Poem: The Workman and His Tools

Raymond Ball and Ralph Ball
He Knew the Worth of Tools

He was a man who knew the worth of tools.
How having just the right one for the job
Was worth a lot, but clearly not as much
As knowing what to do with ones you had,
And what to do with tools he surely knew.

When just a boy on a Missouri farm,
He started hanging round the blacksmith shop
Whenever he could catch a ride to town.
Old Henry Ford’s new-fangled auto car
Had sparked a need for handy fix-it men.
He joined the revolution, then and there,
Brought by the horseless carriage on the land,
And learned mechanics on a Model T.
He mastered use of wrenches and of pliers,
Learned lessons he would use for decades hence.

To make it through the Great Depression’s dearth
He took whatever labor he could find.
He hoed bean rows and stripped bluegrass by hand,
With just the simplest tools to do the job.
His daily wage back then was just a buck,
But any honest work beat none at all.
To earn his daily bread he tilled the soil
Just like his male ancestors all before.

But he saw tools of farming changing too,
With tractors putting horses out of work.
He gambled on a combine harvester
That reaped and threshed and winnowed all at once.
Then hiring out his cutting-edge machine,
He saved enough to buy his own small farm,
And one by one he added to his tools.

In time he sold the farm and moved to town
To try his hand in the commercial world.
Still very much a Ford man in his heart,
He bought a dealership of farm machines—
The boldest speculation of his life.
But business wasn’t really his strong suit,
And when it failed, he carried on with tools.

He built a practice fixing implements —
Hay balers, corn pickers, tractors — all repaired
Right where they’d broken down out in the field.
And farmers round about began to say,
“If Ray can’t make her run she can’t be fixed.”

When he was well past sixty years of age
He got a crazy notion in his head—
He’d always dreamed of having his own shop—
So he measured out the plan in the back yard.
And there he built the thing all by himself
With salvaged lumber gotten almost free.
Of course, it looked just like a barn.
Because, well, that’s only thing that he’d built before.
But he knew well enough the tools required.
Beneath his hammer, nails sunk into boards
With just two strokes, or maybe three.
His singing handsaw made the sawdust fly.
His level, plane and plumb line kept all true.
Out of a worthless demolition pile
He fashioned form where there was none before.
His barn still stands though many years have passed.
With paint and care could stand for many more.
It needs someone with tools to care again.

And when his wife of more than fifty years
Grew absent minded and began to fail,
He looked in vain for tools to fix her with.
Installed a cook-stove, gas-line, shut-off valve
When she began to start forgetting things,
Like if she’d turned the burners on or off.
Nowhere on all his cluttered workshop shelves
Was there a tool to fix her slipping mind.
The final years he’d visit every day
Ensuring that she ate her rest home meal.
The only tool of any use a spoon.
In time, the spoon was of no use as well.

My work today requires different tools.
I toil in neither soil nor wood nor stone.
Instead of grease my hands are stained with ink.
I polish common syllables to rhyme.
I calibrate my words to find a song,
Fine tuning—like a carburetor—lines,
To make them run not either rich nor lean,
To purr and roar without the gassy fumes,
Obscuring sense and choking with the smoke.

My father’s tools lie idle on the bench.
The workman will not use them anymore.
With all the craftsmanship I can bestow,
I carry on instead with tools I know.

(2019)


I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Frost this year. He was a modern master of blank verse and all of that exposure is bound to have some influence on me. I can only hope some of the music rubs off on me.

Back in May, I took a stab at blank verse and it seemed to work out okay. So here is another in the same vein.

The workman in this poem is my father. I am living proof that mechanical aptitude is not hereditary.

Father Haiku

Dad's shirt from his days at Reeder Auto Parts
Photo courtesy of Terry Ball

Greased-stained forever,
Dad’s shirt bore proof of hard work,
and so did his hands.


NOTES: Dad was a son of the Great Depression, accustomed to hard work. He didn’t have the chance to finish high school due to the need to find work to contribute to the family.  The work available was farm hand labor at a dollar a day.  Hoeing beans, putting up hay, stripping blue grass.  Good money if you could get it.

Too young for World War I, he got a pass for World War II because by that time he was the only adult male on his own farm.  The idea was to keep all the farms operating to provide for the war effort.  So while all 4 of his brothers-in-law went off to fight, Dad stayed home growing corn and soybeans and producing eggs and milk.

In the post-war prosperity, Dad prospered and saved his money.  Finally, in the late 1950s, he made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, sold the farm, and went into the farm implement business.

We moved from the farm to the farm town of Marshall, got a house with indoor plumbing and central heat.

Things went fine for a few years, but then something happened.  I was young and didn’t get the full story.  But either through some poor marketing decisions, or through some financial shenanigans by a partner, the business went into debt and had to be sold.

It was a defeat for Dad, but he didn’t let it defeat him.  He landed a job in the shop at Reeder Auto Parts.  It had to be tough going from the boss to being an employee again, but Dad never complained.

He just showed up everyday and kept chopping wood to do what it took to pay the mortgage and keep hamburger on the table. I recall a time when I was whining about needing a few dollars to buy some knickknack or the other.

My older brother Larry took me aside and gave me the older brother admonishment.  “Shut up and quit bothering Dad,” he said.  “Don’t you realize we could lose the house?”

I had no idea.

But, Dad kept working away.  Mom got a job baking pies at the MFA Grocery Story and we didn’t lose the house.

Let it be said that Dad was a master mechanic.  He made things work.  He also was perpetually marinated in grease and gasoline.

He would clean his hands with Goop grease cutter and then wash his hands with Lava soap.  But they never really got truly clean.

When I hung out with him I usually got the job of cleaning parts in gasoline.  I grew to hate the smell, and my mechanical ability has suffered accordingly.

He eventually went on to establish a freelance mechanic business.  He primarily served the farmers around Marshall, making house calls to repair balky tractors, combines, corn pickers, and hay balers right where they died out in the fields.

His services were in demand, and he had all the work he wanted.  Sometime the farmers would pay him in produce.  Like the old German farmer Ludwig who sent Dad home with a quart jar of canned horseradish.

As the family story went, brother Larry returned home late one night scrounging around in the refrigerator for something to eat.  Seeing a jar of something that looked like gravy, he unscrewed the lid and took a big snort.

Farmer Ludwig’s horseradish nearly blew the top of his head off.

I’d love to have some of that horseradish today.

 

Hometown haiku

Marshall High School cheerleaders, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Unattainable,
cheerleaders stirred crowds and our
imaginations


NOTES:  Here’s another invaluable photograph from my friend, Susumu.  This must have been taken in the fall of 1968, amidst an exciting small town high school football season.

It most certainly was an away game.  The home games of the Marshall High School Owls were played at Missouri Valley College’s Gregg-Mitchell Field, and this setting does not look familiar.  I’m guessing it might have been the away game that year at the home field of our most hated rival, the Excelsior Springs Tigers.

Marshall had been playing second fiddle to the Tigers for several years, just unable to put together enough power to overcome dislodge them from the top of the Missouri River Valley Conference.

The year before, we had endured a humiliating defeat as the Tigers came into our stadium and beat us on a frigid night in Marshall.  Those old aluminum benches had never felt so cold.

This year turned out much better.  Coach Cecil Naylor had us worked into such a frenzy that we could have taken on a band of Viking berserkers.  We travelled into the Tigers’ home turf, took care of business, and vanquished them 20 to 0.

But I digress.

The topic is cheerleaders.  What is with their mystique?  And why couldn’t they get a date with their own classmates?

I could be misremembering, but it seemed that very few cheerleaders ever dated guys in their own class.  Older guys might work up the confidence to “date down” with a cheerleader from lower grade.  But mating between cheerleaders and a classmate was scare and rare.

One of life’s great mysteries.  The Cheerleader Paradox.

Mysterious even when you factor in the fact that in our little town, many of us had attended school together since first grade, and the rest of us had been together in the same building since 7th grade.

The long history and close familiarity meant that most of your classmates were like family.  That contributed to sense that the cute girl in chemistry class seemed more like your sister or your cousin than girlfriend material.

I mean, you’d grown up together!  You’d seen each other on good days and bad days.  Good hair days and bad.  You’d fought on the playground in grade school, and competed for teachers’ attention.  Not much mystery left.

But even that doesn’t explain the Cheerleader Paradox.

Dr. Freud, call your office.  I’m open to hypotheses.

Hometown haiku

Raymond Ball with a 1940 Ford

Father, when you spoke
I believed you, for you spoke
with authority.


NOTES:  In many ways, my dad was a simple man.  Farmer.  Mechanic.  Forced to drop out of high school to work during the Great Depression, he never had the opportunity go back to school to pick up his education again.

He never travelled to Europe or learned a foreign language.  He never made a lot of money, or tasted the luxuries of life.

But he knew what he thought and what he believed.  And when he talked about his beliefs, his strength of conviction came through his voice.

Often he was expressing his belief in the products of the Ford Motor Company.  He was a confirmed Ford man.  He claimed he had seen the insides of enough cars and tractors to know how each one held up, and which ones were made out of cheap materials.

He would just utter a phrase like, “The Ford Model T …” and let it hang there and resonate in the air.  He said it with such reverence that those who heard it just knew that the Ford Model T had not only been a great automobile, but a miraculous product of a genius.

He could inspire similar feelings of reverence with exclamations like, “President Abraham Lincoln,” or “Old Thomas Edison.”  You just knew these were great men.

We  didn’t have pastors or full-time clergy in our tiny little Church of Christ congregation.   The leadership was handled by laymen like himself.  When he would stand up on Sunday mornings to “wait on the communion table,” he would recite the words by heart from the King James Version of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“That the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take it, eat: this is my body which is broken for you.  This do in remembrance of me.”

Hearing him say it, you had no doubt that this was just the way it had happened.

Perhaps the most convincing and poignant expression of his conviction came many years later, as his wife lay in a nursing home, long lost to dementia.  “Your mother,” he said, “was the best.  I never met another women like your mother. Never.”

And you just knew it was true.

Ancestor haiku

Charlie Barlow and his team

Generations tilled
to eke out a meager life. Now I
scribble in comfort.


Notes:  I have to go all the way back to England in the 1600s to find an ancestor who had a desk job.  To the best of our family research, my great-great-great (etc.) grandfather was a clergyman back in the old country, who had the poor judgment to raise the ire of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In those days it didn’t take much to get your head separated from the rest of you.  Heretics and troublesome free thinkers could easily meet the same fate.

My forebear wised up in the nick of time and caught one of next boats after the Mayflower to the New World.  We are not sure if he stayed in the preaching business in his new surroundings in the Connecticut Colony, but as far as we can tell, all of those who followed him were dirt farmers.  (Which probably seemed like a safer line of work back then.)

Several generations later, after my great grandfather Frederick Ball narrowly survived the Civil War, he came back  home to find Connecticut getting crowded.  So, he headed west for the promise of cheap land and opportunity.  He wound up in southern Iowa, got married, acquired some land, and raised a family.

One of his sons was my grandfather, and he, too became a farmer, moving to Missouri to chase opportunity.  When my father came along, he showed considerable mechanical aptitude and had hopes of going to school to study engineering.  But the Great Depression dashed those dreams.  Dad had to drop out of school before he finished high school.  To  help support the family he became a farmer.

And  who knows, except for a twist  of fate or two, I might have followed right along and farmed myself.

But  my father had a bit of a mid-life crisis in his 40s.  When I was in first grade, he sold the farm and went in with his brother-in-law and a neighbor to buy a Ford Tractor dealership.  It was his one big entrepreneurial gamble in life.  And for a few years, it looked like it might pay off.

But some lean times for farm prices and some skullduggery by the neighbor-turned-business-partner, and the operation went broke.  They had to sell out cheap, and Dad was forced to fall back on his mechanical skills to make a living.

What this meant for me was that I spent most of my formative years in the town rather than on the farm.  So, while there were centuries of agrarian instincts bred into me, it didn’t take me long to adapt to indoor plumbing, central heating, and really close next-door neighbors.

And I certainly didn’t miss getting up early to gather eggs, milk the cow, or slop the pigs.

Oh sure, I still hoed beans, bucked bales, and detasseled corn as a hired hand in the summer.  But that was a job — not a way of life.

Even if my father had never left the farm, odds are I would have eventually left anyway.  That was the demographic trend during the whole last half of the last century.  The kids went away to school or to a big city for work, and tended never to move back.

It’s been hard on the farming communities.  And I know it was hard on the old folks left behind as their kids fanned out across the country.

When I stop to think about how much different my life has been from the generations before I marvel.  I have no explanation for why my entire adult career has been all inside work with no heavy lifting.

My father’s body bore the marks of a hard life in harder times.  He was kicked in the head by an ornery horse, and had headaches for the rest of his life.  His leg was caught between a hay wagon and a wall, and he walked with a limp.  He even had a few scars from surviving what he believed to be a mild case of small pox.

If the American Dream involves working hard and ensuring your children have a better life, then my parents and their generation certainly did their part.