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Roland Sandel, Farmer

by davesandel on July 12th, 2020

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 12, 2020              (today’s lectionary)

Roland Sandel, Farmer

If there are any farmers in the house, today’s lectionary is for them.

Dad was born in 1922, first son into a farming family. He enlisted in the US Army in 1943 and served as a cryptographer in the Signal Corps with MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, where he sent the telegram announcing the end of World War II. Before that he calculated artillery angles in the battles of Guam, Okinawa and the Philippines. Back across the Pacific in 1946, he signed up for the GI Bill and got top grades and an accounting degree from the University of Illinois.

Before he left the army Dad met a wannabe girlfriend named Lenore in New Jersey. But back home and starting college in Urbana, he met and courted Angie Brummer, another Lincoln-bred student. They rode home together on weekends. They dated, and in his pocket journal Dad kept track of the money he was saving to buy her a ring. In 1948 they were married at Zion Lutheran Church, and after a year working as an accountant for Farm Service, Dad returned to the life he lived as a child.

He became a farmer again.

Every morning Dad dressed in Levi’s and a denim blue workshirt. Sitting out on the back porch,  he laced up scarred, worn brown leather work shoes over gray and white cotton socks that lost their shape after a few washes. Almost every day he pulled on four-buckle rubber boots.

He rarely took off those shoes until after supper … after milking the cows in the evening, after mowing weeds or shoveling manure or baling hay all afternoon, after a twenty minute nap, after lunch, after working an hour or so in his ledger, after breakfast, after milking the cows in the morning.

Our herd of Holsteins, like every herd of Holsteins, was famous for each cow’s insistence on being milked twice a day, 365 days a year. Dad did their bidding for twenty years. He woke up, never with an alarm, at 4 a.m. and went to bed at 9 or 10 at night.

When our farming family of five left for our annual August vacation, Dad’s pants and shirt and socks and shoes all changed. He wore sports clothes. He tied on softer shoes with shorter laces. And he got up, never with an alarm, at 5. It may be that even on vacation he grew restless after a few hours of sleep, because his system was charged up to work, to get things done.

Still, he said he really enjoyed those solitary morning hours, with cows or without them, more than any other part of the day.

For many years Dad’s favorite radio program lasted five minutes in the morning, in the barn. Sometimes he sat down on a white, fly-specked chair under the radio to listen. The cows ate the corn Dad had ground for them, chewed the hay he had baled, and the hydraulic milkers hummed. “A Seed from the Sower” settled his soul.

When Margaret and I tried our hand at farming a few years after we married, he told us never to think or plan for just one year, but always to think of five. Nothing is predictable about farming, it’s even worse than politics. And there is no compromising with the weather, only waiting for it to change. Like the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle, farming often involves five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (DABDA).

Only his psychologist, acronym-prone son would say it that way, of course. Dad smiled his shy, sideways grin and simply said what he must have heard God say,

Be patient, let the crops grow in their own time, rest when you can. Learn from your own parents’ mistakes, and make fewer of them, or at least different ones. Don’t do much on the Sabbath, and pray before every meal.

Come Lord Jesus, be our guest

Let these gifts to us be blessed.

After lunch, in the field or in the house, he laid down for twenty minutes on the bed or under the tractor. He slept on his stomach, legs straight out. He never took off his shoes.

Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down

To give seed to the sower and bread to those who need it

So my word shall not return to me void

But achieve the end for I have sent it.

In the spring there might be droughts or floods. Sometimes the long spring days dragged on when, as Dad said, planting time was worth a thousand dollars an hour. He had to wait. And then the same thing at harvest time. Once in December I came home from Valparaiso University for Christmas and helped harvest the corn, which was usually put up by the middle of October. But that fall it rained and rained. The standing water  finally froze in the fields, and the combine could make it through.

Really, five years was not nearly long enough. Decade after decade, Dad farmed his fields, milked his cows, herded a few hogs. Mom raised chickens and canned vegetables, and Dad planted potatoes and cucumbers behind the house. In August every year we took a trip, to the Ozarks, to Wisconsin Dells, to Holland, Michigan, New York City, Washington DC. Dad’s brother Uncle Merlie, who farmed just a couple miles away until he became an elementary school superintendent, milked our cows while we were away. Then when Merlie and Gloria took a trip with their three girls, Dad milked his cows.

Margaret met my dad at a square dance practice. They both loved the music and they loved to dance. He enticed her with a smiling, low-key invitation to help him weed beans Monday morning. Mid-July, Margaret had no idea what she was in for. Those beautiful green bean fields undulated in the breeze. Mornings are beautiful and cool, even in July. Why not?

But on Monday morning the breeze was heavy and quickly getting hot. Their conversation softened the blow of the summer sun. Plus, Margaret works hard like Dad did, and he really liked that. He just really liked her.

That first day the two of them and my brother John had two other helpers, teenagers who threw up at the end of the field and missed more weeds than they cut. Dad frowned, Margaret teased him a little, he relaxed. The breeze failed them midway through the morning. Next day the boys did not come back, to everyone’s relief. But Margaret stuck it out for a couple of weeks until the work was done. She even brought her friend Cindy out to help.

Years before I weeded beans, too. Until I left for college Dad paid me $25 a week to help with chores, and more in the bean season. My money bought gas for my ’56 Chevy, until it lost every gear except reverse. The bean money was for the county fair – for Cullers French Fries, corn dogs, lemon shake ups. As the sun set and the day cooled off, my girlfriend Nancy and I took pictures of each other and rode the rides. The midway music played. I’m sure I won at least one stuffed bear for her.

Not just one year, not just five, but decades. Dad and I did not get along when I was a kid, but that changed when I got out on my own. In my late 20’s, back home after a number of mostly miscarried adventures, Dad suggested strongly that Margaret would make a very very very fine wife. I took his advice, she hesitated, but then said yes.

You have crowned the year with your bounty

Your paths overflow with a rich harvest

The untilled meadows overflow

And rejoicing clothes the hills.

Logan County in those days was blanketed with four crops. Corn and soybeans rotated with alfalfa and oats, or wheat. There really were untilled meadows in every direction, and those perfect green squares blinked bright and beautiful from the air. Back on the ground I could lie down in those summer fields and listen to the wind, listen to the earth, close my eyes and feel the seeds from the sower falling right into my mind.

We shout and sing for joy.

Whatever sufferings there may be now,

They are nothing

Compared with the glory to be revealed for us.

In our living room we had a fine furniture cabinet hi-fi, made of blond wood. Mom played big black records – classical music,  John Philip Sousa marches, and American folk music. Every three months our family of five got dressed up for a Friday night Community Concert. Once we saw Ferrante and Teicher play their two white pianos, and we heard Victor Borge make musical jokes with his piano and sing songs that made no sense. He had a wonderful European accent. It became clear to me that there was a very big wide world outside the borders of the life I’d so far lived.

Creation waits with eager expectation

To share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.

That parable Jesus tells today? About the rocky ground and thorny soil? Our farm was rich! There were waterways and drainage tiles in all the right places with nary a rock. The topsoil was a foot thick (not 350 feet thick like under the old cotton fields of the Delta in Mississippi, but still!). Mr. Lauer, our John Deere dealer, kept Dad’s tractor and planter and mower and cultivator and disc and harrow and plow working, especially during those thousand dollar hours of spring and fall, until my brother John grew up. After that John fixed a lot of stuff while Dad followed behind and put the tools away.

Some seed is sown on rich soil.

And those seeds flourish, as do those who hear my word and understand it

They will bear fruit and yield a hundred fold.

I could never plant straight rows in the days before computer-driven tractors, and so it was hard for Dad to plow those crooked rows later in the summer. He kept hoping I would concentrate a little more, focus a little harder, but I never really did.

With the boundless energy of a young ex-soldier and new father and husband, often before bed Dad read a devotion to us from Little Visits with God. Really, Mom was the Lutheran, but he took to it like a duck to water. Years later he attended a Kogudus Lutheran Renewal retreat, and then became a charismatic Lutheran (yes there is such a thing!), and at his funeral he asked us to sing his favorite gospel song, “I’ll Fly Away,” which he knew well from Christian conferences with Mom and bluegrass festivals with me. I played my guitar and Margaret and I sang right through the song. It felt like a tribute.

After all those years of slogging through beanfields and shoveling manure, of praying and singing and napping twenty minutes every day, he followed his own advice. He just up and flew away.

We loved him so.

            (Isaiah 55, Psalm 65, Romans 8, Matthew 13)

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9 Comments
  1. Maggie Brooks permalink

    Thank you for sharing your Dad’s story. I always enjoy hearing bits of stories of life you have shared with Margaret. She is a very special woman and she and I have shared many happy times and a few sad ones during our growing up years. We both lost a parent all too early. You have been blessed to have found each other.

    • davesandel permalink

      Thanks, Maggie. Since you and Margaret met, you and your family have been a blessing to her every day of her life.

  2. Merln Sandel permalink

    David…what a great article…your dad was definitely a farmer down to his soul. I think that was all that he wanted to do with his life. He was happy doing that. Even as kids he said that was what he wanted to do. It’s sad that he had to be taken away so soon, but I guess we have no say in that. It would be great if we could pass on at the same time as our mate, but it very seldom works that way. You article brings back many memories of my time on the farm. I have to say it was a lot of hard work and no time off and you have only yourself to depend on. On the other hand, there is a sort of a sense of accomplishment when I look back on it, but I have never reg
    Retted our decision to leave the farm. Thank you for the article, Love Uncle Merlie

    • davesandel permalink

      Hi Uncle Merlie,
      Your comment that was a farmer down to his soul made me cry. And made me think of how that was so clearly true, when most of us around him just weren’t that interested. That’s what makes me cry, I think, that I didn’t think about things from his point of view until so much later in his life.

  3. Linda Schaefer permalink

    Thank you for your thoughts about your father. My father was also a farmer at heart, although he earned a living as a barber. Both were men of God. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • davesandel permalink

      Thank you, Linda.
      I wonder if you have read Wendell Berry’s book about a barber. His book, and barber, were called Jayber Crow. Farming and barbering are intricately woven together in his book.

  4. Betty G permalink

    What a Wonderful tribute to your Dad and family. A great reminder to grow with the seasons given to us. So happy to hear receive your link; I think of you quite often. If you want a ride in that 56 Chevy…I know where one’s hiding. It’s the model my Pat learned to drive in (and the 1st car his dad bought brand new!) Love and Light.

  5. davesandel permalink

    Thanks, Betty! I am amazed you still have a 56 chevy. It would be grand to visit and even see the car. I hope we will make that happen one of these days.

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