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.

***

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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21 comments on “Jackson Luttrell

  1. Thanks for sharing this Bill, makes me want to read the rest of Rainbow Pie.

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    • Bill says:

      I wouldn’t say this is necessarily representative of the book, but I did greatly enjoy it along with his other book Deer Hunting With Jesus. Both are sympathetic, if often irreverent, looks at the struggles of the working class.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Scott says:

    That one’s gonna stick with me. THAT’S some good storytelling.

    Like

  3. Oh dear… Felt it coming. Still kicked me in the gut, anyway!

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  4. BeeHappee says:

    A neat piece of writing. ❤

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    • Bill says:

      His affection for Mr. Luttrell, and the life he represents, strikes me as sincere and genuine. To me this reads very much like something Wendell Berry might have written.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Joanna says:

    I could relate to the hay harvest, it’s hard work. It’s no wonder our kids worry about us for when we get old or is it older

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    • Bill says:

      Yeah, I work alone, often far from the closest human being. I sometimes wonder how long would it be before someone came looking for me, should something happen to me. Of course if I didn’t show up for supper, Cherie would know something was wrong. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Susan says:

    Such a great read–I immediately ordered it from the library (love online ordering!!)
    And I gotta say, when ya gotta “go”, what better way than doing what you love and where you love!

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    • Bill says:

      I hope you like it Susan. I wouldn’t say this piece is necessarily representative of the book. But after you read it I think you’ll agree that it is relevant to what’s happening in our country these days.

      Like

  7. Laurie Graves says:

    Wonderful story! Thanks for sharing.

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  8. avwalters says:

    Nicely, subtly, done. My kind of writing. Thank you.

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  9. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, I can certainly identify with this post. As I continue to age what once was a light task has become more challenging. Toting rocks and blocks around the garden used to be grab a hold and carry but now are load up the wheel barrow and roll. Bags of compost and potting mix once were carried up on each shoulder two at a time but now one is enough with both arms to carry. To expire in my garden with my hand on a weed that needed pulling is exactly the way I would want to go. It wouldn’t matter how long or who would find me because I;d have a smile on my face as I entered the next realm of existence.

    I have often thought about when I’m gone from my garden how long would it take for the land to return to the state it was in when I took it over five years ago. We buck against nature every day in a garden. Nature is relentless and patient. Either some one else will have to take over the job of caring for the garden or it will indeed revert back to nature’s care.

    It’s been a delightful gardening year and for the first time in my gardening career, I’m thinking about planting fall peas. The tomatoes are confused and don’t know it’s time to ripen. They have been dribbling in very slowly. There are lots of green ones but not many have ripened yet. The cucumbers gave me about six and dried up and died. Like you over all it’s been a great gardening year.

    Have a great day in the garden on the White Flint Farm.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Well of course I hope and expect that we’ll both be working in our gardens for many years to come. But when it’s my time I wouldn’t mind going in the garden. I’ve already suggested to Cherie that if that happens she should put me in the compost pile. She wasn’t amused.

      Every year’s garden is different isn’t it? I hope your tomatoes start coming in soon. We’ve had a bumper crop, but the blight has arrived so I expect they’ll be gone in a couple of weeks. We’ll enjoy them in the meantime!

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  10. What a sad tale Bill.. Thank you for sharing this Bill.

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