There are lots of ways to stay on top of things today. You can get information from a wide variety of sources in a wide variety of formats at any moment of the day, and pretty much right at your fingertips. Look around any restaurant or public setting and you'll see someone "getting information."
That's not the same as staying connected. Staying connected means there's at least some bit of usefulness to the information being shared, and some bit of effort put into the gathering and sharing of the information.
A friend bought an acreage several years ago that had an old barn on it. He didn't really want to tear it down, but he wasn't sure he wanted to spend a lot of money on it either. A young guy stopped by to look at his project and had a discussion with my friend. My friend said the young guy "had to be Amish, because he could carry on a conversation. No one that young knows how to actually talk anymore!"
One of my uncles milked cows for forever. Uncle Phil lived not far away, so it was always easy and fun to stop by and visit with him as he milked. If we had any tourists who stopped by with little or no farm background, we'd try to take them to Phil's so they could see where milk comes from and what goes into getting it to their refrigerator. Phil would show them how milking worked and usually let the visitors have a try at it with one particularly mellow cow. Everyone came away impressed with the cows and with Uncle Phil.
"I'd be scared to get down in there by that cow, but your uncle is so relaxed the whole time," one particularly squishy urban type said. Mellow and steady is how Phil always operated. He's about as laid back a guy as you will ever find. A lot of that patience came from milking cows for years. If you stay mellow, the cows stay mellow. If they stay mellow, they produce more milk than if they're nervous. Keep the cows happy and it's easier to keep yourself happy.
Phil would frequently get visitors in the barn when he milked. It could be anyone from a feed salesman, or an equipment salesman, or some other service provider, or just someone he knew. They'd always stop by because they knew it was easy to go to the barn and get connected with Phil.
For a guy who didn't get off the farm very much, Phil always stayed incredibly well-connected. If it wasn't personal visits with people, he always had a radio on in the background. It was usually NPR or talk radio. That covered more information for Phil and provided the kind of background noise that kept the cows happy. Between the radio and the stack of newspapers in the house that he'd read each day, or the news programs he'd watch, you needed to be on your toes when you talked to Phil. It was a current events quiz that you didn't want to flunk.
Phil and I would frequently talk about bulls and artificial insemination (A.I.) when I'd sneak over to see him in the barn before I could legally drive. He said he'd be willing to come over and A.I. some of my cows for me that year. That was in 1982. We kept that up for several years until I finally went to A.I. school and learned to do it myself a few years later.
When we switched to a timed A.I. protocol several years ago, my A.I. company rep and I talked about the logistics of how the system would work. We'd need a guy moving cows into the crowding tub and working chute in a timely manner. We'd need someone at the headgate to get the cow in and out for the brief time she'd be there. We'd need someone to write down the tag numbers of the cows and the various sires we'd use. We'd need one or two of us (probably me and the rep) doing the actual A.I. But, you know, if we had someone with experience getting frozen units of semen out of the nitrogen tank in a timely fashion, that would make it a whole lot smoother. You don't put a rookie at the tank and have them get frozen product out of the various containers and canes in the allotted time before you do damage to the product. You want experience.
That screamed "Phil!" to both of us. This wasn't upside-down-five-gallon-pail working conditions like we'd use when we only bred a couple of cows. This was going to take a couple hours, so we went one step further and got a cushy swivel chair for Phil to sit on for his job. It worked great. He stayed comfortable, but not so comfortable he'd fall asleep. (That's why an old La-Z-Boy recliner did not make the cut for the job.) He'd also get to stay by the chute and be involved in the conversation as we went through the process.
Who wants to be unconnected at work? Definitely not Uncle Phil.
The other incentive for the process was the fact that we'd all get together at the kitchen table afterwards and eat fairly well. It's rare when good food gets turned down by people as a potential benefit. For us, it’s part of the job.
All of those discussions over the years didn’t reveal all there was to know about Uncle Phil. I knew he had been in the military, but I honestly didn’t remember him ever saying anything about it. Nothing at all. Dad informed me somewhere along the line that both Phil and his younger brother, Bob, worked in Air Force Intelligence. When each of them signed up, a couple of government types came to Ridgeway and asked a whole bunch of questions to a whole bunch of people about those two boys. The G-men wanted to get a feel for how trustworthy Phil and Bob would be with valuable information.
From what I’ve seen, if you can keep anything quiet around Ridgeway, it’s probably safe to give you the nuclear launch codes!
Phil and Bob passed the evaluation and both were probably privy to more stuff than most of us realize. For instance, Phil’s youngest daughter, Holly, worked at a restaurant in Cresco when she was in high school. It was run by young Greek immigrants who came here from Greece. They were great people who embodied The American Dream. Holly got along great with them, as did everyone else. One thing she learned from them was a few choice swear words in Greek.
Holly’s younger brother, Jason, did something one time to annoy her. She didn’t care for it at all and called him an unflattering term. It was one of the Greek words she’d learned at the restaurant that would make George Carlin blush.
As soon as she said it, Phil sat upright in his chair, looked at her quite sternly (which wasn’t his style) and said in a firm voice, “Where did you learn that word?”
Holly had a hunch she was busted. “At work,” she timidly replied.
“You don’t ever use that word in this house again,” Phil said with conviction.
Turns out Phil spent some time in Greece and was stationed in Crete for a while, too. He had gotten connected with some of the vocabulary while he was there.
Phil’s oldest son, Randy, had a class on Morse Code when he was a senior in high school. He said they’d give you a few words to learn and then you’d have to listen to an audio recording of the dots and dashes to decipher and recognize the words and the corresponding code. The test was a series of words given as Morse Code that you’d have to write down as you heard it in a limited amount of time. As the test moved along, the code got faster. Randy played the last, fastest part for his dad when he got there. Phil listened and recited the words as fast as they came across the speaker.
“He didn’t even hesitate on any of them,” Randy said. “Heck, I didn’t even know he knew Morse Code! It had to be twenty years since he’d been in the service and he did it like it was no big deal, like he’d been using it in the barn that morning!”
Phil was pretty good at gathering intelligence. They had a fire drill when he was at school in Ridgeway as a kid. The kids lined up single-file in an orderly fashion and proceeded to exit the building like they were told. Phil gathered up the knowledge shared by his teacher, assessed the situation and just kept on walking . . . home! He took the shortcut home from school through a neighbor’s field. That saved him the extra two miles of going down the road and then back down the long driveway at home.
Someone stopped Phil on his journey in the middle of the day and asked, “Where are you going at this time of day?”
“Going home,” Phil stated. “School’s on fire.”
Then he kept walking without looking back. He had succinctly delivered all the relevant information required of him, so his work with this citizen was finished. That may have been the starting point of his job in intelligence work.
When Uncle Phil had to start making a bunch of routine visits to a medical facility a year or two ago, his wife and four kids took turns taking him. They'd be there a few hours and then head back home when his appointments were done. Two of his daughters live in Arizona. They’d come home when they had time and handle a clinic trip with their dad. The schedule got tight one time, so they asked me if I'd be able to get Phil up and back to his appointment. No problem. This is Phil. More time with him is a good time, as far as I’m concerned. They gave me the schedule and I asked if they thought he'd want to go out to eat before we came home. As it turns out, he usually did, but not always. He'd know after his visit if he was hungry and he'd let me know. They'd usually take him to Perkins, because it was on the way home. Longtime dairy guys are tremendous creatures of habit. You do the same stuff and you do it the same way each time. On a previous visit, I'd sent my cousin a text and suggested she try one of my favorite Greek restaurants for their meal. This place had great gyros, and I knew Phil liked lamb. The only concern my cousin had was that the restaurant wasn't on the way home. "That's gonna throw him off if I turn and go the wrong way as we leave the clinic," she said. "That's the only place he goes in that town and he knows when we're off the route."
Gyros, I told her. He's getting gyros. Tell him there's a construction detour or something. They'll be worth the trip.
Sadly, the restaurant was closed when they got there. It wasn't an after-hours thing. It was closed as in not opening again. Ever. They went to Perkins instead. When it was my turn to take Phil, I decided we needed to broaden his horizons beyond Perkins. We pulled out of the parking ramp and I asked him if he was hungry. He was, so I asked what sounded good. "Fish sounds good," Phil replied. "I’m not much of a fish guy, but I'd really like some fish for some reason." I started running menu options through my head. Long John Silvers was one, but I wasn't sure about our other options. Perkins probably has fish, but we need to break that habit. Then it hit me. Red Lobster. They have just about everything in the sea, and fish is on that list. Phil thought that sounded like a good idea. Since I knew my way around town, he was willing to let me go wherever I wanted, even if it was off the route.
We'd go fish. In the back of my mind, "Born to Be Wild!" started playing as we made a turn off the main drag home and didn't head for Perkins. We got to Red Lobster and were seated at a booth in short order. Phil looked around and remarked, "This is a pretty nice place. I always thought they were kind of the fast-food of seafood from their commercials, like a step below Long John Silvers." Nope, I told him, it's not tuxedo-quality, but it's not fast-food. That's about the time the Cheddar Bay Biscuits showed up. Those went over quite well with the Red Lobster rookie. I sent both of his daughters a text and asked how they let their father get within weeks of his 75th birthday without ever having a Cheddar Bay Biscuit. Charges of elder abuse would at least be contemplated, if not formally filed against them.
The meal showed up and Phil decided this Red Lobster place was okay. He'd upgraded his view of it now that he'd finally been inside and experienced it in person. The biscuits probably sealed it.
A few weeks later, it was time for another visit to the clinic. This time, Phil requested me to be his driver. When we were ready to head home, I asked about his hunger status. He did his own lab work and discovered he tested acutely hungry and seriously flavor-deficient. I suggested we try something different than Red Lobster. It's a new Cajun place. They have several different options with gumbo and other Cajun food, as well as catfish. Phil thought Cajun sounded good, so we headed to The Lost Cajun. They bring you what amounts to a cutting board with a bunch of counter-sunk holes drilled in it. Each divot has a small container of their various gumbos and Cajun delights. You can sample each one before committing to an order. I'd been there before, so I let Phil run the table and try all of the samples. We hit the daily double by showing up before 4:00. That qualified us for the daily special of a cup of gumbo and half a Po' Boy sandwich with a beverage. Phil went with Red Beans and Rice and a catfish Po' Boy. As we waited for our food, I was telling Phil the background on the place and its owners. That's when Phil's connected status kicked into high gear. The owner's dad was the guy who always worked on Phil's silo unloaders and bunk feeder for the cattle. I knew the owner had a Ridgeway background after talking to her husband one day, but Phil did me one better and had a history with the family!
I was impressed with his connection. My cousins said Phil would usually ask if it would be possible for me to take him for his clinic visits after that. "We try to figure out who's available and he pipes up right away and says, 'Let's see if Jeff can take me.' He always seems to maintain the proper level of chill with you," Holly said. "You're never in a rush like everyone else is, and you always take him somewhere good to eat." I simply did the math. What we did worked, so we did it again. That's Dairy 101 right there. Classic Uncle Phil. We wouldn’t change until there was a really good reason to change.
Phil and I made several trips to appointments over the last several months. We’d always go somewhere good to eat afterward. Everyone would ask me how he was doing and I’d give them the same answer: “I don’t know. We don’t talk about how he’s doing. We just talk about plenty of other stuff.”
In the back of my mind, I had a pretty good idea of how Phil was doing. The odds weren’t really in his favor. He ultimately needed much more than I could provide for him. What I could provide him was a break from his routine as we made our way to and from appointments. I didn’t go into his appointments with him. I didn’t ask about lab results, or treatment changes, or his prognosis. I told him stories and I got him laughing. I listened and I asked questions about the stories he told me. He and I did what we always did for as long as I had known him. We maintained our routine by breaking what had become his.
It was a beautiful day this past weekend as friends and family gathered for Uncle Phil’s funeral. His four grandsons and a neighbor down the road from Phil joined me as his pallbearers. We made our way down the winding road to the cemetery at Plymouth Rock like we had done with two of Dad’s other brothers the last few years.
There is a really big, steep hill on the blacktop about a quarter mile from the church. You go down that hill on your way to Plymouth Rock, aka St. Agnes Plymouth Rock Catholic Church. Years ago, before the road was paved, my Grandpa Ryan was in a car with a guy who couldn’t make it up the hill. He made a couple attempts and kept coming up short on power. When they reached their stopping point, Grandpa Ryan hopped out and told the guy, “Try it one more time and I’ll push you the rest of the way when you get this far again. Be sure to give it hell!”
My grandfather was a big, stout guy. Old-timers in Ridgeway would always tell us kids they’d see him stop at the lumberyard and put four rolls of barbed wire into the back of the truck in one shot with two rolls in each hand, without gloves.
When the guy in the car made his final attempt at the hill west of Plymouth Rock, Grandpa Ryan jumped in behind him and pushed him up to the top of the hill.
They both gave it hell.
The assistant funeral director got the pallbearers gathered up at the back of the hearse as the crowd assembled nearby and began to make their way to the gravesite. The scenic view of Plymouth Rock comes with a cost. You don’t step out of your vehicle and walk straight across to the cemetery. You climb a fairly short, but really steep hill first.
Just before we assembled at the back of the hearse, I leaned over to the stoutest of Phil’s grandsons and said, looking at the hill, “This is going to be one of the toughest lifting jobs you’ll have as a pallbearer the rest of your life.”
It probably wasn’t 30 seconds after that when the assistant funeral director gave us our final instructions on how to line up, where to proceed with the casket, and how and when to do everything between here and the grave. His parting words as he touched the casket and stepped back were priceless.
“Good luck with the hill!”
More than one Ryan looking down on us from above had to be smiling at that.
It helped me maintain the proper level of chill.
Thanks, Phil. I owe you.
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.
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