35 / 365 – Misunderstandings

TOM TILLARY

People don’t understand anything. I’m surrounded by people who don’t understand what’s going on, people who I try to be good to, people who I want to be good to. But they don’t understand anything, and they keep creating disasters that I’m supposed to help clean up.

I get it. I get that it’s hard to live in this town. There aren’t a lot of choices. You can be a farmer. We see how well that’s working out for most people. You can go broke slowly and hit retirement with nothing to show for it and no prospects. You can have one of the little businesses that tries to hang on, manage the Home of Economy store, work at the truck stop. You can work at my plant, however long that will last. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that it’s a losing proposition to be assembling planting and seeding machinery out in the middle of the northern prairie, that this won’t last forever, that pretty soon somebody is going to start building these in Juárez or China and then everybody else will have to do the same thing or go out of business.

The union doesn’t even get this. They have that trailer set up over there in the parking lot — which they can do, I haven’t fought it at all. They’ve got signs out, they’ve got second-shift guys walking around the gate in the morning, scaring my staff, getting that doofus of a reporter from the Tribune all worked up about how the wages are supposedly so low, how it’s unfair we get tax subsidies from the state and the county and then we don’t pass on any of that to the workers. Well, if we didn’t get those, there would be no reason they’d have put the plant here. Yeah, we wanted the plant here because guys (and women, yeah) in this part of the country work damned hard. But there are lots of other places across the midwest and the farm belt that would love to have a plant in their town employing a few hundred people. All these towns are dying — small-town America is a dying way of life — and so a plant like this can keep a town going. But the union wants to ruin it — they’ll tip the equation just far enough that it will make sense to close it. They’ll hold us over a barrel until we give them the wages they’re demanding, and then they’ll all be out of jobs. Then we’ll ask, How did that work out for you? They just don’t understand anything.

It’s like this whole thing about holding on to the family property. We wouldn’t even be here if people hadn’t whined about somebody needing to hang on to the family farm. Of course, all of them had moved off to Fargo or Grand Forks and they weren’t thinking of coming back. But it’s, “Oh, Tom, you can take care of it.” I had a good thing going after college, out near Milwaukee. I’d have had a good career with that company, who knows. But no, I came back, came back to the home place. Started farming it again — what a disaster that was. Everyone — even the cousins — is in my ear about how we need to farm it. I should have asked why, if this was so important, nobody else wanted to do it. It was like turning your pockets inside out every time you walked by a trash can. I was giving away the money I was making here. What for? Everybody got all over me when I started leasing out the land to Walesa. I don’t know how he can make a go of it, but he says he’s doing all right. Maybe you have to be a corporate farmer like him to make it work. I already had one corporate job, that was enough, thank you very much. Finn gets on me sometimes about farming it — he’s been bugging me about that since he was in middle school. Too much time over at Nilsson’s farm with that girl, he thinks it’s romantic or something. He doesn’t have a clue. All that money on a decent college education and the kid didn’t come out with a bit of horse-sense.

It’s like everyone in town is asleep, living some dream from the 1950s or 1960s when things were easier here, and they don’t see anything that’s really going on. I know some people resent me because I’ve done well at the plant, because I’ve been able to fix up the old farmhouse and turn it into a nice house somebody might want to live in. (Since my family would have given me hell if I’d have tried to move into a decent house in town.) I tried to get Finn to watch the game with me — the family room is a nice place to sit now, with the fireplace and the big TV — and he says something about how he wishes I had put the same care into the farm. I wanted to hit him. I remember we almost came to blows once when he was in high school. I don’t remember what about, something stupid, and he just acted like he was standing up to me, in some honorable way. We’ve never exactly seen things eye to eye. And now here he is back in town, working as a short-order cook and a bartender, for chrissakes, while I have this union problem. It’s like he’s thumbing his nose at me. I clearly didn’t know how to be much of a father. All the stuff I did, and I end up with one kid driving off a road in a snowstorm and freezing in a lake and the other one doing his best to live like a failure. I don’t know why I try to make all this right. I should just take an early retirement and head down to Florida and do what I want to do for a change. I could, you know. Maybe I should.

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