By Sean Dietrich
Midmorning. I was driving the Alabama two-lane highways. My old Ford loped across farmland, cattle pastures and a chipped asphalt highway that predated the Coolidge administration. The sun was blaring. There were dew splotches on the pavement.
I was on my way to Birmingham, running late as usual.
I was supposed to speak at a luncheon for retired veterans. I wore a necktie, my finest Salvation Army-bin Hush Puppies and Old Spice. My tardiness, however, was my own fault. I had avoided interstates in favor of south Alabama’s lethargic back roads.
I always avoid interstates. I dislike interstates. I come from slow-moving country people who abhor interstates with a purple passion. My people were farmers, ranchers and fundamentalists. We were brought up to move slowly when dealing with 1,400-pound animals, to be careful and to always wear clean underwear before riding in an automobile. We do not do interstates.
At some point during my drive, I found myself stuck in a line of near-standstill traffic. Bumpers and headlamps backed up like a strand of Christmas lights. The cars were moving slower than a Canadian glacier, and I knew I wouldn’t make the luncheon.
I banged on my steering wheel. “You gotta be kidding! C’mon!”
I tried my cell. No service. Great.
When we came to a hill, I saw the cause of the midmorning congestion. A fleet of John Deere tractors was leading the sluggish parade. The convoy advanced at a cool 9 mph.
And something happened.
I was catapulted into a time warp. I found myself four decades in the past, riding upon the knee of my father as he piloted a red belly Ford along an old two-lane. I could almost see the string of Toyotas and Chevys behind him, honking impatiently. I could almost see him spitting into his Dr. Pepper bottle.
I was raised among farmers, homemakers, shade-tree mechanics and men who drove tractors on rural routes. My people were livestock people, dirt people, tee-totalers and deep-water Baptists with sunburns that stopped mid-arm. We were obsessed with Billy Graham, rainfall totals, Coca-Cola and punctuality. My grandfather read the “Farmer’s Almanac” for spiritual wisdom.
Sometimes I forget these things. But today, I was remembering plenty.
I pulled over at a filling station to use the phone. The man behind the counter was built like a refrigerator. He plopped a phone on the counter whereupon I called the retired-veterans guy and apologized for being late. He told me the luncheon was about to start and not to worry, we’d try some other time. He was gracious, but I could tell I’d disappointed everyone.
I hung up and felt like a boot heel.
I faked a smile.
As I was walking out, something happened. Something we writers call “the whole point of this run-on story.”
At the front door, I stopped. I turned. The back of the store was stocked with fishing tackle. There were live-bait coolers, humming, filled with crickets and night crawlers. There were lures of every size, shape and denomination. Rods, reels, bait wells.
I asked where people went fishing around here.
He pointed out the window.
“Place up the road. Big old farm. It’s private, but the farmer lets people fish his pond because it’s stocked.”
A feeling came over me. I cannot explain it. It was a creeping feeling that started in my belly. Here I was on an average morning in south Alabama without a thing to do.
I bought a few bucks’ worth of fishing gear, a pocket-fishing rod, peanuts and a cup of lukewarm coffee. In a few minutes, I was navigating red dirt roads until I found a fishing hole that could have doubled as the world’s largest mosquito breeding pit.
The serene pond looked like something from an early period Monet. Behind the water was a far-off combine. Cattle lingered. When I stepped from my truck, my Hush Puppies sank 6 inches into the Alabama mud with a suction sound. I was in Heaven.
I fished for three hours. I fished until my skin was covered in new freckles, and my red hair was dry. I fished until I faintly remembered what my grandfather used to call me as a nickname — Critter.
When I was packing up, the silence was shattered by the pleasant roar of a 45-horsepower diesel, rolling up the hill, towing a combine. When the Massey Ferguson got closer, the farmer did not stop. He shot his arm out the window, waved and shouted.
I held up five small bream on a stringer like a kid who just won the spelling bee.
He saluted me, then spit into a Dr. Pepper bottle.
And as I pulled out of the long driveway onto the secluded highway, I realized I was smiling. Smiling hard.
The American farmer is in my bloodline and always will be. I am proud of these men and women who do their part to spin this earth forward. Farmers deserve a nationwide fanfare they will seldom receive in this lifetime. And yet, they aren’t interested in fanfares. They prefer simplicity, humility and the sanctuary of open spaces.
It is for this reason that — even if I arrive late for my own memorial service — I will always choose to drive the back roads of Alabama.
Happy 100th birthday, Alfa Farmers.