What follows has been sitting in my Drafts folder for quite literally years. In 2020, I noodled with it as part of a podcast episode that never got recorded.
It is a weekday morning in January 1976. Through the windows on the south side of the house lies a snow-crusted yard, the ice-slick town road that runs past the farm, and the frozen fields beyond. Leafless trees stand gray and brown against the white. Amid the outbuildings, Dad’s farm vehicles provide the only color there is—green tractors and a blue truck. The sun is filtered through winter clouds to a silvery shine that lights the day without warming it.
My brother and I come down from our bedrooms to the smell of toast and coffee. The kitchen radio is blaring WEKZ, the local radio station. We grab our bites of breakfast and bundle up for the day—heavy coats, stocking caps, and gloves, in pockets if not on hands. Often there’s a fight over wearing boots, which Mother insists on, and in which sophomores such as I would not be caught dead.
The school bus soon roars up the town road, and we tramp outside to climb aboard. I sit near the radio speaker, and it plays one of the big hits of the moment, the Diana Ross theme from Mahogany. The song’s question—“Do you know where you’re going to?”—is a pertinent one.
Our town is a farming community. There is a modest social hierarchy, in that the wealthiest families, the doctors and lawyers and other civic bigwigs, live in the same part of town, and their kids tend to run in a pack and lord it over the rest of us. But that social gulf doesn’t matter all that much, simply because the farm kids outnumber them.
To me, the more significant social gulf is the one between farm families who never seem to get all of the shit off their shoes and those who do. We are in the latter category. Mother lives on a farm, had grown up on a farm, but considers herself a farm wife only up to a point. She does not help milk the cows, as some farm wives do. She used to drive the hay baler in the summer, at least until she got a job in town the year I turned 12. She keeps the rest of farm life at arm’s length, and she is absolute hell on farm dirt in her house—and in our lives. If Dad needs to go to town, he will hose off his boots and sometimes change his clothes before doing so, even if he is going only to the feed store or the implement dealer. Now that I am 15-going-on-16, I don’t go along with him anymore, but back when I did, my brothers and I could see the difference between him and other farmers, some of them the fathers of kids we knew. We learned from his example, and theirs.
On this January morning in 1976, I do not actively dislike being a farm kid, but I already know that in the long term, farm life is not for me. And on this morning, I think I know where I am going to, but I see only the vague shape of something in the distance. There’s nothing more than that to see, because I am 15-going-on-16, and I don’t know what I don’t know.
“I think I know where I am going to, but I see only the vague shape of something in the distance.” While the winter of 1976 seems freighted with meaning now, it didn’t feel that way then. The vague shape in the distance was definitely there, though. I knew I was going to college and I knew that radio would be my career. But it was at least two years away—an eternity when you are 15-going-on-16.
I’d like to go back there, for just one morning. To hear the radio, smell the toast and coffee, hear the bus rumble up the road again—and not know what I now know about that vague shape in the distance.