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The Neighbor

by Ken Root 

(In Memory of Emil Vorel)

I’ve always known him. His family was well established when my parents moved to the farm across the road to the east in the mid 1940’s. His parents were well worn from the depression of the 1930’s. They were frugal and had managed to acquire a full section of sloping, red sandy soil that had been farmed too much in the early century. They put the fields into Bermuda grass and kept the slopes in native blue stem while fighting the blackjack trees that had grown in thick enough to keep the cows from penetrating the brushy hilltops. They raised Red Poll cattle as the best means to harvest something from the land while protecting the thin soil from further erosion.

My first memory of Emil was an outline of a tall young man with large features. His parents lived in a rock house and he and wife, Peggy, had a smaller house just to the west. Both faced south and set at least two hundred yards back from the gravel road that went down a long hill that bottomed out just past their driveway.

By the time I was in grade school, Emil and Peggy had a young family. Their oldest son, Mike, was four years younger than me. We spent many days of our childhood playing together in the yard and in the creek along with his sister, Susan, and younger brother, Stephen. Several years later they had another daughter, Cheryl.

For people who live side by side for generations, there is a bond, sometimes stronger than blood. I don’t think we did nearly as much for them as they did for us, but, upon reflection, that is the way you should feel in a sincere friendship.

Emil and his brother, Paul Junior, inherited the land when their father departed this world. The Turner Turnpike was built through their farm in the early 1950’s so their father and mother determined Emil would get the south portion and Paul Junior received the north side. Their mother remained in the rock house for several more years with daily visits from both boys. My mother would visit and listen to her stories of the past.

Emil liked to farm but he had skill as a carpenter and electrician and found off farm work. Having an income from a reliable source was the key to keeping the family on their land. His brother served as our rural mail carrier. If we had a shipment of baby chickens, he would pull in the yard, honk and set them out for us.

Since I was an “afterthought” and was born when my mother was thirty-eight years old, she and Peggy shared the challenges of raising children but from different perspectives. The young mother would seek counsel from this well-seasoned lady whose eighteen child bearing years had spanned much of Peggy’s lifetime. My parents were literally frozen in the past when I was born and had difficulty navigating the modern consumer era. They watched, and sometimes followed, Emil and Peggy’s lead.

I felt the relationship with their family grow as I moved into grade school and became aware of my father’s challenges in getting along with people around him. The Vorel’s always made a special effort to befriend him. I guess they just loved him into submission. Their children grew up treating him like a grandfather and he responded well.

I was allowed to play little league football in first grade but wound up on teams with kids six years older. One day, at practice, the coach called me aside and said I had been given a new helmet with a real faceguard. I loved this shiny and tight fitting head protection but I did not know who it came from or why. It took quite some time to confirm that Emil had purchased it for my protection.

At age eleven, Emil asked me if I wanted to drive his Ford 8N tractor and cut weeds with a bush hog. I got my father’s approval and the long, lanky man put me on the tractor with him. He laid out the field and showed me how to drive the little machine that seemed like it had been designed for a youthful operator. His wife kept close tabs on me as I worked all day. I was very proud of myself until I got home and my dad complained that I worked better for the neighbor than I worked for him. I probably should not have pointed out that Emil paid me a dollar an hour versus dad’s quarter. I realized my father did not want me to go back. I was frozen without ability to know what to do. A few days later, I saw Emil go to the pasture and mow the rest of the weeds.

So many memories jump out of the interaction between our families. We always waved at anyone outside on the farmstead as we drove by. One day, my mother, seeing Paul Junior waving furiously from behind his tractor, drove in and found him pinned between the tractor and an implement he was attempting to attach. She hopped on and drove it forward to free him. The act of coming to his aid was never forgotten.

My greatest regret is that I couldn’t, at the time, appreciate people who are kind and generous. When a church youth group would go roller skating, the young couple would take me along and bring me home. Emil would pull into our dark driveway and shine the lights on the front door. He would wait until I was inside, and the door shut, before he would drive away.

We shared our garden, as my parents always planted too many tomatoes and we’d haul them over to give away. They were all well practiced at “visiting” and there was almost always good social interaction as we inquired about their lives. We had social boundaries that were respected but neighborly conversation allowed like-minded folks to vent their frustrations and share their joys.

As I departed from home to attend college and my parents approached retirement, I saw that the relationship between the families grew even stronger. They had a symbiotic relationship for the next twenty years. Then, in 1995, my mother died. She had kept a lid on dad for the past sixty-six years but for the next four, he became a four-year-old with a van and a checkbook. The Vorel’s watched over him and tried to keep him from harm. In phone calls with me and my older brothers, Emil would simultaneously swear and laugh at my father’s actions.

After four tumultuous years alone, buying a new car every six months and getting speeding tickets for doing close to a hundred miles an hour, dad was known as the most dangerous person in the community. No matter our pleadings, he continued to drive around every day. My brother received a phone call from the cemetery, where mom was buried, with a complaint that dad was driving on the graves. Upon confronting him, he passed it off saying: “It’s OK, they know me!” Finally, one evening in 2000, coming down the long Vorel hill at dusk, he drove off the road, flipped the little SUV on its top and, not wearing a seatbelt, struck his head on the windshield. He never regained consciousness and a week later he was gone.

After the funeral, I took a one-eighth scale 8N Ford tractor to Emil as a thank you for all he had done. We visited at length about their kindness to our family but he always responded with what great neighbors Oren and Marie were to them.

Last year, fifteen years following my father’s death, I learned that Emil was in hospice care. My sister went to see him and I called his wife. We spoke of the good times and the comfort they had been to our parents and the encouragement they had offered us. He moved into a deep sleep and passed from this world at age eighty-eight.

His family remains strongly intact. Four children, twelve grandchildren and fourteen great grandchildren knew him as a strong but kind man. He provided for them, taught them to work and then lived as an example of his teachings. From such ancestry, great people rise. Looking back with gratitude, we all have forbearers who could have taken an easier path but they chose to dedicate their lives to helping others. God smiles on us with neighbors who are friends for generations. They laugh and cry with us. We will always remember.