Monday, May 2, 2005

A Disappearing Generation of One-Armed Farmers

I was sitting in the corner of the auction house waiting for bidding to begin in the back room when I saw the man. He was wearing a light green Pioneer Seed jacket, a baseball cap sporting a farm implement name, jeans and a pair of boots that look like he was born with them in place. He was probably in his early 70's and I was willing to bet any amount of money that he was a retired farmer now passing his Friday night going to the auction and milling through the crowd awhile before going back home.

He was carrying a chicken sandwich with one hand as he walked towards me and sat down at the table directly in front of where I was. It was one of those limp breaded chicken sandwiches on Wonder bread that you always find at auctions but for some reason this man eating one of them seemed to fascinate me. He took a bite of the sandwich and sat it back down on the table so that he could grab the napkin and wipe a little bit of mustard off his lips. He couldn't do both at once because he only had one arm.

Growing up in a farming community, missing limbs wasn't uncommon mostly among the older community. I could sit back and easily fill up all the fingers of both my hands naming farmers who used to live near by that were missing arms, legs and fingers. It was a product of their generation when lawsuits were not prevalent and thus safety shielding on farm equipment was mostly non-existent. One of my favorite singers, John Prine sang about it in "Ain't Hurtin' Nobody" when he sang:

There's roosters laying chickens and chickens layin' eggs
Farm machinery eating people's arms and legs

Those were the times and as a result, I grew up in a community filled with amputees.

The man was a model exercise in careful, deliberate eating as I watching him work his way through the limp chicken sandwich in rapt fascination. I supposed it came from years of living without one appendage and so he had learned to be careful. He would pick up the sandwich carefully to prevent the limp bread from spilling out the limp chicken, studying it carefully for the opportune spot to get his next bite and then take it, following it up with careful chewing and swallowing. Between each bite he would sit it down and switch his one hand over to the task of dabbing at any mustard that might have ended up on his cheek.

I wanted to talk to the man and ask him some questions that suddenly seemed very important to me. I wanted to learn his name, where he was from, what he does now, and how he lost the arm. He had a interesting story hidden beneath that light green Pioneer jacket with one sleeve lying vacantly along his side, I just had to work up the courage to ask for it. I imagined introducing myself and saying that I wanted to write his story for a blog that I write but I felt it would just bring up more questions from his end or worse, that he would just walk away. So I continued to watch his eat his chicken sandwich while he scanned the crowd milling around the auction floor.

I began to notice that the fingernails on his hand were unusually long, femininely long. They seemed to get in the way of everything he did and make his deliberate moves, unsure. I was sitting there pondering this new information when it hit me. How does a one armed man clip his fingernails? The weight of that question seemed to settle into me, tugging hard at some inner strings. Obviously he can't and that is why I am sitting here looking at them right now. There was no wedding band on his hand but he only had a right hand and what does one do with a wedding ring when you don't have a left ringer finger to put it on? Another question loaded with weight. At that moment I knew he didn't have anybody to clip those nails, no wife and no friends, or at least ones that would volunteer to clip them. Some would but they probably couldn't get past the part of asking a proud farmer, fiercely independent, if they could do something as simple as help clip his fingernails. Sometimes asking someone so proud to do something so simple is just like sucker punching them in the gut when they aren't looking.

The one-armed farmer finished the last bite and carefully folded up his wax paper sandwich wrapper before getting up and walking off into the crowd. I watched him slowly walking, again very deliberately, among the people trying to purposely fit into a randomly milling crowd. It worked to all but me the observer because nobody gave him a second look as he wandered around to the far side of the room and started to make his way to the front door. All too soon, he slipped out the door and disappeared into the inky darkness, my chances of finding out his story disappearing too. Had he been a young farmer missing a limb, maybe he would have been noticed by others but unfortunately he wasn't. He was simply another one-armed farmer from a generation full of one-armed farmers.

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