The grim reaper

November 17, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The accidental death of Jimmie Miller on Monday really rocked the farming community in this part of the world, and left a lot of people pondering the unpredictable ways in which fate reaches out to tinker with the most well-ordered lives.

Jimmie Miller's life certainly appeared to be well-ordered. At 48, he was a skilled and successful farmer, with a keen interest in events beyond his Darlington dairy and grain operation. He was a good friend, a good neighbor to his neighbors. And most important of all, he was a good family man, the father of six kids.

But farmers know that the appearance of order in their lives, so admired and envied (up to a point) by townspeople, is largely illusory. They may live in the same house where they grew up, stay married to the same people all their lives, go about the same duties year after year as the seasons cycle onward.

But beneath all this structure is barely-controlled chaos.

Every working farm, no matter how bucolic and serene it appears from the nearby highway, is constantly in crisis. Things break. Disease strikes plants or animals. The weather plays games. Part-time helpers don't show up. And then there are the inexorable pressures from afar -- soaring costs, falling prices, ever more taxes, ever wackier government regulations.

There is never enough time to deal with all these things, which is why most farmers live life on the run. Jimmie Miller certainly did, and he liked it like that. In a way, that was what killed him. That, and the fact that for a lot of Maryland farmers, this is a boom year.

Jimmie died on a neighbor's place, where he had rented storage for corn from this year's record-smashing harvest. He had gone there alone to unload a truck. This is a process that uses an augur, something like a huge corkscrew turning inside a cylinder, to raise the corn from truck to bin. The augur is driven by the power-take-off shaft of a good-sized tractor.

When the truck was almost unloaded, Jimmie apparently reached across the rig at a place where the revolving augur wasn't shielded. His clothes were caught in the machinery, and he was pulled in and asphyxiated. His wife came and found him there, some four hours later.

Had someone been with him, he would probably have survived. Another person could have stopped the machinery, cut him free, called for help. But he was alone because that's the way things are done on a farm at the busy season. Help gets spread thin. It makes no apparent sense to send two people to do a job one person does, and does routinely.

Farming is dangerous work, there's not much doubt about that. All of us who do it knew people who are now dead from accidents. Along with logging and commercial fishing, agriculture is one of the most perilous of the ordinary occupations.

This upsets a lot of people, especially in the wake of a terrible accident close to home. But there's nothing very new about it, although the most common types of fatal accidents have changed with the times. Farmers are less likely today to be killed by bulls or runaway teams or exploding steam boilers than a century ago; now they're exposed to big tractors, fast-moving machinery and lethal chemicals.

Farm accidents take the lives of the young, who don't know as much as they think they do, and of the elderly, whose experience can't always save them when their reflexes go. But they also kill men and, rarely, women in their absolute prime -- careful, sober, skilled rural people like 48-year-old Jimmie Miller of Glenview Farm.

Are there useful lessons to be learned from Jimmie Miller's good life and tragic death? Yes, there probably are. But they're spiritual lessons, mostly, not the secular ones the self-important members of the safety Mafia want to invoke. They don't hold out the hope that life can be made risk-free, nor do they demonstrate the need for new government farm-safety initiatives.

Jimmie Miller's life on the go was a model, and his death a calamity. It's hard to imagine anything good coming out of his loss.

But it's a vivid reminder of the importance of living up to your own highest standards, and of making your life one you and your family can be proud of, because at any moment it might quite unexpectedly be gone. And really, that's more of a legacy than most of us are going to leave.

Peter A. Jay is a farmer and writer.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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