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Lessons from the Road: On Life, Lifestyles and Perspective

I’m going to be shameless and steal a page from many columnists who write about the people they come across in their travels. Most of my time on airplanes is devoted to catching up on reading, with hopes of dozing off for a few minutes. That was my hope in flying down to the MLB Industry Meetings in Orlando, where I was to be on a panel discussing media coverage of baseball.

I was in my window seat on the exit row when a young man sat next to me. The first thing I noticed were his hands. Not that I have a habit of staring at the hands of the passenger next to me, but his had dirt deeply embedded in his fingernails, with Band-Aids wrapped around four fingers. I figured he was a worker, or maybe a fighter. I hoped the former.

My plan of reading and falling asleep quickly materialized, but we were both startled awake when our baggage bin unexpectedly came open. After that we exchanged small talk, and it quickly turned into one of the most fascinating discussions I’ve had. I inquired about his plans in Orlando, and with a big smile, he told me that he and his family — his wife and three children all spread out throughout the plane — were taking their first vacation in more than 11 years. They were dairy farmers, working a farm with more than 200 animals about 25 minutes outside of Harrisburg, Pa.

Having grown up in Vermont, I am familiar with the brutally hard life of a dairy farmer, and most of the families I knew sold and moved on. My habit of asking questions led to some amazing stories. Joel told me he was the son of an air-conditioner repairman and the family at one time lived on a dairy farm, where Joel fell in love by watching farmers work the land. He went to Penn State for all of five days before leaving to follow his passion of farming. He met his wife at church, and together they rented farmland near Harrisburg before buying their own extensive farm, from which they provide mostly milk to local cooperatives.

I pressed him on the work hours, and his eyes filled with passion as he described waking up at 4:30 for milking, taking 30 minutes to walk up to the house for lunch, and then finishing up anywhere between 8:30 and 10 p.m., when he sits down for dinner and helps his children with their homework before doing it all over again. Seven days a week, 365 days a year. Hence, the first vacation in 11 years. His wife works the farm with him. His children go to public school and then come home and work the farm from afternoon till dinner. This was their first commercial flight.

I kept coming back to, “How do you keep this up? When do you take a break?” His smile grew wider, “I love it, we work together as a family and we all love it.” He said they didn’t take time for movies or TV. “Do you ever watch sports?” I asked. “No, not much into sports.” “So on Sunday, you won’t watch the Steelers game?” “No, we’re working right up till around 9 on Sundays. If we get done early, we may have friends nearby come over for a late dinner.” “What about the holidays? What will you do for Thanksgiving?” “We’ll work and have some lunch and then go out on the farm and work again.” I couldn’t fathom this schedule, and said there must be a guilty pleasure, somewhere, somehow, where he treats himself. “Oh sure, every Sunday afternoon I take a 45-minute nap. If I don’t have that nap, I’m dragging the entire week. And, yeah, I’ll occasionally make some of the freshest homemade ice cream you’ve ever had.”

I was literally in awe of this man’s pride, passion and love of family and life. I pride myself on my work ethic, having watched my parents work in my dad’s dental practice six days a week to get seven kids through college. But even they had a day of rest, or better yet, house and yard work. Joel and his family represent a different type of work ethic.

I walked off the plane with him and he introduced me to his family, all wide-eyed with excitement and anticipation for their trip to Disney, but with a clear look of fatigue, for they had been up since 3 a.m. to do their farm chores before heading to Harrisburg airport. I doubt I’ll ever see Joel again; I hope I do. I wondered if I could last a weekend on his farm. But for 60 minutes on that Sunday afternoon, few people have made me think more — about life, lifestyles and perspective — than he did.

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