Boots to Fill
By Gabrielle Crone
Only a hillbilly would bring their injured dog to the vet using twine as a leash. At least that’s what our vet, Westley, announced when he saw my grandpa, Charles Bailey, in the lobby of the clinic twine leash in hand. Gizmo had injured his paw, most likely from running around the farm, causing my grandma to schedule an appointment. What made the vet’s case stronger was that underneath the makeshift wrap on his paw, Gizmo’s foot had been adorned with blue spray. I can’t say with absolute certainty what “blue spray” is or how effective it is on minor canine injuries. Farmers aren’t inherently clever with names. My grandpa named a cow “Charger” because she’d charge at him. My favorite name was for a Shorthorn he’d bought in Iowa. He subsequently named her Iowa Girl.
My childhood consisted of daydreaming beyond the rolling hills of meadow and cow pasture. Soft hues of a dreamsicle orange would melt into the tops of trees during sunset and blend like ripples of a puddle into pink. The gentle breeze kissed the rustling leaves of soybean plants and the yearly June calves would dance around the field. Born and raised on our heritage farm post-Depression, my grandpa has farmed since infancy. Bailey Farms has fortified itself on the second curve of McGuire as the farm with a collection of goats Charles can’t seem to get rid of or cows that graze right up to the barbed wire fence, now covered in foliage. The farm was also the playground of the steadily growing herd of Bailey children, but for many years the only occupants were my sister Cristine and me.
My parents shared the house on 19703 McGuire Road. My grandparents opened the farmhouse to them as it had been nearly vacant after Uncle Pat, my grandpa’s brother, passed away. The move motivated us to feel like a family unit, the four of us under one roof together. We’d host birthday parties in late October as piglets had just been farrowed. My preschool classmates had chattered in awe as my dad carefully placed a piglet in their arms for a quick Polaroid memento, an easy “thank you” gift. Photoshoots of my sister and me hide somewhere in my mother’s many bins of half-started scrapbooks. Most are of Cristine posing in her Spider-Man training underwear and me prancing in pink leotards decorated with silver stars. We had a designated cow print time-out chair that sat underneath a window across from my mother’s campy yellow, chicken-printed pullout couch. I remember nights hiding on my parent’s bed as my sister and Dad watched The Incredible Hulk. But the golden shine of our nuclear family rusted like many moving parts around the farm. Our act didn’t last past two years as my dad stayed at the farmhouse and Mom moved Cristine and me into town.
Mornings at the farm after moving in with my grandparents were still a common occurrence. Grandma would suit Cristine and me up into matching Carhartt uniforms, bundled for the cold of early Autumn just after sunrise. I’d nibble on my McDonald’s sausage biscuit, nestled between my sister in the backseat of the white GMC pickup. Before she was made a permanent farm dog, Koko, our Labrador Retriever, would stretch her chocolate-furred body across the backseat so that her head propped itself next to the window on Cristine’s lap and her tail slapped me in the face from the other side. “Ring of Fire” would ring through the speakers and I’d laugh at the chewed-up seat belts. The most memorable part of the drive was seeing the sun rise over the golden wisps of cornstalks and the rays casting beams of light into Mt. Auburn Cemetery. “That’s the thing I don’t get about this place,” My grandpa’s premature chuckle would muffle the hum of Johnny Cash. “People are just dying to get in.”
My grandpa would swiftly pull into the drive and park near the barnyard. Cristine and I would rush to the gate and clutch onto it for dear life as she’d leap out and bound over to Abby, our more faithful, yellow Labrador, and jump on the fence until Abby was released from the pen. We’d shriek and then laugh as Abby and Koko would jump for slobbered kisses. The sun would stretch further on top of me as orange settled into blue and sounds of falling grain rang through the morning. The dogs would race across the barnyard, chasing wayward chickens and scattered-brained barn cats under fences and into the fields.
My grandma travels to the West Coast at least twice a year to visit my aunt in Olympia, Washington. Watching my grandpa pick up the household chores while she is gone amuses my mom and me. We laugh off his pan-fried hot dogs with a slice of American cheese melted on top with a side of baked beans. He has dabbled with SPAM. After the third time, I suspected he continued cooking the canned, dog-food-like meat solely to see the look on my mother’s face when she got home late from work. We had to step in when he took doing the laundry into his own hands. When he was still working at Dean Foods, he’d let my mom handle the occasional work shirt. But one Saturday afternoon, my mom caught my grandpa washing his farm clothes in our side yard. He found a metal bucket and sprayed the legs of his jeans to clean off the crusted cow manure. Soap of any kind was nowhere to be found.
By the time I reached high school, I was sure I would attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and study Agriculture Communications like my grandfather did. When I transferred to my public high school, Grandpa was ecstatic that I could finally join our local FFA Chapter. He was eager to sign the check for my advisor so I could get my blue corduroy jacket before the National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. He subsequently funded that trip where I was able to meet the renowned Dr. Pol, a Dutch migrant veterinarian who resides in Central Michigan. I had waited in line to get a photograph and a signed picture by Dr. Pol. I had to write on a notecard the name I wanted on the picture. I printed Charles Bailey as legibly as I could. Dr. Pol’s eyebrows furrowed and then raised.
“You don’t look like a Charles.” His wife chuckled.
“It’s for my grandfather.” Dr. Pol simply shrugged his shoulders and grabbed another picture on which he wrote my name. I returned from the trip and my grandpa laughed at the autograph but put it on his desk nonetheless. Over my three years in FFA, I was a Reporter and the Vice President. I learned Parliamentary Procedure and went each year to the Dairy Foods CDE (or Career Development Event) where I’d identify the different types of flavor defects in milk, taste cheese, and judge the various types of cow udders. I left high school uninterested in pursuing a career in agriculture, but I had gained memories of traveling to conventions and being swelled with pride whenever my grandpa would make a guest appearance in my Agriculture classes to talk about milk production.
My grandpa has been retired from Dean Foods for six years, but managed to talk for over thirty minutes about the industry at my sorority’s Dad’s Day this past spring. I called him the month before the event to invite him. I was walking down 8th Street to my apartment above Gazelle Sports and I could hear the excitement my grandpa was trying to mask in his voice. He told me he’d look into hotels to stay at and talk to grandma about other trip details. This would be the first time my grandparents had visited Hope. I had wanted so desperately for my grandpa to see what my life looked like at school and to be proud of my progress. My mother called me days later to tell me that Grandpa had told her about the invitation and how happy he was that I invited him. It’s never been discussed between my grandpa and me, but we both know the role he’s played in my upbringing. There’s no need for us to talk about the opportunities I was given because of his involvement in my life or how he bought my first car or that on my wedding day he’ll be the one to walk me down the aisle. It’s an unspoken understanding across the whole family that what Grandpa and I have is different from the rest of the grandchildren. If he’s bailing hay, I’m driving the tractor. If he needs to give piglets iron shots, I’m holding the squealing, wriggling newborns. An auction in Indiana is a day trip for the two of us and on one occasion we brought home a dog along with the goats we were on a mission to get. He’s never worried about age slowing him down because, “I’ve got all the help I need right here” with a loving jerk of the shoulder in my direction.
The month before my seventeenth birthday, I had received my driver’s license much to my mother’s hesitation. She imposed the delay in part due to my lack of night-time driving hours and her uncertainty in my capabilities. Refreshed with a newfound sense of independence and agency, I convinced my mother to let me take Grandpa’s pickup to the farm. The GMC had now been replaced with a Chevy Silverado, General Motors nonetheless, and my grandparents were in the middle of their three-week visit in Olympia with Aunt Vivian. It was routine to take out the weekly trash to the dumpster we had on the farm. My mom was getting ready for a date with her boyfriend, so I took it upon myself to bring the few bags of trash out to the dumpster before the end of the weekend. The trek there was painless, routine. The drive was a calm I had longed for ever since I passed my driver’s test. I embraced the early orange of a sun that had yet to set and traced the melody of “Jackson” on the steering wheel.
The accident happened once I returned home. A breeze of overconfidence swept through the cracked window as I tried to maneuver the truck back into its usual parking space. My grandpa habitually backed the truck up along the side of the house, nestling it to make room for the other cars that needed space in our driveway. I grew up witnessing his ease of parking it and thought I could just as easily tuck the pickup away. However, mirrors were still more enemy than aid and within seconds of my attempt I had hit a pole. Just off the alley that snaked through the back of our driveway, there was a telephone pole. To avoid confusion, I did not back the truck into the pole but rather smacked the front passenger side of the truck into the pole. The headlight was hanging on by one lowly electrical cord, dangling only by sheer will. The grill had been flown off as well as a crater finding its place on the front end. My mother had rushed out upon hearing the crash.
“Grandpa’s going to hate me.” Her arms blanketed my racking sobs and tried to soothe the adrenaline spike.
“He’s not going to hate you.”
“Yes, he is. I ruined his truck.”
My mom had to reassure me that the damage could easily be repaired by a body shop. She stepped away to park the truck with more experience than my luck provided. A panic frazzled my fingertips as I tried picking up the fallen metal debris. One former headlight cover sliced the fatty muscle on the outside of my hand, but the teardrop of blood that pooled from the wound was soon mixed with the salt of tears fast escaping my eyes. I watched as the red trickled onto the concrete, leaving ink drops of blood in our driveway.
My grandpa had found out about his wrecked truck prematurely. My mom and I were trying to find auto body shops in the area that could work on the repairs and bring the solution to him alongside the problem. We’ve come to learn living with my grandpa that his “Director of Operations” mind cannot handle issues wrapped in excuses. If there was an accident, he needs to be assured of the steps of how it will be fixed. Before we could present our plan, my dad tattle-tailed. I could only imagine he did it out of spite rather than concern because I had not called my dad about the accident. He had texted me during school asking what happened and became irritated that I had not told my own father I had had an accident. As with my grandfather’s logic, I had no reason to tell him, as he wouldn’t be helping book the appointments or foot the bill. He wasn’t a part of the plan. He never was.
I received a call from Grandpa that evening. I nearly let the call ring, but knew better and answered before it sent him to voicemail.
“A little birdy told me something happened to my truck.” His voice from thousands of miles away managed to sputter the flow of my breathing.
“Um, yeah. There was a little accident in the driveway.”
“Well, are you okay? Were you hurt?”
“I’m okay, but the truck is damaged.”
“A truck can be fixed or replaced. There’s no replacing you.”
Much like other farmers, my grandpa is a wealth of obscure farming information. This information has no tenable relation to fact and is delivered in cryptic side comments. For example, the telling sign when to bale hay is whatever day the hay looks ready to be cut: add another three days. Then bale the hay, unless it’s the unfortunate circumstance that it has rained somewhere in those three days. I think this is some counsel to be patient or “you’re not ready when you think you’re ready” advice. All I’ve taken from this is it’s a bitch to bale hay. In summer in Illinois, we die of heat stroke before we’re done with the first field.
At most family gatherings my grandfather’s fountain of knowledge never fails to be the center of entertainment. In the midst of one of his first Crohn’s flare-ups, Grandpa was in the thick of his more talkative and near delirious moods. He’ll talk forever while my grandma is trying to get him to “shut up and go to sleep.” We were in Washington on the coast at a newly developed beach town for the breadwinners of the West Coast. I had been living with my aunt and uncle for a few months and my grandparents were visiting. It was a weekend of escape, but we spent most of the day inside betting on the Kentucky Derby. Music played from the kitchen where my uncle Frostie was chopping carrots for a mid-afternoon snack. “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night floated into the living room and interrupted the conversation my grandfather and I were having.
“Do you know what ‘three dog night’ means, Graberz?” The throw blanket was tucked under his chin and his feet were peeking out from the bottom and moving to the beat of the song.
“No, but I imagine you’re going to tell me.” I tease. My grandfather rarely asks questions he doesn’t already know the answer to.
“Way back in the day when shepherds were out with their flock, they’d have their dogs with them. And on nights when it would be chilly, they might’ve had one sleep next to them for warmth. But on really cold nights, they’d have all their dogs pile up on them. A three-dog type of night.” I’ve never looked up the accuracy of this statement. It’s Grandpa, I didn’t need to.
Grandpa cannot sit through a rom-com, and he’ll be damned if it’s one with Hugh Grant. Notting Hill is a Top Five favorite for my grandmother and I. My grandpa refuses to suspend his disbelief for ninety minutes that a man will bombard a press conference to win the girl back. I don’t have to suspend my disbelief because it’s Julia Roberts. Crash everything to win her back! Regardless of the leading lady, my grandpa will not stay quiet for the entire movie. I’m never particularly fond of the times he’ll throw comments or ask irrelevant questions during Anne of Green Gables marathons. The last time I watched Anne Shirley slap Gilbert Blythe with a slate was during Winter Recess of last year. I had cozied myself up on the two-person, pale tan couch with my cat and a heated blanket. My grandma began the marathon with me but was moving up and down to complete various chores. Grandpa was in his brown leather recliner and watched the miniseries with me. How fitting that he had decided to ask a question about financial aid while Anne was with Matthew in his final moments. The elderly Matthew suffers a stroke and Anne has him cradled in her lap. Tears welled in my eyes as Matthew utters words I’m terrified to ever hear in my life, “Don’t ever change. I love my little girl. I’m so proud of my little girl.” My grandma noticed my distress before my grandpa did and immediately shushed him to not ruin the moment. As romantic as Anne of Green Gables has shaped my imagination, I’d hate to imagine my farming grandpa, holes in jeans with a wide smile across his face, being content passing away on a meadow. He’d comment on the impracticality of the moment and tell me to stand up before a tick bites me.
“Are you sure you still want this truck?” Grandpa’s face had the smart-ass smirk peeking through his fast-whitening beard that had once been fiery orange. The truck bumped along Alden Road at a confident fifty miles per hour. Despite its age, the white Silverado had no issue fighting against the weight of three 1200-pound steers we were hauling to the county fair. Cars with better places to be edged their front bumper close to the stock trailer until the solid yellow line separated itself. “Fly! Hell is only half-full” was the only road rage that my grandpa allowed in our little drives.
“I do not want this truck.” The passenger seat belt buckle now had to be jimmy-rigged to allow the seatbelt to perform its primary function. The blinkers and seat belt warnings no longer rang through the cab, although I had to tell my grandfather that as he could barely hear to know the difference. Dirt mingled dust had settled on the dashboard with permanence and the tailgate was being held up by a single string of twine.
“You used to.”
“Yeah, well I know better now. And it’s a gas guzzler.”
“Maybe I should let you drive the next round.” As if I could haul the Thompson’s steers on the half-hour trek.
“You trust me to drive your truck? It didn’t end well last time.”
He chuckled and turned his head to look out over the remaining farmland in our fast suburbia-developing county. His knuckles– worn from bailing, planting, halter-breaking— drummed against the wheel to the Meatloaf song he continued to hum out loud.
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