Compared to the grown-ups riding on the rumbling harvester in the field, those of us unloading the barn had it made in the shade. At least that’s how I saw it back in the summer of 1978, as a man I knew only as Mr. Dan‘l passed me fragrant bundle after fragrant bundle of crinkly, flue-cured leaves. Still a summer away from riding the harvester myself, I’d spent the summer doing whatever light work Mr. Franklin could find for me. He got more work out of my older brother Rich, who’d already won a seat on the punishing underside of that rickety harvester in the distance. Slung low on a plastic seat, Rich snapped the finest leaves off every passing stalk, before attaching them to a chain-driven pulley that trundled the roughage above. That’s where the older girls stood, pulled the sticky green flora from the rotating clips and tying them to rough-cut three foot poles. It was dirty work all around and at the moment I didn’t mind missing out on it.
Besides, there was plenty to do back at the barn. Once the dim interior was emptied of every leathery golden leaf, there were tractor carcasses to crawl over, dirt circles to draw and Mountain Dews to pilfer from forgotten drink coolers. For now however there were hundreds of leathery gold leaves to unload and Dan’l and I worked fast to upsize any downtime. If we could just finish up before the harvester crew brought back a pallet of their sticky wet cargo, I’d have time to plunder and Dan’l could sit and dip his snuff in the shade. At least I thought it was snuff. Truth is, I wasn’t sure to make of the grizzled old man in the John Deere cap. A speech impediment of sorts cloaked the meaning of his words in eroded syllables. He wore crusty overalls and carried rocks in his pockets. I never understood much of what he said, but I did marvel at his ability to nap on command. In return, he seemed to tolerate my presence the way an old porch dog might regard the runt of someone else’s litter.
I guess that made us friends. Dismissed as a simpleton by many in the community, Mr. Dan’l (never Daniel) taught me an important life lesson that day. He did so - by dropping dead, right in front of me. Actually, my head was turned when it happened. Stretching my neck to check the harvester’s progress, I heard a muffled thud behind me and turned to see old Dan’l laying face-down in the dirt. The next few minutes were a blur. A nearby adult saw the old man drop and he tried to shoo me away as he ran up and rolled the prone figure over. Dan’l’s face was purple. The very sight caused me to backpedal in the dust and as I did, my brother and others raced up on foot. Already a volunteer fireman, Rich dropped to his knees and with the help of others began pumping the old farmhand’s chest. Dan’l didn’t respond. As my brother and the grown-ups huddled over him, farm trucks poured into the path leading to the barn. Eventually an ambulance screamed into view, its driver and attendant confirming Dan’l’s death. As if on cue, it began to rain.
I witnessed many firsts that day. I watched my brother keep his cool in the face of calamity - a character trait that would define his coming career as a firefighter, paramedic and all-around hero on-demand. I saw how unexpected death affected people differently, from the melodramatic gasps of the teenage girls climbing off the harvester, to the matter-of-fact chatter of Dan’l’s rustic contemporaries. Mostly, I remember the sudden arrival of Dan’l’s brother, who took one look under the stretcher’s sheet and began wailing in a way I would never have guessed a man in his sixties could. It must have embarrassed his wife, who shooshed and shamed him until he wandered off in the rain to grieve among the tobacco plants. Sad as I was, I don’t remember crying that day. I was too busy taking in the scene. From Dan’l’s purple face, to my brother’s efforts to save him to the unspoken summit of weathered faces that showed up to cast dry eyes on an old friend’s corpse -- I can see it all so clearly 29 long years later.
I hope that you can, too.