Farms aren’t what they used to be. Decades ago, about this time of year, frost would tinge the stubble left after the harvest, and soon winter weather would halt the plowing and dictate a change of pace. The crops were in, and farmers could shift into a lower gear. Wait–check that. Farms were probably never what they used to be. Most farmers didn’t slow down; they tended livestock, fixed machinery, and worked other jobs to make ends meet.
And nowadays, with confinement livestock systems, genetically modified crops, and wireless Internet access, farmers are often logging on to a year-round digital schedule much like their urban counterparts. But I imagine a few folks still buck the trend and live at their own pace no matter what season of the year pops up on their “Gone Fishin’” wall calendars. One of those off-the-grid characters lived in the small rural town of my childhood.
In the sixties, Pooch’s gas station sat just off Main Street, but in some ways it was in its own time zone. You would eventually get your tank filled, and you might get your windshield washed, but if you were in a hurry, you soon adapted to Pooch’s own version of self-service. “Go ahead. You know how the pump works.” He might be busy in the grease pit or he might be on the padded wooden bench, opening his tobacco pouch and listening to one of the locals saying, “You got some mighty big horse weeds along the side of the building, Pooch.”
“Ain’t that the truth. Oh well, the frost’ll get ‘em soon enough.” Lighting his pipe and talking with friends outranked weed-eating on his priority list. So did having a cup of coffee with his wife, Hazel. With his house adjacent to the old barn that had been converted into the gas station, Pooch could sit in his kitchen, and with the help of a rearview mirror he had attached outside the window, he could see if anyone drove up to the pumps.
Pooch functioned according to his own clock. He was a good mechanic, and before taking on the gas station, he had run a corn-shelling operation and been a farmer. His livestock got fed, but if friends drove up during chore time, Pooch could be persuaded to “put the buckets down til later” in exchange for a local road trip. He and the boys knew where the morel mushrooms hid out and which fishing holes paid the highest dividends for the least effort.
Pooch treated everyone with respect, whether they were fishin’ buddies or high school kids. His gas station was the teen-center during the American Graffiti Era. After football practice, we’d park our ‘57 Chevys and ’65 Mustangs along the dusty street, and inside we’d shoot the breeze while eating ice cream bars and drinking Dr Pepper laden with salted peanuts we had dumped in the old style bottles. Pooch’s payment system was a haphazard mixture of fuzzy math and an idealistic honor code. The pop machine sat nestled between Penz Oil cans and cases of Coke bottles, and the key was in the machine door, so we grabbed our own. Usually on a Friday, Pooch would say something like, “We’re $2.75 short this week, boys.” We’d grumble at each other about who was the cheap skate and then toss enough coins on the counter to cover the deficit.
Pooch didn’t make much money with his business practices, but he deposited plenty of goodwill in town. He might tell a story, make a wry comment, or occasionally set up the practical joke that most “newbies” experienced when they first came to the station. Some guys would be sitting around while a few worked on an engine, and Pooch would ask the “inexperienced kid” to pull the lever that adjusted the height of the car lift. A short in the wiring resulted in a jolt equivalent to getting shocked by a livestock electric fence. The initiate would do a little dance and utter a few phrases, but nobody ever got hurt, and the state safety inspectors were none the wiser.
An early frost took Pooch, but his philosophy lingers. Some things are worth getting excited about, but we need to set our priorities, and in his own way Pooch foreshadowed the “don’t sweat the small stuff” movement with his opinion of the hassles and unnecessary tasks we often take on. “Don’t worry; the frost’ll get ‘em.”
by Dan Gogerty (photo from freeimageslive.co.uk; edited from a version originally published in Our Iowa Magazine)