Working with Uncle Leon
Strayo, as we called Uncle Leon, was a regular Mr. Mcgoo, short, stubby, with a round little face and piercing beady eyes that flashed from beneath thick, bushy eyebrows. He never really smiled and his grim demeanour seemed to demand that unyielding authority and control which he never quite achieved. Oh, it wasn’t that he was not a respectable man. He was honest, hard-working, decent; a real community-minded farmer who did everything right and whose code of ethics was unquestionable. But how do you take seriously a less than five foot man in baggy overalls, who shuffles along noisily like a cat under a paper bag? The overalls were properly shortened about ten inches on the pant legs and ten inches at the shoulders but with his head down on that too short neck, he still looked too comical to be given earnest attention.
He had a bland outlook on life and his pessimistic attitude simply did not endorse decisive or positive action because his perpetually dour countenance affected that “cry wolf” reaction from those whom it was meant to impress. He wasn’t a pathetic man, nor was he an apathetic one. If you looked beyond the crusty façade and the hapless exterior, you would actually see a likable, kind and interesting fellow. His genial personality and his sense of humour were simply masked by his gruff deportment.
Uncle Leon paid no attention to inconsequential matters; they were not worthy of his time or his effort. I vividly recall a visit to their home one time when his wife surreptitiously informed me that she had hung two new pictures and put up new wallpaper in the kitchen a whole month ago and he had never even noticed them yet. She thought she had really put one over on him, I guess. (Money was scarce those days, wall paper and pictures were a luxury she felt guilty about splurging on, but she had sneaked them in anyway.) The fact that he hadn’t detected her indiscretion made her feel vindicated and somewhat triumphant, I suspect, but to Uncle Leon, such things were beyond his realm of worthwhile vigilance.
Uncle Leon lived two miles from our place. He owned a quarter of land most of which was cleared of bush. It was good grain land but Uncle Leon was old and did not have the equipment to farm it anymore so we rented it from him on a share basis. He was my father-in-law’s brother and during harvest periods, Uncle Leon and I often got paired off during harvest season. (This was a process of cutting the grain with a binder that tied it into sheaves before the final process of being thrashed by a thrashing machine that separated the grain from the straw.) My job was driving the tractor while Uncle Leon sat on the binder, operating the levers that raised or lowered the cutting table, the grain fells, and the foot pedals that operated the sheave carrier. His seat was perched high on a pedestal but had no safety or back supports other than those control levers located at arms length in front of him.
Our own land was rocky and although we picked rocks each spring after seeding, there were still some that would somehow surface by “bindering” time. I always tried to be extra vigilant for these rocks because they could cause major equipment breakdowns and costly repairs as well as be a serious safety hazard to the person on the binder. Occasionally, however, one would be hidden by grain and I would miss it. If the central binder wheel hit the rock, it caused the binder to suddenly lurch into the air and then come back down to earth hitting it hard just as suddenly. If Uncle Leon wasn’t on his guard, he could get thrown off his precarious perch. I was aware of how hazardous this was but, thankfully, those lurches never amounted to more than a source of some of my most amusing memories of Uncle Leon. I guess we were lucky that our experiences were just funny ones and never tragic ones.
I can still picture one particular instance when I hit a rock. I felt the tractor jerk and as my foot instinctively hit the brake pedal as I turned in alarm to check on Uncle Leon. My anxiety melted into relief and then to mirth when I realized he was safe but the scene was just hysterical. The lurch had thrown Uncle high into the air and he was just coming down for a landing into his seat. With his hands and legs spread out and his head and body leaning forward, he looked like an eagle swooping in for a kill. The expression on his face was priceless, registering total shock, astonishment and alarm, all of it mixed with unmasked indignation.
Suppressing almost uncontrollable laughter, I immediately stopped the tractor and inquired if he was alright. Uncle Leon glared at me with his usual exasperation and let forth a barrage of Ukrainian curses that would make the devil cringe, berating his brother for choosing such stony land to farm on.
“Him and his damned farms. When I got on this binder this morning, my back hurt, my feet hurt and my neck hurt. Now, I don’t have any feelings left, good, bad or otherwise!” he finished in seething disgust. (In Ukrainian it was absolutely hilarious.)
I said nothing. I didn’t trust myself to speak for fear of really getting him mad if he heard the amusement in my voice but recalling that scene still sends me into irrepressible fits of laughter.
There was also another experience with Uncle Leon that is utterly unforgettable. I don’t know when it started or if I was always like that, but I could not feel minor jolts of electrical current like one from an electric fence used for cattle. I found this out when I was first married and I went to bring the milk cows home for the evening milking.
We had a few acres of lowland with a creek running through it that was not suitable for grain farming so we enclosed it with an electric fence and pastured our three milk cows there. Electric fence gives cattle an electric jolt if they they try to cross it so just a single strand of wire will provide a secure enclosure because after on such jolt cattle will never come near the fence again. However electric fence loses its kick if it is grounded by any stick, tree branch, plant, etc. so it must be checked regularly for effectiveness. As I left for the pasture, my husband reminded me to “check the fence”. Novice that I was, I asked him how to do it.
“Get a blade of grass,” he explained patiently. “Touch the wire with the blade of grass and you’ll feel a tingle in your finger. That’s how you know the current is in the wire.”
I’d seen people get a jolt from touching electrical wires. They jumped hard, and I didn’t want that kind of a jolt, but my husband assured me it would be a very harmless “little” tingle, so I agreed and left for the pasture. I rounded up the cows, got them through the gate and onto the road, then went to check the fence. I did the blade of grass routine but felt no tingle. Gingerly, I touched the wire with my finger. Still nothing. I grasped the wire with my hand, closed my fist tightly over it but felt absolutely nothing. So I followed the cows home and told my husband that there was no current in the fence.
My husband immediately left for the pasture, walked all the way around the perimeter of it but found no grounders. Grabbing the wire to check the current himself he took a jolt that sent his whole body reeling. Needless to say, he was quite irate that I would deliberately play such a senseless joke on him and he told me so in no uncertain terms. Innocent as I knew I was, I was hurt and flabbergasted. I could not understand how such a thing could have happened. The following evening the same scenario played itself out but he pointedly warned me about not wasting his precious time with silly jokes.
Smarting from his distrust, I went to the pasture, got the cows on the road and followed the same procedure about checking the wire. Again, I felt nothing. I was totally confused but I was also suspicious now. I had questioned myself about the night before, but this time I knew I had followed the procedure properly. Why did I not feel anything? Not wanting to go home to another admonition, I looked for another way to check that current. “Bruiny” the dog, waited patiently beside me. I got an idea. Lifting the unsuspecting dog, I walked him to the fence and touched his nose to the wire. That poor animal didn’t know what hit him. With a violent jerk and a piercing yelp, that dog was out of my arms and racing madly towards home, howling all the way.
“Okay there is current,” I thought triumphantly. I felt terrible about Bruiny. He was still yelping half a mile down the road but at least I felt exonerated. I went home and told my husband about my discovery. He didn’t believe me and we drove back to the pasture where I had to grab the wire and hold it for him so he would believe me. Suffice it to say he never asked me to check for the current again. And it took poor Bruiny weeks to start trusting me again.
Anyway, to get back to Uncle Leon. We were harvesting on the home quarter near the pasture and I needed to go to the bathroom. Stopping the tractor, I got off and headed for the bush in the pasture. I had to cross the electric fence and I just held the wire down with my hand while I stepped over it. I got back and we kept on going. An hour or two later, it was Uncle who need a pit stop. He motioned for me to stop and as he headed for the pasture, I never even bothered to watch. It never even occurred to me to warn him of the electric fence. The insulators on the fence posts were clear and visible so current in the fence should probably have been obvious but Uncle had seen me cross the fence. He had noted that I held the wire with my full hand. It was only natural for him to assume that we had the power switched off. I was sitting on the tractor, peacefully dozing when he got back with an outburst of invectives like I had never heard before in my life.
“Why didn’t you tell me that was fence was electric? I damned near filled my pants when I grabbed that wire. I thought you had the power off on the thing.” He went on and on, chewing me out (in very bold Ukrainian expletives). I sat there clenching my teeth and almost bit my tongue off trying not to laugh as the spectacle of him crossing that fence engulfed me.
Uncle Leon had a heart of gold though and even though he ranted and raved, I knew he had a soft spot for me in his heart. We were renting Uncle’s land and I often had to move equipment from one field to another through a bluff of trees on his farm. The trail was winding and that old “Massey 44” tractor I was driving had no power steering. In fact, to this day I could still swear it had a demon inside it whose sole purpose of existence was to consistently thwart my every effort at making that tractor go where I wanted it to go. I can still feel the excruciating pain between my shoulders that I suffered after each day of fighting with that steering wheel. Uncle Leon knew of my struggles and he empathized with me but he was glad I had graduated to the task and relieved him of the battle of trying to manipulate the unruly beast himself.
One day while I was trying to manoeuvre a cultivator down the narrow trail and I managed to run the front wheel of the tractor too close to a tree. Trying to correct my mistake, I put the tractor in reverse, but with the cultivator in tow, instead of getting me away from the tree, I only got closer against it and soon I had that tree centered between the front and back wheels so that I could go neither forward nor back. Realizing my dilemma, I stopped the tractor and walked over to Uncle Leon’s house to consult with him about my next move.
I dreaded having my husband and or my father-in-law seeing me in that ridiculous predicament I had gotten myself into and Uncle Leon knew it. What’s more, he was sympathetic to my cause. He wasn’t about to give his brother an opportunity to flaunt his superiority over either one of us. Reassuring me that all would be well, he walked with me to the site of my humiliation to survey the situation. He checked the angle of the offending trees, the position of the tractor and then, head bent down as usual; he quietly considered every potential solution to the problem. After a few minutes, his head snapped up and he grinned at me with a twinkle in his eyes and an almost triumphant smirk on his face.
“We can do it!” he announced gleefully. “We can get out of here and they won’t even know it happened! Come with me. We need a logging chain and a bar.”
With his baggy overalls flapping noisily, Uncle Leon set an unusually quick pace for the yard. He was enthusiastic and full of purpose, noticeably excited at the prospect of out-manipulating his younger brother for a change. Weighted down with the bar and heavy chain, we got back to the bush and Uncle quickly unhooked the cultivator that was hampering the movement of the tractor. Hooking the logging chain to the cultivator, he took the other end around a big tree behind it. Using the bar, we slowly and laboriously winched the cultivator backward about eighteen or twenty inches, just enough to give us room to work the tractor. Then, anchoring the bar against the front wheel, he told me to edge the tractor back and forth slowly in the other direction as far as possible, letting the bar keep me away from the tree. By repeating this process a few times, I got the tractor far enough away from the tree to a safe location where we then hooked up the cultivator, backed up to a manoeuvrable distance, steered clear of the tree and jubilantly drove away. Uncle Leon had saved my dignity and I would forever be grateful. He also achieved his own validation because my husband and father-in-law never did figure out what had scraped all the bark off those two big trees on that winding bush trail and Uncle and I kept our cunning secret safe with furtive winks at each other every time the subject came up.
There is one more lesson I associate with Uncle Leon but that was just that he was unaware of the potential danger. He was honestly only trying to help. He had a very deep well on his farm and it had the coldest water you can imagine. One hot day while working on his farm, I said I was thirsty. Always eager to please, Uncle simply drew a pail of water from the deep well and I helped myself to a glass to quench my parched throat. Within fifteen minutes, my throat had swelled so bad that it seemed about to choke me. Uncle was beside himself as I sat on that bench wheezing, desperately trying to catch enough air past that swollen throat. It took more than an hour for the swelling to subside but we both got a scare that day. I am still afraid to drink ice cold water.
Unfortunate things often happened to Uncle Leon and he didn’t deserve a single one of them. He was just a lovable old man, trying so hard to rise above his diminutive stature with words and actions that somehow just kept setting him up to look like a slapstick comic. Even his profanities were entertaining! Working with Uncle Leon was never dull; it was always an adventure!