The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America 


by Bill Bryson

...Near Palmyra [Missouri], I stopped at a roadside cafe for breakfast and took a seat at the counter. At this hour, just after eight in the morning, it was full of farmers. If there is one thing farmers sure do love it is to drive into town and spend half a day (a whole day in winter) sitting at a counter with a bunch of other farmers drinking coffee and teasing the waitress in a half-assed sort of way. I had thought that this was the busiest time of their year, but they didn't seem to be in any rush....

The farmer next to me had only three fingers on his right hand. It is a little-noticed fact that most farmers have parts missing off them. This used to trouble me when I was small. For a long time I assumed that it was because of the hazards of farming life. After all, farmers deal with lots of dangerous machinery.

But when you think of it, a lot of people deal with dangerous machinery, and only a tiny proportion of them ever suffer permanent injury. Yet there is scarcely a farmer in the Midwest over the age of twenty who has not at some time or other had a limb or digit yanked off and thrown into the next field by some noisy farmyard implement.

To tell you the absolute truth, I think farmers do it on purpose.

I think working day after day beside these massive threshers and balers with their grinding gears and flapping fan belts and complex mechanisms they get a little hypnotized by all the noise and motion. They stand there staring at the whirring machinery and they think, "I wonder what would happen if I just stuck my finger in there a little bit."

I know that sounds crazy. But you have to realize that farmers don't have a whole lot of sense in these matters because they feel no pain. It's true. Every day in the Des Moines Register you can find a story about a farmer who has inadvertently torn off an arm and then calmly walked six miles into the nearest town to have it sewn back on.

The stories always say, "Jones, clutching his severed limb, told his physician, 'I seem to have cut my durn arm off, Doc.'" It's never: "Jones, spurting blood, jumped around hysterically for twenty minutes, fell into a swoon and then tried to run in four directions at once," which is how it would be with you or me. Farmers simply don't feel pain -- that little voice in your head that tells you not to do something because it's foolish and will hurt like hell and for the rest of your life somebody will have to cut up your food for you doesn't speak to them.

My grandfather was just the same. He would often be repairing the car when the jack would slip and he would call out to you to come and crank it up again as he was having difficulty breathing, or he would run over his foot with the lawn mower, or touch a live wire, shorting out the whole of Winfield but leaving himself unscathed apart from a ringing in the ears and a certain lingering smell of burnt flesh.

Like most people from the rural Midwest, he was practically indestructible. There are only three things that can kill a farmer: lightning, rolling over in a tractor and old age. It was old age that got my grandfather.

The Brass Lantern
2446 State Highway 92
Greenfield, IA 50849
(641) 743-2031

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