I was sitting in the second row of folding chairs in the gym of an elementary school, waiting for the school district’s board members to wrap up their executive session and begin a general meeting that was already late, when I felt someone tap my shoulder and realized an old farmer behind me was talking.
“You behave yourself now, or I’ll hit you with my hat,” he said, laughing, when I half-turned in my chair to face him.
And for the next 20 minutes he talked. He told me about the time he was stationed at Fort George Meade in the Baltimore area; how he drove tractor-trailers from Pennsylvania to upstate New York until one trip when he couldn’t see past the end of his truck due to the snow and decided he didn’t like it. “I called my mother, told her to list the trucks in the paper, everything,” he said. It just wasn’t worth it anymore.
He complained about state regulations (he’s a cattle farmer, raises Angus beef); about various members of the school district administration; and wished he’d gone with his friend out to Colorado decades ago, like they’d dreamed of. He was 32 when he married, he said, but he should have waited until he was 102. Or he should have married me, a Texan, and moved to Texas where he could raise his beef in regulatory peace.
How we went from one story (driving a tractor-trailer through New York City under police escort, where buildings blocked out the sun) to the next (driving around Oklahoma on leave and how there was absolutely nothing there, not sure why settlers fought Indians over it- probably the loser had to keep that desolate state) I really wasn’t sure. I never caught his name, either. He acted like he knew me, and most likely I’ve met him at a previous meeting, though I couldn’t remember. There’s a lot of older men like him at these meetings, wearing stained and faded jeans and old denim button-down shirts, with well-worn ball caps with VFW patches srwn on, and they tend to blend together.
But then the board president was beating her gavel, calling the meeting to order (and she would continue to beat that gavel in an attempt to restore that order several times that night), and I turned my attention to personnel hired and tax-payers money spent and insults and tension and clever attempts to circumvent issues that was obvious to everyone except the people speaking on the stage.
And when the meeting was over I was rushing to catch infuriated parents and tense board members and the old man left, but I wished I could be telling his story instead of the sordidness of small-town politics.