Life lessons in a five-gallon bucket: what my grandpa taught me

Me “helping” grandpa with a five-gallon bucket

My grandpa was a farmer. The verb there is important. It’s not just what he did, it’s who he was. Paul Scott was many other things too, but farming held it all together.

Never was that more evident than when he had to stop farming in his 80’s. He’d had two strokes, his legs barely worked, and he hadn’t made a profit in the better part of a decade. Nonetheless, my mom and his three other daughters practically had to drag him off his John Deere 4010 when it became clear that operating heavy machinery was no longer in his (or the general public’s) best interest.

It’s a trusty tractor, that 4010. An open-cab machine with a loader bucket, useful for everything from moving hay to putting up Christmas lights. Not the biggest or flashiest, but a workhorse of a machine, and more reliable than most people. It was a lot like my grandpa — steady, useful, and always in motion. It even outlasted him. That old tractor is still running today, but to grandpa’s credit, he’d been working the fields since the 4010 model was just a sketch in some engineer’s notebook.

A John Deere 4010 — my grandpa’s faithful friend and most useful tool (photo credit here)

My grandpa’s last few years were mostly an echo of the prior decades. Nursing homes are full of people who can no longer do what they do. It’s the worst for people who can no longer be what they are. But those years don’t define who Paul Scott was — they’re just a fading epilogue to one hell of a story.

My grandpa was a man who trained aircraft gunners to shoot down Nazis, who built a farm and a life from just about nothing, and who whispered to complicated machines like no one I’ve ever met. He was among the last of an often-idealized breed, self-sufficient and proud, but not without fault. He was a man very different than the one I’ve become, but who taught me much of what I know.

Here is a little of his story and what I learned from it.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, my grandpa enlisted a few days later. He didn’t know exactly what that meant or where he would end up. Like many young folks of his time, he knew people needed his help, and that was that.

During the war, he was stationed in Florida to train bomber gunners for the Army Air Corps (the Air Force in its modern form didn’t exist yet), though he never saw action himself. It was a surprisingly technical job. His gunners were trained to recognize the make, model, and nationality of aircraft from the engine noise alone, or from a tiny image flashed on a screen for a fraction of a second. And then there was the art of marksmanship itself. Gunners had a simple slogan for hitting their targets, as he reminded me more than once with the same enthusiasm no matter how many times the story had been told. “You have to shoot where they’re gonna be,” he would say, “not where they are.”

That was him in a nutshell. He was the least reactive person I’ve ever met. In fact, he was proactive to a fault. I can’t count the number of times he stayed out late fixing a fence, getting a tractor ready for tomorrow, or just checking on the cattle. To this day, my mental image of him comes complete with a five-gallon bucket, carrying something somewhere for some future use. When life threw problems at him — and farm life sent plenty his way each day — he shot where they were gonna be.

My grandpa came close to shipping out to fight the Japanese. Toward the end of the war, the U.S. was losing a lot of aircraft in its slow, painful island crawl to Tokyo. My grandpa was convinced that his name was on the list and that he would have been putting his training into practice in a few short months if Hiroshima and Nagasaki hadn’t brought the war to a quick end. The fact that he didn’t have the chance to fight is one of the few things that ever brought him to tears. A lot of pundits and novelists like to talk with bluster about honor, but my grandpa didn’t need words to define it. He just shed a tear at being left behind and then went on to build a life that made his buddies’ lives count.

My grandparents, right after World War II

The war wasn’t all death and drama, of course. My grandpa was full of hilarious tales from the barracks. He had a particularly raucous friend and bunk-mate during the war. Nearly every night he could, this friend would find himself at the bar long after dark, and often, he’d be shuttled back to the barracks in the back of a truck, too drunk to walk. When the MPs dumped him at the front door and asked whom he belonged to, he’d shout: “SCOTTY! I’M HOME!” My grandpa would collect him, thank the MPs and make sure he got back to his bed safe. No heady lessons here — just a man who helped his friends and had a good time wherever he went. It still made him laugh in his 90s.

Just before the war ended, my grandpa married my grandma, Marge Scott. After the war, they returned to Boone and rented a little farm outside of town. In 1959, they finally managed to buy their own farm just a few miles away — something they had always dreamed of doing. Just a few hundred acres at its largest, it was enough to support an eventual family of four girls. They grew corn and soy beans and raised pigs, cattle, and sheep. I grew up not far from there a few decades later.

When people ask me what growing up in farm country was like, I tell them I could drive a tractor before I could ride a bike. It’s not an exaggeration: some of my first memories involve sitting on grandpa’s lap getting to run the loader bucket on the 4010. When I was a little older, my grandma and I would practice driving by zooming around the field in their old car, waving at mom and grandpa while they baled hay.

When I was older still, I’d sometimes help out on the hay rack. Most farms have switched over to automatic round bales now, but back in those days, you had to stand on the hay rack and pull 50-pound square bales off the baler with an iron hook, then stack them in tight formation at the back of the rack, all before the next bale was spat out. It’s hard to forget the feel of sweat and sun, the smell of hay seeping into every orifice, and the soreness of biceps and triceps after just an hour of baling. It always blew my mind to think that my grandpa did that kind of work 12+ hours per day, every day, for seven decades without a complaint.

A typical baling setup with tractor, baler, hayrack, and a 2-person team (photo credit here)

The polar opposite, in every respect, was our yearly sledding adventures behind the 4010. Good sledding hills are few and far between on the central plains, so naturally, my grandpa improvised. Every Christmas when the family came to visit, he’d get out the tractor and we’d attach a squadron of saucers and sleds to the back of it with rope. Then we’d spend hours cruising around the snowy fallow fields, shouting at the top of our lungs for him to go “faster, faster, faster!” If this game had a goal, it was to hit the “cow pies” (which were frozen solid in the dead of winter) as directly as you could. Catch one just right with your saucer, and you could get some serious air. One of the things that launched my older cousin Scott to almost mythological status in my mind was a jump he once pulled, the ideal confluence of enormous cow pie, high speed, and the perfect angle. I swear to this day I could see the horizon under his saucer at the apex of his jump.

One year, we got really creative and built a veritable flotilla behind the tractor. My grandpa brought out an old not-so-seaworthy wooden fishing boat from the shed and chained it to the back of the 4010. Then we hooked up the usual array of saucers and sleds to the back of the boat. We loaded the adults in the boat, the kids behind, and set off with the whole family. We even managed to coax a couple of the aunts — who weren’t usually the first in line to grab a saucer — to come along in the comfort of our Iowa luxury yacht.

Unfortunately, the snows were not friendly that day. Within half an hour of beginning our voyage, my grandpa came upon a sizeable and steep snow drift that he deeply underestimated. The tractor’s 6-foot-diameter tires plowed through without any problem, but when the boat came upon the drift, it didn’t fare well. I remember watching — half in horror, half in amusement — when the boat’s port side was lifted off the ground more than 45 degrees while everyone hung on for dear life. Most of them succeeded, but one of my aunts, who had required double the coaxing to come on this misguided adventure, was catapulted out the starboard side into the snow. She was fine, of course, but she declined a ride back to the house and elected to walk instead.

It’s a mystery to this day whether there was any premeditation. Ask my grandpa about it, and he would just smile.

The best part of those sledding excursions was coming back to the house, warming up with grandma’s hot chocolate, and inevitably having a huge meal. I am convinced that the three universal things that all global cultures share are language, music, and grandparents who guilt you into eating more than you should. But mine took that to a new level. For several years in gradeschool, my grandparents had me convinced that there were, in fact, four meals in a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. I suspect some combination of the Midwestern dialect and their poor grasp of the food pyramid made this possible. (“Sure honey, potata chips are a vegetable!” my grandma still likes to say.) My grandpa was a man of few words, but one of the things he never hesitated to bellow was “Joe, you look hungry, have some mashed potatoes!” or “Joe, that plate looks empty, what can I get ya kiddo!” or “Joe, you’re a growin’ boy, have some more ham!” from the other end of a Thanksgiving table.

When I was in middle school, we enacted one of the best traditions of my life. Every Saturday, my mom, grandma, grandpa, and I would eat at Godfather’s Pizza in Boone. On special occasions, we’d venture to Ames and go to Perkins or a little Greek place that we loved. We’d talk about everything and nothing. Grandpa would regale us with tales of the war. I’d tell them about school. We’d play hangman at the table and talk about current events. Those Saturday afternoons, more than anything else, is what cemented my grandparents as a fixture in my life. It was like a little weekly support group of people who loved me more than I could comprehend.

A few years later, I started to think about shipping off to some East Coast college to do, as grandpa liked to put it, some serious book-learnin’. I think my grandpa always knew I wouldn’t become a farmer. My academic bent and complete inability to operate a monkey wrench made that clear at an early age. But he never mentioned it, and he certainly didn’t care. He didn’t ask others to follow in his footsteps in order to validate his life — he had picked his dream and worked his ass off to achieve it, and all he expected is that others would do the same.

Though we took very different paths through it, my grandpa and I shared a love of wondering at the world. Asking questions and seeing what popped out. My grandpa was a humble farmer, yes, but I always got the sense that he knew exactly what that meant on the global stage. It seems having your feet planted firmly in the soil makes sticking your head in the clouds that much more wondrous. He had proudly chosen his path and he supported me with all his heart in pursuing mine.

A young me, continuing the long tradition of tearing down old buildings with the 4010

I remember two posters that hung for decades in his basement office. One declared in all capital letters “FARMERS FEED THE WORLD!” The second had a bumbling caricature of man, saying “The hurrier I go the behinder I get,” which I later learned is a Lewis Carroll quote. There’s no better symbol of my grandpa’s adult life: he took life slow and steady, fed the world, and saw the humor in everything.

In his early 90s, right after he and my grandma moved from the farm to a nursing home, my grandpa began to suffer from intensifying Alzheimer’s and dementia. He had some lucid moments, but he would often forget where he was or what he had done that day. Naturally, when he had a moment of confusion, his thoughts almost always turned to the farm animals. He would sit up, and say something to my grandma like “Marge, I better go check the ol’ cows” or “I need to go fix that hole in the fence or the sheep might get out.” My family initially tried to remind him that he had sold off the cattle and sheep years ago, but he’d either deny it or, upon realizing they were right, feel even more disconcerted about what his life had become.

At the suggestion of the nursing home staff, the family began to play into his false reality rather than try to dispel it. They would tell him the cows had been checked and that they were doing fine, or that someone was already on their way to fix the broken fence. One of the more useful tools in this fiction was Mark Roberts. Mark was a kind, jovial, seemingly ageless local man who had helped out my grandpa on the farm for years. He was one of those roving handymen, unique to rural farming communities, who seem to materialize out of nowhere when there is a fence to be fixed or a barn to be built. (He had a certain Tom Bombadil quality, for the Tolkien readers.) Mark had stepped in to help my grandpa more times than he could count, and my family found that “Mark is on it!” was the most effective thing to say when dispelling my grandpa’s illusory worries.

This went on for the better part of a year, with Mark Roberts fixing most fictitious problems that my grandpa’s degenerating neurons could conceive. Then Mark actually came to visit the home one day. My grandpa pulled him aside and, with all the genuineness and lucidity of his old self, said “Mark, I just want to thank you for all the work you’ve been doing for my family lately!” Previously unaware of his Herculean status in my grandpa’s mind, Mark couldn’t help but laugh when he learned the truth.

Not too long after that, my grandpa died. There wasn’t much fanfare, nor would he have wanted any.

Had he sat down to think about it, my grandpa would have been fascinated by the myriad ways humans have treated death over the years and civilizations. We imbue it with a strange gravitas. We build elaborate tombs and say elaborate words. We adopt a formal style of speech at funerals, as though someone who enjoyed a good lewd joke in life would somehow prefer that we become walking sympathy cards once they die.

As in all things, my grandpa would have thought simpler is better.

I prefer to dwell on the simplest form of immortality that I can imagine: remembering what the dead taught us and using it to make the world better for the living.

So what did my grandpa teach me?

He taught me to love, laugh, and work my butt off.

He taught me to not just do something, but be something — to choose a path, be good at it, and be proud of it.

He taught me that fishing boats are good for more than just fishing; to aim for the biggest cow pies even though you might lose your balance; to shout “faster!” even when you’re scared.

He taught me it’s okay to cry about the things that really matter.

He taught me that most problems can be solved with WD-40 or duct tape, and the rest can be solved with hard work.

He taught me to strive to be useful rather than successful; to give more than you take; to shoot where they’re gonna be, not where they are.

And he taught me that sometimes, when you’ve worked your heart out to build the best life you can, it’s okay to let someone else feed the cows.