None of my children ever met my Grandpa Messer. We lost him to a stroke at age 82, and the world is poorer for it. I got the call three weeks after giving birth to my first child, so I packed up my newborn daughter, Abby, and flew from Utah to North Carolina to be with my family. There are those who would criticize me for taking a newborn on a plane, but when you read this story, maybe you will understand why he meant so much to me.
I did not write today’s post. “Full Measure” was written by my father, Ron Messer, about his own father, Arthur Messer. There are no car chases or big explosions, but there are beans growing in the hot Carolina sun, and a judge with a sense of humor. This story needs to be told.
By Ronald Messer
My father was a very quiet man. Born in Tennessee, he came with his mother and seven brothers and two sisters to South Carolina when he was nine years old. It was during the depression. Starving, they came to work in the cotton mills. His father, a mountain man, remained behind in Tennessee and wandered the hills the rest of his life, in self-exile, living off the charity of others, lost, alone and homeless. Life is filled with irony and paradox. Having worked all my life in the west, I am now retired to a small cabin only a mile from my father’s Tennessee home in the Smoky Mountains.
Having been abandoned by his father, my father spent all of his free time as an adult with his own family. He loved fishing, camping, and gardening. My father loved the land perhaps more than anyone else I have known. His large garden was always a show piece. I would like to share one incident that marks his honest nature and one which, though I was an adult, reminded me of my childhood. The incident is significant here because my father by example taught the principle of honesty to one of my daughters. It is an example of how virtues (as well as vices) can travel through families for generations.
My daughter, Natalie, and I were tired, our backs aching after spending three hours sitting on wire baskets, bending over the heavy-laden rows, picking half runners by the handfuls. It was a hot July day in Charlotte, North Carolina. We headed for the shade, but my father, Arthur Messer, who just turned 77 (my age at this editing), continued puttering. Natalie exclaimed, “Doesn’t grandpa ever run out of energy?”
My father has always enjoyed a garden. Even as a child in South Carolina I admired the richness of his tomatoes, carrots, beans, onions, cucumbers, peanuts, and corn. His corn stalks always seemed to grow higher, his plants greener than those in other gardens. People came from all over to admire his garden.
His secret, he speaks to his plants! If a plant appears wilted, he will “tickle” the stalk with his finger and, as if speaking to a child, say, “You can do it! I know that you can do it!” By his testimony the plant always responded, and the next day it was competing for space with the others.
Once, my father tried to help a frustrated neighbor. They planted on the same day. It was the same soil, the same seed, the same rainfall, but the dissimilar results were disastrous. My father’s garden grew rich and green as usual, the neighbor’s sparse, brown, and wilted. The neighbor in frustration declared in despair that he would just quit gardening.
We picked about six bushels of beans in the hot July sun, dumped the beans, bucket after bucket, into a wheelbarrow. When the wheelbarrow was full, we dumped the beans onto a white sheet spread out on the ground in the shade of a large pecan tree. A bushel of beans becomes precious when picked in the Carolina heat, yet it only sold for $15 at the Farmer’s Market. My thought was to dump the beans into bushel baskets, level off the top, and buyer beware. After all, I had worked in the peach orchards as a kid. My job was to dump the bushel baskets full of disoriented sorry looking bulk and then place the largest, juiciest peaches on top to deceive the buyer.
But when we finished picking the beans, my father had me sit with him under the pecan tree inspecting each bean for dirt and mold and bug bites and wet rot. “I got 40 bushels from the garden one year,” he said proudly.
We couldn’t hose the beans down for fear of the white, furry mold that grows so quickly on a fresh green bean when wet. The mold resembles the spittle bug and spreads rapidly, destroying the entire bean and any other beans around it. So, we carefully wiped the red clay off each bean individually with a dry paper towel. “I’m glad I don’t have to do this each time,” he said. We broke off any worm holes or rotting spots and threw away any bean that had dried and turned white. We threw away those that were too small or otherwise undesirable. “They won’t be wasted,” he said. “They’ll just make the soil richer.”
When one basket was full, I started another, making the bushels stretch. My father picked up the bushel basket and shook it vigorously, making the beans settle so he could get more in. “I like to give full measure,” he said. He rounded the basket off so full that the beans had to be placed carefully to keep them from falling on the ground. I began putting my beans into another basket. My father continued to stack the beans in the bushel basket until it could hold no more.
The six bushels were reduced to five, but that seemed irrelevant to him. We drove the beans to the Farmer’s Market. We approached a merchant, a short, paunchy, bearded man caught up in his trade. With a poker face he began to bargain. “I been giving $12 for beans. I can get them for twelve dollars,” he said slyly.
“I have to have $15,” said my father, in a quiet, disarming but uncompromising tone that I was used to. My father had been a merchant all his life. Even when working in the cotton mill, my father ran the canteen. Later he owned a hamburger stand and ended his career operating his own small grocery store. He made a statement to me once, that I shall never forget. The store was in Charlotte, North Carolina. Similar stores around were robbed frequently. In one store the owners, victims of a random robbery, were brutally and senselessly murdered. My father said, “I have never been robbed because I did not sell alcohol.” My father could have made a lot more money with a beer license but on moral grounds decided not to. He quietly worshiped God. He felt his safety was his reward. My father, aged nine, and his older brother Rufus operated a moonshine still in the Smoky mountains of East Tennessee. My father had two brothers who died of alcoholism. He quit drinking and smoking when my brother and I were very young because (he later told me) he did not want us to drink and smoke. Because of his example I do not know what alcohol tastes like, though I did sample some muscadine wine made by my grandmother when I was a little boy, nor have I ever had a desire to smoke. My father was a quiet man, perhaps the quietest person I have ever known, but he lived majestically. He knew value instinctively.
The merchant with a salesman’s instinct followed my father to his car repeating the $12 offer unchallenged. His speech was calculated, practiced, as one who argued the price by habit. My father opened the trunk and revealed the bushel baskets. The merchant’s mood changed. He expressed surprise. He snapped a bean. The bean popped, the fresh juice sprayed. Defeated he silently carried the beans to his bin and paid my father $15 per bushel. On the way home my father said, “He quit arguing when he saw they were rounded off.”
The merchant would find something else when he emptied the baskets. The beans on the bottom and in the middle would be just as large, just as fresh, just as healthy and just as clean as the ones visible on top. Because my father, his entire life, had lived by that code, “I like to give full measure.”
Years earlier, on our way to church on youth night, we were hit from behind by a careless driver. It was not really a serious accident. We talked to the passengers in the other car, and no one was injured. No policeman was called. A short time later my father received a summons. Astonishingly he was being sued for damages. On the way to court my best friend, who was also in the accident, said, “Arthur, what do you want me to tell the judge?” My father replied, “Roger, just tell the truth.” That was a foreign concept to Roger, but he remained silent, and nothing else was said. We arrived at the court early and were waiting. In hobbled the occupants of the other car. It looked like they had just survived a war zone. Some were on crutches; some had elaborate bandages, and some arm slings. I can’t remember if I burst out laughing then or later. It was the best sideshow I had ever seen. They were in the wrong business. They could have made it on vaudeville. My father, never a talker, told the details of the accident to the judge in simple terms. The other group, apparently confusing the accident with WWII, related a fantastic and incoherent story. When the judge quit laughing, he dismissed the case.
I never heard my father preach a sermon, but he taught us how to live, every day of his life.