Remembering a childhood friend

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farm scene

On a sparkling blue Friday afternoon in October 1965, I stepped off a noisy school bus with my best friend, Marvin, to walk the long lane to his family’s farm.

It was my first, non-family trip anywhere and I was so excited to go to Marvin’s house for the weekend that I doubt my feet even touched the lane’s uneven rock. Marvin and I had been best friends from the time we discovered each other in the first grade a few years before. We were a curious pair, as much alike as long-lost twins and as different as night and day.

We were both small for our age, both farm boys, and both borderline smart alecks with our teachers and parents. Marvin, however, was an only child; I had four brothers and a sister.

The differences

His family’s farm was small and rented; ours was huge and our own.

School came easy for me; Marvin struggled.

None of this mattered, however, as we all but floated toward his house. I couldn’t wait to get there because Marvin already had two privileges I could only dream about: He could drive the farm’s Allis Chalmers tractor and its fat-fendered Chevrolet pick-up truck.

And, you bet, I was going to drive both that weekend and it didn’t matter how well or how far. As we approached the farmhouse, my hopes for a great weekend soared higher. Marvin’s farm squawked, clucked and gobbled with life. Its barnyard was a disorganized parade of strutting chickens, wary guinea fowl and staring turkeys.

Beyond them, in a small pasture alongside a huge barn, a tiny Jersey cow stood in brown silence. Nearby a cloud of wooly sheep floated in ankle-high grass. I could hear the grunts and squeals of unseen pigs, too. For a kid from a mostly sterile, black-and-white dairy farm, all this scratching, cackling and on-the-move color was like a cartoon.

There were sheep to ride, hogs to feed, eggs to gather, cats to chase, a cow to milk (by hand!) and — holy smokes — a tractor and pick-up truck to drive! It was heaven and my delivering angel was a 10-year-old Lutheran named Marvin. And then it got better; the farm had a windmill.

Oh my, the adventures it could provide! We went into the house to drop off our schoolbooks.

Simple setting

It, too, was wonderfully different. The kitchen was plain, and a small sink with just one faucet hung on its north wall. A nearby stove, as big and black as an undertaker’s Buick, burned wood to cook food, heat water and warm the room.

A box of kindling and bucket of corncobs sat near it. A quick survey turned up something missing: no bathroom. Oh, they had one, Marvin explained: It was “over yonder behind the chicken coop.”

And so it was. Each of these old ways offered new adventures.

That night we chased all the chickens into their house, fed the sheep, made “slop” for the hogs, ate supper cooked on a woodstove, and slept under a half-a-foot of featherbeds in an unheated upstairs bedroom.

It was the best day of my young life for years afterward.

Later, when Marvin came to my family’s farm for the weekend, he was struck by our “modern” plumbing, our big, 70 horsepower tractors, our 6-cow milking parlor, its 1,000-gallon stainless bulk tank, and tall, silent silos. That’s just the way it was for us, a high-contrast sameness.

Later, when I went to college, he stayed on the farm. I married once; he married, well, more than once.

Last meeting

My life was writing; his was sweating. We last saw each other this past December when, weakened by a final round of cancer, Marvin spent days gathering the strength required for us to visit.

And so it was; for an hour his thin voice was strong again, his brown eyes sparkled again, and his colorful stories made us laugh again.

Three weeks later my very best childhood friend died. He was 60. Age, however, has no claim on love.

Until the day I die, he and I forever will be 10 years old walking down a farm lane toward the greatest weekend in our young lives.

And you bet I drove that AC tractor and Chevy pick-up that weekend. My best friend, Marvin, showed me how.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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