Last night one of my favorite people in the world died.
Ervin Tackman was my father-in-law (Cathy’s stepfather), and he was an Iowa farmer, a hard worker, a provider, and a great grandfather.
I grew up on the mean streets of suburban Fresno, California (think miles and miles of houses that come in one of four styles), so I had never met an old-school farmer like Erv before, and I learned so much from him, besides the fact that he was an absolute joy to be around.
Among other things, he connected me to a different time in America’s history, back when so many Americans worked the land. Erv was raised in the same little valley, a couple of miles from the Mississippi River, that his father, grandfather, and (I think) his great-grandfather had farmed. Erv and his family actually used horse and plow to work the land until his teens, when they got their first tractor.
Because they raised livestock, hogs, cattle, and at one time milk cows, they had to do “chores” twice a day as well as be available for the occasional livestock emergency. This meant that it was difficult for him to get too far from the house, because he had to be back every day. As such, Erv spent most of his 79 years within a few miles of where he grew up.
Erv had many, many good qualities, an easy laugh, a twinkle in his eye, a rock-steady solidness to him, but more than anything, the one thing he was probably best known for was his ability to work hard. Not just a little hard, really hard. More than once he told me that he knew what God had put him on earth for, and that was to work. Not only did he take care of his own acres of land, livestock, and gardens, but he was always ready to help his neighbors and extended family when they wanted it (and, given how well he worked, they wanted it often).
Erv grew up working hard, and he never lost his appetite for it. In fact, when he was drafted into the Army in the 1950s, he found boot camp to be so much easier than his daily schedule that he actually gained weight. The first time I shook hands with Erv, I was astonished by how big and strong his hands were. I was a couple inches taller than him, but when we shook hands it might as well have been an adult holding a child’s hand. (Apparently endless typing didn’t give me “ripped” hands).
It wasn’t just Erv’s physical capacity for work that impressed me, but it was also his attitude. He never complained, even when things went wrong or people asked him to do things. Once I was with him one late afternoon during harvest season, and he was watching the combine harvest rows and rows of corn. (He would often walk behind the combine and pick up corn that it had missed--might as well do what he could to pitch in). Suddenly, the trailer being towed behind the combine broke an axle, and it dug into the earth, leaning precariously. This meant that he’d be out in the field late into the night, unloading the corn into a new trailer and pulling out and repairing the trailer. If it were me, I would have been pounding the cornfield and cursing the sky, but Erv accepted it without missing a beat. He was always ready to work harder when needed.
As he got older, he sold his livestock, which meant he could travel more. This resulted in more trips out to Connecticut to see us. He wouldn’t be here for more than about an hour before he’d politely ask if there was anything he could do to help. When we said “no”, and encouraged him just to relax, he’d try that for a bit, but eventually he’d be out in our yard looking for things needing done. On one trip, he found several stumps from trees that had been cut down, and he knew what to do. He went to the garage and got out an ax, a sledgehammer, and a shovel and proceeded to dig the stumps out (and these were big stumps—several feet across!). It took several days, but he got the job done.
On another visit, he was doing some digging and came across a large buried rock in his way (yes, this New England). Me? I would have given up or found another place to dig the hole. Erv? He got a sledgehammer, and he pounded the rock all afternoon until it was small enough to move. (I kept the main remnant of the rock as a fond reminder of him). This event serves as a metaphor for his life—that most problems could be solved with steady, hard work.
Erv was also a very skilled worker. His vegetable gardens produced more than anyone else’s. He stacked wood so tight that a chord of his wood was about a chord and a half of someone else’s.
At one point, when I was in graduate school, I was grumbling about how long some academic project was taking. (Imagine that, a graduate student complaining!). Although he didn’t know the first thing about what I was doing, he just said that it was okay that I was working so hard on that project because “no one ever sees how much time you put into something.” By this he meant that people just see, and appreciate, the finished product, so you might as well make it as good as possible, regardless of the time it took. This advice, as much as anything I heard in academics, has guided me in my own work.
Erv only had an eighth-grade education, whereas I had 25 years of schooling, but there was no doubt that in many ways he was far more intelligent than me. His intelligence was about the physical world, and when he was walking his farmland or the local hills, he was as much a part of them as the rocks or deer or trees.
I appreciated Erv’s savvy many times. We he visited us here in Connecticut, I took him for a walk in the woods (and despite his being in his 60s, I had trouble keeping up with him). After about 12 paces, he stopped and remarked at how young the woods were. To me the woods are the woods, but with a practiced eye, he could tell that they were less than a century old by their composition.
Erv knew how to live off the land. He remarked once that as long as he had electricity, to run the several freezers in the basement, he could probably live without needing to buy food. He had cold storage rooms full of winter vegetables. He hunted deer for food and trapped otters, beavers, and muskrats for their pelts. He made maple syrup in spring, and in summer collected and sold ginseng. The steaks from his cattle were the best that I’ve ever had (I viewed them as my wife’s dowry). His freezers had many quarts of blackberries and black raspberries that he had picked in the woods, and they were perfect for putting on grandson’s bowls of ice cream (which he sometimes made too).
Put Erv down anywhere, and you’d soon be enjoying the fruit of his work.
With age and health problems, Erv had to cut back on what he did. One year it was trapping, the next it was his couple acres of sweet corn, and so on. Like so many men, he lost part of himself when he had to stop working. In the end, in his last year he was in an assisted living home, and he liked to be wheeled outside, to the edge of the property on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, and he would watch and comment on what was going on in what he could see.
I, like everyone who knew him, will miss Erv, and I, my wife, and my sons are better people for having known him. Thank you, Erv, and goodbye.