The worn stretched to the point of threadbare T-shirt that he wore underneath his faded, denim bib overalls depicted the man. Victor Phillip Tron was a quiet man but labored as a farmer until the day he died. He never complained about his work, other than that last day, when he told Mildred, his endearing wife of 52 years, that he just didn’t feel well. She would later recall how grandpa seemed to drag about that day and that she told Victor couldn’t eat his supper until after he had fed the dogs. Begrudgingly, he obliged and returned to eat his last supper. He would die that night in his sleep.
To know my grandpa Tron, you would have to understand the schedule he kept. As a dairy farmer, working on K.D. Owens expansive farm, managing the milking barn, Victor kept a 4:00pm, and 4:00am milking pattern. This meant, when we saw him first thing in the morning when we children arose at the first light of dawn, Victor had already put in half a day’s work. Often, we sat while grandma prepared the morning meal at the breakfast table, us still in our night clothes, grandpa in his weary old T-shirt and overalls. The smell of bleach from cleaning up after the milking emanated from grandpa. He would always meticulously lather with Comet at the bathroom sink, from his hands up to his elbows. It was the same cleaning agent he would use at the barn where he processed the milk twice a day. The cleanser had soaked into his skin so that his calm demeanor was always acquainted in my mind with Comet. To this day, I cannot open a can of the cleaner without my mind immediately drifting back to that dairy barn and grandpa so many years ago.
The daily schedule, 365 days a year, twice a day, eventually would wear on him. By the time I had come around, grandpa was nearing his late sixties. He had a slight stroke at one point near the end so that his speech was hindered. A voice barely above a whisper, he would sit on the front porch after his afternoon nap in the living room and tell jokes. They still didn’t always seem funny when we could understand him, but it didn’t phase him one bit. He would carry on some tale, and when he got to the punch line, unbeknownst to the rest of us grandkids, he would rear back and slap his leg laughing hysterically while we grinned, trying to enjoy whatever grandpa was reveling in at the time. If nothing else, his jovial aspect of sharing was enough to make you grin ear to ear. But these moments were few and far between, for mostly grandpa Tron sat and listened, smiling or nodding. For this reason, those few times that we saw him joking were the precious jewels in our collective memory.
When I was a small child, Victor would wear his overalls to church on Saturday morning. Grandpa and Grandma were Seventh Day Adventists and strictly adhered to the Sabbath, starting at sundown on Friday evening to dusk on Saturday. Later in my life, not many years before he passed, someone bought him a light brown suit which he traded in, at the bequest of my grandmother, to be sure, for his comfortable bibs. That was the same suit he would be buried in on December 2nd, 1977. That was the same year we lost my cousin Michael Kaiser to an accident. Michael was electrocuted to death when he, my other cousin David Paul, and his father, my Uncle David, were putting up a new T.V. antenna at my Uncle David’s house. Unfortunately, the antennae hit the power line before the transformer. Being the tallest of any family member, Michael took the lethal portion of the shock. His heart continued to beat all the way to the hospital in Evansville, pumping blood out the ends of his fingers and toes, which had burst because of the impact of the bolt of electricity. There was nothing they could do to stop it.
Grandpa was there to see Michael laid to rest, next to the spot where he and grandma had planned to be the first in Maple Hill Cemetery on the edge of New Harmony – “it wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he would whisper.
Michael was only 21.
Michael’s death impacted all of us. Grandpa didn’t talk much after the passing of Michael. We all felt a sense of guilt, none more than Uncle David. But nobody blamed David, or his son, David Paul. But self-imposed blame can be like a cancer. Their lives would be touched with struggles that one has to wonder if they weren’t still carrying that burden all those many years since.
But, there were always fond memories of Grandpa. Like when he taught us how to milk the cows by hand. He would easily squeeze out a gentle handful of rich, creamy froth into the stainless-steel bucket. Occasionally, the odd barn cat sitting behind the cow would catch an unexpected mouthful and, satisfied, walk away, wiping their chin with tongue and paw. Grandpa would chuckle at the sight, and we kids would nearly roll with laughter.
Victor taught us that the cream that settled at the top of the glass jar of milk in the fridge was best when shaken before pouring into our drinking glasses. The Ovaltine was resting at the bottom, waiting to join the frothing liquid to make a treat nearly indescribable in earthly terms.
He would walk with us out into the lane and teach us to call his cattle – his girls, he would say. Grandma swore that he named after all of his old girlfriends. “Suuuuuuuuk-cow,” he would holler with a high tenor shout. His voice would echo off of Sled Hill and back, answered shortly by distant lowing. His girls never missed a beat to come to the milk barn. We would wait for them to wander down the long, tree-lined lane, and one by one, we would follow the parade, in tow behind grandpa. Each cow knew her stall and would go up to the concrete trough to wait for Victor to harness them into place. He would then pour a scoop full of the sweetest smelling feed imaginable in front of their muzzles, which they would instantly begin nuzzling their noses into the rich grain.
Victor was a man of few words, but he loved to whistle. We all knew when he had found the mother-lode of berry patches, though. Back in the day, we would all pile into the back of the pickup truck and head for the fields to pick blackberries. When Victor’s whistling stopped, we knew he had found more blackberries than he could gather. The trick was to find where he was hiding.
But the most cherished memory would be catching him and grandma sitting at the kitchen table before breakfast. There they would read the Bible together, sharing in God’s word, starting their day together in the Lord. It wasn’t something they advertised. It was who they were – people of God.
Not many days go by that I don’t think of those days more and more. Recently one of the students on campus asked me if I could be 20-something again, would I? Of course, my answer was no, thinking that they were attempting to portray me as someone at college, doing all the college things. But truthfully, if I could go back in time, it would be way before then, to those distant days of my youth when all my grandpas and grandmas were still alive. There, I would ask so many more questions. There, I would sit and record as much as was humanly possible for my age. There, I would cherish once more those words of wisdom and wit. There once more, I would ask them to lead me in the ways of the Lord evermore.
But to know all of this is to know that someday soon, I will be able to do just that, but for all of eternity.
And once more, that soul in the worn T-shirt and those bibs will be like an old friend greeting me home.
Thanks be to God.