Luke Easley is a Texas man. He’s knocking on 89, and he’s not planning on giving up anytime soon. He’s had two heart attacks and a major stroke, been in a rehab center for twenty days, and a nursing home for twenty more and yet, when I made the trek out to his 500 acre working farm, he was just climbing off of a John Deere that appeared to be at least three times taller than his small, albeit very determined, frame. So what is it about this Texas man that’s kept him going for all of these years? What is it that’s kept him crawling into that tractor seat day after day, when a rocking chair would be so much more comfortable?
These and others just like them were the questions I was pondering as I left the town of Comanche on a dusky evening and headed toward the Easley place, a place I remembered well from my childhood. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me as I slowly turned my vehicle down the road I had left behind so many years ago…my old school bus route. Of course, as the white dust of the old road flew away in the breeze I was creating, the ghostly memories of the past rushed up to meet me just as I had known they would.
Laughing school children, country kids who lived somewhere along A.E. Vineyard’s bus route, I could see them all quite clearly and suddenly, there they were, the three Easley boys, Gary (We called him Gary Mike back then.), Kent, and little Eldon Ray. Kent, as usual, was doing his best to deal me misery in the way only young boys can do while Eldon Ray sat quietly in the corner of his seat, never making a sound. Gary Mike, just enough older than the rest of us to be too cool to look our way, stood in that loosely jointed way he had about him, ready to swing himself around the bus pole and down the deep steps, all in what appeared to be one very fluid motion.
I could see it all so clearly in my mind, and yet in the world of 2015, I was concerned about finding the place where once the Easley boys boarded and deboarded the school bus but sure enough, the old lane still looked the same, and as quickly as they had appeared the ghosts of the pasts were gone, replaced by the four Easley men of the present: Luke and his three sons, Gary, Kent, and Eldon.
And, of course, there stood the tractor, the big, green John Deere, Luke Easley’s pride and joy.
It didn’t take long to understand that my questions were going to have to wait because Luke was bursting at the seams to show me what sons Eldon and Kent had built for him, and I must admit that I stand in awe myself of anyone who could come up with such an amazing piece of work.
According to “the boys” it took them about 14 ½ hours to build this “remote control electric wench vertical elevator” for their dad’s 6400 John Deere. BUT he’s only had it a couple of weeks so until then, Luke was climbing up three steps to get into the cab of the tractor many times his size…and did I mention that he will be 89 in September?
After Luke demonstrated his tractor elevator to me several times, we were finally ready to settle into our lawn furniture so that I could chronicle his story, the crooks and the turns of the road that brought him from there to here…wherever that might be. Gary, stretched out on the grass beneath the spreading tree branches, started the ball rolling.
“Tell her how you got your first tractor,” he requested of his dad with a smile that told me it was a story he knew by heart.
“I was in Japan in 1945, and I didn’t smoke or drink so when the army issued those things, I sold them to the others, and I sent the money home to my parents, Luke and Bernice Easley, and asked them to save it for me. When I came home in November of 1947, I used the money to buy a tractor.
He didn’t have any land, but he had a tractor!
“I always wanted to be a farmer from as long as I can remember; I’d skip school in order to plow. I rented 45 acres from my dad…” and he pointed a mile and 1/2 east from where we sat, telling me that the road from there to here might have covered a lot of years, but it did not actually cover many miles, and I liked that. It did much to explain the stability and the contentment of the man called Luke Easley.
“I planted it in peanuts, and I made a good crop.”
Luke farmed those acres until 1949, when he married Imogene Fagan and bought 40 acres from C.D. Stoval. The couple kept the 45 acres that Luke was already farming and the 40 purchased from Stoval and planted them all in peanuts. Luke also worked his dad’s land, and crops were good, at least they were until the year Gary was born in 1951.
“There was no crop in ’51. We baled it all. No crop in ’52, baled it again. 1953 was a good year; we made 50 bushels an acre.”
And then, there was nothing in 1954, 55, or 56, the year Kent was born. So, not knowing what else to do, Luke and his little family moved to Arlington, Texas, where he went to work for General Motors for the next six months before being laid off.
“We came back here and planted a crop, and it was a good year. From 1958 until 1977 were good years!”
The couple’s youngest son, Eldon Ray was born in 1963, and Luke Easley just continued to pick up more acres during those good farming years…
“My dad retired, and I took over that place. We rented Imogene’s dad’s place (Tom Fagan’s) during those years, which meant that I had 200 acres of peanuts under cultivation and 125 acres of pasture land with livestock on that.
“And I’ve kept on ever since; the only time I’ve ever worked for anyone else were those six months we spent in Arlington. It’s been good.”
And this is where I stopped him. I don’t know. Maybe it was because I felt the need to defend the sisterhood since Imogene Easley is no longer here to speak for herself, and maybe it is because I’ve heard the stories from my own mother-in-law, but I knew positively that I was hearing the story from a male perspective and that Luke Easley had glossed over some of the finer points in the story.
“Mr. Easley,” I began, “I know there were hard years. I’ve heard the stories of getting started in farming from others. Did you have indoor plumbing?” I asked him directly, knowing if nothing else, I would get a response from his sons.
And I was right! At this point in the story, it was impossible to keep up with who said what when the stories tumbled over each other, each remembering how it was “back then,” when the original Easley home had no indoor bathroom and no hot water, when the water was furnished by a windmill.
The home did have indoor cold water, which was furnished by an overhead Cyprus gravity storage tank. Bath water was heated on the stove and poured into tubs, just as you might see on a television show.
“We washed with a wringer machine and no dryer, of course. Our laundry was air dried,” Easley laughed, just like a man!
The family moved into the current home in 1958, and he drilled a well with an electric pump, but they still had no indoor hot water until Luke purchased a hot water heater a year later. The boys were quick to point out that even then, they still had an outdoor toilet, however!
“In 1960, the toilet arrived,” Luke told me. “Daddy took the bathroom off of his house and brought it over here and attached it to this house.”
“And happy days were here!” we all laughed, while I smiled inside, thinking how thankful Imogene Easley must have felt and at the same time considering how it is that birth order truly does mean something when it comes to the complexion of all families. Youngest son, Eldon, would never know what it was to do without any of these things.
Gary, who may have been reading my mind, spoke up about that time. “I was 9 years old before we had an indoor toilet.”
Luke continued on with his story.
“In 1962, we built a bedroom and a den onto the house and added a utility room. We also bought a washer and a dryer.”
The couple also bought 77 acres that year at $100.00 per acre and Luke remembers that the payments were $153.00 twice per year and that the interest in the note was 3%. He was able to borrow the money through the Veterans Land Board, a state program. With the money, he paid for the land, the add-on, and everything else the couple bought that year.
“We spent it all!” he laughed.
“And now today here you sit with 500 acres and indoor plumbing, dishwasher, microwave, central heat and air, and Dish TV. What more could you want?” we asked.
And just like that, we were back in the present, with one question remaining in my mind.
“You are almost 89, Mr. Easley. When are you going to retire?”
“Not going to, I like to grow stuff and be my own boss. Old men swing. I like thinking at night about what to do the next morning.”
“And we won’t let him quit,” the boys told me, “Cause we know he’ll bother us,” they laughed before becoming quite serious once again.
“Because we know he wouldn’t be happy. When it’s his time to go, he’d rather be on that tractor than anywhere else. He’d rather be productive and active as sitting in the house doing nothing.”
“As long as he has three lazy sons, I think he will keep working,” Kent laughed, once again lightening the mood.
“So what are you going to do tomorrow?” I asked the octogenarian.
“Shred, maybe shred…”
“What happened to the field cultivator?” Kent asked.
“Waitin’ for the weather,” his dad explained.
And in the sudden silence I looked across the beautiful evening toward a field planted in Sudan that he had explained had already had one cutting and was now growing another for the cows.
“We do help him,” on of the boys said softly, “when he waits on us, but he doesn’t wait long. If we are five minutes late, we have to go find him.”
As with the fading of the last light, it was easy to spend our last moments together in a bit of a reflective mood.
“There’s just something about the spring and the accomplishment that goes with the first turning of the dirt and the smell of first life,” Kent said.
“I miss the smell of peanut harvest in the fall. There is nothing like the aroma of fresh peanuts. This year, for the first time in years, I broke up the soil like Kent was talking about, and there is just something about being close to the land. I tell people now that I am retired that when I grew up we had to hoe peanuts, and we didn’t have weed killer and air conditioned cabs. I became a dentist because I didn’t want to do that. Now I’m doing all the things I went to dental school to keep from doing!” Gary explained.
The still quiet Eldon remained silent as his dad spoke up, “Eldon is the right hand man around here. He’s been right here all the time and is my partner.”
And as I moved to close my computer, I looked at the man whom I had known since my childhood, and I asked him if he had words of wisdom to share.
And in the voice affected by the stroke and with the will completely unaffected he proclaimed, “Do what your heart tells you to do,” with the serene smile of a man who has done just that.
I’m not sure I could have put it any better myself.