By the Reverend M. Vincent Turner
August 2009 / Revised March 2012
Growing up in rural Maryland farm country was unquestionably idyllic. There is much about my boyhood life that I relish to this day, a time that upon reflection seems far simpler than today’s time. Yet, amidst all the open space, fields of hay, rows of fresh grown produce, orchards filled with apples, peaches, pears and cherries, along with varied livestock resided certain torment.
We moved east to just outside Baltimore in 1948. I had just turned four. Midwestern and Southern folk transferring from Indiana to the East, our family had a long history in those Southern and Midwestern roots. Coming through in the late 1600s what now is known as The Chesapeake, my ancestors migrated through Virginia into Kentucky; settling in lower Indiana. Lower Indiana along the Ohio is where my great-grandfather and grandfather Turner created huge tobacco farms, taking their annual crop each year to auction in Louisville, Kentucky.
Dad remarried the day before my fourth birthday. He had requested a transfer from the company he worked for, Seagram’s Distillers, in order to avoid rumors in the small Indiana town that had been home to my birth mother, my older sister and me. The divorce from my birth mother had been hailed a milestone, my dad being among the first among men to secure full custody of both children.
Five years after moving three more times Dad bought a small six acre farm in Howard County. At the time they called small farm plots “farmettes”. I doubt you will find the term in any Webster’s!
Work became an early lesson. It was our standard way of life. When we arrived, the farm was unkempt and overgrown with shrubs, weeds and only God knows what else. Soon a tractor, plows, discs and other farm equipment appeared. My dad, a workhorse by all definition, was an engineer by day and a farmer on evenings and weekends. It did not take long, given our Scottish and Scots-Irish work ethic to turn this proverbial diamond in the rough into a jewel all its own.
Fields once overgrown and occupied by huge black snakes were turned into a landscape of rye, soybean and winter grasses. Where no garden once had existed an array of fresh vegetables soon took root. The orchard, long gnarled and absent the necessary care and pruning, ushered forth into a proud stand of fruit trees that offered up fresh apples, peaches, pears and cherries for fresh eating and canning. Where neighbors had said, “Nothing will grow there” grew an abundance of lima beans, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, early peas, scallions, Swiss chard and other produce that graced our dinner table in their season and then winter fare from daylong ordeals of canning and freezing. Our ancestral history of being successful farmers and producers once again rose to its own proud and fresh heritage.
The lower fields were mowed to a respectable landscape. Then we bought sheep to graze the pasture, keeping once-wild fields properly barbered. Fresh eggs were gathered from the hens, their manure used sparingly to fertilize young plants in late spring to promise fresh produce ample enough to feed us throughout the summer and fall. Work, I soon learned, was meant to put one somehow closer to God. My dad’s favorite mantra, “Idle hands lead to the devil’s deeds” still rings loudly in my ears this day.
Work was not simply an honorable exercise. It was required; mandatory. Being lazy and sloth like was not merely frowned upon. It was an indictment; an indictment against you and God. There was something profoundly Biblical in the manner in which I was brought up. Each day was to be productive. To be nonproductive was disgraceful, lacking in “Grace”.
That meant tending to the sheep, breaking winter ice that coated the top of the cistern in the harshness of winter for their fresh water. It required tossing fresh hay into the sheep pen each morning, and cleaning their pen on a regular cycle. It meant feeding the hens corn each day. Whether it was shelling beans or peeling apples and peaches; or, doing homework for school with earnest instruction to earn a better grade, each was to be done with the best of intention and with heart.
To fail was unacceptable, no matter the task. God was in the mix, and it was one’s duty to make God (and, dad) proud. Good enough was never good enough.
But behind that veil of all our good works and deeds lurked a darker, sadder side. Alcohol became the Achilles heel for my mother and father. “Mother” in fact was my stepmother, a woman who possessed a profound sense of unconditional love and duty to her family; and, for me. She had neither smoked nor drunk alcohol until she married dad. The two of them would then travel down their slippery slope of abuse for years to follow. (Her mother despised my dad. I learned to understand why.)
Mother, as I came to call her, was first generation English Canadian American. Among the many gifts she bestowed upon me were my good manners, a strong sense of dignity and an instruction not to be judging of others. For as much as she might find a person, a group or something else horribly distasteful, Mother always allowed that was “their” world and we had ours. Best simply to leave them to themselves! Mother was the glue that held us together through the bad times and the good, striving to set the best standard in all settings.
Despite the intrinsic goodness that was intentioned, alcohol abuse became our family’s nightmare from which each of us – my siblings and I – still struggle to wrest ourselves free. Rage and anger, yelling and screaming coursed through each weekend and sometimes on a given weeknight. This belied what to the outside world appeared an all too typical and contented American family of the fifties. The tranquil beauty of the open countryside was forced to yield to a cacophony of mean-spirited shouts and insults that would be all but forgiven through the next morning’s hangovers. The abuses that formed the fabric of the previous night’s imbibing somehow were neutralized or minimized by the next day’s bold silence as if nothing “bad” actually had taken place that previous night. Hangovers rendered a unique and welcome silence.
How to free myself from this sordid chaos, I pondered? Where to go? Where can I? How could this young farm boy escape the madness that routinely raged within? Truly, my young mind could make no sense of the torment that ricocheted from off wall to wall, room to room.
Soon, though, I learned my escape. Whether warm weather or cold, I discovered my one available and consoling exit: the outdoors. Mother and dad, so busy stewing in their own brew, would not see my easy exit out the backdoor of our large farm house. I went outdoors unnoticed.
Here is where I found “it”. Here in the still of an early night, walking casually and whimsically through the fields, I found solace.
Free of the din of any city noise and the all too bright lights, the darkness wrapped itself around me like a solemn cloak, a cloak of comfort and peace. Gazing upward at the heavens, the darkening skies were peppered with crystal like twinkling stars upon stars. The moon, whether crisp as a sliver or bold and shining in its fullness, spoke of a world foreign to the verbal anguish taking place inside our large farm house.
I would reach heavenward stretching my arms as far as they could go, imagining myself pulling up to those stars and clinging onto their celestial majesty. Or, I would crouch down as if to sit in the cockpit of a make-believe spaceship, closing my eyes tightly and pretending to levitate to fly and hover about well above the earth. At an even younger age I would have dreams about flying freely about, soaring above the houses and trees. Oh, how I wished I could bring that boyish dream into this night’s reality!
The quiet solitude at times would be interrupted only briefly by the rumbling growl coming from the Hollywood pipes of a souped-up Ford, Mercury, Chevy or Plymouth. A dog barking from a distant neighbors or the peal of the steer at the local university cattle farm might stir the silence only for a moment. Then, again: stillness.
As I walked through the rye grass or the rows of beans, tomatoes and other greens I began to understand there was something “greater than this”, greater than the living hell that left one never entirely at-ease on any given weekend. Still too young to identify this universe I sensed so intuitively as “God”, I embraced the greatness that had yet to form its name on my lips.
At this age of 10 or 11, I had yet to discern what we called it, or by whose name it might be called. Yet, its greatness and awesomeness did not escape my boyish gape. Its wonder held me not merely spellbound, but offered me assurance of a greater place with a solemnity and peace yet to be realized. Of course I had heard about “God” and “Jesus” throughout my young life. I simply had never “felt” it.
Attending Sunday school, joining the choir, becoming a youth leader and a Boy Scout all played into my deeper and richer understanding as to what I had felt, sensed and intuited. There was that place where I knew no fear, no anguish. A place where foul and angry words were not in the chorus I had become so accustomed to. No!
It was a place of healing and inexplicable understanding. The incomprehensible somehow became the comprehendible; the comprehending. Its greatness was tangible in the most mysterious of ways. Absent ridicule and harshness, its warm embrace was magical. Felt but unseen, known but not heard, this extraordinary power of the unknown held me spellbound.
That greatness, that “allness” I felt swarming around me and within me was but one thing and one thing alone: The Lord of the fields. God! My God! How I did come to love Thee and to know Thee! That You would Grace this young farm boy’s brow with the fullness and awesomeness of your Presence was near fantasy, a magic trick without the trickery. You, My Lord of the fields walked with me under the night sky, assuring my footsteps while giving to me the promise of a more holy and wholesome state of being. And that, Oh Lord of the field, you did grant to me with your Holy Grace! Thank you, Lord of the fields. From a boy’s heart, “Thank you!” Amen.