Discovering the Great Adair
I MET the man who told me this story on a Great Lakes liner en route from Detroit to Buffalo. A liner called, with true Middle Western modesty, a boat. We sat on deck in the cool of an autumn evening, talking crops, animals, fertilizers, and men in relation thereto, while the shore lights faded and the moon touched the wavelets of Erie as pleasantly as she does those of Como.
I’ve been judging wool sheep (said he) at the Michigan State Fair; that’s why I’m so far from home. But day after to-morrow I’ll be on the hills again with my pets. That’s the best part of life to me. Take a clear day in April and I can get more fun out of lambing ewes than a millionaire can get out of a yacht. Trudge home at night so tired I can hardly lift my feet, yet contented with everything. It gives me what the preachers call the peace ‘which passeth all understanding.’
The judge of mutton sheep out there was old William Adair; maybe you’ve heard of him. I’ve known the Adairs from boyhood on; they’re from our state, and we often met up with them at fairs and stock shows. Then I roomed with Charlie Adair at agricultural college. Occasionally he’d take me home with him for a visit. A grand family, the Adairs — eight children, four of them still at home and the others settled in the neighborhood.
When Charlie and I finished college we accepted what looked like a big chance to get into farm-bureau work in adjoining counties in Ohio. Later on we switched to a farmers’ coöperative at more money. Selling coöperation to the American farmer is a real job; it means talking, pleading, bullying, organizing, writing, and getting your name into the papers as often as possible. In two years I ’d had enough of that, and quit to go back sheepraising, sheep being easier to handle than men and more appreciative. But Charlie hung on and made his way bit by bit to a responsible position in the coöperative movement. At thirty-five he was one of its big men, drawing twelve thousand dollars a year up in Minnesota. Then he died — burned out. When I saw Charlie in his coffin — worn thin and bald — you can figure I was glad I had gone back to sheep in time.
The Adairs took his death hard. Charlie had been too busy to get home often, but they had followed his upward march with pride every step of the way. He would have been surprised to know how frequently he was quoted and his opinions deferred to in the daily routine of the farm. ‘Charlie always said this.’ ‘Charlie would do that this way.’ ‘I allow Charlie would cross these critters and send those to market.’
After Charlie died — burned out, as I say —the old man and the boys seemed to fall more and more under the influence of his memory. Their regard was deep and real, all right, but a little unhealthy at that. I never went there without hearing Old Bill say, with a shake of his noble gray head, ‘Well, Charlie was the man of the family. We lost the great Adair when Charlie died.’ The other boys, too, harped on that string too much for their own good; it kept them thinking they never would amount to much. ‘We’re just plodders,’ Young Bill said to me once; ‘but Charlie had ideas. He was the man of our family, all right.'
Young Bill—he’s always been called that, though he is nearing fifty now — had his wool sheep at this fair where his father was judging muttons, so I’ve just been seeing a good deal of them both. Their talk was all of Charlie even yet. Old Bill, after drawing me out on my comradeship with Charlie at school and work, would end each conversation on the same melancholy note: ‘Well, Charlie was a man. Even as a boy he was a man. We lost the great Adair when we lost Charlie.’ And Young Bill would echo Old Bill — Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.
Old Bill and I judged in relays; I’d take the wools for an hour and then he’d take the muttons. Leaving the ring one day, I stopped by Young Bill’s pens, which, as usual wherever the Adairs showed, were plentifully decorated with the ribbons announcing victory in this or that class.
‘Bill,’ I said, ‘I notice that the famous Adair merinos seem to be holding their own, in spite of the fact that I’m leaning over backward agin’ you to give the other fellows a square deal. What you’ve won is on strict merit, for I’ve been downright careful to avoid criticism on the ground of old friendship. This is my first job of judging in the Middle West, and I’m taking no chances. But you’ve got the blood lines, and the condition is close to prime.’
Bill looked pleased for a moment; then habit conquered him. ‘Why,’ he replied, ‘they’re fair enough, but nothing to what they would be if Charlie could have lived and taken a squint at them now and then. There was a man with an eye for a sheep — for everything, in fact. Just went out and made good every minute. That was Charlie wherever you put him. He was the great Adair, all right.’
I boiled over at that. ‘Bunkum,’ said I. ‘Your sheep could n’t be in much better shape, and if Charlie had been tending ’em they would probably be in worse. Listen to me, Bill, and listen hard. You’re overdoing this Charlie business. It’s all right up to a certain point; but you folks have passed that point. I knew Charlie better after he left home than any of you did, and I tell you he never knew a quarter as much about sheep as you do to-day. He knew how to dictate letters, and make speeches, and solicit money, and get laws passed, and drive people hither and yon — but his sheep knowledge had pretty much oozed out of him. So why give credit to Charlie for the good points of a flock founded before he was born, all the while taking the blame yourself for its bad points, which are mighty few? You’re humbling yourself out of all proportion; I don’t like it and neither would Charlie.
‘What’s more,’ I said, warming up to the subject, ‘you’re always setting Charlie up as the great Adair. Charlie was O. K., no doubt of that; but, if you really want to see the great Adair, come here and I’ll show him to you.’ With that I whisked Young Bill out of the barn door and pointed toward the show ring. ‘There,’ I said, ‘right there in the centre of that ring stands the great Adair. Take a good long look at him.’
I suppose I have an aggravated case of what the sociologists call the rural mind; but to me that morning William Adair, Sr., standing in the sunshine like a patriarch of old, firm as a rock on his seventy-eight-year-old legs, seemed the exact image of what God intends a man to be toward the end of the experience we call life. There was fire in his eye and snap in his voice as he questioned the exhibitors; when he bent over to feel out a ewe you could see his heavy back-and-shoulder muscles quarrel with his shirt; his touch was as sure and tender as ever, the touch of love an animal instantly quiets under.
A practised eye could see all that; but this rural mind of mine saw a good deal more. It took in all the vast good that rugged veteran had done in his many years — all the life, literally multitudes of lives, he had brought forth and nurtured, all the lambs he had tended and saved in foul weather, all the human backs he had clothed and the hungers he had fed, all the toil he had done and the glory he had won without thought of praise or expectation of great reward.
What drove him day by day— duty or love? I say love.
‘There,’ I said over and over to his son in as many ways as I could think of, ‘there’s the great Adair. There’s a greater man than Charlie would have been at the same age; maybe a greater man at any age, in the sight of God and eternity, than Charlie ever was or ever could be. There’s Man practically as he would have been through all history if Adam and Eve had never sinned in the Garden of Eden. And the best thing about him is that he does n’t even suspect he’s a great man. Now, Bill, I’ve done some thinking on this theme, and I tell you flat that nothing under heaven can keep you from being the great Adair in your turn if you quit writing yourself down as a loss and brace up to your opportunity. Ours is the greatest life in the world, and don’t you forget it.’
The great Adair looked at his watch, dismissed the exhibitors with a lordly sweep of the hand, tugged on his coat, and strode majestically toward us. As he came he wiped the sweat from his broad brow with a gay bandanna; it crossed my mind that, saving Sundays and holidays, Old Bill had enjoyed the luxury of a hearty, life-preserving sweat every day since his babyhood.
‘Your turn,’ he said to me. ‘I was just thinking that Charlie could have done single-handed the work it takes both of us to do. He always was the best man of our family.’
I lingered a minute, waiting for Young Bill to speak. When he did n’t do so, I gave the old man a slap on the shoulder and said, ‘There’s two opinions about that,’ and went away. After all, when you find a great man, the way to keep him great is not to put any disturbing notions into his head.