The Smartest Guy I Know
EVERY YEAR I PLANT A SMALL PATCH OF oats and harvest them with an antique scythe I bought at an auction.

November 12, 2012

EVERY YEAR I PLANT A SMALL PATCH OF oats and harvest them with an antique scythe I bought at an auction.

I love to put my palms to the worn handles and imagine the hands that have been there before mine, how much rougher they must have been, how many countless hours their owners must have toiled to lay the smoothness in the grain of the wood. I was raised by farmers and have never shed the atavistic sense that the worthiest work is accomplished with force applied through the body.

This whole philosophical angle has its limits. One day my 82-year-old neighbour Tom Hartwig and I were rummaging in his machine shed for a piece of steel when I spied his old scythe hooked in the raf¬ters. I started telling him about mine and how I sharpen it using three whetstones in sequence, moistening each as I draw it along the arc of the blade.

“Yah, sounds like you’re doin’ that about right,” he said, and inside I glowed a little. There are certain skills every man ought to have, and knowing how to put an edge on a blade is prime among them; to have Tom’s approval is doubly meaningful. I described to him how I swing the scythe, hoping he might give me some advice on how to better handle the thing, but he just said, “Yah, that’s pretty much how you do it.”

I was feeling expansive, not just because of his approval but also because I imagined that it must be heartening for him, the old-timer, to know that some of us in the trailing genera-tions are taking up the old ways again and doing our best to preserve fundamental tradi-tions. The scythe is a cultural baton, and I am passing it into the future.

“Y’know what really works good?” asked Tom.
I gave him my full attention, determined to keep my scatterbrain in focus so that what¬ever secret he was about to share I would be able to carry it forward, hand it to my own chil¬dren, be a living link.
“One a’ them petrol-powered weed whackers!”

TOM MAKES HIS OWN CANNONS AND SHOOTS them. He owns a nine kilogram cat named Mister Bigshot and a three-legged dog named Cassidy (Hopalong get it?), and back in the day he was famous for riding in local parades behind his matched oxen, Chester and Lester. He keeps bees, brews his own hbooza but doesn’t drink it, and says that by the time he finished building a sawmill out back, he’d used over 45 kilograms of welding rods. He has slept beneath the same farmhouse roof for all of his 82 years, mostly in peace and quiet until the government blasted an interstate through his back garden. Now 23 200 cars rush past his stoep every day, around the clock. That’s nearly 8.5 million howling engines a year. You’d think he’d be tempted to turn that cannon loose on the passing lane.

I visit Tom whenever I need a piece of iron cut, bent, or welded. Sometimes I visit in the company of my wife and two daughters; we bring food and stay for supper. Sometimes I visit to drop off some homegrown pork chops or a dozen eggs. Sometimes I visit just to visit. I rarely come to Tom seeking anything more than 10 minutes of his time and a size 6011 welding rod. He is not my mentor, I am not his acolyte; we are simply neighbours.

Tom’s workshop looks like an antique store that’s been stocked by Rube Goldberg, curated by Hunter Thompson, and rearranged by a small earthquake. Everything you can imagine is in there, from deconstructed engines to par¬tially finished cannons. In the darkest corner sits a 3-ton lathe. Why such a big lathe? “Because you can do a little job on a big lathe, but you can’t do a big job on a little lathe,” he says, grinning. The lathe is older than Tom is, but farmers still come around to have him turn out parts for their quartet-million-dollar computerised machines. The lathe is the king o f tools,” says Tom, “because if you need something you can make it.”

No one taught Tom any of this. “You get good books and read ‘em,” he says. On the shelf behind his chair in the kitchen you’ll find copies of The Complete Modern Blacksmith and Tricks & Secrets of Old-Time Machinists. “But eventually you just have to dive in,” he says. “You can read all the books you want about how to ride a bicycle…” Back when he was a young man, Tom would head for town when the chores were done, rid¬ing his brand-new 1948 Harley-Davidson. To make sure the ladies noticed him, Tom had a special setup: first he wove decorative green and red lights through the front wheel spokes, and then he rigged a pair of generator brushes so they contacted a copper band soldered to the brake drum. Finally he wired a switch that drew power from the low-beam headlight. When he hit that switch, he says, the bike lit up like a rolling Christmas tree.

Arlene Knutson was in church the first time she heard the Harley. Tom raced it full throttle right up the sidewalk, and when he invited her to hop on, Arlene said she wasn’t riding on any motorcycle. Sensing he was at a disadvantage on two wheels, Tom tried four. He got himself a white ’49 Chevy convertible and a red shirt. Arlene was at work in her second-story office when she saw him coming this time, rolling downtown with the top down, that scarlet shirt playing off the white car. When she tells the story now, her eyes glint as if she’s seeing him coming up the street for the first time.

They’ve been married 59 years now.

“I say love is a disease everybody gets,” says Tom. “Some people catch it quite often!”
“Thomas!” says Arlene. Then she says she has her heart set on making that 60th anniversary. But then the call comes. Tom is in the hospi¬tal. He was going to get the mail and fell. The next day he fell again. Turned out to be a stroke. To relieve the pressure, the surgeons had to lift a piece of his skull. You can tell Tom grilled them because when I visit the hospital, he describes the surgery in great detail. Quite the same way, in fact, that he would describe a tricky move on the lathe. He talks about how they drilled the burr holes, the dimensions of the piece of skull removed, and the parts list for the repair. “I got three titanium plates, and each a’ them has four titanium screws. That’s how they held the lid on. When I saw the x-ray, I said to Arlene, ‘I thought they went to the hardware shop and got pop rivets!’ ”
The surgeon said he drained most of the blood, but a little air bubble remained. “So I’m an airhead!” Tom says.

A rehabilitation stint in the nursing home followed. When I visit, I search for signs of depression or boredom.

“You going batshit-crazy, Tom?” I ask. He’s lying on the bed and looks oddly tiny.
“N ah,” he says, “it’s all right. I sleep. It passes the time.”
I marvel at his patience.
Or perhaps it isn’t patience. Perhaps it’s just pissedoffness disguised as patience.

I HAVE COME TO REALISE THAT THE MOST valuable lesson Tom can teach me isn’t how to run a lathe or build a cannon or find love that lasts for 60 years, but rather how to live in equanimity, to take things as they come, like some roughneck yogi.
There is this story Tom tells: he was working in the garden when a car pulled in and two men got out. One was fresh-faced and young; the other appeared more sea¬soned. Insurance salesmen, as it turned out, pushing disability policies. Tom says he figured out pretty quickly the older guy was breaking in the new guy, showing him the tricks of the trade. The older agent took a long, slow look at the place. Finally, he said, “Nice farm you’ve got here.”
“Yep,” said Tom.
“Looks like you’ve put a lot of work into the place.”
“Have you thought about what you would do if you got disabled and couldn’t keep it going?” asked the salesman.
“What would I do?” said Tom. “I’d sell the whole damn works and sit on my ass – that’s what I’d do!”

AFTER TOM COMES HOME FROM THE hospital, I drop in to visit. Even inside at the kitchen table we can’t escape the sound of traffic. You’d think a nonstop intrusion like this would turn a man sour for life. But when I ask if he’s angry, he says, “Nope. You got to adjust because you can’t change it.”
He is not one to forget; neither is he one to fruitlessly linger. Waiting until the moment feels right, I look him right in the eye and ask the question I’d always wanted to ask: “All these years, Tom – you have any regrets?”
“Well, sure,” he says.
And then he grins, and doesn’t say another word.

* Adapted from Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace