified device. Only this time he attached it to the John Deere - a much larger tractor than the Cub.
With a wink he told me, "Watch this. This'll be slick." With those words he revved up the big John Deere, dropped the lift, and popped the clutch. The rake immediately bit into the earth, and the John Deere immediately began to bog down. Not to be thwarted, Pa pulled the throttle to full fuel. The John Deere began to belch black smoke as it bucked against the buried rake. Ever so slowly the ground began to give way. The big green tractor crawled it's way forward, painfully gaining momentum. All of a sudden, I saw potatoes begin to break the surface and spill to the sides of the rake! This thing was actually working!
I walked over to the freshly unearthed potatoes to take a closer look. Something looked strange. All of the potatoes were torn up. The rake had ripped them from the ground with such force that they had torn apart.
From the other side of the field I heard a pop. The tractor began to rev higher as it shot forward in a burst of speed. The rake had broken.
We pulled the rake from the ground where it lay. It was a sad sight. The fingers looked like the tines of a fork after a run-in with a powerful garbage disposal. There were chunks of potato covering the rake, and individual potatoes were stuck on the fingers.
The potato rack was placed in retirement never to return. Pa, however, returned the very next day and began a new invention that would, "make the work easier."
These memories and others like them are all I have left of my Pa. He died last year after five years fighting diabetes - he liked his fried chicken and okra too much to give it up. I was unable to arrive in time to attend his funeral. I was unable to say goodbye.
I miss you, Pa.
Writerís bio: Will Bennett of Avon Park, Florida, currently lives in Seoul, Korea, while serving in the US Air Force. He has traveled throughout the world while serving his country.
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