Corn Fields and Mules by Glenn Schuckers

In 1958, I was fourteen years old and my dad’s orchard was well on its way to being planted. But since apple trees takes at least eight years to start producing crops that pay the bills, dad planted other crops between the rows of trees. At first it was strawberries and for three or four years he shipped truckloads of strawberries to market. When others saw there was money in strawberries they started planting them too and before long there were so many that the bottom dropped out.

That’s when dad decided to grow corn on a commercial scale. He had the land, and being a farm boy in his youth, he knew how to grow sweet corn. He had the machinery, a two row planter that could plant acres a day, a cultivator that could be pulled by either his ancient Oliver tractor or a mule.

And he had a mule, actually a pony and a mule. They were usually at his coal mine and were used to pull the small rail cars out of the mine. During the summer he did no coal mining so the pony and mule lived in stalls at the farm where he grew the corn.

The pony was a little small for the cultivator and, besides, he liked to nibble on the stalks of corn as he went up and down the rows. The mule, Julie, was a little bigger and could pull the implement easily and seemed to have no taste for the corn. The tractor was ideal, but as soon as the corn reached knee-high the axles would bend down the growing corn.

So by about mid-July, when dad still liked to cultivate the corn, it fell to Julie and me to cultivate it.

Most of the time that was not a problem, but I vividly recall one summer day. I went to the barn and brought the usually cooperative and calm mule to one of the corn fields. I hooked the harness to the cultivator, clicked my tongue and said, “get up.”

Nothing. The mule just stood there looking down the row. I shook the reins and clucked again. Again, nothing. Dad was a couple of rows over and he came over to see what was going on as he thought we’d be twenty yards down the row.

He took the reins thinking a familiar voice would do the trick. Nothing. He went back to his lunch in the truck and brought some carrots and held them a few feet down the row. The mule took four steps, ate the carrots and stopped. We tried the same thing with a couple of apples in our lunches. Again, four steps forward and then nothing. Dad tried a slap or two on the animals rump.

Still nothing.

It was as if that mule had decided we just were not going to cultivate corn that day. No good reason, it was not hot, the ground was no harder than it had been the day before, the corn was no higher, and there was nothing in the field to frighten her.

Just being purely stubborn.

After about an hour of coaxing, reasoning, threatening and bribing, dad said we’d just have to take the chance that some corn would get bent over, otherwise the weeds were going to take over the field.

“Take this dang mule back to the barn and get the tractor. We may damage some corn, but if we don’t run the cultivator through, there won’t be any corn left.”

I think that was my first lesson in ideology versus pragmatism. In a perfect world the corn would get cultivated without harming any stalks, but as the mule showed us, we don’t live in a perfect world. Sometimes we have to forego the perfect and accept the good.

Using the tractor was not the perfect solution to the problem of weeds, but is was A solution. The weeds were there and they were growing. Some stalks were too tall to stand straight after the tractor went over them, but they might straighten back up. It was a question of certainty; the weeds were SURE to take over if they were not cultivated out, as opposed to some of the stalks getting bent over, and MAYBE not straightening up.

Dad was the most patient man I ever knew, but that day his patience found its limit. The pragmatism of what had to be done won out over the ideology of the perfect solution.

Think about that when you think about the problems the leaders of our state and nation face today. Some of them are like the mule; they have decided that no matter what, they will refuse to do something that needs to be done. No amount of reasoning, coaxing or even bribing will get them to move.

Others want the solution to be perfect. They either get everything they want or they will settle for nothing. It’s the classic case of the perfect getting in the way of the good.

Our roads, bridges and schools are the projects that need to be done. They are the weed-filled corn fields of today. We can’t wait for the ones who want to do nothing to change their minds. That may never happen or it may be too late if they do. And we can’t wait for the perfect solution.

It is time for all of them to become pragmatists like dad was. Get the tractor and get the job done and let next week, next month, or next year take care of itself.