Kenneth Kingsley was sitting beside me in the shotgun seat of my taxi on a mild and sunny weekday afternoon.
"I never imagined something like this would happen to me."
"Nope," I commiserated. "We never do."
My customer had just spent some life-saving time at Fletcher Allen hospital having "a few valves" installed in his chest. I was driving him back to Stevens Mills, the site of the family farm where he's lived his whole life. Well, not yet, thanks to the heart valves and the skill of his surgeon.
"Do they want you to do exercise now?" I asked. "You know — like rehab?"
"Not really," he replied. "I'm not supposed to lift over 10 pounds for the next month. 'Take it easy' is what they told me, basically."
Ken was wearing the classic outfit of a Green Mountain farmer: well-worn blue trousers, brown work boots and a plaid flannel shirt — in this case with a rectangular pattern of kelly green, rosy red and off-white. He was a slim, good-looking older man, with angular features and wavy black hair.
Glancing over at him, I flashed on the man standing up to speak in Norman Rockwell's oil painting titled "Freedom of Speech," from his famous 1943 series known as "The Four Freedoms." This guy, I thought, could be the older version of that man. Then, recalling that Rockwell based the drawing on a Vermont town meeting, I almost said out loud, "Well, there you go."
Our destination was close to the Canadian border, west of Jay Peak. There's a couple routes to get there — all gorgeous, especially at the cusp of the foliage season. I chose to take the interstate to St. Albans, then to cut across Franklin County.
"So you said you live on your family farm?" I asked, rekindling our conversation. "How many generations back does it go?"
"My parents bought it in 1945 for 45 hundred dollars. And then, the next year, I was born. I never married, but I had a son late in life. Brian's now 16 years old."
Ken took a deep breath, perhaps working out the kinks in those new valves. Adjusting himself in his seat, he continued the autobiography.
"Yup, the girlfriend told me she couldn't get pregnant anymore. Surprise. But don't get me wrong — Brian's the best thing that ever happened to me. He gives me a reason to live. Well, that and my girlfriend, his mother."
"Your growing up in the Kingdom, I wondered if you got into Burlington much. Or at all, really."
"No, not so much, but I did have a girlfriend there once. Used to drive down to see her." He skipped a beat, and I thought I detected just the hint of a smile. "That was a waste of gasoline," he added.
I chuckled at Ken's dry Vermont wit, and asked, "So where'd you go to hang out and relax? Were there any bars in the towns up there?"
"Well, every so often I would go to Sha-Booms in St. Albans."
"Sha-Booms — what's that? A bar?"
"So, at some point, you took over the farm, and you're still working it?"
"Well, not so much anymore. I sold the cows 11 years ago, and that gave me a mental depression, and I started drinking hard liquor for the first time in my life. I wound up in the hospital up in Morrisville for something or other, and they kept wanting to draw my blood. I asked them why, and they said, 'Mr. Kingsley, you're drinking a bit, aren't ya?' I told 'em I was, and they said, 'Stop or it's gonna kill ya.' So I did."
"Just like that?" I asked. "Cold turkey?"
We got off the highway and headed east on Route 105. Outside of Enosburg, we passed a huge cornfield. Ken saw me looking and said, "Yup, that was first frost last night."
"How could you tell?"
"The tops of the stalks are white."
I looked over again, and, indeed, I could see the lightest dusting of white, like a sheer sheet fluttering across the field. If Ken hadn't pointed it out, I never would have noticed. As much as I treasure the rural beauty of our state, I'm frequently reminded just what a city boy I am.
I thought of the year my customer had said he was born and did the math. What we baby boomers called "the war" remains a touchstone generational experience, even 40 years after it ended. "So did you see service in Vietnam?" I asked.
"Nope, they didn't call me up, I believe on account of I was an only child. A lot of my friends served, though. Yup, the Vermonters were the best troops, those farm boys and hunters. They learned how to stay still to track and shoot deer, and that same patience got used for shooting Vietcong."
We passed a farm that had seen better days. It looked like someone still kept a garden, but the main buildings, including the barn, were in the early stages of collapse. Ken said, "That's my girlfriend's place. She worked it with her late husband. She still stays there some of the time, mostly in the summer."
Nearing Ken's home, we passed another farm, and I noticed a herd of brown cows ambling across the field. Ken said, "We've been talking to my neighbor about buying those Jerseys. If we can come together on the price, we just might do it. My son, Brian, has been working on a nearby farm owned by a couple of my friends, and he's starting to make noises about getting our place up and running again. Those Jerseys just might do the trick."
And the light coming up in his eyes told me that future beckoned to him like no other.