The Flying Farmer
By Julien Melendez
Before losing my snowmobile virginity, before the countless Cabot sunsets, before meeting unique horse personalities, before talks of sugaring and haying, I was somewhat of a flatlander (a person technically from anywhere but Vermont – mainly other, less agriculturally savvy New Englanders). Of course, learning the term ‘flatlander’ from a resident pleased me, simply because I wasn’t being called one. I had slipped my way into a community, and I didn’t feel foreign. There was still some New York City boy grit in me somewhere, but most of that gravelly nature transformed on one particular day – Ax Saturday.
Up until that day, I had been using the quiet, forested area of Cabot, Vermont to my advantage in three ways: firstly, as a thinking canvass for my near complete screenplay; to ski back-country powder; and to ponder my existence as a twenty-two year old living in the most socially connected generation to date. Vermont would be my Walden.
‘No clocks, no box,’ I muttered to myself on several occasions. I was without phone, time, schedule. Disconnected. This would help me craft a masterpiece, to think outside of the interminable noise of influences in quotidian, metropolitan life.
Most of my days were filled with scratching Bella, the protective Aussie Shepherd who I shared space with. I’d scratch her, she’d scratch me. We had a good trade. When I really had to sit down and write on my electric typewriter (again, keyword: disconnected), Bella would sniff the floor for remnants of my egg and kale breakfasts – and when a hand was free from the keyboard she would dart back, nudging it, prepared for the trade to resume.
I felt on the verge of artistic catharsis. Always. Nothing ever made ‘the cut,’ because ‘the cut’ I make is between what’s strong and what’s cliché. Unfortunately, most of it was neither, so I would sit there…I would take great satisfaction in crumpling up the few lines I had written and tossing it behind my shoulder – only to bend over, pick it up, smooth it out again, and put it in the scrap paper pile. Vermont. Recycle. Organic. I was not home.
The scrap pile helped me cross-reference my own revision process, and… wait… if I just added these vastly different traits to this one character… and now I was cooking, really going at it – from scratch. My hands were flying across the keyboard of this generational dinosaur. The Brother Typewriter. The Honesty-Box. The Arbiter Of My Assterpieces (a name I called it, even out loud). It had the most personality out of any electronic appliance I have ever owned.
The days came and went. I was alone, constantly thinking like a crazy person and then thinking I was a crazy person, in ever increasing intervals. Most hours felt like days, but some days felt like minutes. I was driven to the brink of madness by my solitude. There were days I didn’t utter a word because there was no one to talk to. A simple melancholy slowed my heartbeat to near standstill. Sometimes, I would just fucking sit there, and drool (which lended a hand to the short story about an interminably drooling boy, faced with situations that you should definitely not be drooling in or around. His name is Droolien, a title I was once given by some of my favorite family members).
Weather permitting, I skied in the forested snow mobile trails behind the farm, burrowing into the dense, quiet, borderless backyard. The pensive calm I reached intimidated me. The repetitive motion of the skis gliding silently through the powder was my mantra.
One night at a dinner with Stephanie and Ben Davis, my landlord (and later temp-parents), the topic of people in the area was raised, as it often was.
“Ooh, there’s Will Ameden, and boy, he’s cool,” Stephanie said, giving a little “Mmm-hmm,” followed by a, “he’s the flying farmer.”
“The Flying Farmer,” I repeated. Then I had no idea what that meant, and after several failed logic strings, I ended up with, “Like a pig?”
Ben gave a short chuckle. I loved his chuckles.
“He’s got a plane and hangar on his farm,” she said, appearing not to have heard my brain-fart.
“Does he fly it?”
“Ooh, yeah. And he runs the farm. They got a sugaring operation over there too.”
I wasn’t sure if the list was done. Should I wait a second to say “Wow,” or just say it now?
I Said it.
“I could take you over there, that would be cool, they’re really cool,” she said. She laughed. When she said they were cool it sounded like coooooool.
I imagined with that much cool they were at a retro dance party chewing really minty gum. But in a barn.
The day I met the Flying Farmer, I was leaving the farm with Stephanie at about seven in the morning to see a town in the Northeast Kingdom (northeast corner of Vermont).
This town, St. Johnsbury, had a romantic and beautiful depression akin to a Chekhov play. Buildings like the St. Johnsbury Athanaeum were the reason I wanted to go to Hogwarts. Roses were bound to be black and white in some cold, church garden here, if I just looked hard enough. I was a gothic bard on a voyage down the Passumpsic river – something like that.
On the return journey, we traversed the back roads of Stephanie’s home county. She had recently traded her car in for ‘The toaster,’ a boxy, plastic car that felt like a singular Lego piece. She explained who just about everyone was as we passed their farmhouses. As a local hospice nurse and the daughter of the famous Cabot doctor, Doc Caffin (whom David Mamet does a piece on in his book South of the Northeast Kingdom), she knew everyone. Almost.
We arrived at Will Ameden’s farm – a sprawling frozen sea of snow and acres of forest and farmland. We jumped out and made our way to the house, and knocked on the door.
No answer. Stephanie reached into the depths of her snow pants pocket and fished out her dinosaur phone, calling Will and leaving a voicemail, explaining we were standing at his door, wondering where he was. Would we have to wait at the door until he came back? Would we really have to do that? It was too cold, but I wasn’t about to complain.
Vermont. Bitter cold. Manners. Masculinity.
Just before she hung up, the door of the farmhouse swung open, and a young woman looked at us and smiled. She was short, and her rosy cheeks and snow-farm apparel suggested she had recently been outside. Or maybe everyone around here dressed like that.
“Come on in,” she said. People in Vermont invite you in before they know who you are. It’s customary.
I was not accustomed to the tempered sociability, the welcomed intrusion into private space, the comings and goings, the encompassing kindness that allowed Vermonters to leave keys in the ignition as they shopped at the village store – simply to “make sure someone could move the car.” In New York, the car would surely be victim to theft, an orgy occupation, a wall street demonstration, or all of the above. Your car would look more like a protest-brothel-encampment when you returned, painted with the ugly, fiendish savagery New York City is quite famous for.
We sat with our host, Elizabeth Bean, who gladly handed us mugs of coffee, and explained she had been interning for the Flying Farmer, whatever that meant. Who could possibly intern on a farm? I didn’t think the word intern applied, but my wordsmithing was under construction during my retreat and I didn’t challenge. Later that night, I heaved a large dictionary from the attic of my own farmhouse and read the definition. I laughed alone for what was probably the fifth time during my trip.
in·tern /ˈintərn/ (noun) – A recent medical graduate receiving supervised training in a hospital as an assistant physician.
(verb) – Confine (someone) as a prisoner, esp. for political or military reasons.
She didn’t look like much a medical graduate or a prisoner. Prisoners don’t write grants for innovative farming equipment, tend to farm animals, hack at trees with axes, nor do they have rosy cheeks (although all arguably up for debate, I’m sure some antiquated New Yorker article would prove me wrong). She was, I would say, an agriculturalist.
Stephanie was right. Everything was cool. The single light fixture illuminating the bathroom was fashioned from a paper globe; aviation paraphernalia covered the living room table; the stove an antique range many New York hipsters would die for, and the kitchen was stocked to the brim of the most local produce known to man.
Then the Flying Farmer walked in. I spent a long while staring at him as Elizabeth introduced us. An immediate surge of affection rose deep from within the bowels of my lonely nature. If ever I trusted my intuition, it was nothing compared to the blind trust I placed in this man. He and I were cut from the same rock, we were born with the same love of discovery. I knew this in a single instant, and I had never been as sure about another person in my life.
He was talking to me. I hadn’t noticed that. I was too concerned with finding the reason behind my conviction. I looked into his eyes, the pale blue ice of his irises.
He had a boyish, happy face. The kind of face that you see when infants first start to laugh uncontrollably. Each muscle crept to their usual spots to produce the most genuine smile I had seen in a long time. He had asked me a question, but I didn’t feel stupid when I was mute. I had lost self-consciousness. I smiled back. Eventually I responded, but I can’t be too sure. It was something about sharpening the axes. I snapped back to reality. I felt as if I had been staring at the sun.
Stephanie had gone, and Elizabeth and I were filing the edges of our axes in preparation for Ax Saturday. We had been talking about our respective journeys, and my inner thought had been so loud, my speech was on auto-pilot. Constantly I had to pull myself back to the present, but from what, I wasn’t sure.
Polishing stone. Spit. Rub. The Flying Farmer. We needn’t talk about petty daily thingies. That’s how I felt my life had boiled down to before Vermont.
Thingies. Apple TV. My director’s reel. The complex categorization of lower-order tasks I valued so dearly was vanishing before me. This was a man, free from the hyper-connected era of noise; the seemingly all pervading, ineludible, technological generation that I wanted so dearly to escape. Here was what I would have been if had been born with his precise circumstances.
All of the Vermonters were this. I was the flatlander.
We approached the thick woods with our readily sharpened axes. We were on a mission to hack some fucking trees. This was the pinnacle of my release. I had figured out why I was here, and now I was ready to let every ounce of frustration that I had ever blamed on the machine. So twenty-two, and so liberating.
I threw every bit of weight into each notch I managed to land, the bodily reverberations produced by heavy smacks into the wood jarred and sanctified me.
I tossed my heavy down jacket on the floor. My sweater was sticking to my body. My sweat dissipated into the bitter air, leaving me with a tantalizing chill.
I swung until I felt raw.