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Stooped from ailments of old age such as arthritis and the impact of years walking rooflines as a carpenter, Uncle Shelby moved with head bowed seemingly in a constant state of contemplation or perhaps even prayer.
Growing up, we lived next door to one of my grandfather’s older brothers. Each summer, he tended a successful vegetable garden in the unforgiving red clay so common in Hardin County.
Dad tried occasionally to start a garden plot with little success. The best yield that I recall was a hardy supply of radishes and some golf-ball size potatoes that should have been plowed under rather than dug up. It seemed the primary product of that backyard garden was rocks.
But right next door just across the driveway, Uncle Shelby produced rows of tomatoes, onions, sweet corn and dozens of other grocery-quality delights. His garden even boasted six-foot tall sunflowers that each produced hundreds of tasty seeds.
He succeeded every season.
What made the difference? Water did seem to drain toward the sloping spot that he used for his garden plot. Maybe there was some secret to his manure-based fertilizer. Of course, experience was on his side. He’d worked around farms since childhood and had broken ground with plows pulled by mule teams long before any family member owned a tractor.
But the most likely reason for his exceptional yield: He invested exceptional time.
At the start of each day, he’d be there. Each evening, he’d be there. After retiring from construction, he’d be out at any hour.
His most common uniform on those summer days: heavy-duty boots, a rugged pair of denim overalls and a long-sleeve white shirt.
When the sun bore down at its most powerful, instead of reducing clothes, Uncle Shelby would add a straw hat to his attire.
Melting under the summer sun and Kentucky’s unforgiving humidity last week, I thought about Uncle Shelby, who died a couple decades ago.
The heat advisory might have shifted his schedule to cooler hours but it would not have chased him out of the garden. He would have been there, covered head to toe with clothing, pulling weeds, running a Rototiller or checking leaves for signs of disease or pests.
While today, we peel off layers and wear embarrassingly little to run errands in air-conditioned cars, Uncle Shelby faced heat in a different manner.
The hat provided portable shade for his bald head and face. The white shirt was chosen to reflect some of the sun’s rays. The long sleeves and the T-shirt underneath kept perspiration close to the skin allowing for the natural cooling of evaporation to have its effect. And no lotion on the market provides the SPF protection that denim overalls offer.
He dealt with the heat. Confronted it. He survived and his garden thrived. It wasn’t comfortable but should comfort be our sole goal?
So many life lessons are taught by example rather than words.
Ben Sheroan is editor of The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at bsheroan@ thenewsenterprise.com or (270) 505-1764.