Thursday they were predicting near-record heat for the region, and the outdoor temperature at seven in the morning was a balmy 54°, the southewestern breeze sending the stars and stripes flapping to the northeast. The flag was ragged, shredded on the ends of threads, and Grandpa was planning to purchase a new one at the National Farm Expo in Louisville when we were done feeding the cows. “Me and Huck both got flags and telescoping poles down there last year.”
“You ain't goin in them tattered jeans,” Grandma had informed me at breakfast, wagging her index finger like a modern day gangsta brandishing a 9mm Glock. “I ain't havin you walkin around the farm show in rags.”
I knew she must be referring to the threadbare slit where my right kneecap smiled like a heathen. “Actually, holes in jeans is fashionable with the youth these days,” I stammered.
“Spec, now you ain't young no more. You got to git with the program, go upstairs and change into somethin respectable.”
Trouble was I hadn't planned for the farm show adequately, and those ripped blue jeans had been the number one candidate over the others stained with grease, white paint, or already piled in the laundry heap of dirty duds. The only alternative was the church pants that Grandma had bought for me after the sacrelige of showing up on Sunday morning for an hour of Lutheran enlightenment wearing blue jeans. She'd nearly had a heart attack over that one. Dear soul she was, though, making coffee for me every morning and asking if it was too thick or thin. On the kitchen TV the weather report abruptly cut off and we were treated to a view of the outside of a strip joint in Louisville with the reporter's voice informing us that Louisville's well-known dancing shows were expecting sparser turnouts from the million farmers from around the wrold converging on the river city for the ag expo. “[The farm show] is by far our biggest weekend. This new law really hurts,” said a club owner incensed by the city ordinance passed only a few weeks earlier which outlaws totally nude dancing in places that serve alcohol.
Grandma hit the mute button on the remote. “Land's sakes, they make it sound like farmers is all a bunch of drunken debaucherers.”
Talk around the woodstove in the shop, as streams of tobacco spit splattered on the concrete floor and beercans clinked in or near the plastic barrel, took a different tone regarding the new ordinance. “They're makin it illegal to be drunk in a titty bar,” was the general consensus. “Right before the farmers hit town, too. They're gonna be writing citations left and right, no doubt.”
“Farmers bring a lot of goddam money into that town. You're talking hundreds of millions.”
“Buncha major deals are made there at those tables with them dancing girls.”
“What day you going?”
Our group was heading down on Thursday because Friday and Saturday are too crowded, shoulder-to-shoulder humanity. This year Thursday was already cramming us together, possibly on account of corn being at around seven bucks a bushel, though the aisles most crowded were the ones with the cheap tools, the T-shirt and ball-cap displays, the whacky gizmo crafts fair type crap like these guys with about a dozen mounted buck deer heads that sported six or twelve or more points — depending on what side of the Rockies you were counting from. What were they peddling? I wondered. Turned out these entrepreneurs were hawking this supplement vitamin elixir in bottles that was supposed to enhance the antler rack growth of your local bucks. Maybe it was even supposed to somehow lure them in.
We had to keep moving, literally rubbing elbows. The only crowd I'd ever been stuck in denser than this ag expo had been at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 2000, several years before Katrina struck. Similar to the farm expo with the millions converging, but the most dense cluster I fell into was entirely inadvertent on my part, as our party accidentally blundered into a sea of swarming, sweating testosterone. Literally I had no control over my direction, almost like floating down the river with its eddys and tugs. What the hell, I wondered, literally pressed chest-to-chest with other drunk guys who were sometimes arbitrarily hostile, a living nightmare. “What's going on?” I wondered until my taller friend pointed to a French Quarter balcony above a strip joint where a naked Venus was licking the clit, etc., of another stripper, putting on a fine show. Show or no, though, the price of admission in that case was to be squeezed between a bunch of lusty drunks so I followed the current right on past the act.
This Farm Show had the same demographic composition as the mass of humanity pulsating under that French Quarter balconey. I mean to say the farmers were mostly men between eighteen and fifty, nearly all donning their best blue jeans, leather boots, T-shirts, flannels, and baseball caps advertising the same brands of seedcorn, herbicides, or implement manufacturers that were displaying their latest technology under the bright lights. I noticed a few Menonites — probably not Amish, men with the dress pants and suspenders, the black top hats and the beards with the mustache shaven away as is their style. Most of the Mennonite guys my age were there with their wives, usually tugging red wagons loaded with toddlers and boxes of crackers. I could well imagine those women would have thrown the same fit Grandma did about the holes in my blue jeans. Also I figured they were accompanying their husbands no doubt in a fervent attempt to keep them focused on farm machinery there in that sinful French river town.
Hours of treading on concrete had me lagging back with Grandpa, my right hip and knee swelling and aching more with each step. “Dad wouldn't let me play football in high school on account of injuries,” I said to Grandpa, who well knew what I was referring to. The one of my dad's brothers who stayed home and farmed can't turn his head a lick anymore thanks to injuries sustained carrying the football. That same uncle was kicking my ass at the farm show, though, in an ironic twist. His football injury made it such a pain in the ass for him to turn his head that he walked by all the gizmo crap and made a beeline for the GPS systems that automatically shut off your corn planter at the end of the rows, remembering where you've already planted in a given field. The latest technology, it was, and would save heaps of expensive genetically-modified corn seed in the unsquare fields along the rivers and creeks.
Instead of playing football, I'd run cross-country in the fall during high school. I think my short legs might have been better off playing football because my knees and hips got torqued running down hills. Grandpa and me were scoping out chairs by lunchtime, ignoring the latest farm machinery. At the end of our pilgrimage or gauntlet, about three o'clock we bumped into Tom Bechmann, the editor of Indiana's Prairie Farmer magazine. He was sitting on the edge of a concrete weight that anchored a sign sporting directions for the expo, the editor poring over pages of notes.
“Mr. Bechmann,” said my uncle, extending a hand.
Evidently they knew one another, exchanging questions about how is she or he, they or them, before my uncle slapped the editor heartily on the shoulder and pointed to me. “That's Brother Spec. He's a writer, too, just come back from California.”
We shook hands. “Yeah, I did this Farm To Farm—”
“Spec's been writing about all them pot growers out there.”
“Yeah, it's pretty much legal so I decided to report on what farmers there were doing.”
“How long were you in California?”
“Nine, ten years.”
“How could you stand living around all those fruits and nuts?”
Peaches and almonds came to mind. “I read the last issue of Prairie Farmer,” I said, though.