Summer’s sweet bridge
On the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth, July was a slow, sweet bridge between spring’s hard hustle and fall’s quickening step.
The unofficial usher of July’s slowdown was my grandfather, a bond broker known more for his giddy-up than reining in. Most Thursdays and every Saturday year-around, Grandpa visited clients throughout southern Illinois. Every trip, no matter where it started, ended at the farm, his largest personal investment.
To my siblings and me, Grandpa’s twice-weekly stops were like Santa Claus dropping by for a visit; if Santa wore a gray suit in his off-season, that is. Christmas in July, however, meant his visits usually began with a peck of freshly picked peaches he had purchased somewhere along his route that day.
There was an established routine to these delicious deliveries. We children, who always had the noon dishes washed, dried, and stored away by the time Grandpa arrived, would meet him at the screen door on the back porch where his brother, Uncle Honey, was rousing from a post-dinner nap.
Then, in something of a ceremony, Grandpa would sit near Honey, pull out a penknife that opened more first class mail than first class peaches, and halve enough of the soft, juice-dripping beauties to send us away happily slurping so he and his brother could visit in the shady quiet.
I am now older than both were in that memory and would love to return to that porch to share a peaceful minute and another juicy peach with them.
July was also long-awaited vacation time on the farm. The first to take his well-earned, one-week break was Jackie, the farm’s main field worker. Jackie lived for vacation and spent weeks quacking about all the work he’d duck when it finally arrived.
When it did, however, Jackie never left the farm. He was more than content to spend the entire week waving at my brothers and me as we drove load after load of freshly baled alfalfa past the shady porch of the house he shared with his mother, Clara, and brother, Howard, the dairy’s herdsman.
Remarkably, he never missed a load passing by all week and as he waved, he’d grin a grin so wide you could count his few teeth. Clearly, that feeling was the best vacation joy he could ever imagine and now I am smiling, too.
The next to vacate was Howard. His week off put a big crimp in my brothers’ and my summer because it meant one of us had to milk every morning and evening with Dad. The substitute “Howard” had to be at the dairy barn by 4:30 every morning to gather the cows, set up the parlor, and feed them before my father arrived to milk an hour later.
Unlike his bachelor brother Jackie, bachelor Howard spent most of his vacation day-tripping to a rural tavern two miles from the farm. Every late afternoon, however, he’d shuffle into the dairy parlor to offer my father a cold Stag beer. He’d then have one “for the road”—a quarter mile would deliver him to his mother and Jackie—and then shuffle off into a forgotten evening.
My father said nothing, then or ever, about Howard’s vacation binging. The reason was simple: Howard was stone-cold sober six days a week, 51 weeks a year and never complained, whined, or worried about anyone or anything. He was the farm’s one indispensable employee and everyone—other than himself—knew it.
The final week of July was usually reserved for our family vacation. Invariably, it would be the hottest, worst fishing week of the year but, throughout the 1960s, we’d nonetheless try from a steaming cabin on a then-wonderfully remote place called the Lake of the Ozarks. Around 1969 my father switched to Kentucky Lake where he’d heard the fishing was more peaceful.
Nowadays, peace for me every July is a shirtless Jackie waving from the porch, the wobbly Howard saying, “Can you hand this to your dad, Allie Boy?” and Grandpa Guebert and Uncle Honey sharing a fresh peach in satisfied, hopeful silence.