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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Gentleman Farmer

by Bill Vernon

Mr. Francis Eustis immediately grabbed my interest when Larry Schmidt introduced himself by saying that his family had just moved onto one of three contiguous farms that Mr. Eustis had bought and joined together. The man himself lived elsewhere, in Indian Hill, an affluent Cincinnati suburb. “Farming’s just a hobby to him. He’s a millionaire."
I pictured a man with dollar bills hanging from his pockets. "I've never met a millionaire."
"Oh, he's pretty much like everyone else. My father managed a herd of Jerseys in Iowa and Mr. Eustis brought him here. They met at a cow auction. See, we raise Jerseys, which give the richest milk of all cows. Mr. Eustis is from New Jersey where his mother owned a Jersey-breeding farm so some of our cows are from there.”
“He raises Jerseys and he comes from New Jersey?”
“Yeah, weird, huh? Mr. Eustis put in the most modern equipment. He uses science in our operation."
Larry seemed proud, and Mr. Eustis sounded intriguing. He was not only rich enough to do what he wanted, but knowledgeable enough to employ modern agricultural principles. Seeing the place when Larry invited me to his house reinforced these thoughts. The big barnyard was impressive. Mr. Eustis had spared no expense. The board fence along the driveway and road and the four large buildings around the barnyard, except for red trimming, were pristine white. The Schmidts' house, set off behind a few trees, struck me too. It was ornate for a farmhouse, almost fancy, a reddish purple brick.
Inside this house was another surprise. The furnishings were comfortable but ordinary things the Schmidts had trucked in, except for two things on the fireplace mantel. Larry said, “Mr. Eustis made those.” Jersey cows, so realistic they seemed about to bellow standing in my hands. Mr. Eustis was also an artist, and from what I could see, a good one. What kind of man bought farms and cows, insisted on using the latest scientific equipment and knowledge, and hired people to do the work while he sculpted models of the animals?
I wasn't obsessed with the question, but for two years I did periodically sniff around to learn more. I rode horses with Larry at the farm, heard a bit more about the man, and alone occasionally walked the fence line of the farm from the town side, hunting in rabbit season, hiking for exercise and adventure, studying from a distance the farm buildings, fields and cows as if they might reveal more about Mr. Eustis. Then, at a goodbye reception for the Schmidts, Larry introduced me to the man, remarking that I was virtually a farm boy myself. I'd baled hay the past two summers at various farms. "Part-time," I said. "I'll work full-time next year during high school vacation."
It was a quick conversation, with Mr. Eustis offering me a full-time job next summer. My heart quickened at the idea. This man was an innovator, an artist, a rich man. I could get to know him and earn full-time pay at the same time. I accepted and we settled on the particulars.
After nearly a year of anticipation, my first dawn of helping to milk Eustis Jerseys came, and my interest in Mr. Eustis immediately increased. That morning he was alongside me on wagons stacking bales of hay in hot, humid weather. In the afternoon, enjoying a cool breeze during a break, he looked at me and said, "Bill, this work is good for your soul. It may not be clean work, but it's by God honest and straight forward. I like it. Baling's my exercise." Baling hay was exercise? Farm animals were subjects for art? He didn't have to work but he did?
I watched the man closely, trying to figure him out. He seemed all-business, consulting daily with the employees who lived on his farm, my immediate bosses, Merle, the Schmidts' replacement, and Wayne. Upon Mr. Eustis' arrival, the three would schedule jobs for that day and if necessary decide future things like how stock was to be treated, calves reared and sold, and dry cows bred. I caught snippets of their conversations by standing close or passing nearby on a chore. Within two weeks I realized that he related to people in a very defined manner. Always, the two employees, as well as outside experts who showed up, like veterinarians, spoke seriously with Mr. Eustis, listened intently, then gave way to his judgments. They may not have kowtowed, if you'll forgive the pun, but I imagined their foreheads would have touched the ground at his feet posthaste if he'd pressured them.
He simply assumed command, and of course we all deferred to Mr. Eustis because of his position as our employer. But there was more. His eastern accent and manner of speech, which was more formal than ours, set him off as well. Mr. Eustis was an outsider, and perhaps because of this we all talked about him behind his back, often with a tinge of sarcasm inspired by envy. When I caught myself doing it, or listened to the others go on, I felt oddly sorry for the rich man because he didn't fit in very well on a personal level with us.
Another reason for my empathy may have been that he treated me and Jim, my neighbor friend on the baling crew, with greater warmth than he showed his other employees, as if our backgrounds were similar to his own. Alone with us, he inquired about our family and our plans after high school, and he several times urged Jim and me to attend college. "You don't want to end up baling hay or shoveling cow shit all your lives."
"You bale hay yourself," I said, but I knew what he meant. He was one of the few adults, aside from my mother, who urged me to go to college and prepare for the future.
He further separated himself from everyone else by driving his car into the fields instead of riding a wagon with us. He always rode there alone except for the time he invited Jim and me to ride with him, first making us spread newspaper sections to sit on so our clothes wouldn't stain the upholstery. This was his new baby, after all, a Chrysler, and he proceeded to show off its main feature, which had him excited: Powerflite or Torqueflite, an innovative gear-shifting system. "Only push button car on the market," he bragged, ignoring the Edsel, whose advertising mentioned having it. He seemed to like the car's uniqueness as well as his own for possessing it. Jim and I had newly acquired driver's licenses, which had sparked a dreamy interest in automobiles, so we stared at the little square of buttons (in what he called a pod on the dashboard) and compared its shiny array to the drab, standard gear shifts in our parents' cars. "Neat," we said, unable to carry the conversation into any depth.
After his initial spiel of self-congratulations, Mr. Eustis settled into silence, concentrating on avoiding ruts in the path we were taking. As we exited the shiny car—this was just after lunch—Mr. Eustis opened the trunk, bent over to retrieve shoes from it, raised up and passed gas loudly. Jim and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Mr. Eustis put his hands on his hips. "God damn it, boys, can't a man fart in peace?" This comment increased the volume of our laughter, at which Mr. Eustis smiled and shook his head. He sat back against his rear bumper, dropped a shiny brown loafer off one foot, revealing skin tight, thin white socks beneath, and pulled on a scuffed black leather tie shoe.
I studied Mr. Eustis like that, as if what he wore or drove might show what kind of person he was. Sporty when he was with his own kind of people, I guessed, noticing in his car's trunk a white shirt, fancy blazer, and sharply creased blue trousers in a plastic dry cleaners’ bag. The way I had him figured, he'd return to Cincinnati after baling and, garbed in his trunk-load of spiffy clothes, go to an expensive country club dinner.
Maybe that outfit made me notice the individuality of his baling-hay attire. He wore tan corduroy trousers, not the common denim trousers the rest of us wore, and the wide, straight wales of his trousers emphasized his shape. His body was angular, about five feet ten inches tall, wide shouldered with hairy arms and chest. His square face had a straight jaw, his short black hair was parted on the left side, and his black eyeglass frames held unusually thick lenses, suggesting an eye problem. His posture was so straight, sitting, standing and walking, I wondered if he had a back ailment, but that seemed unlikely because he threw bales so well. These were all clues about his nature, and my youthful nature struggled, trying to combine what I knew into a coherent pattern.
Less acceptable behavior complicated my understanding of him. Jim and I were put to work in the hay barn cleaning out stalls for two horses. Fine, but why there? There was room for more than two horses in the handier stable. These stalls were out of the way, beneath the hay barn's main floor. To reach them from the outside, you had to use back doors that opened at the bottom of the hill whose top was the barn’s main floor. A heavy wooden door on the floor of that level hid the inside steps down to these stalls. Adding to the mystery, Mr. Eustis came in as we started working, watched us throw a pitchfork of debris, then said, "Don't tell anyone about the horses we put in here. They'll be our secret. And don't take them outside unless Merle says to."
What was going on? Jim and I let Mr. Eustis walk away, then abandoned our work, hurried over to Merle and asked. Mrs. Eustis, he said, was unhappy about her husband's obsession with useless palominos and had ordered him to sell the two he'd brought to the little farm she owned near Cincinnati. He'd agreed, but instead of selling them, he planned to hide them on this farm. Jim and I went back to work smiling at the deception. We were sort of the rich man's conspirators, weren't we? There was also the thing about lying to his wife. What should I make of that?
Before the horses arrived, Mr. Eustis personally inspected the stalls and asked us to spread a thicker layer of new straw and wipe down the board enclosures. Then feeding and watering the palominos the next few days, we found him almost always leaning on a gate, feeding them apples. His interest in the horses did seem to be a quirk, and it was a hard thing to put into proper perspective.
Another complication arose three weeks after the horses' arrival. Mrs. Eustis visited the farm, saying her husband was on a business trip and she'd promised to keep an eye on his Lebanon operations. We all thought she was seeking evidence that her husband was harboring animals she didn't want. The evidence, however, eluded her because she telephoned an hour ahead to announce her visit. Merle did escort her around, but only after he'd warned us not to say anything about the palominos. Also after he’d hitched up the horse trailer to the pick-up, loaded the palominos, and transported them to the farthest-away field where he left them and the trailer.
The consequence of such deceptions quickly became evident. Merle was unhappy to be involved in the dishonesty. "That man is something," he complained, and he didn't stay much longer in Mr. Eustis' employment. That fall he moved to his own farm of 135 acres near Clarksville and expressed pleasure at severing his ties with Mr. Eustis, but he also said, "God bless him. He's loyal as an old dog and has a heart of gold. You know he loaned me money to buy this place. Basically, he's really a good man."
What stuck in Merle's craw, as Merle himself might have said, was Mr. Eustis' mockery of Merle's and his wife’s religiosity. They were serious about it and Mr. Eustis was not, as shown by his occasional jibes, particularly at our noon meals, which Merle's wife prepared and served. These lunches were often a stage for Mr. Eustis to tell a lengthy story that involved sexual innuendoes. He would laugh at his punch lines, prompting Jim and me to laugh, prompting Merle at the other end of the table to smile and nod, prompting Merle's wife to flit between kitchen and table, working herself into an objection that was never very direct. "Now, Francis, do you really think young boys should hear such things?"
Her objection would prompt a similar reply every time. "Damn right they ought to hear it, Rebecca. They're almost men. If they don't know the facts of life, they ought to. Right, boys?"
We'd nod and grin.
Rebecca's creamy neck and face would flush, she would glance at us as if in despair, then hurry into her kitchen as if for some new serving. Mr. Eustis respected and admired her though, as shown by the fact that she was the only one I ever heard address him by his first name.
The jokes from Mr. Eustis at the noon meal not only titillated but also upset me. They didn't seem appropriate in front of a woman like Rebecca, but I'd always conclude that Mr. Eustis was trying to fit in by entertaining us. However, his actions did take advantage of his employer-employee relationship with Merle. Maybe he felt guilty about that. Maybe quilt led him to loan Merle money to buy a farm.
My connection to this gentleman farmer ended in a bittersweet and odd way, adding to the complicated nature I observed in the man. Our agreement was to pay me in lump sum for the whole summer's work, and he came to my home on a Saturday to do it, having forgotten to bring his checkbook to the farm the day before. He came in our front door, met my mother, and she left us to conduct our business alone. I offered him a seat, which he refused, saying in a serious voice that he'd decided I should receive $35 not $50 per week because I'd left work early, at 4:30 P.M., one or two days each week to play baseball.
My eyes widened. "That was part of our agreement."
He pulled a checkbook from his shirt pocket. “I don't remember talking about it. Now for 10 weeks of working, my calculations make your pay 350 dollars. Right?”
I was about to object when Mom stormed into the living room with a broom in both hands. She'd been in the kitchen, supposedly sweeping the floor but in fact listening. Mr. Eustis had pen poised over his checkbook when she said, "What kind of man are you, trying to cheat a child out of a few dollars? Did you agree to pay him 50 dollars a week?"
"Well, yes, but...."
"Then you owe Bill exactly five hundred dollars, as agreed." She shook the broom to emphasize the amount.
He put pen to checkbook, gave me the check, shook my right hand, thanked me, and left.
As the sound of his footsteps faded along our walkway, confusion surged through me. Mom said, "Bill, you have to develop a backbone and stand up for yourself. Otherwise people will take advantage of you. I won't always be here, you know. You'd better get some gumption."
"Gumption's got nothing to do with it." I hated severing ties with Mr. Eustis that way. I was sure I’d explained to him about getting off early to play ball. He’d probably forgotten that detail in our discussion. I also didn’t believe he was trying to cheat me. More likely he was trying to be fair as he saw it. Heck, he might have been trying to teach me a lesson in business. Then again, however, so was Mom.
There was a lot more to the man than I experienced, of course, but I learned no more about him until the Cincinnati Enquirer's August 5, 1996, obituary. Mr. Eustis died 84 years old. He'd been only 46 years old when I'd known him, the age of my father at his death, relatively young although at the time I'd thought of them both as old. He'd graduated from "the Yale School of Fine Arts" and "in the early 1960s" begun "his art career." That was a few years after I'd seen two of his early animal studies. Since those days, his art had become "renowned worldwide," with "a permanent exhibit" of his "finely detailed sculptures...on display in the Netherlands," the Cincinnati Zoo, which houses his sculpture of its "famous gorilla King Tut," and Lexington's International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park, which maintains the Francis Eustis Gallery and "features an exhibit of one of his favorite breeds, the draft horse."
My observations of Mr. Eustis lasted a short part of one summer and involved personal contact with him only at work. But he was a father-figure to me. He had flaws, yes, everyone has flaws. His may have included an aloofness that allowed him to dominate, impose on and even belittle others in an offhanded way. However, these traits seemed minor. His positive side seemed much more important. Mr. Eustis modeled for me several admirable qualities. He was good hearted, generous, talented, aware of the beauty in ordinary things, hardworking, self-directed, and certainly rich in many ways other than money.

The Francis Eustis Gallery online displays the wide range of Francis Eustis art.

"Clydesdale" by Francis W. Eustis
Bill Vernon
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, and then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town in 2005, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Recent publications include two other Gentleman Farmer stories at The Circle Review and Quarterlife Quarterly.

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