I call him Joe Commentator because he spends much of his spare time commenting disgustedly on the news. When he gets really irritated about what’s going on, which is often, he calls me to vent his displeasure. This started because I write a local newspaper column. He uses me the way a horseshoer in the old days would hire the village idiot to stand by and take verbal abuse while he was shoeing a recalcitrant horse. Much safer than taking out one’s ire on the horse. I’m an especially appropriate village idiot because I sometimes make the mistake of voicing slightly liberal points of view in my column. This is a neighborhood where the New York Times is considered more dangerous than the Communist Manifesto. But Joe has finally decided I’m okay, just slightly deluded. He keeps calling even when he agrees with me. His calls are one way I get grist for my columns. Joe knows it and has threatened more than once to send me a bill.
This time, he is angry at farm machinery manufacturers. He is a true curmudgeon and very contrary. In an area where corn is often viewed as the Second Coming if not the First, he has been known to plant all soybeans some years and lived to brag about it. He is so upset today that he can’t even complete sentences. I put all his words over ten decibels in caps.
“I’ve just been thinking about how this whole crazy… I don’t even know how… you just have to stand back and… it’s no wonder the country’s… have you ever just really thought about all this new machinery?”
“What you getting at, Joe?” I have no idea what’s coming.
“I am looking at this tractor I bought last year. We’re talkin’ six figures here you know. It’s got all this electronic stuff on it that I NEVER WANTED. And guess what. That stuff quit working on the first day of planting last year and stopped the whole tractor dead in its tracks. Took two days to get it fixed. TWO DAYS. Because of all that crap that I DIDN’T WANT IN THE FIRST PLACE.” Pause. Heavy breathing.
“Here’s the thing, ” he finally continues, in tones that sound like he is about to deliver his first inaugural. “Here’s the thing. I could be farming with equipment more like what Dad used and still get it all done. We could get by with new iron that didn’t cost so damned much. All this GPS stuff, all this robotic crap, all these blinking lights makes the cab look like the cockpit of a Boeing 747— I don’t NEED all that stuff. It just makes big gobs of wires inside that tractor that start fires. [His tractor actually did catch on fire once.] In fact, it encourages bad farming. You got to go out there and FEEL that soil with your bare hands, not look at it on the computer. I don’t want a tractor that guides itself. I LIKE driving it. I don’t want gadgets that tell me where I’m at. I KNOW where I’m at. I don’t need a readout telling me where the crop is poor in the field. I can SEE where the hell it’s poor. We’re spending all this money to make somebody else rich.”
He reminds me of when I was working on a farm magazine staff and some engineers from a machinery company came calling to tell us about a very simple tractor they were designing for third world countries. Nothing fancy, no super anything. Just stop and go, two gears forward, one back. No lights. Steel wheels that never go flat. Crank start. Air cooled. No radio, no cigarette lighter, no padded seats, easy to put together. Easily replaceable parts.
“Just what I want!” I burst out.
“Oh, we aren’t marketing them in the states,” one engineer quipped. “We’re afraid too many people would buy them.”
Joe Commentator would have gotten along well with my mother. She stuck with her Maytag wringer washer almost to the end. When we would suggest she get a new automatic washer she would say that all that new stuff “just means more things to break.” She was so right. Every new washer we buy starts ailing sooner than the last one did.