All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1963

A Wee Bit of Truth

Mr. Raley is a free-lance author, speaker, philosopher from Gadsden, Alabama.

For many years I have enjoyed this very rare advantage: a wee bit of truth, as it were, that few people have had the good fortune to embrace.

It was a hot, humid day in the summer of twenty-eight, and I was twelve years old. In those days many small farmers still used horsepower and a “town” boy could earn “spending money” working on the surrounding farms. Mr. Pete’s (short of Peterson) instructions were very concise. “Take that bay mare mule, rig up a single stock with a short scooter and fourteen-inch sweep, and run around that bot­tom corn across the creek. Mind you, now, set your plow where it will just skim the top of the ground. It would ruin the corn to plow it deep.” These instructions appeared quite simple when Mr. Pete was giving them, but in ac­tual practice, well beyond my ability to activate.

Actually there had been no will­ful distortion of facts in my pre-employment interview with Mr. Pete, but certainly there must have been a vast difference of opinion as to the definition of ex­perience. I had, the preceding summer, made numerous visits to farms where my friend3 were working. On such visits one in­variably “made a few rounds,” presumably to give the friend a break. This was my idea of ex­perience; the fact that plows had to be adjusted to do a specific job had not occurred to me. This was the first day on my first real job, however, and I had no intention of spoiling it by asking a lot of questions.

I was nine feet tall when I reached the cornfield and began to plow. This excessive height fell away at about six inches per round, however, because there seemed to be no way to get this particular plow to “skim.” In fact, it appeared to have an ingrained tendency to plunge into the ground, all the way up to the beam.

The battle was on from the first step. The plow adjusted to run deep, the boy determined to make it skim. At first I carried the plow at the desired depth by main strength. As the sun rose higher, my neck and face itched and burned from contact with corn blades, perspiration streamed down my legs until it slushed in my shoes, the plow inched deeper each round until it was running full depth, and at each turn I cleared the foot of displaced feed roots.

I remember my first reaction was determination to do the job as instructed. This wore into an irrational dislike for Mr. Pete. After that came self-pity. Then the ego-soothing thought that I was doing my best. After all, everyone knew that doing one’s best was the end of any pursuit.

About mid-morning I looked up and saw Mr. Pete waiting at the end of the row. Tall and gaunt, with one ham-like hand suspended by a thumb hooked in the bib of his overalls, he looked even more formidable than the day before when I had applied for a job. At that time he had said he would try me, even though I looked “kinda light in the breech.”

Mr. Pete didn’t say a word for a long time. He walked around and inspected the wet, heaving mule. He looked for a long time out over the freshly plowed area where the corn had already begun to twist because of the torn roots, then at the plow, and last of all at me. No D. I. ever made a recruit feel more unnecessary than I felt before Mr. Pete spoke.

“Boy, you’ve ruined about two acres of corn for me.”

“But I did the best I could, Mr. Pete. The plow just don’t want to run shallow.”

“Don’t doubt you done the best you could, boy; you look it. Fact remains, though, you have plowed me out of a good load of corn.” He looked the whole operation over again. “Now mind what I’m say­ing, boy. Knock your plow off and put it down low. Set your back band back about four links. Drop the shackle down to the bottom hold in the beam and tie a shake knot in the traces.” Mr. Pete watched and advised while these instructions were carried out, but made no move to help with the actual work. “Now, try that,” he said when the adjustments were completed.

It didn’t feel like the same plow. Now the sweep skimmed just un­der the ground and I could hold it with one hand. Mr. Pete waited but said nothing for, what seemed to be, a very long time. The longer he stood there the more formidable he appeared, and the more I thought of the things I had heard about him. It was said that he was “honest as the day is long, hard as nails,” and a man that wanted all that was his but noth­ing that belonged to someone else. I could easily believe this because only that morning he had told his son that the best thing to do, when offered something for noth­ing, was to knock the would-be giver down, if he could. The sec­ond best course was to run fast and far, get away or be hooked. With these things in mind, I was sure my tenure of employment was over when Mr. Pete motioned me to the shade of a huge beech tree.

“Now, boy, I want you to listen real close. I’m paying you a man’s wages and I expect a man’s work. Course, I wouldn’t have hired you in the first place if I’d known you couldn’t set a plow, but that’s water over the dam now. Matter of fact, I don’t hold that a man should bring up details that might hurt him when he’s asking for work. I’m the one that slipped up, not asking more questions. Now, I’m going to keep you for the present, boy, if you can remem­ber one thing. Doing the best you can is not worth two hoots unless it gets the job done. Don’t ever use that for an excuse again. It was worked to death before you was born.”

The simple truth of Mr. Pete’s philosophy is surely well-known. In spite of this, “I’ve done my best!” is still the most popular ex­cuse in use today. How often we hear it from others and offer it ourselves in our daily personal af­fairs and business relationships.

Nowhere is this most popular excuse more used and abused than in the political field. Many public servants, elected and appointed, doubtless are doing “the best they can” at the astronomical tasks as­signed and assumed. Some obvi­ously reached office by stretching a point concerning their qualifica­tions. But, as the Mr. Petes, the citizens who do the hiring and as­sign the tasks, we also overwork the excuse that we’re doing “the best we can.”

When our government officials fail to deliver according to our ex­pectations, the fault may well lie in our expectations. Do we give the hired man a gun and clear in­structions to protect life and prop­erty and maintain the peace—that, and nothing more or less? Or do we expect the policeman to pro­vide us with something for noth­ing? Should the latter be true, we may count on being “plowed out of a good load of corn”—and every­thing else free people hold dear.