Toby is short and round in the middle and somewhere a little north of 80 years old. Thick swirls of grey hair protrude out from under his Indiana Jones style hat. He has the marks of age on his face and arms. Loose skin. Brown spots. A bruise on his left forearm that looks like it’s been there a while.
I love old nursery guys. Most of them I’ve ever known love what they do. They like the plants. They like the people they meet. They love getting out on the road to visit other farms. They will always talk shop.
Toby is driving your basic old guy nursery truck. I’m guessing a 25-year-old Dodge one ton flatbed. The seats are torn. The dash is littered with receipts and catalogues and hose connectors and hand pruners. There’s a pair of work gloves with the fingertips worn through. A square water key is hanging from the rearview mirror on a loop of bailing wire. Thick stacks of papers stuffed above both visors.
The outside of the cab is spattered with mud. The sideboards are homemade and have seen better days. The tires are good, though. He might not care what she looks like, but he has to depend on her whenever he’s out on the road. She purrs smoothly as he pulls up to our loading area.
“It’s been a while, Mr. Toby.” I’m glad to shake his hand.
“Yes sir, it has. You know my daughter runs the place these days. She and my son-in-law are catching on pretty well. They let me get out in public every now and then.”
He grabs a tarp from behind the front seat and tosses it up on the flatbed.
“Don’t reckon I really need this tarp seeing as how it’s fall, and the leaves will all be gone soon enough, but I can’t haul plants without covering them. Old habit, I guess.”
He walks around to the back of the flatbed and reaches for one of the sideboards and hefts his foot up on the cross bar that holds the hitch.
“Mr. Toby, my guys can get up there and load these plants for you.”
“You saying I’m too old?”
“No sir. Just no need for you to get up there.”
He grunts and hops a couple of times to get his momentum built up and manages to get one knee up on the back of the bed. Toby doesn’t see it, but Joe is standing right behind him with his hand inches away from his belt in case he needs to grab him. But he swings his other leg up and stands with no problem.
Seems like the ones who have actually worked all their lives are the ones that keep working for as long as they can. Lifting pots. Climbing up on trucks. Digging holes to repair irrigation lines. The thought of standing by and watching someone else do the work never crosses his mind. At 5 ft. 5 inches, Mr. Toby looks like Paul Bunyan standing up there.
“Hand ‘em up here boys,” he says.
Joe gets up on the truck with one hop. He’s not about to let Mr. Toby handle these plants by himself. Not because it’s a competition but because he knows enough to show some respect. To join the work and never leave to one man what two men could do better.
It’s not a big order. Joe and Mr. Toby pull the tarp down over the trees once they’re laid in the bed of the truck. The old nurseryman gets down on both knees at the back edge of the bed, holds on to the siderail with his left hand and reaches blindly for the crossbar with his right foot. We’re all watching. We’re all holding our breath a little bit. It’s a slow motion move but Mr. Toby finally finds his footing and steps back to the earth.
My breathing relaxes. I’m hoping that fourteen years from now I’ll feel like getting up and down off a truck bed. Hoping that I actually can get up and down off anything more than four feet off the ground.
Mr. Toby cups his hat in one hand and wipes his forehead with a rag.
“Beautiful day. I love this time of year. I’m lucky I’ve been able to work outdoors my whole life. Nothing like this fall weather.”
He opens the truck door and pulls up into the seat. The door shuts and he props an elbow on the open window edge.
“I hope you get a chance to relax a little bit this weekend,” I say.
“Not this weekend. Got too much to do around the house. But in a couple weeks I’m taking a vacation with my daughter. She’s taking me to France.”
I’m surprised by the idea. “Now that ain’t no trip to Panama City Beach. France, really? That’s some vacation right there.”
“My dad is buried over there. I’ve always wanted to see where he’s buried. My daughter has been and now she’s going to take me with her this time.”
“What’s the story, Mr. Toby?”
“My dad flew P38s in WWII and he was shot down over northern France during the war. I was only two, so I never really knew him. My mom said he was MIA for a long time. He’s buried in Laon.”
“I can’t imagine going your whole life and never knowing your dad.”
“He wrote me a letter from over there. Mom kept it for me until I was older. I was only two and he said he wanted me to hold down the fort until he got home. Be the man of the house, you know, and all that.”
I watched as an 80-year-old man wiped the corner of his eye with his rag. The words written on a folded-up piece of paper from 1943 were still fresh on his mind. I’m thinking he probably has the letter memorized. Reading it over and over again in his mind all these years.
I feel blessed to have had my dad for four score and seven years. In the face of all the things I remember and some of the things that I’ve forgotten, he was the one person that shaped my way of thinking and working and believing more than any other individual I’ve ever known.
Some dads are missing because they choose to be absentee. They get scared. They feel unprepared to be a dad, or maybe they’re just plain sorry. Who knows.
Some dads are missing because life is tragic. Wars take them when they are young. Disease steals their future way too soon. Thoughts of suicide convince them that they’re not needed any longer.
Either way, present or absent, for good or bad, a dad will always live on in the mind of a son even when he is old.
Toby reaches out the window to shake my hand.
“Funny, ain’t it? How a man I can’t remember meeting had such a lasting influence on me. I guess it’s about time I went over to France and said thanks.”
I don’t think it’s funny at all.