My dad grew up on the family farm. He knows how to milk a cow, how to split wood, and how to pluck a chicken, and he was driving a tractor years before he ever got behind the wheel of a car. Whenever people start arguing about something—politics, religion, music, whatever—my dad would interject: “Now those are all interesting points. But let me ask you a question. I’m sure you know that horses, cows, and deer all eat grass. But a deer excretes little round pellets almost like a rabbit. A cow leaves behind a big flat pie, and a horse turns out these mounds of dried grass clumps. What do you think the difference is?” And when, inevitably, no one has an answer, my dad replies, “Well how can you be qualified to discuss (politics, religion, music, whatever) when you don’t know shit?” It’s an old joke, and Mom hated it, but it always got a laugh. It was also perfect for diffusing a tense argument, and a lot of the farmers he worked with appreciated that sort of humor. It was one of the ways he connected with them.

The other way he formed connections was simply by understanding what it meant to be a farmer. I got to see this firsthand whenever Dad would take me along on his sales trips. He could talk to a farmer about his equipment, about his fertilizer, about plowing, planting, harvesting, storing. He could connect with animals whether livestock, fowl, barn cat, or guard dog. He knew the feel of dirt on his hands and beneath his feet. Some of his coworkers would buy flannel shirts and John Deere hats as a sort of camouflage, but my dad could show up at a farm and with a single handshake, prove that he belonged. I studied all of this and learned from it; the same skills would serve me well in my own career—at least my first one.

“I don’t want you to make this decision just because of me,” Dad said.

I wondered if he realized he was echoing his own father. He had told me the story of a similar conversation he had with Grandpa. Their relationship had been pretty icy after my dad announced that he did not want to inherit the family farm, but instead wanted to move to the city and go to college. He was the only son, and it was expected that he would continue the family legacy. For my grandpa, the land you lived on was as much a part of your identity as your skin or your blood, and your work defined you more than your name. My dad’s decision struck him as a very personal betrayal. At first, there was yelling between them, then there was silence, and then there was civility, perhaps worse than the yelling. Familial comfort was discontinued and replaced with a cool formality. The first time in years that they talked about Dad’s vocation was just before he graduated from college. It was spring break, and they sat together at an old oak dining room table that had been used by three generations of Collins families.

“I’ve got a job lined up,” Dad said. “As long as I complete all my courses and graduate on time.”

“S’that so?” Grandpa replied.

“It’s an exciting opportunity. I think it’s a perfect fit for me.”

“That’s good.”

“I’ll be selling insurance,” Dad volunteered.

“So, you’ll be making people gamble on their fear, eh?”

“Not exactly…”

“But close enough.” Grandpa said. The family had almost lost the farm in the depression, and he was raised to distrust any institution that took money without offering any immediate goods or services.

“It’s a young company,” Dad redirected, “very specialized.”

“Oh?”

“They work with small to medium sized farms. You know, the ones that only get by from year to year. They insure their equipment and facilities, sometimes even their crops so that they don’t lose their farms if something goes wrong.”

Grandpa furrowed his brow (a very powerful expression on his face—I’ve seen it a number of times myself), and he said, “It seems to me that a man should get by on his own work and shouldn’t trust someone else to bail him out.”

“That’s true,” Dad said, “but I think everyone deserves a second chance when things get off track.”

The two men stared at each other a moment then Grandpa said, “I don’t want you to make this decision just because of me.”

“I’m not,” Dad answered.

Maybe it is just a legacy now for Collins men to disappoint their fathers. First, my dad left the family farm, but he at least devoted his entire professional career to helping other families get by in an age of increasingly monstrous corporate farms. Of course, it was those exact sorts of farms that I worked with at Agrimode, selling them the equipment to operate farms on a massive scale. For Dad, this career was an even worse betrayal than his own decision to leave the farm. He, at least, was still on the side of the small farmer. I was on the side of the enemy, capitalism, which he and my mom had long opposed. What I tried to make him understand was that I didn’t like big corporations any more than he did, but I needed a job, and they were the first ones willing to hire me. He replied that an attitude like that just went to show where my real values were.

So maybe I was opposing everything my father had been fighting for. Maybe someday a mega farm would take over the family property and bulldoze the house where the Collins family had lived for over a century, but none of that had anything to do with me. I liked working with farmers because they reminded me of my family. Just like my dad, I felt comfortable in the country, breathing in earth and manure, sitting at a hundred year old table and talking about farming; that’s why I got the job. And while I never loved working for Agrimode, when I drove across entire states to visit another potential buyer, I would always think back to the days when my dad would take me on his trips out to the country, to visit another farm. I would glance out the window at scenery that was always moving and always constant. I loved staring at the long rows of grain, at the old, weather-stripped barns, at the blue of the sky.

I sat in the kitchen with my dad, drinking coffee. I was telling him about the brand new job I had been offered with the not-for-profit Build Tomorrow, about how I would be leaving the corporate world to help the underprivileged and exploited.

“I don’t want you to make this decision just because of me,” Dad said.

And just like he had all those years before, I lied and said, “I’m not.”

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