I’m a Long Way from that Oklahoma Farm, But a Few Lessons Remain
On my last visit to my hometown I found our family's old John Deere 4020 tractor and snapped a picture.
“It’s cooling off I think,” the bearded man deadpanned, as he jumped onto the running board of our old red-and-white GMC wheat truck. My brother and I were sitting in the idling truck, in line at the Okeene Coop, waiting behind a row of other harvest-time wheat trucks all looking to unload their grain into the massive white silo towering in front of us.
This was probably about 25 years ago. My brother was driving, I was in the passenger seat, about 18 years old, with my elbow slung out the passenger-side window just so, as it always was when I was riding shotgun. I wouldn’t realize until years later that my posture mirrored my Dad’s lean as he drove his pickup truck around the farming town of Okeene, Oklahoma, a one-stoplight burg where he was born and where he died.
It was definitely not cooling off. As the man stood on the running board outside my door and chatted us up in the blazing Oklahoma summer sun, his shirt was drenched with sweat and his nearly-ZZ Top-length beard was flecked with wheat chaff. I don’t recall his name, but my dad would always call him “Fuzzy” when he saw him around town, a Dad Joke referencing his long beard, back before Dad Jokes were a thing.
This last year I traveled the world, leaving the working world for the first time in 30 years, since my first job on the family wheat farm. But I’m reminded of that time now, because of something that Fuzzy said to me that day — an unexpected piece of career advice that has stuck with me ever since. Today, I sit in a frou-frou coffee shop, meeting and networking with colleagues and searching online for opportunities — 1,300 miles and seemingly a million years from that rusty wheat truck.
During Oklahoma’s annual summer wheat harvest, there were no cushy jobs. Thousands of farmers and workers were involved in this frenetic month-long annual effort to take millions of tons of wheat from the field to grain bins, so that it could be delivered all over the world. Farming families worked with urgency from before dawn to after dusk, as once wheat was ready to be harvested, it allows only a short window of time to be cut. It was hot, dusty work. Meals were usually managed by the farmwives who relocated their kitchen and dining areas into their stationwagon or pickup, delivering it down dusty country roads for an in-the-field version of fast casual dining.
But in my opinion, Fuzzy had the most difficult harvest job of all of us. He was among those who spent all day shoveling the wheat being dumped from an endless line of wheat trucks into the augers of the mill for storage. This was truly back-breaking work, with dust and dirt constantly swirling up into your face from the vortex of grain being sucked into the giant auger. These mill wheat shovelers were probably the lowest-paid workers in an industry not exactly known for signing bonuses. On particularly sweltering hot and windless June days in Oklahoma, this job seemed almost inhumane to me.
I sat there in the passenger seat and swapped bad jokes with Fuzzy as we waited our turn on the scales. I was exhausted and covered in dust from my own work on the farm that day, but I was silently thanking God that I didn’t have his job.
As our turn on the scales arrived and my brother ground out the gears of the truck and inched forward, Fuzzy said something surprisingly profound for a man in his situation. We were commiserating on the heat, the dirt, and how tired we were, when he simply said: “There’s dignity in all work.”
He jumped off the truck and left me struck by his prescient statement. If Fuzzy could find purpose in his job, then surely I could do the same, whatever I might do in life, for the rest of my life.
Growing up working on a family farm, I learned a lot about hard work and how to lead a dignified life. One lesson I learned was that I did not want to spend my life engaged in non-air-conditioned manual labor. I wasn’t cut out for it. Nothing brings focus to a young man’s collegiate studies quite like the prospect of flunking out and spending his next 40 years shoveling wheat.
So I spent the next thirty years of my working life working hard, grinding the gears and inching forward. I would find a good job, work long hours and give it my all. Then a promotion would come along, or another opportunity. I was exceptionally fortunate in many ways — I received a great public school education, I received a generous college scholarship (Thank you again Owen and Vivian Wimberly Scholarship) which helped bring me out of college debt-free, unlike many of my fellow graduates. And frankly being a white man in America gave me an edge too. In other ways I made my own luck, through the lessons I learned from my family and my community about hard work, life, and how to treat your fellow man and woman.
Then, after thirty years, it all changed. The priority of work and career began to fall behind a new priority to pursue a life well-lived, regardless of where my career would take me. The change was sparked first by the loss of a good friend who died in his 30s. Then a few years later was the loss of a man who I had hoped soon would be my father-in-law, who died just a few months before his retirement after a long and distinguished career. I began to realize that nothing is promised in this life, and with my new perspective, an opportunity to quit my job and borrow a year of my retirement now to spend traveling the world surprisingly became the most logical choice, just as doing the opposite -- working hard and saving for later -- had been the most logical choice up until that point.
Now I transition to a new chapter, on the tail-end of my One-year Retirement trip around the world, seeking to re-enter the working world. Perhaps in this next chapter I could meld the two priorities — and pursue a life well lived partly through the dignity of work. As I reset the priorities once more, I’m ready to inch forward again. Along with my family, my community and the lessons I’ve learned along my travels, I’ll add another life teacher to my list: his name was Fuzzy.