Despite being a hot, sticky affair with little breeze and Honduras-level amounts of humidity, it had been a busy, accomplished Saturday. But by 11pm my glands were beginning to surrender. A dry scratchy throat and faint wisp of headache were signaling that there was precious little left in the sweat tanks.
Pausing to briefly lay back on the concrete floor of the workshop, all 206 of my bones felt as if they had been collectively unsnapped from connective tissues and pitched into a loose pile. Arms, legs, and fingers did not respond properly to brain signals to twist that, move there, or lift those. It felt like working on a 1998 Dell laptop. Click, wait three seconds, then click again. Save work often and pray, my goodness, pray to stay, at least for a little while longer, the dreaded blue screen of death. My hair, long overdue for a cut, had tangled and crusted into a weave that would raise the eyebrow of even the world’s best custom sailmaker.
But the beneath the half-built chicken run the sawdust-strewn workshop floor felt refreshingly cool against my bare moist forearms and sweat-soaked back. Sixteen hours of pure effort on a Saturday, every minute of it clearly visible on my old Brooks Brothers shirt, and I still wasn’t ready to call it quits. So intoxicating is this new kind of farm work.
Moving to the country has been a transition. Some things are easy to get used to like clear starry nights, fresh milk, and zero traffic congestion. Some are harder, like the biblical-scale plagues of mosquitoes, or the periodic intense, aching-yearning feeling that comes of living 33 miles from the nearest Indian restaurant.
One transition that has come rapidly has been the evolution of my everyday wardrobe. By necessity I’ve slid quickly from the Cole Haan end of the continuum to the Carhartt, and with an ease that has been somewhat startling. Last year I came home with some new shirts and Alison noted something that I had not: the clothing purchase marked my fifth consecutive from a feed store.
I still maintain a considerable stable of fine office clothes for when I travel and attend meetings. But there is very little use anymore for clothing that doesn’t fit into either the ‘farm’ or ‘business’ buckets. Nowadays I’m either on an airplane or I’m knee deep in manure. I’m either in a business meeting or under the hay mower greasing a hard-to-reach fitting. You won’t find me at the IKEA or the country club on a Saturday afternoon, and the places I buy lumber, tools, feed, and food gladly accept grease-stained Carhartt. In fact, in my new circles grime is seen as a virtue.
In fairness, I’m also in my barn office a lot, hammering the phones and the Powerpoint files, working a solid 8-to-6. But as a telecommuter I can wear whatever is most practical to the office. And more often than not on my lunch hour – if I take one – I’m splitting wood, mending a fence, or castrating a lamb. I never know when a neighbor will swing by offering to help troubleshoot an engine problem. It’s one of the primal satisfactions of farming: there is virtually nothing productive to do out there that does not involve acquiring a comprehensive, black-under-the-fingernail patina. It’s no place for even the most casual of business casual. And that goes double during the sweaty, dirty, late-spring-to-early-fall business of maximum food production.
I have never scrimped on dress shirts. I’ve always bought the wrinkle-free Brooks Brothers in 18”/37”. They are the only ones that could run the crucible of 20-hour workdays, red-eye flights, and three-hour-church-service wrestling matches with drooling, screaming, overtired toddlers. And, miraculously, for a guy that has never folded anything more than a paper airplane, or hung anything more than a Michael Jordan poster, they have always come through the trial with nary a wrinkle, as smooth as summer grapes. Even while getting smeared with slobbery Sunday raisins.
In a past life, when a nice shirt began to fray around the cuffs or darken around the collar, or when a pair of pants lost an encounter with a trusty ‘PaperMate Flair M’, my best option was to donate it to Alison’s refashioning pile. Months later it would re-emerge as a bib, or quilt, or baby jumper.
But now I have a better place for all those retirement-age wrinkle-free dress shirts and pants. A place where they can quite literally put to pasture. Or to woodpile. Or to underside of tractor. Or to vineyard. And because of their already gauntlet-tested performance construction, they have proven to be readily adaptable to farm life.
It may just be wishful thinking, but I believe the tight weave – or is it the formaldehyde coating? – keeps mosquito bites to a minimum. And there’s something timeless about a farmer in a dress shirt and khakis. I see it in the grainy pictures of my ancestors working the fields in Poland and Sweden and Wisconsin. They wore nice looking shirts too – except without the wrinkle-free technology and the $85 price tag.
Yes, the first time I dripped a dollop of chain oil on a nice, pinstriped shirt did give me pause. It felt like the first time a child wet our bed. I immediately took notice, rubbed my weary eyes, rolled-over and forgot all about it. And after so many times, it becomes second nature.
Resting there comfortably on the concrete floor, like some hardened criminal, I got a better look at my gray pinstriped shirt. A lifetime ago it had flown in first class seats, been upgraded to a suite at the Ritz-Carlton, talked business with Carlos Slim in his TelMex boardroom, and taken factory tours with a once-visionary CEO now imprisoned for 20 years on fraud charges.
But on this particular Saturday it had changed a tractor tire, castrated a three-week-old goat, rescued a free roadside foosball table, talked cattle fencing – with a lot of intermittent spitting – to a neighbor farmer, changed two diapers, cooked an omelette, purchased $86 worth of lumber and $240 worth of tools, tuned up a rototiller, hauled 30 tractor loads of compost, buried a beloved old barn cat, and milked, strawed, hayed, and watered the flocks not once but twice.
And now that shirt was nearly halfway done building a new portable chicken run fashioned from fourteen 2x4s, one sheet of plywood, 40 feet of chicken wire, two lbs. of woodscrews, two hours of “Prairie Home Companion”, an hour of Detroit Tigers baseball, and two “hecho en Mexico” Cokes.
As a result of the efforts, that shirt was now home to a considerable swirl of sawdust, compost, and manure, fixed fast by a thick farmer’s resin of equal parts sweat, insect repellant, goat milk, diesel fuel, and tractor grease. The poor thing looked nothing like it did when I picked it out of the catalog years ago.
But, by-golly, the little gold-embossed collar stays were still doing good work, keeping those shirt molecules around my neck military straight.
And, though it may have been covered in grime, it was still true to catalog form on at least one count:
It was still 100% wrinkle-free.