You Have My Word

Today it seems too many contracts and purchases include voluminous “Terms and Agreements,” and too often we push the “Agree” button or provide a signature, but never read the fine print until there is a problem. I grew up in a simpler time. In 1937, I was 6 years old, living with my mom and dad and five brothers and sisters on a farm in Iowa.

One evening when all eight of us were gathered around the big round dining room table about to eat our meal, Jake, the livestock buyer, knocked on the door and handed my dad a check. Dad, without looking at the check, thanked Jake and tucked the check for thousands of dollars into a little pocket on the front of his bib overalls. After a few comments about the warm weather and high school baseball scores, Jake left. Before he had even opened the door to his pickup, my mom asked, “Is the check for the right amount?” My dad nodded yes. Mom said, “You haven’t even looked at it.” 

Three days earlier, Jake and my dad had stood in the shade of the barn, looking over the 40 head of Hereford steers (steers are emasculated boy cows) milling about in the feedlot, some eating from the long wooden trough full of grain, some at the huge metal waterer, others moving restlessly in the confined space. The two men reached an agreement, Jake left, and dad finished repairing a broken hinge on the barn door. The next day, the steers were herded up a ramp onto a livestock truck, and Jake waved as he drove out the driveway headed for the Chicago livestock pavilions.

The 40 steers had been part of our lives for months, ever since dad bought them from a rancher in Wyoming. All summer, they were landscape animals, their reddish hides and gleaming white faces part of the ever-present view from the living room window. The steers spent their days munching the clover and grass in the north pasture. Then two weeks before Jake arrived, they were herded through the wooden gate into the feedlot, to be “finished,” to be fed corn and oats to put on a few more pounds and to give their hides the healthy shine that the livestock buyers looked for, the “shine” that added a few dollars to the price willing to be paid by the buyers looking for prime beef to be slaughtered into steaks and roasts to feed the hungry.

After the livestock truck drove away my mom, the official worrier in our family, lamented, “We may never see Jake again. He could just drive our steers to Chicago, sell them, and never give us our money.” Dad said, “Don’t worry so, Katie.” Mom couldn’t stop saying, “Then how could we make the loan payment on the farm? How about Christmas? The kids need school clothes. You said we would get a new washing machine.” My dad put his arm around my worried mom’s shoulders and quietly said, “It’s OK, Katie. He’ll pay me when he gets back from Chicago. We shook on it.”

Twenty years after Jake drove off with my dad’s 40 head of steers, I was living with my husband and three preschool children in a tiny town in Iowa, where each month our income almost equaled our expenses. Sal ran the only grocery store in town, and he let customers like me buy groceries “on the bill,” charging groceries until the end of the month. Each time Sal sold me anything he said, “Thank you,” to which I replied, “Thank you,” after which, unless he was too busy, we shook hands. When which-bills-to-pay-this-month decisions had to be made, Sal always got paid in full, not because he would have cut off my credit (he had a drawer full of unpaid ledger accounts), but because we had “shook on it.”

Phyllis Henry lives and writes from a hill overlooking Burley Lagoon.