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An Essay On American Individualism and Entitlement Programs

The sun that rose over the distant horizon, beams of light scattering across the drifting waves of wheat fields that spread out to the edge of sight, bathed the small home of John Pritchett in a warmth  and beauty unseen in the growing metropolis of the eastern seaboard. The burgeoning populations of the distant urban cities, with their congested streets stacked knee high with horse manure and endless rivulets of stagnant water, had always made for bad living. John had only been there a few times himself, to the water edges of New York and the bustling Philadelphia, and only because he'd had the occasion to be paid for by a wealth doctor acquaintance of his. Left to his own, he had neither the money, nor the time, to bother with such travels. Appreciative though he was for the opportunity, with nine children, a wife who needed him and crops that required daily attendance, he simply did not have the luxury of freely traveling whenever he wanted. All the same, he preferred his quiet life there in the valley.

Like his father, and his father's father, he'd made a living of tending the earth. For over a century his family had made their way there, in the valley, separated by distance from the nearest neighbor. The distance was not so great that they could not visit one another, but it required the use of the horse, which was most often employed to travel the fields and scout the distant corners of their property. Given the land they'd acquired over the generations, one might expect the Pritchett family to be wealth, but it was a wealth of land and not of money. In fact, prices for what they grew had only been declining. More and more farmers were sending their crops to market at the start of the season, and the returns on what they grew was actually causing a decline in the market. There was nothing to be done about it, though. That was simply a sign of the times.

John could never have been convinced to give it up, really. Even as hard as it was, and even though he required the hands of all six of his sons to properly care for the farm, he loved what he did. Breaking the soil with his plow, carving the face of the earth, shaping its features from head to toe, it was what he had done since he'd been a child. He could remember the hard worn features of his father, features he'd acquired himself over the years, long lines burnt into his face from the raking of the sunlight. He'd inherited his father's wide brimmed straw hat, which afforded him some comfort from the blinding light of day. There, in the valley, it could become overwhelming. Yet there was never a day when he did not look forward to a good, hard day's work, won by the sweat of his brow and the effort of his hands. Like everyone in the valley, a high priority was placed on a solid work ethic and the ability to earn a living.

That said, this morning was different. John hadn't been sure if it had just been his nerves or something else but, when he'd woken just before sunrise, with the faintest smile of the moon still kissing the landscape, he'd felt a burden. It sat itself firmly down on his chest, and with labored breaths he'd forced himself upward, his arms aching as he'd done so. Despite the cool of the morning, he brow was had formed rivers of sweat that now pooled along the interior of his hat, dampening it. Yet he'd continued on, forcing himself to prepare for the day while his sons lazied about inside, drooping about their beds like stray cats on a porch. On any normal day he took a small joy in getting things ready, preparing for the day in the quiet of morning. That day, though, and that morning, he found himself irritated. Why couldn't his sons, just once, be up and about? Why couldn't they be here, helping?

He shook these thoughts from his head. He was being irrational, a reaction to whatever was warring inside of his body. Neither preacher nor doctor could accurately tell him what was happening, nor would he want them to. John had fought off plenty in his life. He'd been a healthy, strong young man, with arms as wide as an oxen's head and a torso like a bull's. His tree trunk of a neck had always burst with strength, and long days of working the land his entire life had preserved him as a physical specimen. Still, there was no medicine or test that could describe the most miniscule of invaders that now plundered his body, chipping away at the boundaries of his health, eating away at him internally. He'd never needed these diagnosis, as he'd come out fine plenty of times before. The same would result now.

The thought had repeated, persistently, throughout the rest of the day. As he'd labored alongside two of his sons, the rest sent like spies into the distant fields, he'd continued to push his body at a pace it could barely maintain. His breath had become labored, his hands shaking as he'd broken ground with his shovel, working to dislodge the large boulders that obstructed further plowing of the ground in the distant quarters of his land. His eldest son, Roy, had been the first to notice, to question his father. John had maintained he was alright, even as he'd realized his quivering hands were barely able to grip the tool in his hands. The voices about him had faded as he'd leaned into the large handle of the shovel, propping himself up for a moment before the corners of his vision had gone black, all the world vanishing from around him, his feet sucked downward into an endless vortex as he'd lost all grasp of the waking world.

That had been a month before. In a place like the valley, being even a hand down, especially the most experienced hand, meant that a farm could quickly go to waste. With harvest season just around the corner, there was so much work needing to be done that the loss of a person meant disaster. John, almost entirely without money, had no way of hiring new workers if he was waylaid, and had no money to afford any sort of medical care.

The Valley, though, took care of its own. Each man may be his own worker, but each man also knew when to come to the aid of one another. Oh sure, nothing was free. John, shivering in his bed, body aching, had the good fortune of being attended to by Mother Ellis. A neighbor from several miles and farmsteads away, she'd arrived with little more than a bag of herbs, home remedies and traditional cooking. In exchange, they'd set her up to stay in the home, provided her food, and lent her the use of several of their sheep. The passive critters would provide the sort of wool she'd need to make some of her dresses, a few of which she could send to the local market for sale. That had been more than enough to satisfy the old woman's sensibilities.
Where herbal medicine had not sufficed, the village doctor, Mr. Emmerson, had been more than willing to make the trip out to the farm. Oh sure, it had meant providing a few of the fresh vegetables they grew for themselves in the local plot nearest to their home, but it had been a small price to pay for the visit. Stethoscope in hand, he'd checked on John Pritchett, ensuring there was nothing virulently wrong. The visit had barely been an hour's time but, satisfied, the doctor had encouraged Mother Ellis to continue on with her treatments and had also left a bottle of medicine for them to try. He'd returned every two weeks for a new checkup, happy to do the deed.

John's health wasn't the only concern, though. They'd needed to start construction on a new barn to hold their harvest, a deed his sons weren't entirely prepared for yet. Without the leadership, the group of young men were but raw strength without direction. Of course, this being the biggest task at hand, it had drawn in the community to help. Men from miles around had arrived with their families two Saturdays after John had fallen ill. Long tables had been set up outside the home, wooden chairs hauled out in wagons for entire families to use. The men had gone about the business of accounting for what would need to be done to erect the new structure, estimating the ground required and the time necessary. It wouldn't be their first attempt at this, nor their last.

"You know John," they'd tell him, joking from outside the bedroom, "You'll owe us all a barn once we're done here."

No, nothing came free, but in times of need no man was alone, either. When a neighbor went down, especially a good man like John Pritchett, he had people to support him. Each man was his own worker, but he had a safety net to fall back on in bad times. So, while the women went about harvesting from the local family garden, preparing meals in big stew pots to be served when the sun began to crawl downward from its perch in the heavens, the men rolled up their sleeves and got to the business of barn raising. They'd hauled out the materials John had carefully been preparing, purchasing as he'd been able, and gotten about to setting the foundation. As a group, almost three dozen men worked to construct the frame, the loud banging of hammers a constant drone in the usually quiet afternoon. Ropes lashed about the frames and with supports at the ready, they'd hauled up the exterior, notching the wood together to establish the sturdy exterior. No, they weren't going to do any painting for John, they'd said with catty grins. "The man has to do some of his own work," Darrel Robertson had said with a laugh, wiping the sweat off his face.

From sunup to sundown they'd persisted, almost without rest, until the sun had begun to gently touch the distant horizon. With the barn finished, and food sitting on the table, everyone had gathered for dinner. A few had even braved to take a seat with sickly John, sharing a few laughs with the debilitated but slowly recovering farmer. They'd shared a few bowls of stew, which was bogged down with chunks of potatoes and a few bits of pork. By now the sick farmer had regained enough of his strength to sit up and, tasting a bit of the stew, he smiled for the first time in ages.

Almost two months later, when Henry Edwards injured his legs while out on his fortieth acre, John had been the first one to respond. He owed the man, after all, who'd helped act as foreman of the barn raising. Once again raging with the strength of his youth, John was a bull again, helping to tend the fields at a critical time of the year. Everyone had commented that John would have to help out a lot more people before his debt was paid, but they'd said it in jest. John had helped out plenty of others before, and would do so again as the future tides washed in. He didn't do it just because he owed Henry, though, or anyone else. He did it because it was the right thing to do. He did it because any man, left entirely alone, could fall victim to a disaster that could conceivably wipe him and his family out. That sort of attitude would only cleanse the land of all the work they'd done for over a century.

Every man was his own man, his own worker, but no man was alone. They took care of each other. It was the only way for civil people to conduct themselves, after all. It was a promise to themselves that they and their children would endure, as they had for generations, there in the valley of the sun.

Originally posted to DAISHI on Tue Oct 09, 2012 at 03:25 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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