He carefully placed his carry-on in the overhead bin of the full-to-capacity plane before gently easing himself into the seat next to me.
“Not much room in these chairs,” the big man mumbled, as he fished around for the seat belt while trying not to bump up against me. I scooted closer to the window to give him additional room.
Settling in for the three-hour Kansas-to-Phoenix flight, he folded his arms across his thick barrel chest and let out a deep sigh. His meaty hands were broad and calloused; his face freckled and tan. He wore new denim cargo pants, the kind with lots of pockets for tools, and suede leather athletic shoes. His collared tee had an alligator stitched on the breast pocket. He smelled of aftershave. He and the passenger to his right exchanged names before he took a deep breath, shook his head and, in a slow country drawl, answered his neighbor’s “Where ya headed?” question.
“Well, I’m going out to Tucson to go golfing. I lost my wife a year ago this last January 21 and I’m just bumming around now. I started working the farm at 13 years old. A cousin of mine was my first schoolteacher and my first employer. She hired me for 50 cents an hour and I sure thought that wasn’t enough money for all that work. I hoed chuckleburs out of the corn. After school I’d grab my girlfriend and we’d go down to White’s old greasy spoon and get a sack of hamburgers. They were five for a buck back then. I’d put gas in the farm truck and still have money left over for a show on Saturday. You sure can’t do that anymore,” he laughed.
I point out that 13 seems awfully young to be driving, or to have a girlfriend.
“Aw, I was a big kid,” he shrugs, “and things is different on a farm. I learned to run all the equipment that first year. I farmed her place for 56 years. She lived to be 102 and, when she died, I quit, too. I had 1,200 acres of my own, plus her place and I just got tired of it all. I had six kids, three of them were early on, then I waited 14 years because I wanted to space ’em out, then I had three more. The boys took over for me for a while, but none of them ever assimilated to the farm and that’s OK; I didn’t want ’em to. I wanted them to have their own lives, not like me. They’re all doing good. One grandson is a ball player. You know, they give those kids an ungodly amount of money these days. But that’s OK; he’s bringing it back home, back to his town. He’s hired hisself an architect out of Kansas City and he’s building this big ol’ house. He’s got a 200-foot heated driveway. It doesn’t even snow that much where he’s at, but he’s got a heated driveway.”
Our fellow passenger is a farm equipment salesman and asks Jed about his combine, which causes the big man with the kind voice to sit up straight.
“You know, a guy could spend a million bucks on a combine, now. Back then, I thought I was in tall cotton when I bought my first 13-foot header. Shoooot! Nowadays they have 40–50 foot headers that go way out to there! And straw choppers, a guy can spend $60,000 on one of those. We’d grow milo, corn, lots of soybeans, clover. We rotated crops. With the droughts and all, farmers can’t survive.
“You know, you have to have a $700 acre, which means you have to space your corn at every 7 inches. I used to put 20,000 seeds per acre and people thought I was crazy for planting that close. They said it’d never grow, but now, shoot, they’re up above 30,000 an acre, and a bag of seeds is 80,000 seeds per bag. A bag used to cost $80. Now, that very same bag of seed corn is $230 so you just flat gotta make $700 an acre just to survive.
“I’m glad I’m out of it; it’s just too much to worry about. I sold everything and I told the kids they’re on their own. All I have to do now is just bum around and enjoy myself; I’m spending every dime of it golfing. Wish I’d a listened to my wife and retired earlier. If I’d a known then how much I was missing I’d have quit way before I did. Before she died, anyway. You know, that first girlfriend I was telling you about? That was her. We got married but didn’t get time to have much fun; we just worked the farm, but we were a good team.” He fell silent for a while, alone in his memories before he nudged me with his elbow.
“So where are you headed; what do you do for a living?” he asks. I grin and tell him I ride my motorcycle all over the country and get to meet cool people like himself. Jed shakes his head in disbelief and chuckles.
“No kidding? Well, there ya go. See, you gals get this stuff figured out faster ’n us guys. You know how to have fun and live life, but it takes us guys a while longer to figure out how to enjoy ourselves. Good for you. Sure wish I’d have listened to my wife back then, but I’m making up for lost time now.”