It was GE’s mantra during my growing up years, “Progress is our most important product.”

To this day I can hear Ronald Reagan intoning those words in a voice that turned our TV into a secular Saint Peter’s. Even as a kid, the phrase caught my imagination. I might only have been 8 or 9, but I had a pretty good idea of what progress was, what progress meant. To my eyes it was a T-Bird instead of a Model T; “Living Color” versus a black-and-white TV screen. It was bigger, louder, shinier, faster than what came before — and — it would go without saying — better.

Progress. Yup, I was all for it.

At 93 years and counting, Dad’s seen a lot of progress come and go. Delivered by a doctor fetched from town in a horse-drawn sleigh, he grew up on a farm lit by fire and powered by muscle. He’s seen the countryside light up, speed up and change in ways unimagined when he took his first toddling steps.

Last week, after finishing some family business, we took a detour down memory lane, past the old home place and some of the haunts of his youth. Along the way we dropped in on his grandson, who’s working some of the land Dad worked decades and decades before him — land Joe farms with diesel and a GPS-guided precision planter; his tractor cab a data center, an array of glowing displays powered by 500 horses directed by a signal from the stars. He was taking a break, fields sodden from the previous day’s downpour gave him a welcome afternoon off, but he was still tired, he told us. In the midst of a cold, wet spring he’d taken advantage of a rare four-day break in the weather to put in several thousand acres of corn and beans, snatching little more than eight-hours sleep from start until renewed rain forced him out of the field.

“Y’know, we never could have done that with horses,” Dad commented under an arched eyebrow.

Working with horses, he said, you might want to pause a bit at the end of a pass to give your team a little break. You had to stop for an hour or so at noon to give the horses feed, water and rest and by six o’clock it was time to head back to the barn so man and beast could get a good night’s rest before starting out again in the morning.

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And every year, all that land was tilled, planted, tended and harvested.

Progress hasn’t changed that. What it has changed is both plain to see and hidden in the weariness clouding a young man’s eyes.

There was a mantra to that afternoon’s ramble. Once or twice along every mile of rutted crushed-rock road Dad would gesture toward a clump of trees or an abandoned driveway, offering a name and concise commentary on the family or families who “used to live there.” Woodlots concealed abandoned stone foundations or rotting heaps of graying lumber — barns, homes and granaries once, now just in the way of 60-foot field cultivators and combines that swallow up acres at a pass.

When horses and men no longer need to rest, it takes more than a quarter-section of good ground to keep a family fed.

We stopped to eat in a town that I remember with two grocery stores, three filling stations and a bank — but nowadays there’s no one to sell you a tank of gas, a loaf of bread or cash a check to pay for them. The nursing home is the town’s growth industry and if real estate wasn’t cheap enough to make the drive to Rochester and a job at Mayo a paying proposition what’s left of the town likely would have left long ago.

But, I guess that’s progress.

I wonder if it’s what Ronald Reagan had in mind.

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Jerome Christenson is a former reporter, columnist and editor at the Winona Daily News.


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