The Fence Mender by Thomas Hart Benton
Life isn’t too bad. Ever since the dust bowl ended, work hasn’t exactly come too easy to us farming folk. I’ll say, I used to own about 75 acres in southern Missouri. Buck and I moved up to Nebraska for work after the dust storms of 35 killed all my damn crops. The land was becoming more and more expensive to own while my profits were plummeting to the devil’s front door. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t angry; I spent more than half of my life on that plot of land. But I am a true believer that everything happens for a reason, just like my father taught me.
On Buck and I’s trip to Nebraska, we ran into an old southern man in a local brewery. We got to talking, and soon found out that we shared many similarities. John Masterson was his name, and he made the trip up from Mississippi about two years ago. After many hours and a few pints, I learned that John was a part of Roosevelt’s alleged tree army. The Civilian Conservation Corps, I believe is the formal name. John had been stationed on a farm for the past two years doing the same damn thing every day: planting trees. “The pay ain’t great”, he told me, “but at least I got a roof over my head and sumthin’ to keep me busy.” “You know if they’re still offering work?”, I asked him. He told me that the tree planting business was pretty much all filled up, but said he’d heard something about potential fencing opportunities. I decided to ride to the farm with John that evening. “That’s a fine steed you got yourself”, he told me. “I appreciate it, his name’s Buck.”
Upon our arrival, a man riding a horse by the side of one of the barns yelled out, “Who’s the guest, Masterson?” John explained my situation. “We need some help on the fences, we’ll start you tomorrow… rest up!”, he told me. I couldn’t get to sleep that night; perhaps it was because I was sleeping on hay bales covered by a 2x4 blanket, but I’d like to think it was the stars. It was the clearest I ever saw the night sky. I was immediately reminded of my father and how he used to draw out the constellations with his finger. He was a good, religious man, my father. He worked me hard but was always loving. They say lung disease was the thing that got ‘em, but I know it was the dust. That damned dust.
My neck started cramping the next morning from all that looking up, regardless, I was ready to start getting paid. I was stationed a few hundred yards westward and rode out before sunrise. I knew I had arrived when I saw a pile of hundreds and hundreds of feet worth of spooled barbed wire and a heap of wooden posts. “This is us, boy”, I said to Buck. I de-saddled Buck and flea’d him to explore our new temporary home. The manager of the farm didn’t provide me with much information regarding how to construct a barbed wire fence. “Keep the posts ten feet apart and thread the wire through the holes. The boundary is where the short stuff meets the tall stuff.” That’s all he told me before pointing me on my way. I found a small boulder nearby that I could use as a mallet to get the posts in the ground. This worked well, and I decided to plant all of the posts on the boundary before even touching the barbed wire. This work was tedious, but I whistled a tune and started making good progress. There’s something about doing manual labor outdoors that appeals to me. I can get lost in my mind for hours on end and be one with the Earth that provides me with life. Especially with this new task. You see, at the time, I was the lone fence constructor on the farm. All that alone time can get to you and start driving you mad, but not for me. Sure, it may’ve been nice to have someone to talk to, but this was pure freedom. Nobody nagging at me or telling me what to do; just some wood, some fence, the Nebraskan hills, myself and Buck.
That first night, I finished my days work right before sunset. I whistled out to Buck, and seconds later heard his galloping hooves in the distance. Instead of riding back to the barn, I decided that I needed to get my bearings for the land. Buck and I rode around the boundary of the 200-acre farm. It was at this moment when I finally understood why this region of the Midwest is often called ‘God’s country’. That evening, I saw some of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen in my life. There was a certain since of calm that may have came with the cool breeze that blew the cap right off my head. This is where I belonged, at least for the meantime.
Days became weeks, weeks turned into months and before I knew it, I had spent my first year on Mr. Nelson’s farm, the owner at the time. I had covered 150 acres worth of fencing and been paid enough to go into town once or twice every fortnight to explore the various shops and social settings. I liked Nebraska. Hell, I loved Nebraska, maybe even more than the love I had for my home state of Missouri. I’d like to think Buck did as well with all that tasty grass he was eatin’. Regardless, I was about ¾’s done with my job and started wondering what the future would hold for me.
I banged out 40 acres of fencing in the first four months of my second year on the farm. I was getting good, and it showed by the 20-cent increase in my pay. Mr. Nelson brought me into his office and told me that he appreciated all the hard work, but unfortunately would not have any work opportunity for me after I finished the fence. “Damnit”, I thought to myself. Here I was, settled into a new home, and pretty much being told that I needed to leave that home within the next month or so as I only had 10 acres remaining. Those last few weeks of planting posts and threading wire were different. Knowing the end was near played with my head, so I started working slower to maximize my time in the place I had grown to love. I started hitching Buck next to me as I worked because I liked the company and because he was getting older. I vividly remember my last day of work on that farm. It was a cloudy one, but clear in some places. I got to my last ten feet of fencing when I really started slowing down. I looked around the entire property and saw that it was now surrounded by a barbed wire fence, my barbed wire fence. I felt a sudden rush of accomplishment, like I had done something to not only help myself but those around me. After threading the last few feet of wire into the last planted post, I sat under a leaning tree for a few hours and took everything in. The sun shined through the clouds in such a way that I knew God was talking to me. Maybe he was congratulating me, or maybe he just wanted to let me know that he was still there. Regardless, I had a sour taste in my mouth on that ride back to the barn. The feeling if no-longer having a place can get to a man, but somewhere deep inside let me knew that I’d be fine. This is my story, and I hope you enjoyed it.