And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good deeds of every kind.
I slowly walked the wide hallways of the convalescence center, not sure if I was ready for what awaited me. I had visited a good friend in another section and, as I was about to leave, he mentioned that Barrett, a man from my boyhood hometown, had been admitted suffering from Alzheimer’s. I was taken aback as Barrett was my first employer, a mentor, and a great friend. I entered his room to find this giant of a man asleep and snoring loudly. I sat down by his bed and reflected…
It was the beginning of summer 1963. I had just turned 12 years old, and today was an exciting day. I was old enough and strong enough to work for a local farmer in his hayfields…and get paid fifty cents an hour. I had joined a few older boys in front of Wamsley’s General Store where part time workers gathered on workdays. A pick-up truck pulled to the curb and Barrett, the owner of a large farm system, exited from the driver’s seat. He was tall, fit and in his mid thirties with a huge, comforting smile. He acknowledged all the ‘seasoned’ workers and thanked them for wanting to work with him another year. As the boys started loading into the bed of his truck, Barrett looked at me: “New guy, huh?”
“Yessir”, I said quietly.
“You’re a Ware boy aren’t you? Older bother is Denny who used to work for me?”
“Yessir, my name’s Mike.”
“Well, Mike. Know your family well. If you work half as hard as Denny, you will do just fine. Bring your work gloves? You will wish you had worn a long sleeve shirt. Hay is very pokey. Jump in with the other guys.”
And with that, I started a job that would last six years and a friendship that would last decades.
The following summer, Barrett asked me if I would work full time through the summer: 8am to 5pm, 6 days a week, $24/week. I consented and joined two other experienced boys, Gary and Paul, as his prime work force. Barrett and the older boys taught me the intricacies of hard farm work such as shoveling field corn into corn bins, mowing and conditioning hay, use of a scythe for trimming fence lines /steep grades/ditches, painting tin barn roofs, all types of fence building, sheep shearing, mucking out of barns and spreading the manure on fields with a spreader, herding/vaccinating calves — just to name a few. Barrett was patient and forgiving; when mistakes were made – and I made plenty – he never showed anger, just kind mentorship. I never once heard ‘bad words’ or derogatory comments come from his lips. And his tutoring did not stop at the edge of his farm.
Barrett was also a long-time elected County Commissioner and a part-time rural mail delivery person. He believed strongly in hard work and community. Many a day he would work side by side with us no matter the task or the weather. In one case, a skunk had given birth to her babies in the bottom of an empty silo. As we peered in, I mentioned to Barrett that I wasn’t going into that silo for 50 cents – an -hour. He laughed, sent me away, and he removed the skunks—bless him! During our many truck rides to work sites or our lunch breaks under a giant oak or maple tree, Barrett would talk about why politics were so important to the binding fabric of the community. Why service to one’s neighbor, whether in the elected environment and/or just as a friend, strengthened the core values that led to personal and community successes. He reinforced his words when often my job was not on his farm, but helping one of his neighbors in a time of need.
Three years into our relationship, I became the senior worker and my best friend, Ron, joined me full time. Neither of us was old enough to have our driver’s license, but in rural WV while working on a farm, we drove what needed to be driven wherever it needed driven. Barrett would pick us up in the morning, lay out the tasks for the day, throw us the keys, and trust us to do our work. We worked hard because he set the standard. We did not want to disappoint our mentor.
In the next couple years, I left Barrett’s employment for higher paying jobs: gas station attendant (75 cents/hour) and another farmer ($1.00/hour). In both cases after about a month, I ran into Barrett. He smiled and asked how it was going while informing me that my position at his farm was still available. Twice I returned to work for Barrett. It wasn’t about the pay. It was about the man. Even after I left for college and started working part time in the coal mines ($4.00/hour), if Barrett was putting up hay and I was around, I would join the crew (free) and help my friend.
Barrett continued to sleep and it was time for me to go. I said a silent prayer thanking the Lord for this man in my life. I left realizing that I would never get to thank him for his mentorship and his friendship. I am sure that before the terrible disease stole his memory, he was quite proud of the life successes of Denny, Gary, Paul, me, Ron and so many others who were fortunate to have him as a mentor. A few days later, his son called to tell me Christ had taken Barrett home.
Luke wrote to Titus (and others) about living a life that reflects Christ’s love. Barrett never talked of his faith, but he lived it everyday…he walked the walk. We young boys took notice. In today’s world with the ‘information explosion’, mentoring is of even greater importance. Impressionable youth and adults are bombarded by messages that can cause them to accept another path for promises of happiness or gain. However, if we Christians, even with all our flaws, live a life that points back to Christ, the folks around us will take notice. Then, when they are approached and asked “How’s it going?” and are reminded that their position in Christ’s house is still available, they will come back –not for the ‘pay’ today but for His love today, tomorrow and for eternity.
Keep Smilin’, Mike