by Teresa Coffman
My grandmother’s cousin Ken graduated from high school in the Midwest during the worst of the depression. Farm country was particularly hard hit, and Ken had few prospects. A tall, gangly boy from a large, cheerful family, Ken tried not to worry about the future.
He worked that summer for his uncle, who owned a traveling carnival. Ken manned the “Pony Ride,” where ponies walked a circle inside a pen. Because Ken was good with children, he received the job of lifting little boys and girls onto the ponies.
When fall arrived, bringing chill air and the bleak promise of winter, Ken faced the harsh reality of his time. The carnival only operated in summer, so he could no longer help his struggling parents keep food on the table. Jobs were non-existent; many a good man drifted from town to town searching for work.
One day Ken’s friend said, “The John Deere factory is hiring. Go right now!” Ken was skeptical. They hadn’t hired in years. This news should’ve been everywhere.
Ken hurried to the factory, hoping word hadn’t spread far. He crowded into a large room where a hundred men waited to apply for that single job. His heart sank, but he decided to stay. He had nowhere else to go.
The foreman entered the room, mounted a small platform, and surveyed the crowd. An expectant hush fell over the men. The foreman stayed silent for a long moment, and then his gaze fell upon Ken, in the back.
“You there. With the yellow hair,” he said. Ken looked around. Yes, the man meant him. He saw no other blonds. Stunned, he nodded, his mouth dry.
“Come up here.” Ken pushed forward through the crowd of scowling men. When he reached the front, the foreman said, “Come with me.” He led Ken into a sunny room and directed him to sit at a wooden desk.
“Name? Address? Previous employment?” Dazed, Ken answered his questions, then signed the paper the foreman shoved across the desk. “Report to me at 7:00 tomorrow morning. I’ll show you where you work.”
It took two paychecks before Ken believed his good fortune. Yet he let some time pass before he worked up the courage to ask why he’d been chosen. The foreman smiled, as if he’d been waiting for the question. “You worked at a carnival last summer, at the Pony Ride.”
“Yes.” Ken remained baffled.
“I remembered you. My little girl wanted a ride, but then she got scared. You held her in the saddle every step of the way, walking around and around with her until she started to like it. By the end of the ride she was laughing. I thought, I wish I could do something for that boy.”
Ken worked for John Deere for 40 years. He always said he had comforted many frightened children that summer, and didn’t even remember the one whose father changed his life.
- Music: “Hard Times” John and Ruby Lomax 1939 southern states recording trip (AFC 1939/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
- “Crowd of extras in a waiting room” by nebulousflynn via freesound.org