Buck's Tiller

The year end holidays are often a time to reflect, to remember those who are no longer with us.  But sometimes these people are with us just like the seasons, or with us during some ritual undertaking or task, or using something that once was used by them. Sometimes a special belonging can somehow possess their intentions and their goodness. Today, we plowed our onion garden with Buck's tiller, and my mentor and friend was there as well.

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This is Buck, also known as Philip L. Preston, Mr. Preston, Mr. Buck, The Buckster...and other names that his senior Polk County High students named him.  I worked with Buck for 14 years as a fellow English teacher at Polk. Buck taught English for 42 years, pushing students to explore Shakespeare and Fitzgerald, to write well, to work through their knuckleheadedness and turn to newly discovered endeavors.  Early in his teaching career, Buck was a whitewater rafting guide on the James River and taught Outdoor Education like Outward Bound. Clearly, he is a Renaissance Man.  

 

This is Buck and one of his grandsons. Fishing was a religious experience for Buck, and he shared it with his family or in meditative Outer Banks solitude, alone with rod and reel, salty wind, and lapping water.  On a Monday, after he had spent the weekend with his grandchildren, Buck would recount some hilarious episode and his narrative would conclude with a deep laugh so intense that it was clear he was reliving it again, although miles and many hours separated him from the event.

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 In the classroom, Buck challenged my eldest son and thousands of seniors to write clearly and concisely, often seemingly painful dissections and deconstructions of Hamlet's iambic pentameter speeches or Fitzgerald's poetic prose about Gatsby's desire about the future "...the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—"  Imagine the task of writing a well developed paragraph about the connotations and thematic significance of this!  But, Buck was able to inspire and snare the bored boys in his classroom with his introductory stories of a door mat flounder on 5 lb test line, or a blitz of voracious chopper blue fish that gorged themselves on bait fish and regurgitated so they could eat more, and Outer Banks sharks taking his silvered sea trout that was intended for the evening's dinner. Buck even had hunting stories, rafting stories, soccer stories. And most of his resistant writers relented, caved in, and dug into Gatsby's foreign world.

 

This is Buck's Craftsman tiller. I bought it from him years ago, before he moved on to other fishing waters, while we both were teaching English, while we were telling our stories to our captive students.

I love this tiller because it was his, because it tilled his beloved annual summer garden. Now it tills my garden. And today it got a new spark plug to soften its sputtering cough, and it crumbled the hardened chocolate dirt between my winter green onions. Buck's tiller is a talisman, a gardening ritual and symbol. This tiller is a grinding, churning symbol that we all, Buck's family and me too, can continue to push on, to plow hardened ground, to be resilient. I was visiting Western Carolina University last week, and standing in line at McDonald's to get a cup of coffee, I saw Buck's great nephew Cole Preston. I taught Cole in senior English where we dissected and deconstructed Coelho's The Alchemist and O'Brien's The Things We Carried. Great novels can teach us that their characters' journeys are often our own. And I have often thought about this Preston too, hoping he was plowing on, churning up the ground in front of him, learning to balance all the things he carries.  Cole and I both agreed that Buck is sorely missed. I also have Buck's teaching copy of The Great Gatsby, with his handwritten notes and insightful commentary. Not surprisingly, Buck has underlined the last passage, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."  Just as Nick asserts in the conclusion of The Great Gatsby, Buck and I too understand that the past is part of the future.  Buck has left the classroom, moving on to new fishing grounds, I imagine.

I love this tiller because it was his, because it tilled his beloved annual summer garden. Now it tills my garden. And today it got a new spark plug to soften its sputtering cough, and it crumbled the hardened chocolate dirt between my winter green onions. Buck's tiller is a talisman, a gardening ritual and symbol. This tiller is a grinding, churning symbol that we all, Buck's family and me too, can continue to push on, to plow hardened ground, to be resilient.

I was visiting Western Carolina University last week, and standing in line at McDonald's to get a cup of coffee, I saw Buck's great nephew Cole Preston. I taught Cole in senior English where we dissected and deconstructed Coelho's The Alchemist and O'Brien's The Things We Carried. Great novels can teach us that their characters' journeys are often our own. And I have often thought about this Preston too, hoping he was plowing on, churning up the ground in front of him, learning to balance all the things he carries.  Cole and I both agreed that Buck is sorely missed.

I also have Buck's teaching copy of The Great Gatsby, with his handwritten notes and insightful commentary. Not surprisingly, Buck has underlined the last passage, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."  Just as Nick asserts in the conclusion of The Great Gatsby, Buck and I too understand that the past is part of the future.  Buck has left the classroom, moving on to new fishing grounds, I imagine.