Those Before Us Faced Challenges Too

Hoosier Perspectives

Memories of my father remind me farming was never easy.

Published on: January 24, 2011

As I sit here and write this today, it occurs to me that my father, George Robert Bechman, a lifelong tenant farmer, a Pearl Harbor Survivor, and my guiding light, even when I didn't know it, died exactly five months ago today, on Aug. 21, 2010. It was about 85 degrees warmer and the grass was brown, not white, but in my mind's eye, it hasn't been that long.

Wherever I go I hear people talking about the challenges we face - the deficit, rising input costs, weed resistance, you name it. There are challenges today, even with GPS and auto-steering, and gizmos you can hold in your hand that can tell you what's happening half way around the world, then let you turn on or off irrigation pivots miles away.

But those who went before faced uncertainty and challenges too. Maybe they were on a smaller scale, but for the times, with less technology, the mountains they faced were just as high, the work to be done was just as challenging. A story about my dad brings that into sharp focus.

He was a tenant farmer when corn was $1.20 per bushel. After his death, we turned up one old insurance policy, still in force, that reminded me just how hard they had to scrap and scrape to earn a living and keep my brother and I fed and in clothes back then.

The insurance policy was for an odd amount, less than $5,000. As it turned out, it was apparently taken out when dad took out a loan. The back page was from an earlier policy. Dated 1959, it was on a bank now four banks removed from today. The policy itself, dated 1968, was on a bank three banks removed, having been swallowed up by bigger fish in succession. And if the policy covered the loan amount, it is small potatoes today but was big-time money back then.

There was just one problem. The beneficiary was the bank - the third one back, which no longer existed. The only way to redeem it would be to get the current bank, where they still banked to sign off.

I'm not big on business, but I knew it was something I had to do. Dad wasn't big on business either, but obviously he took care of what he had to take care of. So I went to the bank. Fortunately I had worked with the manager before, a sweet gal with 20 years in banking. She offered to call the company for me. The original policy was written by a company that no longer exists, and the current company I had never heard of. This didn't bode well.

It didn't take her long to ask for a supervisor. The company wanted documentation she couldn't provide at her level. The supervisor wasn't any better. He was totally unreasonable. So the manager called over her ace accountant, with more than 25 years experience.

She played 'Who's on First' with the guy for 30 minutes. Finally, he agreed that if they would send a letter with the original policy, they would pay off. Still, mom and dad had paid in way more than was coming back. It was one of those old policies written with 'Whole Life' in big letters, and 'non participating' in small letters, which means it's one step above term insurance.

"You mean that's all they're going to get after paying in all this time," the accountant asked.

"Well, it happens, ma'am," was the reply.

The ladies were flabbergasted, claiming in all their years they'd never got hold of someone like this guy. "We should have asked him to prove who he was," they said later. "The original insurance company doesn't exist either."

On their advice, the box marked 'policy defaced and can't be forwarded' got checked, and a copy went in the mail.

To my surprise, in just a few weeks, the check arrived, as promised. It was like dad handed us money to finish paying his final bills that I never expected to see.

Times are tough today. Farming is complicated. But it has always been tough, and it has always been complicated. It's a matter of degrees. I'm proud my dad persevered and paid off those loans, bought a house and put us through college. Maybe he could have made better investments than continue paying on a cheesy insurance policy for 42 years, but then that check felt pretty good in my hand when we needed it most.