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On Being Neighborly

by Madonna Dries Christensen

Because my husband and I hail from South Dakota, we subscribe to South Dakota Magazine. The content and the photography are incomparable. Oddly enough, my favorite part of each issue is an advertisement.

            Like Anheuser-Busch, who needs only its trademark Clydesdale horses to quietly sell a product, De Smet Farm Mutual Insurance Company uses a soft approach for its full page ad. Their nostalgic vignettes, accompanied by a black and white photo or drawing, are a feature rather than a sales pitch. The anonymous voice of the brief memoir is that of a man lovingly recalling boyhood in a South Dakota farming community in perhaps the 1940s. It was a time when people neighbored, a time when a creek was a crick, and boys had egg throwing contests and named livestock after neighbor ladies. Through listening, watching, and participating, the boy learned about all aspects of life—the good and the bad. He often gleaned information while lying on his bedroom floor with his ear to the heat register. There, he learned that whenever Mom wanted to tell Dad they were expecting another baby, she made his favorite meat loaf for supper and then sent the kids upstairs so she could break the news privately.      

            The parents were tenant farmers who moved often because Dad found a nicer house, a better barn, apple trees, or something else that appealed to him at the moment. Eventually, he found a place that suited him and they settled down.   

            Perhaps the insurance salesman narrator got his idea for the unobtrusive magazine ads from Dad, who whittled the art of subtlety to a science. One story goes that on a frigid winter night he invited a slow-talking, friendly bachelor over for dessert. “And bring your accordion,” Dad requested.  

The narrator recalled, “His music brought joy to our farm island, and the memories warm my heart to this day.”

In another story, the boy accompanied Dad on his annual rounds soliciting funds for the church and its pastor. At a shack outside of town, home to an elderly man with a hunch back and wobbly knees, the men talked about the weather before Dad explained his mission. The man pulled out his wallet and withdrew the only bill—a ten or a twenty—and offered it. Dad told him that was too much, that most folks gave a dollar or two. He handed the man a wad of bills in change, and they resumed talking about the weather before parting company.  

Dad loved cows. One winter for several Saturdays in a row, the boy and his brothers and Dad toted 50 pound bags of medicine for sick cows to a farm whose driveway was so filled with snow that no one had a tractor with enough power to clear it. Each week, the farmer in striped overalls showed his gratitude by inviting the workers into the kitchen, where he had prepared hot chocolate on his wood stove. Weak hot chocolate, but it warmed body and soul.

In a yarn reminiscent of a scene from To Kill A Mockingbird, when Scout and Jem watched Atticus shoot a mad dog and realized their father is a sharpshooter, the boy in this story is surprised to learn at a church picnic softball game that Dad is quite the athlete. When he stepped up to the plate and positioned the bat, someone from the opposing team yelled, “Back up; he can hit.”

Currently, the media hype is about Super Bowl commercials, 60 second spots that cost millions of dollars. People revisit the commercials for days following the event, discussing which one was the best. I don’t watch the Super Bowl, so I can’t judge and compare. My guess is they don’t hold a candle to the simplicity of De Smet Farm Mutual Insurance ads. If I were in the market for farm insurance, I’d trust my money with these neighborly folks.  

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