The Danger of Stranger Danger

If you ever visit Little Rays of Sunshine Daycare, remember to walk fast, keep your head down, and don’t make eye contact—or else the three-year-olds will have sufficient time to exploit your fear. They like to ride tricycles over to the playground fence and give strange parents the stink eye. Walking past them, sometimes I feel like I ought to be carrying pepper spray, or at least a safety whistle. 

Child 1: “Who’s that?” 

Child 2: “He ain’t my dad.”

Child 3: “He ain’t my dad either.”

Child 2: “Hey, you, what’s your name?” (child rattles fence)

Me: (looking around, hoping child 2 is accosting someone else. Realizing he’s not, say name meekly): Umm, I’m Thomas’s dad.  

Whatever happened to teaching children to fear strangers? I mean, stranger danger was so successfully programmed into my belief system that now I’m wary of talking to strange three-year-olds. And by the time I was the ripe old age of three, my shyness level had already exceeded that of most woodland creatures, excepting perhaps the sasquatch.

Apparently, most babies develop an innate sense of stranger danger at about six months old, after which they begin to look warily at unknown faces. But it’s up to parents to foster this burgeoning fear into a healthy phobia that will not only save their child from the kidnappers plaguing the neighborhood, but make their child an incredibly awkward adult. 

“Don’t talk to strangers,” was the mantra of my childhood, and even now, I still hate trying to integrate myself in a group of strangers. I’ve tried many integration methods over the years. I’ve tried approaching with a mosey, spitting, and saying “howdy,” but that only works if you don’t spit on your shoe. I’ve tried the stealth approach in which I attempt to sidle up undetected and then act as if I’ve been there all along, but to some people that can be extremely alarming. I’ve tried the humorous approach, though the tripping-and-falling gag was purely by accident. Generally, my best method for introducing myself to strangers is to aim for the pity inclusion and employ endearing awkwardness.

Anyway, the more that I think about it, I’m glad the three-year-olds on tricycles have yet to be indoctrinated. It seems to me that “don’t talk to strangers” has an insidious suspicion baked into it. It teaches children to attribute nefarious and sinister motives to people who don’t look or talk like them. And if the current state of American society teaches us anything, it’s a civics lesson for what happens when opposing groups of people retreat to the comfort of echo chambers and thus never talk to strangers.  

Good Tool Sheds Make Good Neighbors

[An OLD FARMER chews the cud with a YOUNG FARMER, while both sit on benches in front of an Ann Taylor store at the mall. The two talk the finer points and intricacies of a farmer’s hardest task, tool wrangling. FYI, this bit of make-believe took place in the good ole days, pre-COVID, when husbands patiently sat outside of women’s clothing stores and made small talk to pass the time.]

OLD FARMER: “What type of tools you run?”

YOUNG FARMER: [his feet surrounded by bags of various shapes and sizes, full of great deals in the latest women’s fashion] A little of everything–Craftsman, some Kobalts, even a few DeWalts. Been trying to cull out the Pittsburghs, but I’ve got more of ‘em in my tool shed than I’d like to admit.

OF: Well, it takes a few generations to stock a good tool shed, but you gotta start somewhere. I remember when I was about your age: I had the wildest bunch of tools this side of a rodeo chute. Never would stay put.

YF: Sounds like my hammer. Get’s out, and I’ll spend half a day hunting it. Usually, it’s laying somewhere in knee-high grass, but one time I found it over in my neighbor’s front yard, hanging on some shrubbery.

Current state of my finger–nothing meaner than an old claw hammer.

OF: Some ole hammers are more trouble than they’re worth. Yep, it’s best to load the ornery ones up and consign them at a junk sale. Had one hammer I never could trust around a nail–a finger nail, that is. Turn your head for just a spit-second, and it’d take direct aim for your thumb. I finally lost a thumb nail to it, and that’s when I said enough is enough. Yep, hardly anything meaner than an old claw hammer.

YF: Yeah, my granddeddy once got gored in the backside by a claw hammer. Really, he sat on it accidentally, but he said it had the same effect.

OF: It happens to the best of us. Last week, I got lassoed by a wild water hose, but really my feet just got tangled up. It’s hard to pick your feet up when you’re an old man like me.

YF: Well, if you ask me, water hoses are the worst. Never will coil right, and then they get lost in the winter and I never can find them come spring–unless I happen to be bush hogging and then I find them wrapped up tight around the bush hog blade. 

OF: That reminds me of the old saying: A good tool shed is ladder high, wrench tight, and hammer strong–and if you keep any water hoses, it best be water tight–they have a way of slithering through the smallest openings. 

YF: Ain’t that the truth. Never heard that one before.

[At this point, the YOUNG FARMER’S WIFE walks hurriedly out of Ann Taylor Store, bags dangling from her side, with a panicked look on her face.]

YF: What’s wrong?

YOUNG FARMER’S WIFE: Just got a call from Nell–several wrenches got out and are rampaging through her shrubbery. She said if we don’t get back fast and get them caught up, she’s going to pepper them with birdshot. I think you forgot to close the tool shed door again. 

[YOUNG FARMER jumps up from bench, scrambles to gather all the bags at his feet, then gives a little nice-to-meet-you nod to the OLD FARMER, who nods back.]

OF: That’s farming, son. Just remember: Good tool sheds make good neighbors. Now yall take care, and good luck getting the wrenches caught back up!

Imagining a Better Place

After thoughtful consideration, I think I’ve discovered my new dream job. When I grow up, I’d like to be the old man who sits by the trash compactor. I’m not sure what the job qualifications are, but I believe I’d be qualified. Basically, the old man just sits in a lawn chair under a beach umbrella, talks to people as they’re heaving trash bags into the compactor, and presses the compactor button every so often. Sometimes when he tires of talking, he just grunts. This seems like a pleasant way to spend your days if you ask me. I bet when it gets slow, he could just sit under his beach umbrella and read a book, maybe Pride and Prejudice or some other Victorian classic, while swatting flies.

Out in the country, we don’t have roadside trash pickup. Instead, everyone hauls their own household waste to the local dump, where it’s collected, compacted, and sent to the county landfill (which is a major step forward from the olden days when everyone hauled their trash to the local gully and let it wash downstream).

Being the trash-compactor-button-pusher may not seem very ambitious, but growing up my dream job was hobo, so I’ve made some progress.  I grew up in a railroad town, where CSX had a major freight hub, and where hobos were somewhat mythical creatures. Every boy wanted to meet a real life hobo, to pick their brain on the best way to build a campfire and hear about the amenities of freight cars. 

I can truthfully say I’ve not only met, but had lunch with a real life hobo. His name was Mark, and about once a year, he would show up at my dad’s church, having just hopped off a freight train. My dad was a Baptist preacher (still is a Baptist preacher), and he would take Mark to the Hardees not too far from our church to buy him lunch. Once or twice I got to accompany them, and I’d sit in a booth and listen to Mark tell stories of all the places he had been and people he had met. He seemed like a character straight out of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  

Perhaps a more apt description, though, would be Otis from the Andy Griffith Show–he even wore suspenders like Otis. Certainly, he had the waft off a major drinking problem, though at the time I thought he just smelled like a hobo. At night, he would sleep in the lobby of the post office until the police would shew him off and he’d hop a freight train and move on to another town down the line, only to show up again a year or so later with more stories to tell. 

Even now, it’s hard for me not to romanticize Mark. I’ve always been susceptible to romanticizing, from trash compacting, to hoboing, to farming. But isn’t it nice to sometimes imagine a place where our fields always yield bumper crops, our hobos are harmless and held in high-esteem, our drunks walk to jail to lock themselves up, and our Sheriff doesn’t carry a gun because the craziest of our crazies, our Earnest T. Basses, merely throw rocks through windows–and don’t storm through them to wave rebel flags in the halls of Congress and plant pipe bombs outside the United States Capitol.

The Three Truths of Raising Livestock

If you walk far on our farm during winter, you’ll likely come up missing footwear, especially if you try to traverse the Bog of Despair, which is centered around the hay ring. It contains a few old-growth rubber boots that are as firmly rooted in the muck as swamp gums in the Bayou. The poor soles are a grim reminder of what happens when bipeds with loosely-fitting rubber boots on their trotters attempt such a superfluous task as removing twine from a hay roll. 

A lot of farmers don’t bother cutting and removing the twine, but if anybody was going to lose a cow because twine got knotted up in the digestive tract, it would probably be me. I once lost a cow to a plastic feedsack. “Probably just a little case of pneumonia,” the vet said, having stopped by since the cow was off its feed and acting puny, “likely this shot will get her perked back up and feeling better by tomorrow.” By tomorrow, the cow was as perky as a three-toed sloth, and by the next day it was as perky as a dead three-toed sloth. Figures, most farmers get to tell stories of losing cows to cunning predators like coyotes or mountain lions or chupacabras, but I lose a cow to a plastic bag.   

I know it was a plastic feed sack because after we dragged the carcass off and let nature take its course, my wife’s poppaw returned to examine the remains. In the ribs, he found a feedsack that had been balled up and compacted so tightly it could have been an effective projectile in a small cannon. 

In my opinion, losing animals is the worst part of farming, especially when I easily could have prevented that loss by throwing the empty feedsack away instead of saving it for who knows why. After that, I was admittedly feeling pretty glum. In consolation, my wife’s poppaw told me there are two truths to raising livestock: “Animals are going to get out, and animals are going to die; a person who ain’t prepared to deal with those two facts don’t need to be raising livestock.”

He was right of course, but I’d also like to add a third truth: a farm is going to get muddy in winter, and a person who ain’t prepared to lose a boot, best walk barefoot. 

Whitman is Hardly an Expert in the Poaceae Family

I know 2020 has been less than stellar, and I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but for all of you who thought Leaves of Grass would be the perfect gift for the farmer in your life, your gift is going to be a dud. 

I ordered it a few months ago because farmers are always pestering me with questions about pasture grass identification, and I needed a good pocket manual, something that I could whip out of my back pocket and refer to in times of doubt. This manual had nearly a five-star rating on Amazon and was a slim volume, only 145 pages. I thought that’s just what I need.

Yikes! Do not, I repeat, DO NOT open and recite anything from this manual in the presence of a big-time cattle farmer, no matter how stumped you are by a strange grass clump. At best, if you live in an area with rocky topsoil, you’ll be quickly stoned to death. At worst, you’ll be left to wander the pasture alone, while the big-time cattle farmer hurries over the horizon to the nearest gas station grill, Lowry’s Country Corner, to insert into circulation the vicious rumor that the local soil conservationist likes poetry. Afterward, you’ll be forced to live the rest of your days as an agricultural outcast and farmers will point and snicker at you at the sale barn and ask you, derisively, if you’ve read lately at any open mic nights.

So, just FYI, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is not the authoritative source for species identification in the grass family. For a more accurate field guide, I suggest, “Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes: An Identification Guide” by Lauren Brown and Ted Elliman.