I pass by a man on a tractor in the blazing sun, nearly 100 degrees today. Jungle levels of humidity. “Remember to take him a bottle of water before you leave,” a voice from deep inside says, as I am pulling in the driveway. He is landscaping the house I have been given the use of, deep in the Tennessee countryside.
“But I don't know him’”, I argue to myself. I have only had one previous moment, when I introduced myself as he and other men were working, and he seemed very unimpressed and not all that interested in knowing who I was. Even then I initiated the introduction by saying, “You must be Goose, I’m Ted.” He looked up at me, silently nodded, and looked back down at what he was doing.
“Remember to take him a bottle of water when you leave,” the voice reminded me. “Will he think I’m some kind of weirdo?” “Will he think me odd, or be offended?” “Will he have doubts about what I am up to?”
This internal argument continued, listing all the reasons why I should not do that. “I’m the stranger in his world”. “He lives here.” “He’s of here.” “He has been for 6 decades.” “I am the newcomer, the visitor.” Tolerated, but an unwelcome intruder.”
Then the voice said, “Just be quiet and do it.” “It’s the right thing to do, regardless of his response.” I didn't really need to know him. It turns out that I did know him, after all. He had been my constant companion for more than seven decades.
Goose? That’s what I’ve been told his name is. I doubt that is the name on his birth certificate; I don't know his real name. This is a part of the world where we name our pickup trucks (Mine was “Junior.” My Kawasaki mule is “Francis.”)
“Don't forget the water,” the voice commanded at least a dozen times during the next twenty minutes it took me to ready myself to head up into the adjacent 1,200-acre farm that I have been given permission to inhabit.
I walked out of the door and covered the hundred yards or so towards him with a bottle of ice-cold water. He saw me coming and shut the tractor down. “Hello,” I say. “Hello,” he replied, with more of a nod of the head than with words. “I thought you might like this.”
He smiled and gave another nod and a deep “Thank you.” I kiddingly say, “I guess you’d prefer a beer, but I don’t have any.” He smiles and chuckles
“Your job is never done, I'll bet,” having been told that he is the caretaker and handyman for the entire property. “It never is,” he says.
“Thank you for what you're doing, it's beautiful,” I say.
He looks out towards his handiwork and simply nods his head. He really is a sculptor.
“Take good care,” I say. “You too,” says he.
As I turn away, he opens the bottle of water and takes a long draw, puts the cap back on, and starts the tractor up again.
“Why did I not think to take him a couple of bottles”, I ask myself as I walk away?
As I was leaving I wondered what had made me think of offering him a drink? What told me to do that? What reminded me of how refreshing that might be? Why was that my first thought as I pulled in the driveway and saw him at work? Why the constant reminder of “Don’t forget?”
And then I knew. I remembered my days in the brutal sun on a tractor making endless rounds plowing corn, disking the earth, fixing fences, baling hay. Hoping that someone would see me, this young 8, 9, 10-year-old. Hoping that someone would remember to honor the promise they had made to bring him lunch, a drink of water; knowing that they would forget or just not get around to it as many times as they actually remembered.
So, you see, I was not really giving Goose a drink of ice-cold water. I was showing up, keeping a promise that I, as that young boy had made. I remembered vowing, during those days with my companions named thirst, hunger and broken promises, that regardless of their socioeconomic status, degree of brownness of their skin, their level of cleanliness, that I would notice and somehow honor those forgotten ones.
I’ve spent my life, noticing and honoring the janitor, the laborer, the dishwasher, the maintenance man, the homeless, the field hand, the destitute, the poor, the school bus driver, those living simple lives. Always feeling I had more in common with and connected to them - their roles and fate - than my own relatively privileged and affluent circle.
I had vowed as that young man that if I had a chance, I would notice. I had made a commitment to attend to them. Throughout my life I have been offering a “bottle of water.” A 5, 10 or 20-dollar bill. “How are you doing? Have one of my baseball team’s hats. A “What’s your name?”. A “Hello”. A “Thank you for what you do.” A “Here”, (giving them my take-home box, having intentionally eaten just one-half of my dinner), “Tonight you will eat as well as I did.”
Walking up to an obviously down and out man standing in front of a pizza parlor and saying, “Let’s go get a couple of pizzas, order what you want - I'll pay, my treat.” “Even a large one?” he says. “Even a large one, and don't forget a drink and a dessert,” I answer.
When I cook, I always find someone who is willing to take a portion of what I make. I feel incomplete if I don’t share.
This is not an inherent goodness in me. I am far from a saint. Ask anyone who knows me well. It is my being selfish. It is my being faithful to a promise I made to my young self to not forget to notice. I’m simply keeping a promise I made to that young one, to remember him. A cold drink of water on a hot, muggy July day.
I don’t do it perfectly, as often as not I say to myself, “Why didn’t you…..” I haven’t stopped trying, anyway.
Goose, your presence led me to this storehouse of memories, helping me to understand, a little bit more of who I am, and why I do these things, which often perplex those I walk with.
That afternoon, he was still working. I gave Goose two bottles of water.
The next morning, I was dumbfounded to find five fresh tomatoes on my back porch.
From Goose. He reminded me, that is the country way, as I remember it.
Goose and all the other’s that are a part of in my life, remain among my most potent teachers.