Charles Bentley, Jr.
The road that travels by the Bentley farmhouse turns slightly to the left and then goes straight past the hayfields, down and over Tidd Brook, through the woods spotted with sunken hunting camps, and then up Red Mountain, where, on a fall day, the sun tries to force its way down through a stand of pine, spilling over the dead lower branches on its way to the forest floor. As a kid, Charlie started his walk to school on that road, going across the Green River and then up the valley past Hurd's General Store, whereas the Woodcocks-young Fred, Norman, Mary, and Charlotte-used to take the upper road that came out by Willie Lomberg's. When he was a young man, Charlie's father once stood by that road for a photograph, formally erect behind his parents, both dressed for church and sitting in ladder-back chairs, the small farmhouse occupying the background much as it does today-not dressed up for visitors but comfortable in its purpose.
A visitor to town might remark on the old Methodist church, the renovated schoolhouse, or even the two-holer out back. And some of us remember the days when Charlie was still milking in the large red barn down on Route 313 where he kept his herd; we recall him harvesting corn with a knife and hooking teams up to a stone boat to practice for a horse draw; we envision Floyd Bentley cutting hay with a team, the clicking of the gears and the smell of cut timothy a balm of sorts even 40 years later. Of course, Charlie remembers the day in 1952 (the same year the schoolhouse was closed for lack of indoor plumbing) when the first baler showed up in Sandgate, how to use a side-hill plough, the day Uncle Fred mowed hay when you could spot icicles along the brook, the benefits of a hay loader, and the dance hall on Saturday nights, when Henry Squires had to keep order.
A curious fact about Charlie, however, is that he recalls the teams most. The old pair of sorrels, Jack and Jen, Pete and Dan, a roan and a gray, and Betsy and Debbie-Betsy was an inexperienced two-year-old, so he hitched her up with Debbie to show her the ropes. Charlie once told me why he preferred horses to tractors: "You always know that a horse is going to start on a cold morning." But, as Charlie puts it, "If they get loose once, they get a little foolish." One team took off in the field by Sam Pike's because the whippletree broke, and another time, the pull snapped as Charlie was using a dump rake on the bank by the church. He went over, holding desperately to the reins, but the horses stood fast until someone got hold of their heads. But his fondness for horses remains. If you are sharp-eyed during a visit to the Bentley homestead, you might notice a second-prize ribbon from the 1961 Bondville Fair in the 2800 Class or a faded envelope with a bit of Dan's hair. When Floyd died, Duke and Dan were never worked as a team again.
The world is still filled with old farmers, old farmhouses, and old stories. But anyone expecting a trip down memory lane during a visit with Charlie might well be disappointed. It isn't about yesterday or tomorrow, but about the chance of rain this afternoon, or whether the corn shucker is working, or whether one should start up the arch in the saphouse. A lifetime of being useful changes a person. You stop talking about things that don't matter.
I am often asked what I have learned from Charlie Bentley. I've learned to not change gears when running a tractor downhill, to not use a milker on a cow with a sore teat, and how to throw a bale of hay to the top of a high load. I've learned how to move a horse around (push him in the direction opposite from where you want him to go), that knowing a place is better than always going somewhere new, and that when you shake hands with someone you don't know, make sure that they aren't holding onto an electric fence with the other hand. I've learned to appreciate the ground beneath my feet more than the view and the potatoes in the root cellar rather than the promise of next year's crop, and why you should never get into a fight that you aren't prepared to win. I've also learned at least a dozen things to do with a short stretch of baling twine, how to outrun a mad cow, and why a good dog is often worth two men.
I've also had the privilege of learning by watching. I've seen Charlie fix tractors with no more than a hammer and pliers. I have seen hayfields that seemed to stretch to the horizon but that got baled and picked before sunset. I have been in the woods, hopelessly searching in the dark, seeking wayward cows that, to my surprise, were quickly found by his more experienced eyes and ears.
I have also been taught the virtues of being common. Charlie doesn't drive a new pickup, tell others what to do with their property (although he did wonder why I didn't design my barn with a gambrel roof), complain about neighbors, or comment on the selection of hymns at the Methodist church. Not having to worry about self-expression leaves one with time for walking down River Road to take a drink at the spring that trickles down the embankment or to listen to the thumping mating call of partridges in the spring. Being common leaves time to appreciate the uncommon.
If someone really persisted, I would add that the biggest lesson learned was one of heart, not history. Of soldiering on and not yielding. Of getting up after being knocked down and doing it all over again. It is not a lesson of age or of youth. It is simply the lesson of Charlie Bentley.
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"