The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Redemption Of Feskew Bowler

By Mel Tharp © 1996

Issue: Summer, 1996

Ross Wright lived by his own esoteric set of values. By the standards of the time, he was considered to be wealthy. Ross was not really a man of great material wealth. He was deemed to be affluent because he prospered in a community where the farms were tired and worn out.

During the Great Depression era the Bald Knob community of western Kentucky was anything but prosperous. The farmers who for the most part were poor and unlearned, simply refused to adapt to modern methods of tilling the soil. Crop rotation and contour plowing was something they regarded as "smarty pants college farming."

There was a common saying that in Bald Knob, a man would have to set on a sack of fertilizer to raise an umbrella.

Ross Wright's farm was an anomaly. Instead of washed-out gullies and eroded hillsides, Ross's land was a succession of neatly plowed, contoured fields. Herds of Jersey cows grazed in pastures of knee-high alfalfa.

Ross did have a reputation for being eccentric. Some even went so far as to say he was as crazy as a coot. Deserved or not, there was some degree of justification for this dubious opinion relative to Wright's sanity or lack thereof.

To wit, the incident with the tractor salesman.

The salesman, a representative from a tractor dealership in a nearby town, was touring the area in an effort to drum up business. He had made several fruitless calls in the Bald Knob community and was about to give up and head back to town when he saw a man plowing up a field where sorghum cane had recently been harvested.

The salesman was dumbfounded at what he saw. It was not the man nor the plow that astonished him, but the form of motive power being used. A huge Jersey bull lumbered along with the breaking plow in tow. Nor had the bull resigned himself to his lot. He bellowed and blowed and cast frequent glances over his shoulder at what to him must have seemed like some sort of diabolical contrivance trailing behind.

The salesman was delighted. If there was ever a bona fide need for a tractor, it had to be here. He parked his car and walked out to where the man was plowing. "Good afternoon, sir," he said. "The name's Mark Dame. I represent the Case Tractor dealership in town."

Ross acknowledged the salesman's greeting with a nod of his head and introduced himself.

After a few minutes of casual conversation, Dame got to the point. "Mr. Wright, I can make you a good deal on a new tractor. It looks like you could surely use one."

"I got two good ones in the barn," replied Ross.

"Don't you ever use them?" persisted Dame.

"Certainly," Ross assured him. "I use them to do practically all my ground preparation. The tractor is an essential unit in modern-day farming."

"Mr. Wright," Dame probed tentatively. "I guess I'm just curious by nature. Would you mind telling me why you're plowing with this bull when you own two tractors?"

"Not at all," Ross replied. "I'm a great one for moral responsibilities whether it be man or beast. In the case of this bull, I think it's time he learned that there's more to life than just eating, cavorting with the heifers and knocking down fences."

Whatever idiosyncrasies Ross may have had, he demonstrated that he had boundless tolerance when he allowed Frank Bowler, his slatternly wife, Hazel, and his troglodyte son, Feskew, to move on his place.

The number of communities where the Bowlers had resided were legion. Without exception they had been driven either by force or by social ostracism into exile.

The Bowlers were not only lazy, they were firm advocates of "situational ethics." To them, the planet was one giant berry field for them to harvest. If you had it, and they had not, and they wanted, they felt it their sovereign right to take it.

The Bowlers came to Bald Knob penniless and homeless. Their meager possessions, Frank carried on his back wrapped in an old quilt. Ross had an old clapboard shack on the back of his place which he had used to winter some farrowing sows. He told the Bowlers they could move in the shack if they would clean it up. They moved in. The cleaning, they said, could come later.

It took less than a month for Ross to realize that he had accepted a den of vipers into his bosom. It was Saturday and he was just returning from town in his farm truck with some supplies. He drove up behind the barn to unload, but before he could get out of the truck, he noticed Feskew coming across the barnyard. He was carrying the decapitated body of one of Wright's Rhode Island Red roosters.

Feskew stopped abruptly when he saw Ross getting out of his truck. The young thug was totally unprepared to render any sort of explanation. Clearly, he had expected to be off premises before his landlord returned.

Ross got out of his truck and walked slowly toward Feskew. He took his own good time before speaking. No quick justice for this juvenile miscreant. Let him sweat it out.

"Well, Mr. Nimrod," Ross said finally. "It looks like the great hunter has made his kill. It just goes to show you how out of touch I am with matters in the community. I didn't even know the season was open on chickens."

Feskew looked as if he were about to suffer a fit of acute vacular lesion of the brain. "It was sick," he said weakly. "It was dying and I put it out of its misery."

"Now aren't you the great humanitarian," Ross said facetiously. "But in the future, why don't you let me decide which members of my chicken flock dies and which ones live?"

"OK," replied Feskew. Thinking that he was dismissed, he breathed a sigh of relief and started to walk around Ross.

"Just a minute," Ross said, blocking his way. "There's this little matter of payment for my chicken."

"You can have it," Feskew said, dropping the rooster on the ground.

"Now ain't that kind of you," Ross replied sarcastically. "That's especially kind of you given the fact that it's my chicken anyway."

Feskew hung his head dejectedly. "What am I going to do?' he mumbled.

Ross directed Feskew to the running board of the truck. "Sit down over there," he said, "and we'll go over some options."

After Feskew had settled himself on the running board, Ross stood in front of him like an instructor delivering a seminar. "Now, let us examine two options," he said. "Option number one - I can have you arrested. You'll go up before Judge Landrum, he'll give you sixty days in the calaboose where you'll dine on sorghum molasses and beans at the taxpayers' expense."

"I like option number two. I'll put you to work around the farm. I'll start you off at a dollar a day and all you can steal, and I'll watch you close. Earning an honest dollar will be a unique experience for somebody in your family, but you might learn to like it. How about it?"

"I reckon it be alright," Feskew agreed reluctantly. "I don't know what Pa will say, though."

"If Pa wants to keep a roof over his scraggy head, he better not even raise his voice above a whisper. You be here ready for work Monday morning. Friday will be payday. And one more thing. I don't want to hear of you handing over any of your pay to Pa to squander away.

The following Monday, Feskew reported for work as Ross had directed. Ross wasted no time testing the boy's mettle. Feskew spent the week doing such arduous chores as hoeing the garden, cleaning out the stables and cutting firewood.

There were times when Ross thought he was going to throw in the towel. The sweltering sun bore down on him unmercifully and the hoe, shovel and saw blistered his hands, but though there were times when he faltered, he showed that he was made of firmer stuff than his indolent father.

By the end of the week Feskew actually appeared to be proud of his new-found status as a productive citizen. On Friday evening Ross presented him with a crisp five-dollar bill. It was the first paper money he had ever had in his possession.

Feskew was back at daybreak on Monday morning, ready and eager for his second week of employment. He was wearing a brand new pair of store-bought overalls and a clean shirt.

"I bought me some new duds," he said proudly.

"So I noticed," Ross laughed. "You look sharper than a gandy dancer going to a candy pulling."

Then Feskew's features took on a concerned look. "Dad ain't pleased," he said. "He says it ain't right."

"What ain't right?"

"He says it ain't right for you to work me without his permission. He says it bothers him something terrible."

"I'll tell you what bothers Frank Bowler," Ross snapped. "It bothers him that you ain't turning your pay over to him. And I better not hear of you doing it. Don't you worry about Pa. I'll handle him. Now, let's get to work."

The following Wednesday, Ross had a visit from Frank Bowler. Feskew had left for the day, having finished his day of work and Ross had just sat down for his supper. Frank knocked on the door, but never waited to be told to come in. He looked wistfully at the spread of food on Ross's table, probably hoping and expecting an invitation to dine. When he didn't get it, he got to the point of the visit. "I got something to talk about," he said abruptly.

"I'll bet you have," Ross replied tersely, staring his uninvited guest up and down. "And I'll bet I can guess what you want to talk about. But I'm a patient man. Let's hear it from you."

"Well, I don't want no trouble," Frank said, feeling his courage ebb. Frank was not a brave man. He tended to be pushy and argumentative when he was drinking, but it didn't take much to back him down. "it ain't nothing me and you can't work out. It's about my boy. He's..."

"He's not giving you his pay, Frank," Ross shouted angrily. "Isn't that your real complaint? And I better not hear of you taking his money. That boy has a chance to make something of his life. The least you can do is not interfere."

Frank turned and started to shuffle away. "It just don't seem right," he whimpered. "It just don't seem right for a boy to have job when so many grown men ain't working."

"Wait, Frank!" Ross called to him. "You're right. You've finally made a good point. If you want to work, I think you deserve the opportunity. You be here with Feskew in the morning and I'll put you on the payroll, too."

Frank looked as if he had just received the death sentence. "Well, now, Mr. Wright, I don't reckon I'm able..."

"You're able as Adam's ox!" Ross exclaimed. "And you'll be here in the morning."

Having delivered his ultimatum, Ross moved up and stared nose to nose with Frank.

Frank stood with poker-like rigidity. "If you're not here for work by seven o'clock sharp in the morning, Frank Bowler, I will personally move you and your plunder off my place."

Ross's voice now took on the grim overtones of a judge pronouncing a death sentence.

"If I do toss your worthless carcass off my place, Frank Bowler, you better never return. You won't live long enough to enjoy my hospitality. Because I, along with my faithful crew of workers will lead you out to some remote spot, swing you from a bough of a sturdy oak, and let you hang until you are dead."

"Then, Frank, we will retire quickly from your dangling corpse so that vultures may descend from the heavens upon your filthy body until nothing shall remain but the bare-bleached bones of a lazy, thieving, shiftless, drunken, dead-beat SOB."

Frank may not have been ready and willing, but at least he reported for work the following morning.

The elder Bowler, however, was not ready to take on the responsibilities of full-time employment. Before the summer was over, he pulled up stakes and moved off Ross's property to parts unknown.

Feskew refused to leave with his family. He stayed on with Ross, and after a time, Ross deeded him a plot of land to farm himself. Feskew went on to marry and raise a family. With the outbreak of World War Two, he enlisted and served with honor in the United States Navy.

After the war Feskew returned home. By now, Ross was getting along in years and Feskew took over most of the management of the farm.

Feskew always gave full credit to his mentor for turning his life around. "He taught me that success comes with work," he would say. "The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work."