Robert the Bruce

by Susan Knox
My father, Robert Bruce Unkefer, was named for the medieval Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. My grandmother was an ardent reader and discovered the name in Sir Walter Scott’s A Grandfather’s Tale, a history of Scotland. Scott told of Robert the Bruce hiding on an island near Ireland after his troops had been defeated by the English. While lying on his bed considering his options, he spotted a spider trying to attach a thread between two beams. Robert the Bruce watched her make six unsuccessful attempts. It brought to mind his six military defeats while trying to capture the Scottish throne. He decided if the spider connected on the seventh effort, he too would try for a seventh time. The spider made it. Robert the Bruce went on to gain the Scottish crown in 1306 and rule for twenty-three years.

My father, the middle child of nine, was born in 1915. He was proud of his naming and often told the story. I loved this story and I was intrigued with my late grandmother who named all her children for fictional characters or ancestors. When my boys were born, their given and middle names were from previous generations.

Daddy, known as Bruce, was a handsome man, about five feet, five inches tall with brown eyes and hair, a burnished complexion, an engaging smile, and boyish energy. He was a shy man with a quick laugh, a vulnerability to criticism, and an enthusiasm for learning about the natural world. My father was a farmer like his father and his father before him. They did not own huge farms, but they were able to raise livestock, grow grains to feed the animals, and provide fruits, milk, meat, vegetables, and eggs for their large families.

Daddy married Marie Worley in 1938 and they built a bungalow north of my grandfather’s farm outside the village of Minerva, Ohio. Daddy was employed by his father then, working on his farm and sawmill.

One summer morning in 1946 my father stopped by Minerva Grain and Feed and learned the Elliott property was for sale. In what I can only imagine was a fit of ecstasy at the thought of having farm of his own, Daddy made an offer on the spot. With three children in a two-bedroom house, Daddy and Mom must have been talking about housing alternatives. My dad probably thought the farm was a perfect solution. I can see him hurrying home to my mother with his thrilling news. I imagine he was surprised when she wasn’t enthusiastic. He offered to withdraw from the deal, but she told him no—he’d shaken hands; he couldn’t sully his good name by reneging.

We moved to the eighty-eight-acre farm in northeastern Ohio, two miles east of Minerva. The three-storied eighty-year-old farmhouse was painted white and surrounded by maple trees that topped the slate roofline. It was a pretty place with a scarlet barn, milk house, chicken coop, corncrib, and shed.

The number of farms in the United States peaked in 1935 at seven million and was in decline when Daddy bought the Elliott property. Today there are only two million. My father’s siblings are a good example of the trend away from agrarian life. The three girls, Helen, Grace, and Mildred, married professional men and moved to cities. Of the six boys, only Kenneth farmed, but he also owned and operated a sawmill which produced most of his income. The other brothers moved to Columbus, Ohio, and Phoenix, Arizona, and formed their own businesses. A generation earlier, most if not all would have become farmers or married farmers. Only my father tried to make a go of farming.

I can still see him perched on the metal seat of his school-bus-yellow Minneapolis Moline tractor, hands clamped on the black steering wheel, plowing or harrowing or planting his fields with an old brown felt fedora on his head and an R. G. Dunn cigar clenched between his teeth. He was a hard worker, and I watched him clean cow udders every morning and evening before milking and load the manure spreader after the cows and pigs wintered in the barn and butcher a hog in the fall with the help of boyhood friends Oscar and Johnny Carson. The only time I saw him sit and relax was when he read the Farm Journal or we had visitors.

With Daddy’s dedication, I’ve wondered why our neighbors with large families were able to live off the land, but he had to earn money as a linotype operator at the Minerva Leader. I still don’t know the answer. Maybe others had more tillable acreage; maybe they cut corners; maybe they were better managers. I do know Daddy disapproved of our neighbors’ ways, saying they didn’t respect the land and they cheated their customers by hiding rotten berries in basket bottoms. Daddy never did that. He fed bad produce to the pigs. When he sold sweet corn (and people raved about the quality of our corn) he always added extra ears in case one wasn’t perfect. He rotated his crops and periodically plowed under a field of alfalfa so future farmers could continue to enjoy rich, fertile soil. He loved the land.

My parents’ relationship was a love affair. It was clear to me—there was a special look that often passed between them—that they valued each other above anyone else, including their children. He loved to tease her. One night at supper he said, “Marie, you like change so much I’m surprised you haven’t traded me in for a new husband.” He always kissed her when he left the house and when he returned even if he was only going to the barn. Their relationship was a wonderful example for their four offspring.

Even though I believe he had strong feelings for his children, Daddy had trouble expressing them. I don’t ever remember him telling me he loved me or that he was proud of me. Those sentiments were passed on by my mother in the form of “Your father said…” When my sister and her boyfriend decided to get married, they told my parents one evening while sitting around the kitchen table. Chuck opened the discussion, “I’d like your permission to marry Nancy.” Daddy scraped back his chair and stood up as if he’d suddenly remembered an important appointment. “I have to go to the barn,” he said, and left my mother in charge of the blessing.

After he died and I was helping my mother with family finances, she confided that he refused to take tax deductions for farm buildings and equipment depreciation, legitimate deductions. He was afraid it would trigger an IRS audit. I was a CPA by then and this knowledge saddened me. How fearful he must have been. It brought back some childhood memories of my father’s approach to life.

Daddy always told us never to drive on a holiday—it was too dangerous. We were forbidden to eat any food that dropped to the floor. No dogs and cats were allowed in the house—too dirty. We were never to use the word “pregnant;” instead, a woman was “expecting.” My sister and I never saw a cow artificially inseminated or a calf being born. We never saw an animal being killed before butchering. Daddy had a Victorian sensibility when it came to his daughters.

We were warned to be thrifty and husband our money. He recounted stories of people in our village whose lives had been ruined by bankruptcy. Others, especially during the Depression, were sent to work houses—horrible, cruel places. Daddy related newspaper accounts of people who stole and were imprisoned: shoplifters, bank robbers, embezzlers, petty thieves. One could never recover from the shame of being incarcerated. These lessons were repeatedly taught, so when my father committed a crime, even though it was an honest mistake, I was scared about the consequences.

One summer day in 1953, Daddy noticed a large bird circling our farm. He thought it was a chicken hawk scoping out our Leghorns scratching in the dirt for bugs and grubs. He got his rifle, loaded it, raised it to his shoulder, and sighted the bird. It was a true shot, and the bird plunged toward us. It landed on the lawn beside the house. We ran over to take a look. It was a bald eagle—unknown in our part of Ohio. I’ll never forget the stricken look on my father’s face. He had killed our country’s national symbol, an act punishable by a $5,000 fine and/or one year in jail. Congress had passed the Eagle Act in 1940 and my father was aware of the penalties. Even if he weren’t jailed, the fine would ruin us. My parents couldn’t even meet the monthly mortgage payment on the $8,000 farm loan; my grandfather was financially helping them. How would they pay a fine? Daddy swore us all to secrecy and buried the bird. We never spoke of this again. I was twelve at the time, and I realized my father could make a mistake, that he was frightened, and that there are shades of truth.

Every Friday night we butchered twenty-five chickens for Saturday delivery to regular customers. Butchering a bird consisted of catching, chopping, dunking, plucking, singeing, eviscerating, tweezing, scrubbing, and cooling. Daddy handled the head chopping. We gathered on a grassy knoll near the barn’s lower level, formed a circle around a gray steel bucket of boiling hot water, picked up a chicken by its legs from the pile of carcasses, dipped it in the hot water, and started plucking, the sodden feathers cluttering the ground like dirty snow. It was a family affair, like sitting around the kitchen table for supper, except here I felt on equal footing with my parents. We all had the same job to do, we all worked fast so the water didn’t cool down before we finished, and we all took pride in how well we plucked our pullets.

Daddy always seemed happy as we circled round. We talked about what was happening in our lives, and I sometimes cursed the way my father did, just to see him smile and wink at my mother, who was not happy with my language.

My father liked roasted duck and, with food on his mind, went to the hatchery where he regularly bought chicks. He smiled at our surprise and delight when he returned home with thirty Pekin ducklings in heavy cardboard boxes. We raised them in cages, and when the ducks lost their daffodil down and grew creamy white feathers, we took them to the Little Sandy Creek that ran the length of our pasture and beyond. They swam as though they were swans, their heads erect, their orange bills protruding, their rumps slightly elevated. The drakes’ tail feathers curled like a comma. Think Donald Duck—he’s a Pekin. Like Donald, our ducks couldn’t fly; they were too heavy.

My brother Jim and I recently talked about our ducks. “They were smart,” he said. “They knew once the cows were driven in for the evening milking, it was time to waddle to the barnyard where they would be fed corn and wheat. They were well-fed, fat ducks.”

Daddy was proud of our ducks sailing up and down Little Sandy Creek. As he said, they were a picture. Neighbors commented on them too, since, unlike our other animals—our Jersey and Holstein milking cows, our American Yorkshire hogs, our Leghorn chickens, and Trixie and Ginger, our bad-tempered ponies—the ducks had no boundaries, no fences to keep them confined, and they swam miles beyond our farm, delighting our neighbors as they passed by—an example of Daddy’s fine farm husbandry.

Since we were old hands at dressing chickens, when it came time to harvest part of our duck flock we expected to make short work of it. We assembled around the steaming bucket and dipped our decapitated ducks in hot water. We started plucking. Those feathers did not come out. It was as though the feathers were cemented to the duck. We looked to my dad for plucking pointers. His feathers were stuck too. Finally we adjourned to the kitchen, the dead ducks on the grass outside, brother Tom guarding them.

Daddy ran his fingers through his hair as though he was trying to stimulate a solution in his brain. We huddled around the kitchen table, throwing out ideas. We tried using the blunt side of a butcher knife as leverage against the feathers’ shafts to pry them out. No luck. We tried pliers. The feathers didn’t budge. Mom suggested we dip the ducks in melted paraffin and peel off the feathers when the wax hardened. It didn’t work. At some point we got the giggles, because it was about the only thing we could do and it was funny.

I was transfixed by our attempts to create a solution and impressed with my parents’ teamwork. It was one of those unforgettable moments of insight and clarity that come in childhood. It was a harbinger of times to come, when I would lead brainstorming sessions with my staff and participate with others in coming up with new ideas.

Finally Daddy called the hatchery where he’d purchased the ducklings and they referred him to a meat processing plant. He loaded the duck carcasses into the back of his powder-blue Ford pickup, and the next day we had perfectly cleaned, ready-for-the-freezer ducks.

“Do you remember the duck massacre?” my brother Jim asked. I vaguely recalled the incident, but I would have been fifteen at the time, and I had boys on my mind, not ducks. Jim told me the story.

“We still had half the flock, and one evening the ducks didn’t come in for their regular feeding,” Jim said. “The next day I hiked along the creek and came across their bloody bodies. Neighbor boys with guns had waited for our ducks to swim by and picked them off. Only one survived, his beak missing, but since he couldn’t eat, he starved to death. Dad was pretty upset about the brutality and waste, but there was nothing we could do. It was the end of our ducks. Dad didn’t have the heart to start with a new flock.”

Not long after this episode, my father was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis. He was forty-one years old and spent much of the next year bed-ridden. He was prescribed cortisone and took Bayer aspirin by the handful to abate the pain. He tried bee-sting treatments but had to discontinue them when he had an anaphylactic reaction to the shots of bee venom. Somehow he rallied, returned to his job at the newspaper, and maintained the farm. I still marvel at his resolve.

My father died twenty-four years later, in 1980. One of the last times we were together was in the farmhouse kitchen, where I was frying green tomatoes. Looking out the kitchen window, I noticed the wheat had ripened. Sparrows flitted among the stalks, searching for grains, and Little Sandy Creek, brown and sluggish, twisted through the empty pasture. Daddy had sold his dairy herd.

It was August, two months since his colostomy. Daddy stood near me as I tended the tomatoes. He was shorter than I remembered, but still handsome and smiling his sweet smile. He pointed to the pan and whispered, “I wish I could eat those.” Thrush had coated his throat and mouth. I was sad to see him so ill but couldn’t express my feelings for fear of crying. I felt closer to him than I ever had.

I kissed my father good-bye when I left that day. His shyness and mine mixed in a way that made it almost impossible for us to show physical affection, but I knew he was pleased, and I must have known it might be my last chance to show my father I loved him.

A few years after his death, Mom sold our farm and moved into town. I’m glad Daddy didn’t live to see his land sold to the neighbors, the house go to strangers, equipment and household belongings auctioned off. I don’t think he could have borne it.

But he never pressured any of his children to take over the farm. He wanted more for us. “You’ll always have a job if you have a college education,” he promised, the Depression still vivid in his mind. All four of his children adopted this mantra, and we got our college degrees and we went on to professional careers.

The last time I was in Minerva was for my mother’s funeral in August 2003. I made a nostalgic tour—took Route 30 east out of Minerva, turned on Stump Road, and slowly drove by my childhood home. The front porch had been pulled down. It looked as though the house had given up its welcome. A circular drive had been cut into the lawn in front of the house. The huge maple trees were gone; they would have been over one hundred years old. The two tall viburnums that had anchored the yard near the country road were gone. The lilac gracing the side of the driveway, the last bush to bloom in spring, was gone.
Susan Knox is the author of Financial Basics: A Money Management Guide for Students (Ohio State University Press 2004, 2nd edition, 2016). Her essays and short stories have appeared in Blue Lyra Review CALYX, Forge, Halfway Down the Stairs, The MacGuffin, Melusine, Monkey Puzzle, Zone 3 and elsewhere. In 2014, her essay, Autumn Life, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She and her husband live in Seattle.

© 2016, Susan Knox