Long before the arrival of ATVs, UTVs, and even color TVs, the most used implement on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth was our own two feet.
Everyone, from my parents to Uncle Honey to the hired men, walked everywhere every day without complaint.
My mother walked more than any of us. For decades, she was on her feet from before dawn until well after dark cleaning, cooking, canning, baking, and doing laundry. You name it, Mom did it on her feet and in a hurried “keep-up!” pace.
Dad probably walked as much but his stride was less urgent. His day began with a starlit, 300-yard walk to the milking parlor, and after two hours of back-and-forth shuffling between cows (alongside the farm’s born shuffler, herdsman Howard), Dad walked home for breakfast.
After that it was work, work, work and walk, walk, walk.
Noon dinner and a brief nap broke Dad and Mom’s on-their-feet routine.
Then, right at 1 p.m., an afternoon of more working and more walking ensued, when Dad would walk back to the house for a “lunch.” Ten minutes later he was walking to the dairy barn for two more hours of the milking parlor shuffle with ever-shuffling Howard.
Finally, around 7 p.m., Dad would make another quiet, alone walk home to another quiet, alone supper.
Those walks ended in the late 1960s when, after nearly 20 years of farming, Dad bought a used Ford pick-up truck. It had two purposes: to carry an equally-used pick-up camper a couple of times a year and to carry Dad to and from the dairy barn daily.
It was a mid-1960s plow horse, not a 2020’s bejeweled show horse. It had a bent tailgate, a clattering, six-cylinder engine, and a three-speed-on-the-tree transmission. Its air conditioning was two hand-cranked windows; its power steering was your two arms; and its spring-filled bench seat sported the finest, cracked blue vinyl Detroit ever sold.
My brothers and I followed Dad’s cue. As we approached our teen years, each of us traded our growing feet for rubber tires, gasoline engines, and the rush of wind through our crew-cut hair.
Oldest brother Rich acquired a high-mileage Cushman motor scooter. It was fat-tired, primer gray, and almost impossible to start. Still, when running, it was a dream machine to any farm boy.
Shortly thereafter, second oldest David purchased a solidly-built, homemade go-kart. It sat about four inches off the ground, a real hazard on our crowned rock road, but its baby Briggs & Stratton engine pushed it past 20 miles per hour.
It inspired me to weld together a short-lived duplicate. Short-lived because Dad preferred his garden tiller engine on his garden tiller.
I soon out-machined everyone, though. Through an advertisement in Boys’ Life magazine, I bought – for only $69! – a sparkling blue, factory-made minibike. The purchase included a frame, wheels, handlebars, hand throttle, chain, centrifugal clutch, and the promise of unparalleled freedom.
Mom was furious that I had purchased a “deathtrap” without her permission. For days, she predicted I would break my arm or neck — “or both!” — the first time I rode it. I assured her that nothing of the sort would ever happen.
Then, on my maiden voyage across a frozen soybean stubble field, I crashed. Hard.
My arms and neck were fine; my pride and the minibike’s right handlebar were in pieces. Somehow I got the broken machine back to the farm shop without Mom’s notice. There, David, a better welder than me, tacked the deathtrap back together.
That minibike, as good as new, ended my farm walking days forever. Better yet, I explored every back road, field road, and road shoulder. All without a license for the minibike or myself within 15 miles of the farm.
Two years ago, my speedy, two-wheeling days ended for good with a crash on my bicycle to make me, again, a full-time walker.
Pride, it’s said, comes before a fall. True enough, and it’s usually feet that come after it.
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