Jackson Luttrell

I’m going to share a little bit today from Joe Bageant’s excellent memoir Rainbow Pie. I don’t think he’d mind.

Jackson Luttrell, the man who hauled the tomatoes for Cotton Unger, was a successful farmer by Morgan County standards. He was never rich, but he was successful because his farm was a model of common sense and productivity. Over his life he won awards for his farming practices. Jackson’s farm was better than most, party because he was one of the rare ones with a modest, formal agricultural-school education. But mainly because Andrew Jackson Luttrell practiced thrift as a high art form, yet never as mere stinginess. Jackson was a generous farmer when it came to those in need. When he stopped his truck even for a short moment to talk to a passer-by, he cut the engine to save gas. He wore the same heavy-canvas barn-coat three-quarters of his life, and never once threw away an empty coffee can or a bent nail that could be straightened and used again. Over the years, he expanded his holdings beyond grain and vegetable crops to include cattle, hogs, orchards and, later, a small tomato-caning operation of his own. Throughout his life he also cut men’s and boys’ hair on his back porch for ten cents a head. He was a fair barber, a very good farmer, and a thoughtful Democrat. He was a straight-up Methodist and a hauler of tomatoes of democracy, in a system where everyone benefited through an economy of labor, with the small money of farmers supplying the grease for the common-sense machinery of community sustenance.

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The frost was on the pumpkin one morning in 1960 when Jackson Luttrell dropped the wagon bolt into the tractor hitch, then stepped up onto the tractor’s axle, easing himself into the cold, iron seat. He’d done it ten thousand times, but this day it took him three tries. Sixty Novembers in the fields exact their rightful toll, and he was more than feeling his age. Five minutes later, Jackson was down in his bottom land loading corn shocks onto the wagon. (You don’t waste a big truck on light loads.) A skiff of snow covered the dark soil around the corn stubble, or “stobs”, as he called them. Every remaining stub of a cornstalk represented one whack of a hand-held corn cutter–all fifteen acres, some 300,000 of them, wielded by either Jackson himself or neighbors with whom he’d exchanged such work for forty years. So now he dragged each shock to the wagon, rolling it up the sideboards and dropped it onto the bed.

Twenty years ago he’d have heaved them over in a single motion. Between shocks he’d catch his breath, surveying the fields and woods around him with a squint that looked as far into the past as it did the landscape. The bottom field’s right-hand corner was where he’d killed his first buck at the age of eleven. And beyond that was a hillside where mountain laurel sprang up each year. It had been a secret trysting place for him and Audrey when they were courting. Year later, they still laughed together about “the blanket in the laurel”. To his left lay what was once a farmed-out, washed-out gully he had slowly filled in over the decades with stone and earth until it was now level ground upon which he had planted trees–walnut and hickory, with a few butternut trees thrown into the mix. He thought of it as a sort of wild nut-grove. The squirrels, mice, and deer saw it as their winter larder, once they were done with his summer corn crop.

Jackson pulled his canvas barn-coat up around his neck, and snapped the ear covers of his red woollen cap under his chin. The wind was beginning to bite at the back of his neck and make his bones ache. How many hundreds of wagon loads–thousands, really–of corn and hay had come out of this field since his grandfather had started farming it in 1859? How many corncribs had it filled with burnished ears? How many tons of oats had been hauled from this earth into this barn’s granary?

During spring, this bottom field had always made him feel good because it was dependable and had been well-cared for. Always it was a producer, bursting forth each spring with the season’s promise. You could get two hay crops here in a good year. And later, during wheat-threshing or hay-mowing season, when the rivulets of sweat cut their way through the thick layer of face-blackening hay dust, the metallic taste of cold well-water guzzled from the galvanized bucket with the tin dipper went down like bright wine.

But now, in the late autumn, it stirred the reveries known only to old men. In his mind’s eye appeared a younger, shapely Audrey coming down the hill toward him in her home-made cotton sunbonnet with the fresh, cold well-water. And it was for that vision, and a thousand others like it, that he kissed her on the neck each evening when he got home. Not on the mouth, though, because that kind of affection at their age might cause suspicion that he’d been taking a nip of whiskey out there in the field. And surely he did that if the weather was right. But he’d judged it not yet cold enough on this day, which would be the coldest of his life. The wind kicked up flakes of snow as he bent over his last corn shock.

When old farmers fail to show up for dinner, old farm wives all share the same sense of dread. Audrey called their son, who found Jackson’s body slumped over the steering wheel of his old John Deere. The wagon was fully loaded. In the middle of a heart attack, Jackson had shut off the engine to save gas.

 

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