My cousin Donald “Donnie” Bradigan died peacefully in his sleep at age 80. Without shouting like the two children on the tailgate of his truck. With apologies to Jack Handey, those two children were my cousin and best friend Andrew Wilmot and myself. There were about 6 or 7 of us at that time in the late 1960s, still hanging around the barn and helping him with his endless series of chores. And by helping, I mean creating twice as much work for the hardest working man we’ve ever known. He died on Monday January 24, but his memory lives on like a Cheshire smile.
That day, if memory serves, we were playing on horseback and refused to get out of the tailgate of his trusty Ford so he could pick up a haystack. So he popped the clutch and sent us flying “asses on kettle.” We fell into a ball of bruised knees and scraped elbows. I’d love to say we’ve learned our lesson, but honestly, I can’t. It was the only time I saw him distracted by our antics. He was peaceful and patient, but even a saint has his limits.
When I last saw him in August, his piercing grey-green eyes were still so bright and inquisitive, wondering about my life in California, how were my kids, was I still an editor? He seemed curious about the people who escaped the orbital pull of the family farm, which was his legacy and his burden, his pride and his legacy, keeper of the flame as the fourth generation of Bradigans in the farming business – first potatoes and then dairy products. To our knowledge, the first Bradigans came from Westphalia in present-day Germany after the reactionary forces in the revolutions of 1848 had driven out the incorribible Bonapartists.
Land was cheap in Chautauqua country (we call it country and not county because of our local pride), and the Bradigans prospered in their own way. Over the years, the gradually accumulated hundreds of acres were leased or returned to ancient hardwood forests, where the occasional sunbeams pierced through to show you the dust of squirrels chirping hard at work on their hickory nuts and acorns. By the time he entered his 60s he was only about 88 acres nearest the house – the last major project was to harvest the climax forest stand of red oaks and other hardwoods behind the barn .
His father Rich was the youngest of his generation of nine children, including my father, Floyd John Bradigan, and Donnie was the youngest of his, along with his brother Richard (“Dicky”) and his sister Linda.
I remember last summer’s visit, he pulled the salt-and-sweat crusted brim of his baseball cap over his forehead, happy for a few moments away from the endless list of chores that started in the middle of the 1940s and never ended until my cousin Andy found him, leaning over a chair at the kitchen table, wrapped in a woolen shawl. His sister Linda had asked Andy, who lives just across Walnut Creek Road, to watch him because he was feeling unwell. He was actually my first cousin once removed (if you’re a Bradigan you’re fluent in the cousin language. Donny was my dad’s cousin which made this generational difference the “Once removed.”)
He lived a life of routines – waking up in the cold darkness to set up the milking machines, eating eggs, bacon and cold whole milk, then endless trips back and forth to check the hay fields for clover, timothy, alfalfa and rye, field corn, some 40 acres of Concords and Fredonias, turning wrenches on the row of farm implements and tractors, pulling mowing hay for his several dozen Holsteins. There was always something that needed his attention. Somewhere in there, he was also working the steel mill at night, always getting up early to tend to his land. He never married, even though he was a good-looking man with chiseled cheeks and he was nervous and strong. He had made a good husband for a lucky woman, but he was shy and of that type of single farmer once common in farming towns like Forestville – anyone who has seen the gripping 1992 documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, “His brother’s keeper,” know what I’m talking about.
Most of my memories of Cousin Donny were of endless hay harvests; in a good year you might have three or even four harvests, in a bad year you would be lucky to have one. Too much rain the fodder turns sour, too little it is as brittle as the straw it would become. It was hard work gathering the hay – and Cousin Donny didn’t rely on anyone. You’d see him across the road painstakingly unloading the 80-pound bales from the truck bed onto the rattling old hay elevator with its big rubber-cloth belt dropping them onto the mowing the second floor. Once he had dropped a few dozen, he climbed the stairs to pile them from back to front, where they would keep the cows fed during the harsh winters. Later he would sell those bullets for about half of what they should have been worth.
Maybe 20 years ago, during one of my periodic visits, he was complaining that he had only made $10,000 the previous year. What, $10,000? Even then, it seemed like an impossible sum to get out of. I asked how? “Well, after sending my mom (my own Aunt Pauline, who deserves her own book) to Florida for two weeks, bought a new baler, a new pick-up truck, and paid half for a new John Deere, that’s all I had left”, he said sadly. I don’t know about you, but if it wasn’t for the equity in my home, I never would have cleared $10,000 in a year. At the time, in the mid-1990s, milk production from a dairy cow on good pasture was about $2,200 per year, the same as in the mid-1970s. of companies made it impossible for a small family farm to match those economies of scale and he wisely lured his herd where he could, until about eight or 10 years ago he was left with only a few heifers for replacement cows. Even these had passed through his last years until he had nothing but wood and hay.
We each cry out in our own way into the well of eternity, hoping for an echo. I guess it’s the echo of my cousin Donny. I just thought you should know. He was a good, decent man and I will miss him.
Bret Bradigan is editor and publisher of the Ojai Quarterly & Ojai Monthly in California. He also produces a weekly podcast, “Ojai: Talk about the city.”