In 1980, my father had a vision for my future. I climbed into the cab of his blue Datsun pickup truck along with my mother and younger sister, Kathy; back then, seatbelts were optional. We pulled out of the driveway of our home in suburban South Carolina, turned left, then right, left again, and a final right. I was not sure where we were going but I noticed the houses getting smaller and further apart. My father was a rural mail carrier in the next county over, from where we lived, and I thought we were touring his mail route, as we often did. Sometimes, for no particular reason at all, we would ride to town or through the countryside down winding bumpy roads for hours, just looking and listening to Don Williams on the radio.Soon after the final right, the pavement ended abruptly and a reddish cloud of dirt chased us for a half of a mile, then we stopped, at a place my father referred to as Bear Creek.
We climbed out of the truck and stood beside it on the dusty, dirt road. In front of me, weeds and brush towered high above my red pigtails and I did not seem to understand, it did not look like a creek to me, and there certainly were not any bears. My father reached into the small bed of the truck and pulled out a bush axe or, a sling blade, as some people call it. I stood idly by my mother and watched as he made his way into the mess in front of us. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, each mighty swing of the axe sliced through the overgrowth, opening up a path for us to follow, and we did, stopping just short of a huge pair of oaks. Soaring into the clouds, these were the biggest trees I had seen in my whole five years. The branches reached out like arms trying to hold hands and provided a beautiful canopy for picnics and such. Beneath the trees was a pile of bricks that resembled a chimney; the remains of home, I was told, that had been destroyed many years ago. Kathy and I had to be very careful, there was a lot we could get hurt on around here, especially the deep hole in the ground, covered with only a piece of plywood. “This is a well”, my father told us, “there’s water down there, so stay away from it,” he said in his Command Sergeant Major voice. My sister and I continued to explore, while my mother and father talked, then we headed back along the fresh cut path towards the truck.
It took 35 roles of stock wire, 4500 feet of barbed wire and over 2000 hand cut cedar posts to fence the farm. Armed with a manual post-hole digger, my father would stop every eight feet and thrust the post-hole digger into the ground. The earth was hard, red clay, but my father’s strength prevailed, and the result was a hole about three feet deep in which he would drop one of the cedar posts. My much older brother was recruited, unwillingly most days, to help, and his job was to hold the stock wire or barbed wire and pull it straight, while my father nailed it to the posts with horseshoe shaped tacks. When Jimmy left for the Navy, my sister and I, now old enough to help, took over this important task. We wore leather, work gloves that swallowed our hands, and as I held the wire, she held the tacks and the hammer. We worked our way around the perimeter of the forty acres, and back and forth across the middle, making sharp turns and weaving around trees, dissecting the land to form separate sections for pastures, with a barnyard in the middle.
Most days, when other fathers were coming home from work to spend time with the family, my father would come home, put on his overalls, grab a green Stanley thermos filled with sweet iced tea, and go to the farm. Every day he would work diligently until it was too dark to see. He had a red Massey Ferguson tractor that he used to clear the land in the pastures. When he came home, the smell of diesel fuel lingered in the house, and on days when he was burning brush, he had a woodsy smell, like a campfire. We did not see our daddy much during this time, so some days my mother would take Kathy and me out there and we would ride on the tractor with him, and then enjoy a picnic dinner from KFC on the tailgate of the truck parked under the big trees. When the time came, he taught us how to use a hammer, as he built the barns, and I was able to help lay the floor. One barn resembled a small house or shed that was up on stilts with a regular front door. This one was used for storage of feed, fertilizer, farm equipment, etc. About fifty yards to the right, we built the hay barn. At five, this was a massive building, which included a loft, where hay could be tossed from above to the pen below. With barns complete and pastures fenced, it was time for the cows.
“Black Angus are gentle, not as susceptible to pink-eye, and have the best meat,” my ever-so-practical father said and he went to the cattle auction and purchased two. Not quite understanding the whole concept of raising cattle, Kathy and I named the cows, Baby and Sweetie. Later, when the bull arrived, my dad named him Beau, and immediately he went to work producing some of the prettiest calves I had ever seen. We now had a real farm at Bear Creek and my dad put up the biggest, ugliest mailbox ever, to mark his spot.
As a child, making the left and right turns towards the farm was exciting. It was our giant playground, a place Kathy and I, dressed in overalls and cowboy boots, could explore as long as we stayed away from the cows and the watering holes. My father, in order to keep things safe, uncovered the well and built a structure around the hole, equipped with a rope and bucket. He was always doing something, for many years he just cut down trees and continued to clear the land. I always liked to watch him cut wood, and listen to the winding sound of the chainsaw as it ripped through the trunk of the chosen tree. When he used an axe, he always took off his shirt and his bronze muscles would glisten as they flexed with every swing. Even though his frame is a mere 5’9”, he looked like a giant of a man. If the tree was fresh, the smell was intoxicating, and I looked forward to the fires in the fireplace as I loaded the wood onto the back of the truck. At Christmastime, Kathy and I would search the entire property for the best Cedar tree that we could take home to decorate with stringed popcorn and cranberries, and our very best homemade ornaments and paper chains.
As we got older, the fun became work, and the excitement died down to a dull roar, resembling growling rather than cheering, as we were dragged out there to help move cows, or something, that usually interfered with our oh-so-important plans. With two more additions to the family, Kathy and I could not understand why all of our money went to diesel fuel, hay, and farm equipment, instead of designer jeans or the latest must-have item. For years, I would listen to my parents, behind closed doors, “discuss”, the dry weather, the cost of feed or whatever was needed, and the low market value of the cattle. My mother, a stay-at-home mom who could give Martha Stewart a run for her money, was sometimes sad after a big purchase, usually some new tractor or backhoe, but more often than not, I think she was lonely, as the farm became my father’s mistress.
During these years, the only time I rejoiced at the idea of going out there was after he purchased a mustard colored 1977 Datsun pickup truck with no power steering, just for me. At fourteen, I could not drive on the road, legally, and the wide-open pastures provided enough space with minimal obstacles for a beginner. Kathy and I would bounce along the hillsides, and then I would slam on the breaks and turn sharply. I giggled while she screamed, as a cloud of dust covered the windshield and rushed into the open windows.
While I was learning to drive, my father was beginning work on the pond, and as long as I did not run out of gas, or get stuck in the mud, I could drive as much as I wanted while he moved dirt, bucket by bucket. This method took him two years as the pond grew to cover 5 acres with a dam and small island. Catfish, bass, and many other types of fish swim through the red muddy water, making for a relaxing evening of fishing. The year when turtles and Canadian geese took over, my father made a sport of eliminating them. He looked ridiculous riding back and forth across the pastures leaning half way out the truck window with his Remington 12 gauge ready to fire as he chased the geese away from the pond.
Work on the farm continued almost daily, but my time spent there dwindled, as school, boyfriends, and other activities became a priority. Kathy and I were replaced with Kate and Morgan, who seemed to have a bond stronger than any glue to the land and the animals, which now included chickens and horses. Time passed and in 1997, a decision had to be made. My father was approaching retirement and future finances would not allow for a mortgage and farm expenses. A family meeting was called and the voice of eight-year-old Morgan was heard the loudest. “We can’t sell the farm”, she said through tears, and we all agreed especially me, since I was living out there in front of the pond in a singlewide with my husband and new son. The meeting was adjourned and the next day a “For Sale” sign decorated the front lawn of the Fincher Family home.
A move that my father anticipated for seventeen years was finally beginning and I was getting neighbors.The rest of my family moved to the farm along with the ladybugs in the month of October. Growing up during the depression with nothing, his plan was to have something he could be proud of to pass on to his family, and his vision is now a reality. We have celebrated weddings and other special events under the oaks and on nights when our hot breath forms a white cloud as it meets the cold air, we love to stand around the fire barrel and talk. Those four little girls are finally grown up; and they now share their love of the farm with seven little boys, who remind them of themselves, as they watch them run to feed Beau Bull, or climb through the hay.
It has been 27 years since I stood idly by and watched my father disappear into his dream. Today, the mighty oaks are gone, lightening took one, mother nature the other. The original watering hole is now a swimming pool nestled in behind a large brick home. Concrete was poured into the original well and along the beaten path leading to the dirt road, forming a driveway, and a modest black mailbox has replaced the old larger-than-life one. Beau number four still holds down the pastures and produces a little extra spending money each spring. After years of blood, sweat, and even tears, he has created a place that we can all call home. Still adding improvements daily, at the age of 73, his vision is clearer than ever. Long after he is gone I will find a piece of him, in every fence post and gate, each barn and each pond and I will remember that red haired girl with pigtails, who at first, didn’t understand, and the tears of pride will sting my cheeks as I walk across, The Farm.