All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1992

Charity in the Land of Individualism

Mr. Fargo is a railroad worker in Los Angeles and a part-time student at California State University, Los Angeles.

It was back on the farm, late 1940s, along the northwestern edge of the corn belt, in the land of individualism. Folks were poor, and only the more rugged had survived the ravages of the Great Depression, but times were better now.

A new farmer moved in and rented the farm across the section. I’ll call him George. Within this self-reliant culture, George didn’t fit in well. Each farm, a piece of carefully marked-off private property, was conscientiously cared for by the farmer and his family, but not George’s.

This was before farmers used chemical weed killers. Thus, each farmer had to control weeds the hard way, by laboriously chopping them down, lest they go to seed and infest not only his fields but those of his neighbors. But not George.

We shared three-quarters of a mile of fence with George. Each farmer took care of half his common fences, making repairs when needed and chopping the weeds out of the fence row each summer. But George never laid a hand on any part of that fence.

Thistles were a nasty problem. Patches of these perennial weeds choked out the grain, and with no chemicals they were all but impossible to destroy. In the fall the thistles released thousands of tiny seeds that floated in the wind and could spread for miles. It was understood in the land of individualism that no one let his thistles go to seed—but George exempted himself. His farm became an eyesore in a culture where pride in one’s property, rented or otherwise, ran high.

Farmers often had to extend themselves. For example, instead of the normal 12-hour workday, they might put in 15 to 18 hours a day to get the hay crop in before a rainstorm. But George was too irresponsible to put forth the extra effort.

Corn, which requires a relatively long growing season, was the main crop back then, but it was vulnerable along the northwestern edge of the corn belt. Farmers had no commercial grain driers; most of them didn’t even have electricity. Thus, to prevent spoilage, the corn had to be left in the fields until it became sufficiently dry. This meant waiting until October, when early snows threatened to bury the crop.

Every October the race was on—to beat that first snowstorm and get the corn in. Corn-picking machines were repaired, greased, and ready to go. Corn cribs were built, farm kids skipped school to help with the harvest, and the time for 16-hour days, seven days a week, was on. But not George—his dilapidated corn picker wasn’t ready. And his three little kids were too young to help bring in the crop.


Tragedy Strikes

Machinery was primitive by today’s standards. Corn pickers often broke down, and dry corn husks often wouldn’t feed down between the steel husking rollers. Instead, they accumulated above the rollers, plugging up the machine. The operator was constantly stopping his machine to dig out the jammed husks. It was a tedious process.

But there was a faster and easier way of handling this problem: leave the machine running, reach in with your hand, and push the husks down so they would feed through the steel-ridged rollers. It was dangerous; a man could lose his fingers.

Well, George did it the easy way. He had barely gotten started with his corn picking when those steel rollers grabbed his fingers. All the doctor could salvage of his mutilated right hand was part of one finger and his thumb, minus the nail.

“He probably deserved it.” I never heard those words spoken, but I don’t doubt that the thought ran through a mind or two. In any event, the forces of selection had weeded George out. Farming required a strong back and two good hands, and this incident ensured that George would never farm again.

Word of the tragedy spread rapidly. The next day, a neighbor drove up to where we were working and talked briefly to my father. The neighbor planned to work in George’s fields the following day—maybe get some of his crop in—and thought we might like to help.

Early the next morning, we pulled into George’s farm with our corn picker, wagons, elevator (a long conveyor mechanism that lifted the corn into the cribs), and hoist (which lifted the front end of the wagons for easier unloading). George had no permanent corn cribs, so we scrounged around in the dark, looking for pieces of old corn-crib fencing to construct temporary cribs. About then, another farmer pulled in with a trailer loaded with brand new corn-crib fencing.

Before daybreak, we had the elevator up and running, the bottom rung of the corn crib built, and the first loads of corn already were coming in from the fields. The bitter cold penetrated to the bone, and I was anxious to start unloading wagons.

A young farmer drove in with his corn picker, stopped where I was working, and asked if he could help me unload wagons. That seemed strange because running the elevator and hoist, tending the temperamental gasoline engine that powered the works, and unloading the wagons was normally a one-man job. He insisted until I convinced him that I could handle it—and they probably needed him and his corn picker in the fields. It wasn’t until he left that I realized it was probably my age that had prompted his offer. I was 11 or 12 at the time, but younger kids than I were operating the tractors that pulled the wagons loaded with corn.

Judging by the rate the corn started coming in, I figured there must have been a dozen corn pickers running. A second elevator pulled into the farmyard and was set up nearby. More corn pickers arrived—their faded yellow, green, or red paint showing through the dirt and grime of the machines. By mid-morning the place was swarming with people and machines.

Farm wives drove in with pots and baskets of food for dinner (the noon meal). The area near the farmhouse was beginning to look like a small parking lot. The house could not hold everyone, so we ate in shifts. Most ate quickly and quietly, then returned to work. I didn’t know of anyone who was on “visiting terms” with George and his family.

By mid-afternoon, some of the corn pickers were returning from the fields, pulling through the farm yard, and leaving. One farmer, pulling in a load of corn, said that most of the corn was picked and they were starting to get in each other’s way. Before dark George’s entire crop was harvested, and he hadn’t even returned from the hospital.

The remaining operators were solemnly departing. I counted over 20 corn pickers leaving, but there weren’t that many farmers in the area. Some of them must have pulled their machines several miles in order to help out. Now, each farmer was going his own way, returning to his own fields where he would work late into the night in that annual race with the snowstorms.

That was how charity worked in the land of individualism, back before the welfare state became entrenched.

It may take the world a while, but eventually it will discover that true charity lies deep within the fertile soil of authentic individualism. These rugged souls, who dare to stand alone, tend to have hearts of gold.