TERRY L. WAHLS
Values


It is hard work, farming. The winter snows are strong, often breaking wire, snapping posts. Every year we have plenty of fencing to do.

My father, Denis, and I are working on post-holes for the line fence. The pickup truck is loaded with poles, wire, staples, hammers, diggers, fence pliers. Because it is a line fence, between our beef cow pasture and Billy Whittle's pasture, Dad wants this to be strong enough to keep the bull on our side of the fence. He wants every third post to be wooden. We have lots of holes he wants dug today. Denis is down the hill, digging his. I start digging mine.

I know my dad will be coming soon to check on my progress. Lifting my digger up over my head, I pull it down into the hole, grab a bite of soil and lift it up, and drop the soil on the pile next to the hole. Slowly the dirt pile grows taller as the hole grows deeper.

Stopping for a moment, I wipe the sweat from my face with my arm. Then I take my baseball cap off my head and hit my back with it. The flies keep biting me, and I swat again, this time cursing. My father hears me.

"Terry, mind your mouth. Just ignore those flies."

Under my breath I mutter, "Well, your skin must be tougher than mine."

I continue pulling the digger up, and then down into the hole to grab another bite of soil. When the digger is in the hole, less and less of the handles remain above the ground level. Maybe it is three feet deep. That ought to be adequate.

Carrying the digger on my shoulder, I walk down to the next pole. Looking down the line to the right, and left, I find the spot. Lifting the digger handles up over my head, I pull them sharply down to the soil, and start on the next post hole. A few minutes later, I take off my hat. Swatting at my back, I say, "Damn horse flies. They are biting me, right through my shirt."

It is hard work, farming. The winter snows are strong, often breaking wire, snapping posts. Every year we have plenty of fencing to do.

My father, Denis, and I are working on post-holes for the line fence. The pickup truck is loaded with poles, wire, staples, hammers, diggers, fence pliers. Because it is a line fence, between our beef cow pasture and Billy Whittle's pasture, Dad wants this to be strong enough to keep the bull on our side of the fence. He wants every third post to be wooden. We have lots of holes he wants dug today. Denis is down the hill, digging his. I start digging mine.

I know my dad will be coming soon to check on my progress. Lifting my digger up over my head, I pull it down into the hole, grab a bite of soil and lift it up, and drop the soil on the pile next to the hole. Slowly the dirt pile grows taller as the hole grows deeper.

Stopping for a moment, I wipe the sweat from my face with my arm. Then I take my baseball cap off my head and hit my back with it. The flies keep biting me, and I swat again, this time cursing. My father hears me.

"Terry, mind your mouth. Just ignore those flies."

Under my breath I mutter, "Well, your skin must be tougher than mine."
I continue pulling the digger up, and then down into the hole to grab another bite of soil. When the digger is in the hole, less and less of the handles remain above the ground level. Maybe it is three feet deep. That ought to be adequate.
Carrying the digger on my shoulder, I walk down to the next pole. Looking down the line to the right, and left, I find the spot. Lifting the digger handles up over my head, I pull them sharply down to the soil, and start on the next post hole. A few minutes later, I take off my hat. Swatting at my back, I say, "Damn horse flies. They are biting me, right through my shirt."

This time Dad's voice is sharp. "Terry, it'd be a lot easier if you'd just keep digging." He walks over to me, and asks, "Am I hearing you complain? I told your brother and you, I want them finished before milking time."

My parents have on odd way of doing things. If you say something he considers a complaint, he gives you more. More work, more food that you hate, or whatever miserable thing that you were complaining about. He can be pretty arbitrary in his judgments. Sometimes he takes whatever we say to be a complaint, making it even worse.

My brothers used that against me, growing up. Being the youngest, it has taken me a while to catch on. I have eventually learned to keep my mouth shut if I do not want more work. After he walks away, checking on Denis, I mutter under my breath, "We do not all have snake skin like you."

Dad gives extra work to complainers. Rick, my older brother, used to egg me on, get me riled up about chores or work. Somehow, I would be getting extra work as a result, as a reward for whining. Usually it was shoveling corn, or manure, often stuff my brothers would have done had I not been complaining. I guess being three years older, Rick knew how to manipulate me pretty well.

No, I have been dumb long enough. I will keep my mouth shut. I am not going to say anything more about these damned flies, biting my back.

I put my cap back on my head and keep digging. It is hard, working all day, getting bit. It is harder still to not complain.

**

Years later I understand how much I learned building fence, working without complaining. Now I am the one who, when they whine about too much work, finds more to do, or, when foods make them scowl, gives them an extra helping.
So it passes, one generation to the next, the values that make us who we are.

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TERRY L. WAHLS

Terry L. Wahls, M.D., M.B.A., is a physician, working at the Iowa City VA and the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. In addition to clinical work, research and teaching, Dr. Wahls is a writer. Her current project is her memoirs, from which "Values" is an excerpt.

This page was first displayed
on February 11, 2008

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