Postcard from the end of America: Don Hensley in Huntingburg, Indiana

I’ve prowled around Gary, relaxed in New Harmony and explored downtown Indianapolis after midnight. There is a bronze statue of John Wooden. Kneeling and suited, the basketball coach is surrounded by five young pairs of male legs, their bodies disappearing above the pelvis. It is very creepy and gay. One of these days, I must barge into the dismal looking Whistle Stop, just across the street from Indianapolis’ Greyhound station. I need to see more of Indiana, that’s for sure.

In New Harmony, I ate a brain sandwich at the Yellow Tavern, then gave a talk about utopia at the opera house. Out of towners and locals were equally receptive. I concluded, “Why this fear of the unmediated experience, the direct experience? Maybe we can’t stand how beautiful life really is. I think the way to move forward is to say no to these interruptions, to these barriers. It might not be utopia but it’s better than what we have right now.”

The one friend I have in Indiana, I haven’t met in person. On July 31, 2015, 62-year-old Don Hensley emailed to say he appreciated my articles. Then, “Our family farm is gone and I’m the last from the old homestead. Dad made me and my twin brother promise to find any other job but farming. He used to joke that the only certain way he knew to become a millionaire farming was to start out with $10M . . . You’ve made me shed a tear more than once, but I’m left feeling that I’ve met people I never would have. Home, a job, family and food on the table is really all most of us hope for out of life.”

Our subsequent email conversation has revealed a world I know so little about, being a city dweller for most of my life. With automation, fewer farm hands are needed than ever, and most of those who are still bent over under the sun are fresh arrivals from Latin America, Jamaica and even Thailand. Indoctrinated into the semantics of cement and asphalt, most Americans are entirely divorced from animal logics, fresh manure and plant husbandry. Even growing tomatoes has become a mystery, much less plucking and gutting a chicken.

Don is retired and lives with his wife, Deb, in Huntingburg, six miles from Dale, where he was born. His remembrances are too interesting not to share. With a pair of dollar store scissors and Elmer’s glue, I’ve cut and pasted them into this configuration:

“Some of my fondest memories are of the little tin-roofed log cabin Dad let us build back in the woods. We built a small sandstone fireplace outside, the pot-bellied stove was just for cold weather.

“No honor could be bestowed on me to compete with the feeling of sitting in my favorite spot with beans & franks simmering near the fire while reading a book and listening to the baby squirrels run up and down the tree at my back while a mama rabbit and her little ones watched from just a few feet away.

“I’ve never been in any religious institution that felt more hallowed than that little woods during a heavy snow. :)

“Heavy lifting for me started at the age of 10. During the winter Dad kept the cattle’s access to the water trough penned off. That was so that they wouldn’t get hurt in the frozen muck around it (that’s what you have kids for) so that meant we had to water them at night when we got home from school (Dad worked swing shift at ALCOA). At that age I only weighed about 70 lbs. A 5-gallon bucket of water is about 40 lbs so that meant that each trip I was carrying about my body weight to the barn through about 12″-16″ of a mixture of slush/mud/cowsh*t that wanted to pull your boot off with each step. Dad always kept around 100 head of cattle, that’s a lot of thirsty animals when they’ve gone all day without water. Since my brother was the ‘chosen twin,’ you can imagine who pretty well always made the most trips.

“Picking up hay, I was on the wagon handling every bale while my brother walked along with the guys from town grabbing every 6th or 7th. Back at the barn it was the same. I fed the elevator while Danny was in the loft. On a 100 degree day the peak of a hayloft is about 7 degrees hotter than H*11!

“Every time I ever brought up getting any kind of pay, I always got the same smart*ss remark, ‘You ate breakfast this morning, didn’t you?’

“I’ve lost track of how many malignant skin tumors I’ve had removed, as well as two basal cell carcinomas and three squamous cell carcinomas on my scalp and face from all the years in the sun.

“My nose was broken three times before I started the first grade at 5 years old. Dad had told me early in life that I wasn’t welcome when he and Danny left for the day to go to farm sales and auctions. That left me at home with a psychopathic b*tch many times my size that always said that if I wasn’t going with my father and brother, I d*mned sure wasn’t sitting on my lazy *ss.

“Mom used to stand behind me as I washed dishes and critique every piece before it was allowed to go into the strainer. A fleck of food between the teeth of a fork or on the back of a plate got me a mixing spoon or whatever was handy.

“It’s taken me many years to come to grips with it. Knowing that you are messed up is one thing, knowing why is another . . . I really AM a spiritual person, so when people heavily into the Bible want to give me words of encouragement, I accept them because of the intent in which they’re given . . .

“My last breakdown (my 3rd) was considered a medical miracle. It kept a 5 or 6 man team working around the clock to try to figure out. My wife Deb was under tremendous pressure early on the third day to sign the papers and let them turn the machines off. They kept insisting that once you go to less than 5% brain stem function, there is no coming back. My only prognosis was as a vegetable . . . Then, once again, I came back after six days of being ‘brain dead.’ The lead doctor made the remark that, since they had no answers as to the beginning of the episode or the recovery, he was totally fine with the word miracle.

“The years of beatings and physical and emotional abuse left me damaged, absolutely . . . Under periods of great stress I go into what they call a dissociative disorder and the change is so subtle that only a very few that know me are even aware of it.

“You ask about animal cruelty. The general public is unaware that what is seen in the mainstream media is almost always in connection with ‘factory farming.’ Sometimes, religion is also partly to blame. A man who holds the conviction that we are to have dominion over all the animals of Creation isn’t going to form emotional attachments to any of his livestock. By the same token, an employee at a factory farm holds no more value in a turkey/hog/cow/horse than a furniture factory employee does a center drawer or a modesty panel. It is the slow death of the family farm that is creating the kind of environment that leads to incidents like what you’ve seen in the news.

“None of the cattle on our farm had any way of knowing it, but they all lived on a ‘Cow Country Club’ in comparison to most other farms. During warm weather they were cycled through three different pastures each with fresh water from a creek and plenty of shade. They could still come to the barn to take advantage of the salt block and mineral block as well as use the back scratcher apparatus that had a large hemp rope saturated with an oily insect repellent to deal with the spots bugs like to bite where a cow couldn’t reach with their tail. There was also always some kind of hay in the mangers. For instance, to them, the stubble left after soybeans have been harvested was like a candy treat. Dad would bale it so during the summer they had variety in their diet that they also happened to love (unlike factory farm beef which has little room to move around and is only fed corn). Two other things they looked forward to were the ground corn cobs Dad would buy at the mill in bulk (& which I got to help shovel onto the truck) and, believe it or not, they loved to see that Deb and I were coming down to camp. After we’d packed up and gone home, Dad would let them into the woods for a day or two and every bit of ashes from our camp fire would be gone. There are some kind of minerals in the ashes that cows crave to the point of fighting over!

“The news footage of factory farm abuse is much more upsetting when you have firsthand knowledge of just how intelligent some livestock are. We had one heifer we named Curly because of her forehead and she was far too bright for her own good. Dad had one of the old electric fences that are illegal now. They called them ‘weed-burners’ for good reason. The hair on my arms is standing up as I type this just at the memory . . . If you pulled up something green that was long enough to drop over the wire and still have one end grounded, it would sit there and sizzle until it had burned all the way through your weed.

“Dad sent Curly to market because she figured out that after a driving wind with rain she could walk the electric fence and put her ear down by the glass insulator on the metal post. If she heard buzzing, she knew the wire was still ‘hot.’ When she found one that was silent, she knew the fence had shorted out and would walk down a bit and then just walk through the fence knocking it to the ground. After one too many times of rounding up his cattle in a neighbor’s crops during a summer storm, Curly lost a good home.

“Just something to think about the next time you see a news item about livestock abuse. They are far more self-aware than a lot of people realize.

“Farmers have to be a combination of veterinarian/accountant/lawyer/weatherman & have a working knowledge of a slew of other fields that don’t come to mind at the moment, yet they’re held in such low regard. A foreman I used to work under insisted that ALL farmers were much more wealthy than they’d ever let on. A direct quote . . . ‘I’ve never heard a G*d D*mned farmer admit that he’d had a GOOD year!’

“People would steal from farmers and think nothing of it. Anybody living in town would go nuts if a farmer parked out front and stripped an entire row of vegetables from their garden or carefully selected blooms from their landscaping to put together a bouquet for his wife’s birthday or their anniversary, but each “corn on the cob season,” 8 to 10 rows of corn would be stripped from the nothern edge of Dad’s field. People from town would fill an entire car trunk with ears of corn and feel no guilt because Dad obviously ‘had plenty.’

“I’ve had a deep dislike for Bill Maher after the night (several years ago) when he quipped on CNN’s Larry King Live, ‘I’ve never understood why farmers should get special treatment just because they happen to live in the middle of a big garden.’

“Guess he thinks all that happens by itself, just like magic. If he had to buy the building, furnishing, media equipment and all the other necessities in order to get paid to sit and smirk at the camera, I might have a little respect for him. As it is, I just figure he’s not getting enough fiber in his diet . . .

“We have a nationally known poultry processing plant just outside Huntingburg. Over the years I’ve heard some pretty gruesome stories from guys that have worked there (like sticking gross things inside the giblets package, spitting phlegm or tobacco juice into the body cavity). The worst, though, is something that the ‘hangers’ (the guys that take the birds out of the truck and hang them by the ankles on the brackets on the chain feeding them into the plant) know is impossible to get caught at unless someone in authority sees you do it. If a bird fights back and the hanger is mad at it he will grab it by the wings with it facing away from him and jerk back, breaking its spine and making it impossible to carve. If you get one of those turkeys all you can do is pull the meat off the bones with your fingers. The ribs will be splayed outward in some places and in at others.

“I’ve never hunted and the only fishing I enjoy is catch and release. I have never been in a (physical) fight in my life. There have been shouting matches and times that I was pushed and threatened but I’ve always found a way to somehow either defuse the situation or vacate the area. One of the reasons all the present day violent talk gets to me so much is the idea of having to seriously hurt someone else in defense of myself or my family.

“At graduation (1970), I enrolled at United Electronics Institute in Louisville, KY. You did the first six months by mail and only those who met the grade requirements got to finish out the last year and a half down there. My grades were near perfect, but Dad informed me that he not only didn’t believe in college but didn’t believe in going into debt to go, either. So I lost all of the money I’d saved up by picking up hay for other local farmers for 50 to 75 cents an hour. I would have been perfectly positioned for the coming tech revolution. . . . :(

“I worked for Insight Systems. Part of the reason I was hired was because of all the modding I had done on my Atari computers. At a time when a new IBM compatible only came with 256K of memory and a monitor that let you display two colors (as long as one of them was black [Big Grin], I’d already heavily modified my Atari 400. I replaced the membrane keyboard with a third party, full-stroke keyboard and tripled the internal memory (16K to 48K). Once I proved to my boss that even the first little 16K Atari could put 256 colors on a TV by running a simple little ten line BASIC program, he offered me a job.

“Other than about 4 years when I did IT support, I got trapped in the furniture industry much like those in Detroit fell into the black hole of the auto industry (without the benefits of anything like the UAW . . . ). Now I just get by on SSD with too many physical problems to mention. It isn’t as if I wasn’t industrious or hungry, I’ve been a lead-man, a foreman and the Customer Service Manager of a local Value Added Reseller.

“What it comes down to is something that I was told about 30 years ago . . . ‘Your Life will be much simpler once you accept the fact that we are all Dixie Cups. Nobody in their right mind ever patches a Dixie Cup. They are a dime a dozen. Throw it away and get another . . . !’ :(

“My wife’s cousin and her husband both have taken bus routes to supplement their farm’s income. Around here drivers are locked in at the beginning of the school year and there have been times when, because of fluctuations in fuel prices, they have lost money every time they start a bus. My wife and I don’t know anyone who isn’t struggling in one way or another. Maybe that’s why I appreciate your articles so much.

“The recession during the Carter years was brutal. Many people today don’t know that the country went through a financial crisis during the late Nixon-Carter years that the country has never recovered from. Double digit inflation is something that doesn’t reset after a recovery. I am much more than sad for what has happened to our country, I am heartbroken.

“They were hard times but I still marvel at the change we’ve had in our country. My pay grade was 2nd from the bottom, yet a family of three could live on my 40-hour check. Years ago Deb found our old budget box and we could feed three on $13 a week. I filled up my 1965 Plymouth Fury III for a shade over $25 once a month (25-gallon gas tank). Even at that, though, we were falling behind. We had all the bills everybody else does and there was more going out than coming in. I finally swallowed my pride and went to check on some kind of assistance. We got turned down four times!

“That’s when I got stubborn, broke out my guitar and started doing every pickup job I could find. When I had my first nervous breakdown I was 6’1” and weighed 1181bs.

“Maybe I should have sent back that big $25 wedding present Mom & Dad gave us for a rainy day . . .

“We struggled to live within our means. That usually meant we were broke by Saturday morning. Everybody I owed money to got SOMETHING and that meant there were weeks when we had literally less than $5 to live on. For the first ten years we were married we got by with a 13” Western Auto TV. (Yeah, I know . . . Wish I still had it. They’re collector’s items now!)

“Deb knew before we were married that I would never be wearing a wedding band . . . I know three farmers that lost their ring fingers in accidents. Just in case you don’t keep up with the Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon recently tripped at home and caught his ring on the counter on the way to the floor. He was very, very lucky they could save it. None of the guys I know had that chance.

“A ring is just a ring and my guitar meant too much to me to risk just because of a tradition. On our 30th anniversary I offered to have one tattooed on, but she didn’t like the idea.

“Reading about Bernie Sanders having his speech hijacked reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write you about my thoughts on the young lady (black rapper) and her comments about hating America and those ‘white farmers sitting out there in the Midwest.’”

[On August 8, 2015, two belligerent Black Lives Matter activists prevented Sanders, our most liberal presidential candidate, from delivering a speech in Seattle. As for the rapper, Don is referring to 23-year-old Azeala Banks. Interviewed by Playboy, she declares, “I hate everything about this country. Like, I hate fat white Americans. All the people who are crunched into the middle of America, the real fat and meat of America, are these racist conservative white people who live on their farms.”]

“I have no animus toward her because our life experience has been so different that we might as well live on different planets. How could I possibly be mad at someone I will never meet just because there’s no way she’ll ever have a clue?

“Ever since our oldest grandson first came home from college wanting to lecture everyone about our ‘White Privilege’ it’s been a pet peeve of mine. He’s now 25 and out of college. He’s always been bright.

“The first time that we had a conversation that I filed away for future reference was when he’d just started his freshman year of high school. I don’t remember exactly which celebration it was, but we were enjoying the visit and chatting about all the usual stuff. Someone brought up a topic that included taxation and I’d just said how I felt about it when he looked up at me and said, ‘Grandpa . . . Goods and services cost money.’

“This insight was delivered as if the thought had never occurred to me. I just made a mental note that we’d reached a milestone in his growth, but I said nothing to discourage him. The only advice that I give without reservation and often is that, should you find yourself in the presence of someone claiming to have all the answers, run like H*11 the other way because you are talking to either a willful liar or a fool!

“I was taken aback the first time I was ‘made aware’ of the fantastic boon that my White Privilege had been in my life. I wish I could remember where I read this quote, because it couldn’t be more appropriate than describing what passes for a ‘Higher Learning’ in 2015 America. ‘After a certain point, education becomes indistinguishable from indoctrination.’

“My twin brother and I graduated from high school in 1970. There were still lynching and other atrocities happening as we moved up from grade school. The memory of the country during the ‘60s is still fresh in my mind.

“Just so you understand the irony, shortly after seeing Hendrix perform at Robert’s Stadium in Evansville, Indiana, in ‘70 I moved to Nashville hoping to find a miracle. A tiny miracle would have suited me just fine. Between the Musicians’ Union and the good ol’ boy network, I couldn’t even find someone to let me sweep a studio floor!

“It wasn’t a total washout, though. In short order I made some friends. I met three black brothers (actual siblings) in Centennial Park during a weekend music festival. We became close friends and they were a tremendous help because I had no car and if I had, I probably would have become hopelessly lost, anyway.

“After a while I got the chance to meet their younger sister. We were the same age and Nashville suddenly became a much more enjoyable place to be visiting. With very little money, I couldn’t invite her out for much but it was nice to have a pretty girl to share a pizza with or catch a movie.

“Oh yeah, remember that ‘White Privilege’ things. B-U-L-L-S-H-*-T!!!! A majority of what my grandson was telling me has absolutely to connection to Nashville in 1970.

“Depending on where we went, her big brothers either made it known they had my back or wound up making it VERY clear to someone that messing with their sister meant messing with them. Having chaperons is not always a bad thing. Besides, we were just friends and we both knew that however long it lasted, it would still be temporary.

“Telling me about how I can walk anywhere I want because of my skin color is ludicrous. When we went to the youth center, her brothers even told me that they had my back, but not to take it personal if they seemed a little different. If anything happened, they’d step up in a heartbeat but I should watch myself, anyway. There were only three or four other white guys there but I wound up mostly just losing at pool with some friends of theirs and sitting at the booth nursing a soft drink.

“The inevitable finally happened . . . I got to meet Yvonne’s dad. I hadn’t PLANNED on meeting her dad and he SURE hadn’t wanted to meet me!! We reached an agreement in short order and my Privilege didn’t afford me the chance to even tell her goodbye . . .

“I know now it wasn’t true, but hearing that Hendrix had died of a drug overdose was like a kick to the gut. ‘So how do you feel about your hero now? F*cked up, didn’t he?’ Those *ssholes I roomed with had to turn on the radio before I would believe them. I went to the closest liquor store and bought a six-pack of Colt 45 tall boys and sat up listening to the marathon tribute a local stations was playing.

“That was it for me as far as Nashville was concerned. I had to get out of there. When I called Mom & Dad about getting back to Indiana, Dad said that if I’d come back he’d get me a full-time job working for a local farmer.

“Sometimes it feels like my entire life has been one long ‘Good News/Bad News’ joke . . . Yeah, Dad had a job lined up. I went to work for an elderly farmer and his wife who had a small farm on the county line. It was eight hours a day, five days a week for $1 an hour. Thankfully they were wonderful people and his wife fix noon meals that were so good they should have been illegal. But then Friday came and my ‘White Privilege’ kicked in again. Mom was waiting at the door and deducted rent, laundry, groceries and utilities from that $40 check! By the time I put gas in my motorcycle, I worked all week in the dirt and the heat for $3 or $4 a week! Oh Yeah, and I was still ‘Privileged’ to pick up hay for free whenever Dad baled.

“When my wife & I got married our ‘wedding gift’ was $25. :( I WILL NOT stand and let someone lecture me about how I don’t know what it’s like to be oppressed and taken advantage of.

“There’s no need to list cliches our grandson came home reciting. I’m sick of hearing them and seeing them all over the media and even sicker of the idea that college takes bright young minds and sends back well indoctrinated malcontents that have forgotten what they originally went for in the first place! He’d wanted a career related to oceanography but came home a self-styled econo-anarchist, whatever the H*11 that’s supposed to be. He lists his current occupation as ‘Struggle & Resist’!

“Every person I meet is treated as a potential friend until they show me otherwise. I don’t intentionally hurt anyone and am quick to sincerely apologize if I accidentally offend someone. That’s really all you can do. The past is behind. How can we ever see the kind of future that the likes of Dr. King envisioned if we’re always looking behind instead of forward? This country is in for some really, really rough times . . .

“The next time you are on a bus trip do keep an eye out for something. When we are on the road and I see a pile of weathered wood and rusted tin that used to be the barn roof sitting next to a bleak little house still bravely trying to stand and surrounded by crops with no lane going back to it, my heart always breaks a little. There was a time when those paint-less grey walls contained all of someone’s hopes and dreams and the wall echoed with laughter and the slap of bare baby steps . . .

“That is another reason I avoid big cities. I see the rows of run down houses crammed together, most likely owned by some slumlord who has as little respect for the houses as he does the people renting from him, and the thought of trying to have a life and family without ever having a place that felt truly your home is so oppressive I can feel it eating away at my spirit.

“It really is my idea of H*11 on Earth and I wish with all my heart that I were a wise enough man to have some answers.”

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.

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2 Responses to Postcard from the end of America: Don Hensley in Huntingburg, Indiana

  1. Wow. Great read. Bill Maher is an idiot and worse an operative for the Democratic party division of the empire. As for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) chicks, they don’t have a freaking clue about what they are doing much less the farmers who grow the food they stuff in their guts. Word to Ms. Banks: black people live on farms and in rural America too. And this black person is sick of urbanites like her acting as if that is not the case. The BLM has already been hijacked/financed/managed by the Democratic party. Check out the last couple of editions of blackagendareport.com where editor Bruce Dixon provides a stinging critique of the latest dog and pony show.

  2. It’s nice to meet you. A very good point about blacks farming, too. Currently, we have a society that seems to deliberately stress the negative and then use the feedback in order to have a self-sustaining cycle of bitterness and hatred.

    Just yesterday I was think of one of my best friends (I’ve lost 3 in the last 5 years, 2 to cancer and he died of complications due to hepatitis). The second to last job I had before I had to admit that I wasn’t able to go on working due to my health, “M” and I worked just steps from each other. He was a hard working, sweet natured guy with a heart a mile wide.

    Because our plant was going through periods of low hours, he fell behind on his child support and was sentenced to work release. The town to our N is Jasper, IN. At one time the jail was known for the sheriff’s wife’s cooking. He retired years ago and the work release annex has nothing but vending machines.

    Since the guy that he rode with was charging him per day, I talked it over with my wife and started bringing a couple of extra generic sodas, a couple of extra sandwiches and a bit of an extra snack in my lunch bucket. M had a very physical job and we often jumped in to help each other when something was too big for one guy to handle. I wasn’t about to watch him go all day with no real food. (His closest family was miles away) After a couple of weeks he started giving me $5 a week to cover costs (not that we worried about it).

    I was surprised at how personally I was hurt when one of the women on hour line asked me, “What are you trying to prove?”

    Honestly, the question went over my head. When she made it clear that the question’s basis had everything to do with M being black, I had to walk away… The rest of the day I was deeply depressed.

    How have we come to the point in this country that you can’t help a friend when they need it? That’s what friends do! There is an underground spring that runs under the old homestead down at the farm and as far back as my great-grandfather’s neighbors knew they could come during drought and draw water from the well. The idea of charging money was never an issue.