Finally, I have finished a manuscript for publication, and I have a breather while my collaborators have their turn with it. The story of shapeshifting shall return next time. This is about a friend who has recently passed, and will forever remain unknown, but was no less in stature than Lincoln, sitting eternally in the National Mall in Washington DC.
Their family has owned the land since the 1920s. Or rather, the land owns them. They are so native to it as to have sprung out of the Michigan clay. Pasture and woodland, accompanied by a nearly feral sense of ancientness and renewal–the land still remembers the footsteps of the Ottawa and Potawatomi across it. The farm isn’t too far out of town, far north enough to have lots of whispering firs, but still a good smattering of leafy trees, glorious in autumn. Out a couple of miles on a dirt road, it’s frozen in time; it’s the same now as it was thirty years ago, and probably has been for longer than that.
I showed up when they needed a roommate. The older son, Kevin, had built a house next door to his parents’ farmhouse, and needed someone to help with the bills. My problem was that I had a dog. A big dog, who didn’t necessarily get along with other dogs that well. Kevin didn’t have a dog, but he did have a rabbit, whose name, pragmatically, was “Rabbit.” On walking in the door, Yiannis immediately poked his head in his pen, and slowly wagged his big flag of a tail. I took that as a good sign, as did Kevin. I moved in the following week. Kevin and I immediately slipped into an easy familiarity as roommates. We’d known each other for lifetimes, except we had just met.
Rob was Kevin’s Dad. Dark curly hair, wire-rimmed glasses, he had sort of a nerdy look before there really was such a thing.
He and his wife, Jan, had lived on the farm their whole lives. Rob was born there, his father had been a dairy farmer. As well as the surrounding land, they owned a pasture that was just up the street; Rob walked the dairy cows up to graze up and back every day to be milked from the time he was in grade school until his Dad retired.
The land feels bigger than life, with a sense of the slow swing of the seasons that quietly pulls you into its rhythms. Surrounded by woodlands, ponds and creeks, the squirrels, skunk, deer, and fox are more common than people, even nowadays. You can still run into the occasional ramshackle one room schoolhouse overgrown by trees and brush. Even as late as the 60s, they were still in use. It can get fairly forbidding in the winter, as is usual for Michigan, and driving the mud slalom out to the main road in the spring means you have to put your foot down hard until you hit the tarmac, or you’re going to need a tow.
Rob didn’t follow in his Dad’s footsteps. This was the center of Ford country, with memories still remaining of the excitement and innovation of the early part of the 20th century, and the resourcefulness of those first generation immigrants. The sprawling old Ford plant downtown, and the science museum in Dearborn memorializing its industrial Golden Age, still has the feeling of the bustle of their former glory. His Dad worked for Ford intermittently, and would bring Rob to work with him–so he learned about gas reciprocating engines from the moment the first “combustion driven contraption” rolled off the line. This suited him better than cows, which Rob had a tendency to lose track of, as his eyesight was very poor. Cars were less unpredictable, and didn’t need milking.
It wasn’t long before Rob could strip and rebuild in an engine in a day or two. He had a engineering bent that defied logic–he had what most people would call a naturally scientific mind. To him, it just made sense. His two sons are the same way, all three of them could be considered mechanical engineering geniuses, they could build or create anything. And they were always helping Rob build something as they grew up out in the metal shop behind the house.
They had pole barns full of miniature steam engines, reciprocating motion machines, popcorn makers–the big ones you see at the Fair–every conceivable kind of gas-powered vehicle–and tractors. Rob like to rebuild antique tractors. These were from the times when these stalwarts of the farm were made to be beautiful as well as functional. Red and green with graceful curves and high seats; Ford, Farmall, Case, others no longer in business, usually nothing more than 10 horsepower. Marvelous creatures that reminded you of plow horses, each with its own personality, snorting and blowing to get to the day’s work. I used to go the engine shows with them, where you’d come home sunburnt, stuffed with cotton candy and home-made bologna sandwiches, hoarse from yelling over the perpetual grunt and bellow of the engines.
They also adopted strays; animals and people. They had tons of cats, dogs, chickens, geese, bunnies, you name it, they took them all in. They took stray people in, too. I had just moved out from a roommate situation where all three of us were crazy, to put it generously, and in the case of threes, one usually gets pushed out, which in this case was me. When I showed up on Rob’s farm, a peaceful bit of land and a family were exactly what I needed. It cast its spell, as it does to everyone who comes there, and I was hooked.
The land is the reason they are the way they are, quiet, tough, hard-working and big-hearted. Later when Kevin was a teenager, Rob would get up in the morning at five AM, take Kevin in early to school, then he went back to the dealership to sleep until it opened. Kevin would attend school until noon, then go back to the dealership to work. They would then rebuild engines till quitting time. Like most Americans, it was a busy life.
He met his wife Jan at a roller rink; she still has the white high-tops–wooden wheel contraptions, stowed away in one of the barns out back. Their wedding pictures are typical of the times, she looks happy and a little scared, he looks ecstatic, she in a white lace gown, Rob in an dapper tuxedo. It was the one time he would ever wear one; he was buried in his blue suit. Just to remind you of gender roles of that time, he bought her a new General Electric stove as a wedding gift, which she absolutely still loves, to this day. Some sixty-odd years later, it still works.
Both were of Germanic stock, so the idea of arguing–or even expressing your feelings–was a foreign concept to both of them. Dinner at their house was always interesting. Nobody ever said a word. Until I became used to it, there were times I was tempted to slit my own throat with a blunt dinner knife, absolute utter silence was the ruling theme. But it also taught me something; silence is a not an enemy. Theirs was a peaceable silence, no drama, no strangled, venomous resentments so common to other families. Just together. Having grown up with the complete opposite, it was an odd feeling at first.
One day after I’d been there for a month or so, I dropped by the screened-in porch where Rob and Jan were sitting, enjoying the first burst of mild Spring weather. The daffodils in the barnyard poking their heads out were visible from the picnic table, which took up a large portion of the space. Not knowing my place yet, I felt a bit timid to drop in on them unannounced, but this was the country, they invited me in.
We were just sitting around the table and chatting, when Rob spoke up and said that he and Jan had been talking, and how glad they were that I had moved in. I came to realize later how unique this was in the midst of their usual taciturnity. An early spring day, a vinyl tablecloth with a floral design, and new flowers blooming in the yard is what I remember. It was my first really good day in a long time.
Rob was a union man. Rather, he was one of those dauntless pioneers that brought the union to his dealership. The guys in the factory were already making a living wage, but the workers in the dealership were being forced to work long hours for very little pay and free overtime. He managed to get a vote of the guys that worked there in favor to join the local union, and faced considerable opposition from management doing so. He got his car vandalized, tires slashed, the works, more than once, with the bosses turning a blind eye. At the end, corrupt union officials killed the initiative on a technicality. But Rob was way more than they reckoned for.
He knew the dealership was double-dipping the plant downtown for engine rebuilds, so Rob hatched a plan. I don’t recall the details, but the manufacturing plant in Detroit was paying for full rebuilds on defective motors within warranty, and the dealership was only partially rebuilding them. The mistake they made is that they kept records of it. So what Rob did was a little “social engineering,” before there was such a thing. He used to work odd hours, and on the weekends, he had the run of the place. He made friends with the secretary, who filed all this paperwork. He took Kevin in with him one day, as he often did, to help with the engine work. As a teenager, Kevin liked to wear those tall cowboy boots. He often went out back to the parking lot for breaks, or to fetch tools for his dad. He often swung through the front office, so no one really paid attention to the fact that Kevin was stuffing reports of overcharges in his boots, supplied by the secretary.
Somehow or other, these reports ended up at the main office in Detroit. They were of special interest to the bosses, who then billed the dealership for all these overcharges. Rob eventually got his union representation in the shop. He wasn’t someone to be monkeyed with.
Political battles were his thing. He confronted the neighborhood, the city council, his union. They kept him going. Like most Americans, he didn’t put up with much. Smart, tough, a pragmatic thinker and talker, he rarely didn’t get his way in the political arena. He loved children, though, and was a patient teacher and storyteller.
He was a solid Oak tree, tall and wide, who covered all with his tough, brilliant mind and compassionate heart. When I look at the issues we face as a society today, I remember where I came from, and those who came before me. Their footsteps are large to fill, and the stride they left behind is wide, but those of us gifted with such people have their strength forever knitted in their bones. Whatever we face, whatever the outcome, people like Rob were the prototype, and the example. We will do it together.