Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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The Last Farmer
Copyright 2011 by Bill Becker



Year 2300. Reporter Jim Bradley knocks on the door of a brownstone-type city residence. He is there to interview the last farmer for Aren't These the Times?, a magazine of popular culture. A man in his early 60s answers the door.



Jim Bradley:
Mr. Reese? Bob Reese?

Bob Reese:
Yes?

Jim:
Hello; I'm Jim Bradley from Aren't These the Times? I'm here for that interview we talked about the other day.

Bob:
Oh yes! Happy to meet you. Please come in.

Jim:
I don't know if you realize it, but you are the "talk of the town", to use an old cliché. The last farmer ... Wow!! People just can't believe that humanity's last iconic occupation is about to disappear forever. I'm deeply honored that you allowed me to cover it.

Bob:
Well, I'm glad that I can tell my side of the story, but I can't say that I'm all that happy about it. Farming has been my whole life, and I just don't' know what I'll do with myself if I can't work anymore. The thing of it is, I'm afraid I'll get lazy like everybody else. The trouble with people today is that they don't value or respect work; they just think everything should be handed to them on a silver platter.

Jim:
Yes, that's true — sort of.

Bob:
That's not how I was raised, or my father, or his father. For us, work was the highest value, and I think everyone should learn the meaning of that famous little four-letter word—work.

Jim:
That sounds like an old family saying, Bob

Bob:
It is. One of my great-grandfathers read it in a book once—a long time ago.1 I think it was from a soldier. My great-grandmother liked it so much that she embroidered it on silk and put it up on the kitchen wall. It's been kind of like the family motto ever since.

Jim:
I think there must be a fascinating family history there, Bob. How did your family come to be farmers?

Bob:
Well, it was a long time ago, of course. One of my ancestors decided he wasn't cut out for city life, and decided to become a farmer. In those days, being a farmer meant digging in the ground, planting and harvesting crops, tending the livestock, praying for rain, and all kinds of the good old-fashioned physical labor that nobody wants to do anymore. Farmers even got callouses on their hands.

Jim:
Callouses?

Bob:
An archaic term, Jim. That's when your skin gets thick and rough from gripping work tools like shovels and pitchforks and axes. Farmers used to be called "horny-handed sons of the soil." Look, for decades now I've been pushing the button that keeps things running. And I mean everything. Here, feel this. (He holds up the index finger of his right hand.)

Jim (Lightly runs his finger over Jim's finger.):
Feels a little rough.

Bob:
It should, Jim; that's my callous, from pushing that button. You don't see callouses like that anymore.

Jim:
That's true, Bob; in fact that's the only callous I've ever seen. ... Please continue.

Bob:
Well, you know how things went, Jim: little by little, the engineers created more "labor-saving" devices to make life easier for people. And that's when things started to go bad. That's when people started expecting everything to be done by a machine instead of doing it themselves. Then, the advertisers started telling people that they "deserved" to have good things, even if they didn't do a lick of work to earn them. Pretty soon, most people decided that "work" was a dirty word, and tried to get as much as they could for themselves with as little effort as possible.

Jim:
And the machines just kept on coming, didn't they?

Bob:
Right. There was no stopping them. Then came the computer, with it's ability to control the machines, so that the tractor on the farm didn't even need a driver. That was the beginning of the end of classical farming. Then, as time went on, the mathematicians and computer scientists and engineers — I call them the "pointy-heads" — were able to mechanize just about every aspect of our lives. Robots were created that could understand human speech in any language. The chemists created all the foods we eat out of ordinary dirt; and even the most complicated French recipes were made in completely automated kitchens. When you go to a restaurant, all you have to do is speak out loud the menu item you want, and what wine, and out it comes a few minutes later, on a tray delivered by a robot. By the way, how about a beer? This interviewing makes me thirsty.

Jim:
That sounds great, Bob. I'll have a Guinness Stout.

Bob:
(Over his shoulder) One Guinness Stout, and a Foster's. Now, where was I?

Jim:
You were talking about how mechanization was pretty much making us all lazy. (A robot comes out of the kitchen with the two beers.)

Bob (Takes the beers off the tray and hands one to Jim):
Right.

Jim:
Thanks. But, I see that you have a robot here to bring in our drinks for us. Why didn't you go into the kitchen, open the fridge, and bring them out yourself.

Bob:
I have an arthritic ankle, Jim; it hurts pretty bad to walk around at all.

Jim:
I see. Well, tell me — how did it happen that your family stayed in the farming business?

Bob:
Well, it's an interesting story, Jim. After a while, the machines were running everything, but there was still a need for people to push the buttons that ran the machines. By that time most people had gotten so lazy that even that was too much work, and the economy was in danger of collapsing. Then some manager of a personnel department in a big industry remembered that farmers were not afraid of work, so he went out and recruited some farmboys and taught them how to push the buttons. They caught on quick, since they had been doing just that for years on the big combines and balers on the farm. It got to where whenever someone was needed to push a button, the call was "Go get a farmer." At first it was the young farmers, then it was just the children of the button pushers who got the jobs pushing the buttons that kept everything running.

Jim:
So today the term "farmer" doesn't mean what it originally meant?

Bob:
Language evolves, Jim. Even though the people to whom "farmer" originally referred to disappeared long ago, the term stuck, so most people today think that "farmer" always referred to people who just push buttons. Now, what I just told you is off the record, of course. We don't want people to know more than they need to know. The important thing here is that even today, the words "farmer" and "worker" are virtually synonymous.

Jim:
But you're the only "farmer" left? How did that happen?

Bob:
Competition, Jim—survival of the fittest. There were a few great farming families whose children became button-pushing legends. There were the McKennas, and the Appletons (he gets a little misty thinking about them). And my family was right up there with the best of them. But, as time when on, the pointy-heads continued to consolidate all the mechanical processes so that fewer and fewer people were needed to push the buttons. They made machines that designed and made other machines. After a while, only about five people were needed to push the buttons. A whole way of life was disappearing.

It finally got to the point that only one person was needed to push one button once a day to keep all the machinery in the world going. And for what?? To serve all those lazy bums who think they're too good to work. For some reason — genetic, I guess — our family was the best, and we just naturally won out over the others. So the Reeses have pushed the button for about five generations now. But, beginning at 5 p.m. today, all that will end.

Jim:
That's what I understand, Bob. How is that going to happen? Why?

Bob:
Well, I knew that this job couldn't last forever. I knew that the pointy-heads would just naturally try to eliminate even this one last button. And, last year, they finally developed the computer chip, and wrote the program that would make it possible. Now I'll have to go on the dole like everyone else.

Jim:
Dole?

Bob:
Another archaic term, Jim. It means that you can get anything you want without working for it. You want a fancy car? It's yours, courtesy of the fully automated, vertically integrated Generally Dynamic Motors Mining and Manufacturing Company. How about a new boat — just ask for it. You want to eat at the best restaurant? Just walk in and the robot maitre d' will show you to your table. It's disgusting.

Jim:
But, Bob, things have been that way for a long time now; ever since the "pointy-heads", as you call them, figured out how to harness the sun's energy with 99% efficiency; figured out how to make virtually any useful product with almost zero waste of material — and recycle it 100%. All those advances made it possible for everyone to have a good life and enjoy themselves without harming anyone else or the environment. There hasn't been a war for over a hundred years; and there won't be, because no one has anything that anyone else can't have if they want it — just for the asking, as you say. What's wrong with that?

Bob:
What's wrong, Jim, is that they don't have to work anymore — period. Nothing trumps work — nothing. At least when there's a war, people can work. I was expecting that my son would take over for me. He wants to work, but now he'll never have the chance. If we had known this was going to happen, Sarah and I wouldn't have brought him into the world.

Jim:
But Bob, there haven't been any jobs except yours for a very long time. What are people supposed to do? Dig holes and fill them in again?

Bob:
They don't have to enjoy not having to work so much.

Jim:
Well, you can always hope that the machines will break down. Then we'll have to depend on the old-fashioned farmer again. And we'll have wars again, too.

Bob:
That's exactly what I hope for, Jim. (He glances at his watch.) Well, time to go to work—might as well get it over with.

(Bob and Jim get up and go into another, room, more like a large closet. Jim notices that Bob has a very slight limp, and does not appear to suffer any pain as he walks. Against the wall is a metal cabinet with a sloping console front below a video screen with many partitions. Some show sine-waves, others real-time pictures of arrays of blinking lights, fractal images, etc ... In the center of the console is a single button, lit blue. Bob's finger hovers over it for a moment; he wipes a tear from his eye. Jim focuses his camera on Bob and the console. Bob pushes the button, the camera clicks. There is momentary chaos in all the panels on the screen, then they, and the button, go dark.)

(Bob and Jim come out of the room.)

Bob:
Well, it's done. Everything is now controlled from somewhere else. I think I'll turn this place into a museum.

Jim:
How about another beer? (Curtain)


1.  The Greatest Generation, by Tom Brokaw. Random House, New York, 1998. P. 105.



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