“We’ve gotta have a system” Ike says with unusual vigor and exasperation. It is the middle of winter and we are in the middle of the barn in the middle of morning chores doing a middling of work. Time to meddle.

“A system for what I ask suspiciously, not being familiar with this sort of energy out of Ike this early in the morning.

“A system for keeping track of the number of times the wheelbarrow is emptied outback for the yearlings.”

“We need a system for this?” I ask wondering if Ike is setting me up for a prank or to make some obscure point. Both are equally likely. He gets the pranks from his father but he is responsible for all things obscure in his life.

“Yes, we need a system!” Ike says pounding his fist into his palm with dramatic flare. “By lunchtime we don’t know if the yearlings have had three loads or four or five so we give them another just to be sure but they are only supposed to get four loads.”

Ike continues to pound his fist into his open palm as he says this. He is on one of his favorite soapboxes and he is gaining both speed and volume. I am not sure which soapbox this one happens to be quite yet but I am enjoying the rising fervor in his voice. It could be the ‘we need to be more efficient’ soapbox or the ‘waste not want not’ soapbox or, his current favorite ‘we are spoiling these cows’ soapbox. It is a bit too early in the rant to tell.

“A system?” I ask with mock thoughtfulness. “Here’s an idea. How about we ask each other and then add up all the times and see if we come up with four? It’s a difficult system I realize but with some effort I think we all could master the art of talking to each other and adding.”

Unfortunately, this penetrating bit of sarcasm is lost on Ike. By the time I get to the end of my suggestion Ike has moved on. This has all been just a prelude to introduce his idea for the system. What I thought was just early morning crazy talk has been a calculated strategy for attention and action.

“We can’t ask each other. We’ll forget to ask and even if we remember we’ll forget how many time we did or did not take a wheelbarrow out.”

I am tempted to point out that the only choices each of us have are ‘none’, ‘once’ or ‘twice’ and that even for us that shouldn’t be too stressful but Ike has a full head of steam now so I decide to get off the tracks and let him barrel forward.

Roger has joined the conversation now curious that his middle son is displaying excitement at 7 o’clock in the morning. He is amazed he is exhibiting anything at 7o’clock in the morning. Ike has mastered the difficult art of sleep-choring. He is physically present in the barn and he does do his chores but he is mentally and spiritually back under the covers in his bed.

“What’s goin on?” Roger asks me while studying the person next to me to see if it really his son.

“Ike says we need a system,” I respond.

“A system? A system for what?”

“A system to count the wheelbarrow loads we take out back.”

“Couldn’t we use numbers? I hear they are really handy and easy to use once you get the hang of it.” Roger says through a growing grin.

Ike has now gripped his hat and is shaking his hand in the air, once again exasperated with his fellow workers. Exasperation usually requires either the hat grab or the hand shake but seldom both. When he uses both Roger and I know that we are getting to him and no matter what else happens this morning we know it will have been a productive day. The fun is just beginning.

‘No, it doesn’t work! This is what we are going to do now.” He says this so quickly and firmly that Roger and I are unable to sidetrack him. This is unusual for us and it means that Ike has come prepared for our nonsense.

Ike holds up his right hand and shows us four particularly big pieces of corncob he has found on the floor of the manger. The biggest cob pieces, about an inch long, gain enough momentum blasting out of the silo chute above the feed cart that they often miss the cart and ricochet off the walls in their efforts to escape their cruel 4-stomach death by digestion fate. Ike finds these pieces and tosses them down the manger in front of one of the cats to get them to chase them but today his is hoarding them. The cobs now have a higher purpose.

“Each one of these represents one wheelbarrow load. Every time you take out a load you will place a cob marker in this little cranny so we will be able to know exactly how much food we are giving the calves out back.”

Roger and I are really suspicious now. This initiative is very much unlike Ike. He never shirks his work but he seldom makes more of it for himself.

“Isn’t this more work, Ike?” I ask.

“No, it will be less work. Now we won’t be taking unnecessary loads out back. With this system we will only do just what we need to do.”

Ah-ha, the soapbox has finally revealed itself. It is the do-the-work-but-don’t-do-any-more-than-is-necessary-so-we-can-get-out-of-here-before-Roger-thinks-of-more-that-needs-to-be-done soapbox.

Roger pipes up now, “Oh I like this idea. This will really work!” Roger generally likes any new idea because he knows that his father generally won’t. But with Ike’s idea I think he actually thinks it has value beyond rattling a few shingles off the old man’s roof.

Kiddingly, I add, “What would be really nice is one of those counters they have over pool tables, you know, where they reach up with their cues and slide some tabs over indicating their score.”

“Yes! Yes! That’s it!” Ike is practically shouting now. “And we could make it out of baling twine! It would be authentic then and look like it fit in the barn, been here for a long time. Oh, this is going to be great!” he crows.

Before Roger or I can slow him down, Ike has turned and is making a beeline to the barrel where the extra twine is stashed. Ten minutes later he has strung his first cob-bead on to the twine and is excitedly stringing the next.

“This will be great. You’ll see. They will be remembering this day for generations!”

In his mind he is storming the barricades trying to bring down the tyranny of unnecessary work. As it is he is standing in the center aisle digging with his pocketknife at the center of another large cob. When he finishes four he strings them up between an old nail and a switch box on one of the ceiling beams- the cobs caught in the space between the nail and the box.

He brings us both over when he is finished. “There, four cobs, all on one side. Every time a load is taken out back a cob is moved. It is fool proof!!”

“Do we move it before we take the load out back or after we come back?” Roger asks teasingly trying to cause a little trouble in Ike’s new found paradise.

“Doesn’t matter as long as it is moved.” Ike says firmly. “It is foolproof,” he trumpets triumphantly. “Foolproof!”

“What does that make us?” Roger asks as he turns to me.

“I think it makes us fools. “ I respond with horror.

Ike is having nothing of this. He knows we are just trying to get his goat, or wheelbarrow in this case, and he will have none of it.

“Foolproof” he repeats. “Ah, what a great day.”


David Middleton — Quite a Sightly Place