You may remember the television series, “The Waltons,” a Depression-era slice of Americana based on Earl Hamner’s experiences in the Virginia hills. The series reflected one family’s good-natured resilience and resourcefulness in hard times.
Every evening when the lights were turned off, the stillness was broken by voices saying good night. I imagine it in these times: “Good night, Grandpa.” “Goodnight, John-Boy.” Goodnight, Mama.” “Goodnight, Mary-Sue-Ellen-Bob.” “Turn off your cell phone, Jim-Bob.” “Yes, Daddy-Bob”
As Americans settle into an extended routine of isolation — for farmers and ranchers it’s pretty much business as usual — we find ourselves still remarkably well-connected to the world around us through technology. Not only can you call Grandma at the nursing home, you can Facetime or Skype.
I thought about these things as I drove with Gus the Wonder Pug riding shotgun, watching the whitetails scamper across harvested fields at sunset this past Thursday. Windshield time is always productive for me, and I often compose a column in my head or just sort through things. Some people have therapists, I have a pickup, gravel roads, PBS, a cigar and a pug.
I remembered a conversation I had with my Grandpa Bender in the mid-’80s. He mentioned his brother Christ’s new pickup, how nice it was, and I said, “Grandpa, let’s go to Wishek right now and buy one from Pfeifle Chevrolet.” He was a Chevy man. But he was uncertain about the future of the economy.
He and Grandma were married in the heart of the Depression, started with $10 and a cow and soon went broke. But through persistent frugal living and hard work they were successful.
I assured him that nothing like a depression was even possible anymore — modern society had evolved past that. But he wanted to save his nest egg for his family — for his grandkids. “Grandpa,” I said, “The best way for things to work out is for you to spend your last dime the day you die. You don’t owe us anything.”
A few years later, we had the 1987 market crash, then the Dot.com crash in 2000, 9/11 after that and the Great Recession in 2007. With each of those events, my grandfather looked smarter. Today, I remember him as a genius.
As Gus and I putzed along, I thought about some friends and neighbors who aren’t doing so well and said a few prayers at 35 mph in the glow of a reverent orange sunset. I made a mental list of old friends I hadn’t spoken to in a while and resolved to call a few of them each week.
A Neil Young song, “One of These Days,” came to mind:
One of these days,
I’m gonna sit down
and write a long letter
To all the good friends I’ve known
And I’m gonna try
And thank them all
for the good times together.
Though so apart we’ve grown.
When I got back home, I called Harriet Howe, one of the truly great women I’ve known. She’s a retired teacher, a rebel and one of the great Irish storytellers of our time.
While we talked and laughed, I popped the cork on a bottle of wine and she did the same on the other end. We retold each other our best stories, lamented the passage of time that had diminished some of our friends (but not us), and I told her I missed the dust on Hettinger’s Main Street, where I lived for about seven years, where I met her and a gang of anarchists that seemed divinely placed just for me.
She asked about the kids. They’re doing well, hunkering down and playing it smart. After her trip back from WVU, India has about a week left in isolation in the old repurposed church on our property. She’s been cooking gourmet pasta and cuddling with Squirrel The World’s Grumpiest cat.
They’ve got other company, too. The morning after her arrival she awoke to the sound of chirping. A window had been left open a crack, and now there are three sparrows chirping merrily away. At 15, Squirrel is indifferent to the interlopers.
The birds have food and water, and eventually, we’ll herd them out, but it feels poetic, and poetry heals the soul. Let them sing.
Tony writes two weekly columns; this one appears in weeklies in North Dakota and South Dakota and in some dailies. Bender owns two newspapers in Ashley and Wishek, N.D. www.mcintosh-star-tribune.com. He also writes an exclusive weekly column for Forum Communications.
© Tony Bender, 2020