By John Thomas Tuft
The cloud-shadowed mountains spent the day like they spent every other day; impassively watching as the sun worked its way across the wintry sky over fallow fields in the valley. The golden-brown stubble leftover from harvested crops served as the winter beard protecting earth’s skin. A pile of giant rolled hay bales nestled in the corner of a field, each wearing a protective white shrink-wrapped plastic robe against the elements and hungry field mice. On the next hill, hay barns brimmed with the sweet smell of last summer’s bounty, the mixture of sun and laughter and patience that if you know enough to look for it, is its own reward. Behind a stand of oaks and poplars sits a large white house with a two story high portico entrance and black shutters at every window, a long driveway winding down the hill haunted by antebellum spirits restless for expiation, atonement of any sort would do. Across the valley two large churches, one Presbyterian and the other Baptist, lurk like sentinels, guardians against foolish grace too easily redeemed.
Judge Chester Oaks presides over this domain. Well, to be truthful, Chester is the ‘decently and in order’ Presbyterian and his wife, Alicia is the wild, untamable Baptist, so the only parting of their ways is on Sunday mornings…and Alicia’s Baptist-can’t-make-it-till-Sunday-all-hands-on-deck-lest-the-devil-give-you-heck – Wednesday evening meeting. But the land has been in the Oaks family for generations, just a stone’s throw from one Thomas Jefferson’s summer home, Poplar Forest, to the east. And if you’re fond of history, forty-five minutes to the southwest is the farm and national monument of one Booker T. Washington, mentor to one George Washington Carver, and if you don’t know about these two gentlemen, shame on you. On the way there, you will pass the National D Day Memorial. And yes, I’m aware that Appomattox Court House is just a stone’s throw up the valley. History. You can’t take a piss in Virginia without soaking history, and some is more popular than…the other stuff. But we’re here to learn about The Honorable Chester A. Oaks. His love for Alicia, for the land, for his herd of black Angus, for the law, and what makes a person honorable.
Chester is a judge in the Superior District Court and as he nears retirement age he wonders if he has any true claim to the title of honorable. On the weekends, when he’s going to either the Lynchburg Livestock Auction or the Farmers Livestock Auction up in back of Moneta, with the old trailer rattling along behind his truck, his farm manager, Harry, riding shotgun, talking weather and prices and markets and shots—modern cowboy conversation—sometimes Chester gets philosophical. Hard to tell what two men in a pickup who both have been cruising on the main highway of life for a good while with moderate success might talk about otherwise, but on this day Harry suddenly looked up and asked, “What’s it like to send somebody to jail?” Now one thing honorable means is honest, so Chester replied, “It’s something I never get used to. Am I sending somebody someplace where I wouldn’t go myself?” Harry scratched at his whiskers. “But they’re criminals. You ain’t.” And the Honorable Chester said, “But if I was standing in front of me, up there on the bench…or, if I looked down and it was me waiting for judgement and sentence, would it be any different?”
They almost bought a young bull that day, but when bidding went beyond Chester’s willing to pay number, he walked away without a second thought. That night when they got home, Alicia met him in front of the portico, looking weary and a bit worn. Chester was alarmed and took her in his arms, asking what was wrong. “Doc was here. MaryJean is in a bad way.” She looked at him in a way that needed no words. “Did he put her down?” asked Chester. Alicia shook her head. “He knew how you felt. Kept shaking his head, saying, ‘If I told him once, I told him a hundred times, don’t name your breeders.’ You old fool,” said Alicia with breathtaking tenderness. Chester kissed her on the forehead. Without a word he went down to the main barn, got the backhoe, and went out to the old orchard and dug a hole. Then Harry helped him get MaryJean down there without seeing the rifle and, under the new moon, the honorable Chester said his goodbyes.
The next Wednesday, after Alicia left for the Baptist big-long-name meeting, Chester stopped at Harry’s house and asked if he wanted to take a ride. “Something wrong with the herd?” Harry worried. Chester assured him all was well. They drove across the county to the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority in Bedford. When they arrived, Chester grabbed a briefcase and kept a nervous Harry calm as they passed through security. By 7 they were in a classroom facing inmates of various ages. “I’m Chester,” he began, “and I’m here to help you prepare for your GED exam and to give you some college classes, as well. And Harry here, he can teach you everything there is to know about raising black Angus. It’s good, honest work, you’re outside a lot, and the cattle don’t talk back. Much.” Harry stepped forward, shy and awkward. “I can take an engine apart and put it back together blindfolded.” Then to Chester’s surprise, he added, “I draw, too. If you want to learn some drawing stuff, I’d be glad to show you.”
The next morning, the sun came up over the same mountains, and they spent the day as always. Watching. Silently. Maybe because they already know that it takes much more than a black robe to identify what is honorable…
Words are magic and writers are wizards.