The other day I was outside when Bart Kretschmer drove into the yard in his familiar blue Ford pickup. We farmers are identifiable by our trucks a mile away.
It's that time of year; the seed salesmen are out. Bart farms south of me out by the Cottonwood. He sells a little Fertile Crescent Seed Corn on the side. The way these things work is that my dad bought seed from Bart's dad, Hugo, so I buy from Bart. Fertile Crescent's run by a couple old guys in Iowa; it's the little piece of my flesh the big chemical companies don't get.
"Dammit, Bart, I told you not to come during the Gray Zone." The Gray Zone is when it's too late for coffee and too early for beer. It was about four in the afternoon, sunlight was already receding. Bart reminded me that farming's been awfully stressful this year, so we decided a Grain Belt wouldn't be bad.
We walked to the house and I got a couple from the fridge. He and I have this annual routine down. We tell war stories about the past season, we update on each other's family, and then I order about 10 bags of seed corn and 30 bags of soybeans. The only difference from our fathers is that the check is bigger. And they had Hauensteins.
When Bart got done figuring the discounts, he offered me the stylish new Fertile Crescent seed cap. "Bart, I lost count of how many of these I got in the basement at twenty. We're thinking of adding on just to store my caps." He suggested that I give one to Pam for Christmas.
I agreed that would fit with the long line of lame Christmas gifts I have given my bride. But a farmer can't turn down a free cap. Well, free for $4,000. To seal our negotiations, we decided to have one more Grain Belt.
The talk turned from not-so-good Christmas gifts to not-so-good Christmases. I had a couple, but Bart won the competition with his Paducah Christmas Eve. Paducah, as in Kentucky.
This was back in 1988, Bart's senior year at St. John's. He had plans to teach after college. Bart is Hugo and Virginia's only son, and the family talked about him coming back to farm. But profits were thin coming through the eighties. College costs were also piling up. So things were a little on edge when he came home that Christmas vacation.
Bart planned to leave right after Christmas for a January term at a small Catholic school in Meridian, Mississippi. But when Bart and his dad got in to a shouting match out in the hog barn, plans accelerated. Bart said the hell with it, and decided to take off for Meridian early. As he packed his old Impala, Hugo's last words were "Fine, see you then."
That left Bart with a balky cassette player, not a lot of money, and plenty of thinking time. There had also been a falling-out with his girlfriend Katherine right before the semester ended. That's the Katherine he's married to now. Back then, she wanted him to spend part of the holiday with her family in the Cities. He thought there was too much to do with farm work and the trip to Mississippi.
Bart got in touch with the pastor in Meridian. Fr. Frank was glad to have him early and would put him up in the rectory. After visiting a college friend in Chicago, Bart planned a ten-hour drive to Mississippi the day before Christmas. That was the plan, anyways, till the Impala's brake warning light went on somewhere in Kentucky.
A quick check, and Bart could see the brake fluid was low. He bought a bottle at the next truck stop. He optimistically filled the reservoir, but wasn't surprised to see the light come back on a few miles down the road. There was a leak somewhere.
By now it was late in the day. Bart limped the Impala off I-24 just outside of Paducah. After passing a few closed gas stations, he was able to find one that was just closing. The mechanic there was headed home, but said he'd come in Christmas morning to see if he could get Bart on his way.
Bart realized that was the best he was going to do. It began to sink in that this was going to be his Christmas Eve. His limited funds were going to have to go to a repair job and not a motel. The Impala would be home for the night. Supper would be at Mac's Cafe back near the Interstate.
At Mac's, Bart lingered with his bottomless cup of coffee for a couple hours. Outside of a few truckers, he was the only customer waitress Laura had. She was working till Mac's closed at midnight, and then was headed to her folk's a few towns away. Bart and Laura spent a long time comparing lives. Laura was working a couple jobs, trying to save up for more schooling.
Bart knew back home his family was getting ready for Midnight Mass. It crossed his mind that there might be a church nearby. He asked Laura, and she laughed, "I've heard of Catholics, but I don't know what one looks like."
When the caf closed, Laura and Bart lingered out in the parking lot. For just a moment, it crossed Bart's mind that something could come of this. But that didn't seem right. They squeezed hands, wished each other a good Christmas, and went to their cars.
It was chilly now, and Bart sat with a blanket around him. The Ohio River was down below. After a while, he put on the winter coat he had in the back seat, and walked the long grassy slope toward the riverbank. He sat down on the damp grass and listened to the silent river go by. There was lots to think about, most of it gloomy about then.
Across the river was some sort of factory. Up on a tower was a star made of Christmas lights. A few were missing. The missing lights seemed about right for this Christmas to Bart. His father, his girlfriend, his hazy future drifted through his mind. It felt like a bottom, a pit. He knew he had to start climbing out, at least by a rung.
Bart figured his parents and sisters would be coming home around then from Mass. There was a pay phone at Mac's. Up the hill he trudged, found some quarters in the car, and went to call home. Virginia answered; she sounded like a mom. "Bart, are you OK, are you in Mississippi?" He answered, "Well not really, but I'm OK. Mom, Merry Christmas. Is Dad there?"
Hugo was putting the car away, and took the phone when he came in the door. "Bart?" "Dad, I'm sorry about the other day, I'm sorry we had that fight." Then, "I think a lot of you, Dad." It was silent on the other end. Bart added, "I hope you have a good Christmas, Dad." A bit longer, and Hugo sort of whispered, "You too, Son. You too."
It was the first rung, Bart thought later in the car. One rung. Some Christmases that's all you can do.