— Tom Galloway
Facing stark reality that the ringing phone at my desk wasn’t going away, I did what I dislike most when sitting at the computer trying to concentrate.
I answered it.
Well-versed in the professional courtesy of disguising impatience through mellow tone and a listening ear, I immediately relaxed upon hearing the cordial country twang at the other end.
“Well, young feller, you did answer it,” the delightful Southern-born, farm-bred accent offered. “After ’bout that third or fourth ring, I figgered you wuz out’n about makin’ trouble for sumbuddy in town.”
I could see the chewed toothpick dangling from one corner of his mouth as we spoke. I couldn’t help but smile. This old geezer just had that effect. Filled with agrarian charm and a deep love for family, church and Sunday dinners, he was the pinnacle of all that is right about living south of the Mason-Dixon.
This was the comforting voice of a salt-of-the-earth fellow forever draped in aging blue overalls, stubby white whiskers and stained straw hat. I had run into him twice over the past couple of years — first on the downtown Courthouse Square and later in the grocery store parking lot.
I didn’t even know his name. He might not have told me. I might not have asked. But I could envision the tired, blue eyes and weathered face from my end of the phone. It was a round, wrinkled and knowing face, and not unkind. He didn’t smile, but his rocking-chair voice painted a hundred shades of hello.
Seems like he once told me his wife’s name. Martha? Annabelle? Claire? Carolyne? Ruth? All are fitting for farmers’ wives, especially those who have stood by their men for nigh about ... forever.
To me, he looked like a Zeke ... or maybe an Eli. Perhaps he was a Grady or a Zachary, but by any other name I’m sure he is called “Grandpa” and “Great Grandpa” by litters of young pups who likely are raising youngsters of their own, and hopefully somewhere on a Bradley County farm.
“So how are you doing?” I asked, simply too embarrassed to ask his name.
“Ahm far’ to middlin’,” he answered. “I know yore busy an’ all, but the missus wanted ta’ know if you got down from that thar tree OK. I told her you wrote about it so you must’a made it down.”
With a chuckle, I felt my ego stir knowing that someone had read the prior Sunday’s column, the one about climbing the giant maple in the backyard to dislodge a dead limb. Readers know how it ended. The disfigured branch eventually tumbled to the ground and its sender began his long descent, only to realize the ladder used to reach up to the bottom tree limbs was gone.
“Now, less’n you fergit, I told you ‘bout writin’ them cliffhangers,” he reminded me.
“Yes sir,” I assured. “You said your wife wasn’t too keen on waiting from one week to another to find out what happens. My wife doesn’t like them either.”
“Well,” he offered with a laugh. “I nevuh said we don’t like’m. We jes don’ unnerstan’ why it takes two weeks, sumtimes three, to say what aught to be wrote in one.”
Busted. Grandpa Zeke had me agin ... er, again.
Fumbling with my apology, I was too slow to react. He took the lead. The farmer wanted information and he wanted it now ... for the missus.
“So are ‘ya writin’ ‘bout that missin’ ladder agin this week?” he asked. “You aimin’ to let us in on how ‘ya got down?”
“Actually, I was going to leave it alone,” I told my unseen friend. “Let people just imagine what happened and how I got down.”
“That won’t do,” he warned. “You done opened the barn door. You gotta let the cows in now.”
Sound reasoning. But I still liked my idea.
“Did sumbuddy take that daddurned ladder?” he asked. I liked that word, “daddurned.” My Uncle Norris Robertson down in Macedonia, Miss., used to say it.
“No sir. Actually, it just fell and I couldn’t see it on the ground until I climbed down to the lower limbs,” I answered.
“How kum it to fall?” my interrogator asked.
“My first guesses were straightline winds, vindictive squirrels or uneven ground,” I offered. “But after getting a better view, I realized —
“It wuz the limb you knocked outta the tree whut dun it,” he finished my sentence for me. “It fell pert-near on top’a the ladder. An’ they both hit the ground like a hot cow patty in December.”
“How’d you know?” I asked, my admiration for this Moses of the Lower 40 growing by the minute.
“Oh, I dunno,” he chuckled again, probably while scratching his head. I imagined the toothpick moving to the other corner of his mouth.
“That sorta thang maht’a happen’d ta’ me, back when I wuz a young’un,” the good-natured ombudsman of overalls clarified. “Life’s a good teacher ... at least, for them willin’ to learn. ‘Course, I ain’t climbed no tree since I wuz jes a boy. I wuz surprized to read ‘bout you doin’ it. Pardun me fer sayin’ it, but you ain’t no spring chickun no more.”
Unhurt by the chicken analogy, I assured him of my ascent, “It was an act of desperation. That was one dead, ugly ol’ limb. Besides, sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
“I expect we’ll be readin’ that in yore next article,” Zeke suggested.
“I expect so ... for the missus,” I confirmed.
“That’s raht ... for the missus,” he added, and then he laughed. “So how’d you git down, anyhow?”
“Remember as a boy on the playground swings you probably swung as high as you could and then jumped to the ground, risking life, limb and legs?” I prefaced my answer.
“Yuh, I reckon we dun that; leastun, I know the gran’chillen’ do now’days,” he replied.
“Same principal, only in reverse. Picture me suspended at body’s length from the lowest limb, hanging on by nothing but fingertips and a prayer, and then just ... letting go.”
“That hurts jes thinkin’ ‘bout it,” he empathized.
“It gave whole new meaning to flat feet,” I assured.
One day I’m going to ask this treasured old owl his name. Or maybe it’s like the untold secrets to tipped ladders. Answers dispel the mystery, but imagination defines the game.