Visiting tom, p.1

Visiting Tom, page 1


Visiting Tom

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Visiting Tom

  Visiting Tom




  To Tom and Arlene and all who

  keep an open kitchen . . .


  OPERATING AS I DO UNDER the rubric of nonfiction, and with an eye to the various critical permutations of the term, I believe I owe my readers certain specifics: I strive to keep the facts straight. If I fail in this and a reader graciously notifies me, I post a correction in public. That said, you should know that in the book you are about to read, some names have been changed, and in some cases time has been compressed and oft-told tales synthesized to preserve ink and eye strain. Beyond that, I’m doing my best to give you things as they were, and for reading what I write you have my solemn gratitude.























  IF YOU’RE GOING TO VISIT Tom Hartwig, you will have to drive past the cannon. Not just past it, but before it. The muzzle surveils you through the open door of his galvanized tin pole shed, poking from between a pair of manure spreaders and a homemade portable welder the size of a chest freezer. You’ll be about fifty yards out when you first glimpse the artillery, and will thus have time to consider whether or not you wish to proceed directly into the field of fire.

  The cannon is not a lawn ornament. If you look to your left, well across the field and halfway up the hill to the treeline two hundred yards distant, you will see a 4×8 sheet of white plywood with a red bull’s-eye painted dead center. Upon closer study you will note a pair of perforations in the plywood—one within the first ring of the bull’s-eye, the other just outside it. The cannon is only moderately accurate (as evidenced by the number of significant divots and frayed saplings surrounding the plywood backstop), but if you care to stand up there and test the matter, you may first wish to note that when the cannonballs do hit their mark, they leave a ragged puncture through which an NFL lineman could easily stuff his fist.

  Tom never leaves the cannon loaded, but newcomers will nonetheless find it daunting to motor between the target and the menacing hollow eye. “It’s tough,” a salesman once told Tom, “to come up your driveway with that thing parked there.”

  “Oh,” said Tom, “I never shoot at anyone coming up the driveway . . .”

  The Hartwig residence—a classic twin-porched Wisconsin farmhouse, clad in white clapboards and capped with a silvered standing-seam steel roof—sits central to a cluster of outbuildings arranged at the base of a semicircling ridge. If you open the kitchen door and cast your gaze out beyond the red peg-and-tenon barn (framed with nary a nail, and still standing square well into its second century), you will note how the fall-away slope of the land terminates in an abrupt cut, beyond which lies fertile bottomland and a rambling thread of water we call Cotter Creek.

  It was Cotter Creek that drew the original white settlers to this spot, as well as those who came to the country prior—Tom will tell you the local Ojibwe tribes preferred to camp the eastern bank, so as to keep a protective band of water between them and the prevailing west winds in the event of a wildfire. Tom’s immediate predecessors arrived in the 1860s, when his grandfather, a German immigrant employed by a local farmer, followed the creek while searching for a stray batch of cows and took a liking to the area. Looking into the matter, he found out the property was being held for sale by a land agent in New York, and in the mid-1870s he took ownership. After a final trip to Germany to sell his remaining homeland possessions, he returned and began to establish the homestead in earnest.

  Tom doesn’t know for certain when the house and barn were built, but he has his ideas. “Weaaahhll,” he told me once, prefacing the sentence with a drawled-out “well” the way he so often does, “when we remodeled the house we found square nails. Square nails went out of use about the turn of the century. So you know it was built before 1900.” He is prone to that sort of statement. Of sharing arcane knowledge as if he is confirming something you surely knew.

  Other buildings followed over time—a pumphouse, a milkhouse, a chicken coop, a pig hutch, a machine shed, a granary, and in more contemporary times, two steel pole sheds. Tom arrived in 1929. Born at a hospital in nearby Eau Claire, he spent his first night at the farmhouse swaddled in a crib upstairs. He has lived beneath the same roof for every one of his eighty-two years since.

  He’ll smile when he describes his childhood, how he’d snatch up his schoolbooks, go slamming out the screen door, trot past the barn, and drop down the cutback bank to the footbridge spanning Cotter Creek, then on to a second bridge that served as a natural meeting place for the local farm kids making the two-mile trek to the old one-room school. Stealing a few moments from the morning, Tom, his brother, and the neighbor boys would gather up shale rocks and drop them plonk into the water. Some days Tom lingered even longer, searching for stone flakes left streamside by the Ojibwe as they knapped arrowheads and skinning tools. By the time he was in high school, he had a sackful.

  He graduated in 1947. Blessed with a natural understanding of animals and preternaturally adept at mechanics, he elected to stay at home and farm with his father. Still, even a good young man gets restless, and evenings when the chores were done, he would head for town on his brand-new 1948 Harley-Davidson. To ensure the ladies noticed him, Tom wove decorative green and red lights through the front wheel spokes, and then—rigging a pair of generator brushes so they contacted a copper band soldered to the brake drum—he wired a switch that drew power from the low-beam headlight. When he hit that switch he says the bike lit up like a rolling Christmas tree.

  The lights were wasted on Arlene Knutson, as she wasn’t the kind of girl to be on the street at night. In fact, it was full daylight on a hot Sunday morning the first time Tom caught her eye—or ear. Arlene was sitting in a church pew beside her mother. The church doors were open to circulate the air, and Tom Hartwig raced that Harley through at full throttle—on the sidewalk. All that noise, and during worship. It didn’t set well, Arlene says, and when Tom asked her out after services, her mother forbade it. Furthermore, Arlene said she wasn’t riding on any motorcycle.

  Sensing he was at a disadvantage on two wheels, Tom tried four. Got himself a white ’49 Chevy convertible and a red shirt. Arlene was at work in a second-story office building when she saw him coming this time—rolling downtown with the top down, that scarlet shirt playing off the white car—and when she tells the story now her eyes glint as if she’s seeing him coming up the street for the first time. There followed a successful courtship, and right around the time Dwight D. Eisenhower was moving in to the White House, the young couple married and set up housekeeping in the same upstairs bedroom where baby Tom first slept in his crib.

  In 1958, Tom’s father stepped aside, moving with his wife to a small cottage the family built just thirty yards uphill from the original farmhouse. Tom and Arlene moved downstairs and assumed daily operation of the farm. Tom was just shy of thirty years old, and it was good, he’ll tell you, to greet the morning in this place, to step out on that screen porch and see treetops poking through the bottomland mists, the only hint of a world outside their own two-track driveway curving out
of sight around the corncrib. In the stillness he walked the bird-songed dawn down the footpath to the barn, where the cows were waiting.

  The first official letter arrived right around the time Tom and Arlene took charge of the farm. President Eisenhower had signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, designed to create the interstate highway system that would transform a nation. Somewhere in Washington someone drew a line, and that line passed directly between the Hartwigs’ house and Cotter Creek. There were delays and skirmishes, but in 1965 the United States government—that is to say, we—sent bulldozers smack through the middle of Tom’s farm.

  The first earth was shifted that winter, when a construction crew bulldozed a crooked ravine straight, then used a crane to install a 360-foot concrete culvert intended to redirect the water headed for Cotter Creek. The foreman asked if it would be okay if the cement trucks used Tom’s driveway, and Tom agreed. All winter long the trucks tore the driveway apart, but the foreman promised that they’d grade everything up shipshape when the job was done.

  In spring, the rumbling commenced in earnest, led by twin-engine Caterpillar bulldozers and giant earth scrapers called Tournapulls. Fitted with engines fore and aft, the Tournapulls were equipped with a bladed jaw that dropped open to scrape up a layer of earth that then accumulated in the low-slung belly of the machine to be carried off and dumped elsewhere. When the going got tough, the twin-engine Caterpillar dozers would pull in behind the twin-engine Tournapulls and give them a push. You had four huge diesel engines roaring in monstrous harmony then, and Tom says that up in the house the dishes rattled in the cupboards and down in the barn the cows stood wide-eyed and trembling.

  The interstate opened on November 9, 1967. A series of seven ribbon-cutting ceremonies was scheduled, one at each interchange from Eau Claire to Black River Falls. According to an archived copy of that day’s Eau Claire Leader, the first was held sixteen miles northwest of Tom’s farm and began under blue skies at 9:30 a.m. sharp when a local high school band marched forth before a crowd of some four hundred bystanders to play “On Wisconsin” beneath a banner proclaiming A SALUTE TO HIGHWAY PROGRESS. A local pastor then offered a prayer in which he asked that motorists be thankful for the new highway but also “use sound judgment when driving it,” from which we can infer the pastor may have lapsed from prayer mode into sermon mode. After the introduction of dignitaries, the lieutenant governor gave a short speech and, exactly twenty-two minutes after the ceremony began, produced a pair of small black-handled scissors and cut the ribbon. Moments later the official party (consisting, according to the Leader, of fifty cars “from Volkswagens to Cadillacs”) curled around and down the on-ramp, followed by a “cavalcade” of average motoring citizens. The first accident was reported at 10:15 a.m., exactly twenty-three minutes after the ribbon fell. Somewhere you had to figure the pastor was holding his head in his hands.

  The ribbon-cutting ceremonies continued apace, the politicians working their way ever southward. At the Northfield stop they were greeted by square-dancers. At another, the lieutenant governor was presented with an archer’s bow and arrows. From atop one dais a local mayor reportedly got a laugh when he turned the tables on the assembled dignitaries and instead designated the accumulated citizens as “the most distinguished guests” because “I can assure you they’re going to be paying for it.” At various stops the lieutenant governor was assisted in his scissoring by a Strawberry Queen, a 4-H Queen, an Indianhead Princess, and a petite girl of ten known as “the Christmas tree girl.” In some cases the phrase “ribbon-cutting” was euphemistic: In Hixton suspense was high as a “bevy of beauties” presented the lieutenant governor with a series of keys, only one of which opened the lock on a fence across the roadway; at Northfield he “took a half a dozen whacks with a mighty wire clipper” before the barricade dropped.

  The final ceremony was held in Black River Falls. Here the Leader reports the lieutenant governor was “decked out in a crimson wool hunting shirt” and greeted with “a first class pow-wow.” As he approached the final fluttering barrier, “Winnebago Indians danced to the thump of the tom-tom and chant of the singers while around 2,000 persons happily chomped on venisonburgers.” Snip, and at 3:48 p.m. the last ribbon fluttered earthward. It would be another year before the interstate was open border to border, but Tom Hartwig’s farm was now officially cloven.

  It could have been worse: In the original plan, the ’dozers were aimed directly at the barn. At this Tom pitched his most resolute fit, and the bureaucrats rerouted the destruction, if only by a few feet. It was Tom’s only victory, really. He nicked them in the ankles now and then, gummed the works some, wangled a few loads of free sand, and still has an old push broom one of the state crews left behind, but when the final piece of heavy equipment clanked from view and the last politician tootled through en route home from the ribbon-cutting, well, then, without apology America came pouring down the meadow in a tin-and-windows blur of rubber-borne hurry running ceaseless to this very instant.

  I can make no special claim on Tom Hartwig. The path to his door was well worn by a parade of feet other than my own before I first crossed his threshold, and so it is right through the present. I visit him whenever I need a piece of iron cut, bent, or welded. Sometimes I visit in the company of my wife and two daughters; we bring food and stay for supper. Sometimes I visit to drop off a dozen eggs. Sometimes I visit just to visit. I rarely come to Tom seeking anything more than ten minutes of his time and a size-sixty-eleven welding rod. He is not my mentor, I am not his acolyte, we are simply neighbors. And yet with each visit I accrue certain clues to comportment—as a husband, as a father, as a citizen. (I also accrue certain clues regarding the fabrication of cannons, the rebuilding of Farmall tractors, and how to run a sawmill, although due to my profound mechanical ineptitude, any observations I might make in these areas should be regarded as anecdotal rather than instructional.)

  During any visit with Tom, there is no ignoring the roaring four-lane that splits his lifelong home. A man could go sour for the mortal duration after suffering an intrusion of this magnitude. And truth is, you won’t have to prime the pump much to get an earful of Tom’s abiding disdain for the government and its bulldozers. But then just as quickly he will shift gears and happily update you on this year’s wild grape harvest (“Thirty-eight pounds, destemmed!”) or spring from his chair to show you the heron his father shot and stuffed in 1920. He is not one to forget; neither is he one to fruitlessly linger.


  The camera is a Deardorff, built in 1967 but pretty much unchanged from the first models out of Chicago in the 1920s. It is loaded with a single piece of film roughly the size of a magazine. To frame and focus you have to hunker down beneath the black cape, just like you’ve seen in the old movies. There are two photographers, a man and a woman. The man is under the cape. The woman is aiming the strobe and reminding Tom to look straight into the lens. He gazes directly into the Deardorff’s monocle eye.

  The photographers arrived in a black Rambler wagon. A Cross Country model, fresh off the line in 1961. The photographers are dressed in clothes the same vintage as their car and camera, and their eyeglasses the same. This is not a special occasion; this is their everyday. You watch them tinkering with that Deardorff and you understand they have a yen for operating in the present using the tools of the past.

  They started with Tom on the Model A, because he had pulled it from the garage for a tune-up. I think it’s a 1930 model, he says, ’cause it’s got a ’29 dash. Granddad died in 1953 and Grandma gave it to me. Back then you could get them for fifty to seventy-five dollars. Run the tar out of it, take it to the junkyard, get another one. But I hung on to this one. It’s got 73,000 miles on it.

  Do you mind sitting on the running board, Tom? The female photographer often attends the subject while the man fiddles with the setup and pulls the trigger on the shot.

  That must have been old Henry’s signature, says Tom, pointing to the script on the blue lo
go just below the silver radiator cap. He folds the hood flaps back so the photographers can see the engine.

  There are visitors here today. A young girl, blond and tall for her age, peers into the engine compartment. She is standing beside her young aunt. You can see the relation in the light of their blue eyes and the way they are standing hands on hips. Tom reaches in through the driver’s-side window, presses the horn button. A-oogah. He chuckles when everyone jumps.

  I was real happy Ford wasn’t dumb enough to take any of that bailout money, he says. Anything the government does has strings attached.

  Now the photographers have lugged the Deardorff and its tripod across the yard to the tin lean-to between the chicken coop and the machine shed. Space is tight, and made tighter by a wall of barbwire, some rolled in tight reams, some rolled big and loose, some wadded in a barbarous scrunch. Also along the wall, a few smooth spools of electric fencing, three post-hole diggers, a shovel, and a tamping rod. Some of the wire is stacked on a plank supported at both ends by fifty-five-gallon steel drums. In and among it all, an additional miscellany: fiberglass fence posts, wooden stakes rolled in string, empty plastic jugs, dangling hoses, a pie tin. In the back, an oxcart. Tom is balancing a yoke on the singletree. This yoke weighs fifty-seven pounds, he says. It’s a five-footer. He wrestles it around so the photographers can get a better look at it.

  Yah, when my granddad came here in the 1870s he had a pair of white oxen. And back about 1980 I had a pair of white bull calves born and we raised’em up and trained’em and we named them Chester and Lester. Over a period of five years we went to over twenty-five parades with them. At first they were afraid of manhole covers. What’s important with oxen is to keep talking to them. The first time it took two minutes. They stood there with their yoke around their ears, lookin’ it over. I kept talkin to’em. Finally I said, “Okay, boys, now giddap.” And they went. One year we were in Loyal at Corn Fest and the world champion stilt walker Eddy Wolf was down there on real tall stilts and yellow pants, and from four blocks away Chester and Lester saw’im and stopped. I just talked to’em and they went on by.

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