“So tell me,” John Park said, as he slung his long frame between the arms of a porch chair, “how in the world do you come up with the ideas for all the things you write?”
John, who died on May 8 at age 87, asked that question a decade ago at our farm home about five miles west of John’s family spread.
We had not actually met before that sunny day when John’s trademark red Chevy pickup truck pulled into our driveway. John and my wife did know each other. She invited him to pull up a chair and chat, a welcome alternative to our yard work.
I chuckled at John’s question, and responded with one of my own: Why did he want to know?
“When I get curious about something,” John said, “I go and ask someone. That is how I learn things.”
It sounds so simple, but few of us are as willing to go directly to a source as John was. Too often, we guess or assume, but do not check with someone. John posed his question and got his answer when he saw us as he drove by. He also got some mulch hay.
The Park family business encompasses 1,000 acres. John, his son Dan and Dan’s wife Lori harvest mulch hay from some of our 27 acres that would otherwise lie fallow. Our barter system gets us a brick-sized chunk of sharp white cheddar cheese each fall, delivered by John or Dan along with a chat. That is a fair trade for saving us the cost of fuel and time involved in keeping that land free of brush.
I told John that most ideas for columns and editorial essays come just the way John breezed into our life, from friends, family members, acquaintances and neighbors. Some come from my daily hour of on-line news reading, but most originate closer to home.
I like John’s approach. He spent decades guiding tractors through the fertilizing, seeding, tilling and harvesting operations on those 1,000 acres, working right up until his death. “If I stop, I’ll die,” he would say, with a grin. But if pressed, John would admit that he kept on working because farming was in his blood, something he simply needed to continue to do as long as he was able.
John collected opinions, including mine. He also was not shy about voicing his own views or rebutting mine, especially when Maryellen and I joined John and his wife Mary for a meal or a chat.
A few years ago, I wrote that I disagreed with then-President George W. Bush’s push to add ethanol made from food grains to gasoline to conserve oil. A side effect was an increase in grain prices, including the pittance we pay to feed our few dozen chickens.
John, who sold corn for use in making ethanol, was having none of it. He bluntly told me that I was wrong, followed with an explanation of why I was wrong, looking at me, his lips compressed.
I looked back, my lips compressed — and then we both laughed. We agreed to disagree, deciding that differences of opinion over what were essentially political issues did not justify clouding friendships.
John sealed that friendship firmly a decade ago. A grandson, Andrew, then age 10, was visiting us. Andrew, then a child of the suburbs, had become enthralled with growly, gnarly farm implements, especially green John Deere tractors. But his only experience had been with toy tractors.
While playing in our front yard, he suddenly stopped and, mouth agape, looked across the road. There was a huge John Deere tractor hauling a hay rake across our field.
“Let’s go look at it!” I said, plopping a rider’s helmet on Andrew’s head and seating us on my four-wheeler.
We putted over. Andrew’s eyes widened as the tractor, piloted by John, hove into view and stopped. I explained Andrew’s fascination.
John was emphatic.
“Come on up!” he shouted, piloting Andrew through several passes around the hayfield, letting the boy steer when that was safe to do.
Andrew moved through the rest of that visit in a haze of grins. Every year thereafter, as I saw John athwart a tractor circling our field or neighboring fields, I was heartwarmed at how he had brightened a grandson’s life.
Andrew is now a college student/Air Force ROTC cadet. He shared his recollection, “one of the best days of my life,” with a grown man’s valedictory, “May he rest in peace.”
John’s life of farming, family, friends, fair going, service to local schools, farm organizations, our local township and, of course, exchanging opinions, ended with his death.
That leaves a big void, no matter who continues to mow the hay across the road.
But it also leaves an indelible memory of the boy and the octogenarian, both grinning like the romping kids they were on that day.
And as for how in the world I came up with the idea for this column.... Thank you, John. Rest easy, my friend.
[Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, and former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]