Charley Matteson and Elmer Strahan
When I got my first real job in the summer of 1930, working for Will Simmons on his farm, one of his regular hired men was Charley Matteson. Charley was born tongue-tied and was still so. Though he was young when I first knew him, he had already lost his teeth and his jaw usually hung slack. His mentality was characterized in the local idiom as "halfwit". Charley's fear of "Mr. Will" dominated his few thoughts, and he fell prey to the thoughtlessness of other men, often on occasions when neighbors banded together for worksharing at grain threshing time.
Now fifty odd years later a scene that involved Charley pans across my memory with a clarity often given old men.
Ralph Coon's threshing machine stands on the threshing floor over the basement of a great barn filled with bound bundles of grain still in its straw. The power for the thresher is supplied by a large Advance Rumley "Oil Pull" two cylindered engine by a belt running from the engine standing outside the barn to the grain separator inside.
Charley, pitchfork in hand and standing on a scaffold halfway to the top of the mow, is receiving the bundles tossed to him by two other men working from further back in the loft. He in turn is tossing the bundles to Dave Littel standing some five feet below on a platform attached to the roaring, dust-fuming separator. Dave is pitching the same bundles into the machine. All the men are using long-handled pitchforks with three gleaming steel tines. Dave is a graying, mustached, small man wearing a straw hat over his tiny steel-rimmed glasses. His short temper is not to be trifled with. He is endlessly whistling tunes of his own origin, his substitution for swearing.
Perhaps encouraged by a jug of hard cider "to cut the dust", the two men in the mow, out of boredom, or just plain cussedness, begin to urge Charley to toss bundles, harsh butts first, into Dave's body. Charley makes a few direct hits, and Dave's squeaky voice screams his anger. Charley looks back to the perpetrators who are waving him on with motions and gleeful giggles. But Charley has heard Dave's threats and holds up the bad practice for a time. Only noise, dust, and vibration fill the barn, until more urgings set Charley back to the onslaught on Dave's body. Dave, after much jumping up and down on his scaffold, charges up the ladder to the mow, his face red with rage, his pitchfork poised for attack, screaming a death song to Charley, who now terrified, sinks down on the grain shocks sobbing uncontrollably. In the nick of time senses return to all; Dave is physically restrained, tragedy is averted.
The machine is shut down, silence and dust settles around the now sober-faced men. The barn owner moves to the men, giving each in turn a long, hard look that speaks more than words. The incident passes; work resumes without talk until day's end. At night I lay in my bed wondering if what I had seen that day was to be part of my life, yet barely begun.
Will Simmons' other regular hired man, Elmer Strahan, was a displaced Mennonite from Pennsylvania (some said he had been shunned by the sect) who was fortyish, moderately short, chunky, round faced, and also without teeth. His heavy Pennsylvania Dutch accent, projected over empty gums, took some getting used to. The thing that set him apart in my mind was his consuming desire to gain some proficiency in music, specifically flute playing. All one winter he spoke of the flute he had determined to acquire, and that spring he took his savings from his twenty-dollar-per-month earnings on a short trip from which he returned with a flute.
Oblivious to the derisive guffaws of the neighborhood people, he approached my fiddle-playing father, whom Elmer considered an expert in music, offering to pay him for lessons. Dad patiently tried to explain that he was ignorant of the complexities of flute playing, and considering his hopeless aperture, Elmer could expect little gain from his efforts to play.
Now I have met toothless men whose gums had been so toughened that they could crunch peanuts, but doubt that they could play a flute.
Elmer persisted until he got Dad to agree to try. Dad refused any pay. Obtaining a textbook, they worked many nights for more than a year, Elmer doggedly practicing seven nights a week, trying to coax intelligible notes from the black wooden instrument until finally some recognizable tune came forth.
Now, I'm not going to tell you a great success story about Elmer's becoming a virtuoso flautist because, it didn't happen. But I clearly recall warm summer nights when I listened to Elmer playing sweet, mournful tunes from his lonely upper room in the Simmons' farmhouse about three hundred yards north of ours, and that I would fall asleep pondering the amazing power of determination.
© 1990, Edwin N. Harris