THE UNKNOWN ROCKWELL:

A Portrait Of Two American Families

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From Chapter One

My name is James A. Edgerton, Sr., but I have always gone by the name Buddy because my dad was a James, too. I’m seventy-nine years old; I have brown eyes; have shrunk an inch since my youth and now stand at 6’2”; and am on the slim side after years of hard work, a healthy metabolism, a pacemaker that was put in 2001, and triple bypass surgery in early 2005. I still have most of my hair, all of my teeth, and I need glasses to see where I’m going. I’ve been married for more than fifty-five years to a wonderful woman, Dot, who loves me, supports me, and worries about me when I push myself too hard physically, which - being an honest person - I must confess is more often than it should be for a guy my age... 

 

For more than forty years I have thought about writing my memoirs, and for more than forty years, I have procrastinated, overwhelmed by the task of having my life on paper for others to see, as - all things being equal - we Vermonters are inclined to be private folks. I wasn’t sure it was right to tell what I know. I didn’t want to do the wrong thing, so I didn’t do it at all. That was the safe choice, and I’m inclined to be conservative in how I approach most things. I also wasn’t sure how to even begin writing all of the thoughts in my head. I could talk for hours and hours, but to sort through and try to make any sense of it for others to read seemed to be a mountain I seriously doubted I could climb...

 

To begin with, I was born on March 5, 1930. I’m told my birth took place on a table in the living room of my family’s 1812 colonial farmhouse that still sits on River Road, just across the covered bridge from Route 313. The house had been in our family ever since Grandma Buck, my dad’s mom, was just six months old. It sat on 212 acres of land, where my dad raised dairy cattle along with chickens, garden produce, and even some potatoes. We had timberland, too. Our farm was self-sufficient, and we felt fortunate to live on a farm during the Depression...

             Life was not easy for my young parents as they struggled to raise four kids during the Depression, but my mom and dad never complained, they just went about their work with a determined hand and an unswerving belief in the proverbial golden rule, and they instilled that same belief in my sisters and me. We were raised to treat others with respect. We were raised to believe that hard work brought just rewards. We were raised to believe that your word was your bond and that a handshake sealed the deal as well as any piece of paper could.  We were raised to believe that doing the right thing was more important than winning. And we were raised not to put on airs or try to be something other than the farm kids that we were. Though mom and dad worked hard, we had what now is called ‘quality family time,’ too, with clam bakes and Grange Hall dances and afternoons spent at the local swimming hole on a hot summer’s day. Our life was like a Norman Rockwell illustration – because for more than ten years, Norman Rockwell illustrated our life

From Chapter Five

It was a little after seven o’clock one morning, and my dad had led the cows across our backyard and had walked along the property line between our house and the Rockwell’s as he did each morning, headed up to our top pasture. As he was headed back down the hill, like clockwork, Norman was on his way out of their back door, a Coke bottle sticking out of his back pocket, crossing the yard and heading toward the studio. 

            “Mornin’ Norman.”

            “Mornin’ Jim.”

            “Whatcha workin’ on, Norman?” my dad had asked, as he did each day.

            “Come on in and see,” Norman had said, his reply the same as it was every morning.

            My dad went into the studio to chat for just a few minutes, to see Norman’s latest illustration, and – more likely than not – to comment on it honestly, before Norman started working at his easel and my Dad’s chores called him home. 

            I had needed to ask my dad a question and had walked up to the screen door of the studio, when I heard Norman talking about, of all things, me. He wasn’t a man of many words, and neither was my dad, but they had this way of talking between them that was as much what they didn’t say as what it was. The bond between them had grown very strong, very fast.

            When I think about it now, there couldn’t be two more unlikely friends, but that’s what my dad and Norman had become. My dad had just a sixth grade education; Norman had attended art schools in Manhattan. My dad had begun working the farm at twelve, same as I had; Norman had grown up in New York City. My dad had never traveled far from West Arlington, Vermont. Norman had traveled the world. Norman hired tree surgeons to come and inspect his trees and then paid to have the dying ones cut down. My dad - who absolutely did not understand what a tree surgeon was or why you would waste your money to pay for one to come to your house – checked his own trees, and took a saw from the barn and cut down any of his trees that needed to be cut.

            But, there were similarities, too. Both men had a tremendous work ethic and valued their work. Both men loved their wives and kids, even if my dad spent more time with Mom and us kids than Norman spent with his family. Both men were respectful of people they met, regardless of their circumstances. Both men tried to live a life that reflected the goodness in all of us. I suppose it’s fair to say that even though they came from two completely opposing backgrounds, when all was said and done, they ended up sharing the same middle…

From Chapter Four

“Today’s the day!” I thought, excitedly.

             “Today’s the day!” My heart sang as I made my way downstairs to breakfast.          

            “Today’s the day!” I tried to calm my nerves as I ran out to the barn, my eyes darting everywhere, looking for my dad.  

            “Buddy, is that you?” my dad said as he entered the barn behind me.

            “Yes, you’re here! – I mean, I’m me – er, uh, yes sir!” I finally stammered.

            “Grab the harness and let’s go, Dick and Prince are waiting,” he said over his shoulder, ignoring my inability to spit out two words together as he headed back out the door.

            My heart was pounding as I reached up on the wall and took down the horses’ harness. Quickly running out the door, I went over to my dad, where he stood beside our team. They seemed bigger today, taller, and I took a deep breath as I looked up at the pair.

            “You know what to do?” my father asked.

            “Yes sir.” I said.

            “I hope so,” I thought.

            “You need my help?” my dad said, trying to sound casual.

            “No sir, I don’t think so, thanks,” I said, trying hard to sound casual back.

            “Alright, Buddy, then harness ‘em up and let’s go, we need to harrow the eight acre piece before the sun goes down.”

            I took a breath and eyed Dick and Prince as they stood, waiting patiently, and carefully straightened out the tangle of straps. I put a bit in each of their mouths, then put the harness collars around their necks and pulled the straps around their sides, and led them outside. As my dad watched, I hooked the team up to the spring-tooth harrow and then placed the steering straps from the horses behind it, leaving about fifteen to twenty feet of strap. And with that, my dad and I headed out to the top meadow, side-by-side, one grown man and one young man who had just gone through one of the most important rites of passage you could pass, all of it without a word from my father. But as we walked in silence, both of us staring ahead at some unknown spot in the meadow, he reached up and put his arm around me and softly patted my shoulder.  

            It was a mild day, and the sky was clear. It probably sounds a bit corny, but it was a great day to be out and working the land. I felt confident and strong, knowing I had my father’s total trust and that I could now step up to the task of filling the void on the farm that Stan Deverman’s leaving had created. My family needed me and I felt good about handling that responsibility, too. I was thirteen years old. 

            My dad headed up the ridge, leaving me alone with my thoughts and Dick and Prince. I had been harrowing the high meadow for about an hour when I heard a loud rumbling sound in the distance, down the Valley.

            “Shoot,” I thought, puzzled and listening intently, “sounds like thunder.”

            But as I stood there, the thunder didn’t stop, it just got louder and louder and louder, echoing off the hills. Suddenly, a B17 Bomber roared practically over my head, flying right along the Battenkill River, just three hundred feet above the water. And as I watched, dumbstruck, it deeply tilted its wings in salute, then flew off, disappearing from our view as fast as it had appeared…