Suddenly I noticed my customer's right hand as he sat beside me in the shotgun seat. We had already been chatting for a good half hour, so I knew it would be OK to ask.
"How'd you lose your fingers, Ennis? Farming accident?"
Ennis Dutton held up his right hand and looked at it. The thumb and index finger were intact; the other three fingers ended above the first knuckle, just below where the nails would have been. He contemplated the sight for a moment before responding.
"Corn chopper," he began. "When I was 20 years old, working on a farm in the town of Addison. I thought I heard somebody whistle and looked up. Big mistake. The blood was everywhere. I tried to retrieve the fingertips, but a coupla seagulls swooped down and scooped 'em up. I wrapped my hand in a rag and drove to the general store — ya know the one on 22A?"
"The pain must have been crazy," I said.
"Well, what happens is, ya go into shock. Anyways, I walk in, and Debbie says, 'Ennis, take off that rag and lemme see what ya done to yourself this time.' I unwrap the rag, she takes one look and passes clean out. Luckily, her husband was in the back, and he drove me over to Porter in Middlebury."
Noticing my jaw was agape, Ennis chuckled. "Not everybody got a story like that, am I right?" he asked. He had a round face with tousled brown hair just beginning to show a whisper of gray. A physically expressive guy, his smile was amply reflected in his entire face, not merely his mouth.
"Yup, that's quite a story," I agreed, though I couldn't bring myself to join in the chuckling. "Those seagulls are opportunistic sons of guns, a bunch of squawking gangsters."
I'm an urban cabbie, or at least as urban as it gets in Vermont. Mainly I drive city dwellers, whether Burlingtonians or tourists, college students or businesspeople. The Queen City is the perfect town for a hackie like me, and I enjoy my job.
But every so often I get to transport a rural Vermonter like Ennis, and the conversation opens a window onto a world still largely foreign to me, even after living in Burlington for 40 years.
It's certainly not always about pastoral joy and bucolic wonder. Like Ennis' — let's call it — "seagull story," the dispatches I receive from that world can be on the gruesome side. But that's all part of the picture, a culturally rich way of life that has played out over generations of Vermont families and communities. I'm eager to hear any or all of it.
"So, have you ever done work other than the farming?" I asked.
"Well, for about three winters I made snow up at Killington."
"That's got to be brutal," I said. "They make the snow overnight, right?"
"Yup, I would work from nine at night until 11 the next morning. I had to quit that, because my short fingers would get wicked frostbit. For a few years, I also drove a truck carrying cows."
"How many animals would the truck carry?"
"Could be as many as 18 if you packed 'em tight, but usually around 12. Sometimes one, or even two, would go down during the long rides. Back then you could still sell the down cows, you know, at a discount. Now, I guess, it's illegal."
I didn't want to ask, but from the context, I assumed "down" meant "dead."
"So, the back problem you mentioned forced you to stop working altogether?"
"Yup, it's been two years now. They fused the lower spine about six inches, but it never really helped. I screwed it up after my wife died."
"What happened?" I asked.
"Well, Maggie died suddenly from a massive heart attack. I felt so bad I started working, like, 20 hours a day, seven days a week. I guess I was trying to stay distracted. Everyone — my family, the farm owner where I was working, the doctor — they all told me I had to take time off, but they knew I wouldn't listen. That's when I had the back injury."
As we made our way south to his home in Bridport, Ennis pointed out every farm we passed. He had worked on many of them and, even if he hadn't worked on one, he seemed to know its full history over the last few decades: the crops grown, the number of cows milked, the various owners. He held strong views on proper farming practices. Above all, he scorned the farmers that ran shoddy, unclean operations.
"You see there?" Ennis indicated as we came into Ferrisburgh. I looked to my right to see a huge field covered in plastic tarp.
"That used to be a cornfield, and now they've put in the hemp. Since it became legal, I guess that's your cash crop. Can you smell it? Something like pot, but sour-like."
I stuck my head out the window and — unlike Bill Clinton — inhaled. Deeply. My sense of smell has ebbed as I've aged, but I could identify the aroma as Ennis described it. This was a perfect example of a vivid element of the natural world about which I had been oblivious. It took a native — a rural Vermonter and lifelong farmhand — to point out what was right under my nose.
"So, how do you spend your days since you had to quit farming?"
"I don't do much. It drives me nuts, not working. But I do enjoy my Legos. Yeah, I know they're for kids, but I can get real, like, creative with 'em. Some days, I'll start in about nine in the morning, and by the time I look up, it's late afternoon."
Not quite the same as chopping corn and milking cows, I thought, but Legos are awesome. When I've driven my last taxi fare, it might be something to consider.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.