Reflecting on things I learned while growing older keeps taking me back to childhood. One such memory concerns fences, a lesson I appreciate more now than then. I’ve been weed eating in the woods at my mother’s childhood home lately. Rusted page wire, flattened by time, is camouflaged by limbs, leaves, and vines. I’ve found yesteryear’s remnants with my feet several times and once with a chainsaw. It reminded me of Daddy’s tongue-in-cheek comparison of my grandfathers’ approaches to putting up fences.
Papa Joiner, he’d say with a slight grin, would reuse old wire and homemade cypress posts that were cut off the farm. He’d sometimes flip the posts over and put the top in the ground, giving them a fresh start. His fences lacked glamor but were tightly stretched and followed straight lines. Grandaddy Hill, on the other hand, favored new wire and creosote posts, and took a casual approach toward alignment. Trees, even if a little off course, were enlisted into service. Evidence of that practice remains in trees that gradually swallowed sections of wire.
Sharing their contrasting philosophies was Daddy’s subtle way of advocating conservative living. My father was born in 1923 and grew up plowing a mule. He was still farming that way in 1947 when Mama said, “I do.” Cora was replaced with a Big M Farmall before I came along in 1952. Big exaggerates the tractor’s size, but perhaps described the huge improvement over walking.
Daddy’s frugal nature was reinforced by a drought in 1954. That was the first year he was unable to repay his crop loan at Exchange Bank of Unadilla. Mr. Tom Woodruff let him carry his debt over and loaned him more operating money. His appreciation for Mr. Tom never waned, nor did the unsettling experience of a crop failure.
My father didn’t give lectures. He taught by making observations and through example. With current talk of a recession, Daddy’s philosophy toward finances is worth revisiting. Frugality won’t solve every financial problem, but it’s a start. A similar view was perfectly expressed years ago in a wry comment made by Mr. Rufus Collins, a man 10 years older than my father. I met Mr. Rufus after Jane and I moved to Vienna in 1975. He had retired from farming by the time I began working at Bank of Dooly in 1980. That’s where I would usually see him. As he was leaving one day, I followed him outside to visit for a few minutes. Mr. Rufus was driving a well-worn 1974 Chevy pickup with faded green and white paint. Knowing that was by choice and not necessity, I teased him about being overdue for an upgrade.
“Mr. Rufus,” I said, “The bank will be glad to help you get a new truck if you’re about ready.” He smiled as he opened a dusty door and shared a pearl of wisdom. He said, “Son, save the meat that hangs closest to the door.” He was referring to the days when most farms had a smokehouse, a place to cure and store hams and such. It was probably tempting at times to grab what was convenient rather than going to the back corner to get the oldest.
Larry Collins recently told me another saying of his father, a response to his loving wife when she wanted to do something he didn’t consider essential. He’d tenderly say, “Vera, we’re comfortable. We’re doing okay. I want to save so the young’uns won’t have to go through what I did.”
Born in 1913, Mr. Rufus had a firsthand look at hard times. The cracks between the floorboards of his childhood home were wide enough that wind would move the bed covers. Most of us don’t have that perspective, but we can learn from those who do. Economic problems are likely to present increasingly painful challenges. I have no idea what the future holds, but here’s what I’m certain of. Two men who understood lean times would recommend getting prepared.
Stumbling across those fallen fences reminded me of how Daddy described my grandfathers. And that led me to a treasured memory of Mr. Rufus Collins. Conservative living has mostly gone out of style, but it might be a good time to bring it back. Rusty wire and reused posts may not impress the people who ride by, but that’s not important. A better approach is to ask if the fence will keep the cows in. Decisions can be viewed from multiple angles, and old material is not always the best choice. But there’s one thing about cattle and fences that’s become more clear as I’ve grown older. Cows don’t care if the wire is new.
— Neil Joiner
Read the entire White Socks series at joinerscorner.com.