The chorus of Murray McLaughlin’s The Farmer’s Song, “Straw hat and old dirty hankies, mopping a face like a shoe…” has always reminded me of my dad. He wasn’t a farmer. He didn’t have a “face like a shoe” but he always carried a hankie in the back pocket of his jeans. When a weepy little girl said, “Daddy, can I use your hankie?” it was unfailingly available. I don’t know how he managed it, but somehow he could produce a cleanish corner to mop a teary face and wipe a snotty little nose.
He did wear a straw hat on occasion and loved growing things. Had he lived in a different part of the world, he might well have been a farmer. Instead, he was a logger and wore a hardhat. At different times, he was also a fisherman who arose at 4 a.m. to take his salmon troller out to catch fish to sell so the family could buy the things he couldn’t grow. Sometimes, he’d take a daughter who wanted to go with him. Some of my most cherished hours were spent sitting beside him on the stern of an old boat, watching the trolling poles, listening for tinkling of little bells that signaled “fish on” then watching him work the gurdy to wind in the line and land the fish. Many an important question was asked during those mornings, and every one was answered completely and honestly.
We lived on a rocky shelf of land fifteen feet above high-tide mark. This land, he cleared mostly by hand, with a shovel and a mattock and a peavey, digging out roots, large rocks, stumps, and beating back the fast-growing brush of a temperate rainforest. He dug the soil to plant potatoes. Ran strings between pegs to mark even rows for shallow trenches to grow lettuce, radish, cabbage, carrots, swiss-chard, spinach. He hand-split eight-foot cedar poles for green beans to twine their way up. He strung nets for pea vines to climb. He spaded up beds for tomatoes, beets, and onions. With more hand-split cedar, he made racks for raspberries, loganberries, boysenberries. In odd corners where they’d fit, he grew gooseberry bushes, currant bushes, and fruit trees. His garden wasn’t large by flat-lander standards, but required an enormous amount of effort. He built chicken houses, woodsheds, work-shops and ran a forge to create metal objects required on his boat. He also used that shovel to dig a well in a clay bank and ran pipes to provide running water for the house and garden.
These were chores he took care of during the hours he wasn’t logging or fishing for a living. His other “day-off” activities included bucking large logs into blocks, carrying them up from the beach over his shoulder, splitting those blocks into chunks and stacking them to dry in the woodshed—always two years in advance—to keep the family warm. His firewood was also to cook the food, to preserve the harvest for winter use. Now and then, he took time to go out into the woods and bring home a deer, or carried a Coleman lantern to a beach on a winter night when the tide was low, dig clams for more protein.
Somehow, over the years of all this labor, he also constructed a big shed in which he built a boat from the keel up. A bigger boat, one he could take north where he could troll all summer for larger salmon, to earn more money to support his family.
I no longer lived there when he launched his new boat. I never sat on the stern beside him in the early morning, listening for the fish-on bells. He did wear a straw hat, though, and still carried a hankie. After he was gone, when my eyes filled and overflowed with tears at his absence, if I’d said, “Daddy, can I borrow your hankie?” I know it would have been there, with a small corner kept more-or-less clean for a sad little girl.