January 3, 2018
Dear Mr. Foster,
I heard that you’ve made a few trips to the infirmary in recent weeks. I hope this letter finds you relatively healthy. Project Gratitude is giving me better things to do than watch TV during my evenings away from home, now that I’m traveling to Dallas most weeks to work Monday-Thursday. I’ve already been typing some of the letters out, but find myself procrastinating when it comes to transcribing them—my handwriting is truly atrocious, and thanks to computers I haven’t actually had to use my henscratch very much in the last ten years. I’m going to bite the bullet tonight and get the first one on paper. I’m going to use a relatively fancy pen that was in my stocking a few Christmases ago (one that came in a plastic box, instead of a Bic, or one that I picked up a hotel.) I like to think that will make a difference, but probably not.
Thank you for taking me on as your teenaged hired hand. We spent many hours primping Ms. Salmon’s glorious spread in Avinger. Every hour I spent behind a rake or on my knees in a flowerbed, coupled with the satisfaction of a job well-done and a slightly fatter wallet in the aftermath, helped lay the foundation for a work ethic that drove me out of the house at age 18, and has kept me off of my parents’ couch ever since.
Through the years you offered more than just work in exchange for spending money that the IRS didn’t know about. You were one of my most respected mentors in my high school years. I think you could drop a fifty-pound paving stone on your bare foot, and say only “Fudge!” That’s as close to an expletive as I ever heard you get, anyway. You were upstanding and honest with our customers. You were the same great example of a man behind a lawn mower as you were on a church pew, and those are a rare breed.
I think you have five favorite stories, and I heard at least three of them every time we were together. The spark of whimsy in your eye when you told them was as entertaining as the storyline. I recall being invited to your house after a hard day’s work, where you showcased for me your newly discovered delicacy—the purple cow. Visiting at your dining room table over those funky pastel purple floats made with Welches grape juice poured over Bluebell ice cream was memorable high-calorie communion. Delicious!
Then there was the time we took it upon ourselves as a one-and-a-half-man team to haul square bales in the hot Texas summer. There were a couple of other crews out in the fields, each with at least three people—two on the trailer and one on the truck. And, well, one of us had to drive . . . 14 years young, I didn’t have a license. I guess I should have questioned the idea that I would need one to crush twice-baked cow chips in a pasture at 3 miles-per-hour.
As you towed the flatbed through that bumpy field, that bale elevator strapped to the trailer in all its rusty glory kept coughing up dust, bumblebees, and prickly seventy-five pound loaves of itchy grief. I stumbled and stacked as we lurched and rolled, climbing higher and higher on that rickety pile of my lonely making at half the pace of other crews. My rolling assembly of grass bricks got more and more wobbly as it stretched for the sun like the tower of Babel . . . in Texas . . . in July. I’m sure I looked like a boiled lobster square dancing with a breeze that never came. I may have lost consciousness at some point, but recall finding myself at one point half swimming in sweat and half stumbling along through the grass behind the trailer, trying to keep up with the shadeprint offered by rolling horse feed skyscraper, and wondering if it might fall and put me out of my misery.
By the time we’d transferred the three story stack to covered storage it was getting dark. I remember that the family watch party for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta had already begun without me, so it must have been 1996. It’s crazy to think that was over 20 years ago!
Thankfully, our first gig as haymasters was also our last—I think we were both ready to retire from the vocation by the end of that day. My near-death-by-heatstroke experience is a tale I often tell in the type of setting where men compare the scars they are proudest of. Since that day I’ve also been able to say that Hell is real.
But in all seriousness, thank you for taking on this kid as a helper and friend, and being a true mentor for me in one of the early stages of this thing called life. Yours has not been wasted, and part of me will always be your legacy.