Jim with Haskell Rogers on his first visit, May 2010
The Passing of a Gentleman
The phone rang this afternoon as I was slicing apples into a pan for apple crisp---a fitting and homey dish for a chilly day. I laid down my knife, and caught the phone on the second ring.
Our neighbor, Dale Hayes, never identifies himself when calling, but we know his voice. “Mrs. Whitehurst”, he said, “I’m calling to let you and Jim know that Haskell passed away this afternoon.”
Such news is not unexpected when someone has lived well into his 90’s, still my reaction was an immediate, ‘Oh, no!’
A heart attack on Monday, Dale recounted, into the hospital then, and death had come on this Wednesday. ‘He was out driving last week!’ Dale’s tone was wry.
We purchased our farm on the Old Gradyville Road in March, 2010, from J. M. Shelley who had bought the place at auction in the fall of 2009 and taken on the task of clearing out the barns and shed. At the closing J. M. handed over the soil maps and a large framed arial photo of the acreage and farm buildings as it had looked in the early 1980’s soon after the new house replaced an older one.
“You’ll want to get acquainted with Haskell Rogers,” he advised. “He worked that farm for the last 30 years and he’ll tell you more about it than I can.”
In our first weeks here as we made the rounds of bank, insurance office, seed and fertilizer business, we had to explain just where we had come to live. We were told--and retold--"You need to stop and see Haskell. He could tell you history."
Those were busy weeks—gardens to till and fence; berry plants to order and set out.
In the house, the faded blue carpets were ripped up, replaced with hardwood. I painted the kitchen even as Jim was uncrating the new cabinetry. Neighbors stopped by to introduce themselves and make us welcome. Haskell’s name was mentioned often, but we hadn’t found time to go in search of him.
We weren't sure who was arriving when a blue Chevy Blazer turned slowly but confidently up the drive. It was the first week in May, a few days past the deluge that sent Big Creek flooding onto the road.
‘Who on earth?’ I wondered.
Jim peered out and replied, "That must be the man who used to live here!"
We hurried out to greet our guest as he pulled to a stop near the carport. Haskell Rogers wouldn't get out of the car, though we urged him.
"I had an errand in town," he said, "and then I decided to see what damage the rain had done. Thought I’d stop to meet you."
He shook our hands--his slender, dry-skinned and warm.
Jim had been wondering about the exact location of the old well. Mr. Rogers pointed it out. He told us about the wonderful harvests from the old pear tree--"over a hundred years old--I remember it from when I was a boy in the neighborhood."
I enjoy history and I asked eager questions--about the flood, about life as it had been lived here decades before.
Mr. Rogers admitted that he didn't remember moving here with his parents. He was born in 1916, in Metcalfe County a few miles away.
His father bought farmland here and Haskell grew to young manhood in Gradyville.
The new house that Doctor L.C. Nell built [on higher ground] after the 1907 flood took the lives of his first wife and all but one child, was within easy walking distance of the Rogers’ farm and young Haskell was intrigued with the doctor's practice.
"I don't know just what Dr. Nell saw in me" admitted Haskell, "But he made me welcome around his office and put me to work. Later he recommended me for work as an x-ray technician and since there was no large hospital in town then, emergency cases were often brought in to the same office that housed the lab, and I worked beside the doctors to treat the injured"
World War II interfered with any plans Haskell might have made for a more formal medical training. Still, folks who knew and respected him continued to seek his skills when they were injured or ailing.
"I never pretended to be a doctor," he assured us. "If I could help someone, I did. I was never afraid to say that a problem was beyond what I could treat and that the person needed to see the qualified doctors that I worked with."
Haskell chuckled softly, a sound we soon learned was the preface to a story.
A man had come to the clinic where he worked one evening, Haskell recalled. He had been brawling—and probably drinking--- his face and mouth were bruised and cut.
Haskell assembled antiseptic and gauze, sutures and needles, which he saw would be needed. He began carefully to cleanse the man’s battered face only to have his patient shove him violently away, upsetting the tray of instruments.
Quietly Haskell explained that the man needed to sit still so he could assess his injuries.
The man struck him.
Haskell’s blue eyes twinkled. ‘It wasn’t very professional,’ he admitted, ‘but I’d had enough. Without any thought to the matter I back-handed him on the undamaged side of his head!’
Startled, the man had glared at Haskell.
“You one of them Rogers from o’er ‘ere in Metcalfe County?” he grunted.
“I don’t know what he’d heard about us,” Haskell mused, “But he sat quiet on that stool til I had cleaned and patched him up!”
Mr. Rogers returned for another visit the following afternoon. Knowing that I was interested in Gradyville history, he brought with him a copy of his late wife's book. "I want you to enjoy this." he said.
He also brought apples he had picked the year before from one of the trees in this yard, sliced and dried. Several heads of garlic were presented in a plastic sack. He emerged from his car and led J. over near the grape arbor to point out the garlic growing there in clumps.
Haskell agreed to come in the house to see what we had done, pleased to see our small treasures already displayed on the shelves he had made around the fireplace--"for my wife's antiques. She loved old things." He created the shelves and cupboards that grace either side of the fireplace, using lumber from a cherry tree cut down on the property.
The sight of my piano inspired Haskell to tell us that day of his mother and sisters who had played hymns at home and in church. I listened, delighted, as he told of choir outings, all day singings, when church choirs from the area gathered to praise.
“I’ve played for church services most of my life,” I told him, “Shall I play for you?”
Dale Hayes stopped by a few days later and we fell over ourselves telling him that we had met Mr. Rogers.
”I knowed that already!” Dale grinned. “I got something in my eye and went to have Haskell take it out. He told me he paid a visit and that you played hymns on the piano for him.”
It was Haskell who framed up the little garage. He had heard a tale of the yellow poplar lumber having been salvaged from one of the flood-ravaged houses. He wasn't sure he credited that tale, until he dismantled the older building and saw the marks and nail holes in the boards, indicating they had been used in another setting.
He smiled wryly as he admitted to Jim, “That garage isn't as straight on one side as it should be. The wind blew when I was framing it and knocked one side out of line. I had to take the tractor and pull it back.”
When Haskell left after his second call—the only time he came in the house--he paid us the ultimate compliment. Pausing on the threshold he smiled. "My wife would have appreciated what you are doing with this house. She would be pleased to know that you are taking care of things here."
There were other visits. We would look up to see the blue Chevy trundling carefully up the drive. Haskell always had something to share—seeds saved from a favorite heirloom watermelon—the kind he had raised here and taken to a family reunion.
He told me how to make pear honey from the bounteous harvest of pears. We gave him jars of pear honey, canned pears, homemade bread still warm from the oven, tomato plants.
Several weeks before Thanksgiving in 2011 Haskell turned up with a container of shelled pecans. He admitted he’d gotten dizzy stooping to pick them up so his daughter-in-law, Wanda, had gathered the nuts. He had shelled them out, sitting on the porch in his rocking chair. He hinted that he was fond of pecan pie—and I made sure that we delivered one a few days later.
We shared things as country neighbors have always done—talked of weather and seasons, gardens, animals. Haskell commiserated over the problems of stray cats, but confessed that he always fed them. Jim occasionally made up a basket of fresh stuff from the garden and dropped by with it to sit and chat for a few minutes.
Once as we sat with him on his porch, Haskell spoke of the Depression years.
As a boy, he wondered why his family had so much company.
"We had no money,” he explained, "No more than anybody else. But we had food--meat hogs, a beef, garden stuff and fruit in jars. We had a springhouse with shelves built all around and they were full. Folks knew where to visit and be fed."
Generosity and kindness were surely as much a part of Haskell Rogers as his humor, his integrity and his appreciation of all that was good about country life.
I think that Richie Janes summed up Haskell in a few words, when his name was mentioned one day at the fertilizer plant.
‘Haskell Rogers” said Richie, ‘is a fine man.”
He paused for emphasis, “A fine, fine man.”
We have been blessed to know Haskell Rogers these few years.
We shall miss his visits, the twinkle in his blue eyes as he recalled a tale of other times.
He was a vital part of the neighborhood that welcomed us home.