Longtime readers may recall a Thanksgiving column years ago that featured a dinner entree provided by Orlie, the gainfully unemployed younger brother of our farm’s two hired men, Jackie and Howard.
How did we end up with three brothers, all bachelors, living together in a provided house on the farm along with their widowed mother?
I can’t recall exactly, but I know my father employed Jackie, the small, leathery middle brother, to work in the fields and, later, brought on his older, stronger brother, Howard, to help with haying jobs. Howard’s gentle disposition quickly moved him from a part-time baler to a full-time herdsman in the dairy. He stayed there until his death nearly 30 years later.
Orlie, however, was a different matter. Unlike the firecracker Jackie or the quiet giant Howard, Orlie was burdened with an ability to make people uneasy. Part of it was his size; he was a substantial man with well-defined, tanned arms and a barrel chest.
The bigger part, I suspect, was his face. It wasn’t so much tanned as stained a reddish brown and usually carried the shadow of a few days worth of salt-and-pepper whiskers. Even clean-shaven, its round softness was easily overtaken by a knotty complexion that featured pockmarks from what I always guessed to be childhood measles.
All conspired to give Orlie a harder look than he deserved.
He must have known it, too, because you rarely saw him not smiling. He wasn’t a jolly man or an effusive man, so the smile had to be his way of making people give him a second chance after that first, brief chill.
It rarely worked, though, and most folks never got close to him — even in public.
He had one more burden that no amount of smiling could overcome: he was slow-witted. Back then people like that often were referred to as simple. It didn’t mean ignorant or illiterate; it meant mentally handicapped, intellectually-challenged.
I don’t know if Orlie could read and write. I suspect he could because brother Howard could. Then again, brother Jackie could not.
I do know, however, that he was as good a shade tree mechanic as I ever encountered and, with nothing more than a hammer, a handsaw, a bucket of used nails and a pencil, Orlie could — and did — build a garage for his rotating stable of tiring Plymouths, Dodges and Pontiacs.
His chronic unemployment did not mean he didn’t work. Sometimes I would spot him somewhere on the farm either going or coming from something like digging ginseng, hunting mushrooms, picking up soda bottles to claim their deposits or tearing down an old barn to reclaim the lumber and nails for one of his building projects.
Usually, however, you’d see Orlie moseying — he never really walked — to another brother’s (Earl Gene) house a coupla’ of miles south and hard by the Mississippi River levee. An afternoon later you might see him moseying back home with a couple of catfish for his and Howard’s and Jackie’s supper.
And, like I noted in that long-ago column, every now and then he’d show up on our back porch in the evening twilight with a Canada goose or two in hand just in time for Thanksgiving.
I last saw Orlie 25 or so years ago. He was living with Jackie in a three-room, concrete block house two miles north of my father’s farm. During a Thanksgiving visit with Jackie, who was working at a nearby “cake mix factory,” not the farm, Orlie shambled in from one of his long walks to reach out a big, still-tanned hand and ask, “Remember me?”
Of course I do, Orlie.