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A Polished Shovel


“I don’t think he’s the type who polishes his shovel.” I said it to my son; it simply rolled out of my unconscious memory. Leaving me deciding how to explain an out of context statement to my seven year old. I realize I am sounding just like my Dad or in this case my Granddad. In our quaint pastoral village, as I describe my small town, we do not have many newcomers. Most families are here for life – in fact if you were not born here you will always be a newcomer. This year there is a new kid in second grade. Jeb, the new boy, has brought some attitude to town. He has become a celebrity in Mrs. Brewer’s homeroom. Jeb has decided to exclude Devon from his group. My son, Grant, was torn. He didn’t want to be excluded from the class of the class, but he knew a little about fairness and respect. Jeb was not just being snotty, it sounded like he was beginning to bully Devon. I poured Grant a tall glass of apple juice and then said “I will tell you my grandpa’s polished shovel story.” I added a bowl of Goldfish. He displayed a look of OK I’m here till the juice is gone.


“When I was a boy your great grandfather told me a story about a man called Hedgehog and his son Little Hedge.” My son added with some hope, ‘Like Sonic” I said “ah no, long before Sonic.” His next query followed logically, “Why was he called Hedgehog?”  “I do not know, why he was called Hedgehog. “

“Hedgehog was a tiler; he dug ditches and set drainage tiles.” “So he was a ditch digger?” my detained one asked. “Yes, but tile ditches have to be carefully dug keeping them level and with a little fall.” I replied. I was trying to keep this story going but failing. He said, “so people will fall in the ditch?” “No, now listen, a moment. Water cannot run up hill. Fields need tiles to get rid of the swampy areas. The tiles must go to a lower outlet, that is fall.“ I moved on quickly, “Back in grandpa’s day they did not have big laser guided tiling machines. Tile was placed by hand dug ditches.” Grant was now excited again ”Machines have lasers and just blast a hole like the Enterprise?” “Not phasers, lasers; a small light beam to measure levelness.” I spoke in accented softness, “Listen for several moments please without questions.” Grant now displayed a mocking pantomime of silence.

clay tile

“We have machines to dig and lay tile, but in Hedgehog’s day it was hand digging.  Grandpa loved to say the good old days were a lot of good old hard work. In the mucky clay a good polished spade makes digging easier as the dirt and clay do not stick as much to the spade. Hedgehog was religious about cleaning and oiling his tools each night. It was noted by folks when they mentioned Hedgehog, ‘he really keeps his shovels polished’ A new man had come to farm the place next to Grandpa’s; he was something of a high-flyer. He came and wanted to place a tile from his field through Grandpa’s land to get drainage. It was actually Great-Grandpa’s land at that time Grandpa was about the same age as Lil Hedge. There was a ridge that made this impracticable. Even when the tile line was finished it would do less good for Great Grandpa than the neighbor. It would take many hours, and be too costly. Still Grandpa agreed provided they would all help Hedgehog dig. If everyone helped it would allow the cost to be less, with Hedgehog being the only one paid.

Work started and the high -flyer came bringing a couple spades and a couple shovels all looking rather rough and rusty.  They all worked even Grandpa and Little Hedge. Hedgehog was able to do twice to three times the digging ole high-flyer could do. Every night Hedgehog and Lil Hedge cleaned, polished, and lightly oiled his tools. He loved to tell stories while cleaning up. He often repeated the story of a scam man who convinced a farmer he could dig a tile up and over a ridge instead of digging through the ridge. He claimed it would siphon the water. Hedgehog would laugh so loud saying he could  ...” ” Could what  Dad?” Grant noticing I was flustrated. “Could spit more water than flowed through the siphon.” I finished brusquely. 



My stammering piqued his interest, and I refilled his juice. I continued, “After a few days with the high-flyer noticing how he was struggling to keep up with the others pace of digging he began grumbling a little. Like many an impatient man he blamed his tools.  He said he had to go town the next morning, but would be back out there before noon. High-flyer went to the hardware store when in town. He asked to buy a polished spade. Everyone knew a polished spade was something that took hard work and good care. The hardware man said he could sell him a new spade, but he would have to earn his polished shovel like Hedgehog did everyday.  Being a small town this got to be a joke around town, everyone having a chuckle at high-flyer’s expense. He used his new shovel. Once it scoured up; it did all right by him. He may not have been as dedicated as Hedgehog, but he did scrape and clean it at night.

While working on this dig Hedgehog and Little Hedge would eat with Grandpa’s family. Hedgehog and Little Hedge lived by themselves and appreciated the well-cooked meals. Grandpa said even though they were all working hard it was like having company visit for several weeks. He was enjoying it. They did get through the ridge before the ground froze and everyone thought Hedgehog could finish the next Spring on his own.  After Christmas Grandpa and Lil Hedge were back in school. Somehow a boy who was High-flyer’s son had come to live with him over Christmas and was now going to school, as well.  Grandpa said he didn’t really know where the son had come from, but he was sure the neighbor’s wife was his stepmother. He did not know why Little Hedge did not have a mother at home. He said these possibly scandalous things were topics that adults made sure children didn’t hear.  Of course, they liked to relate their tales and imaginings to each other when kids weren’t around. High-flyer’s boy was a couple of years older than Grandpa and Lil Hedge. The new boy began to pick on Lil Hedge. He called him little hog, little dirty pig, and grave robber. Grandpa after a couple weeks decided he had to stand up. He said even when a bully is bigger; he had learned you have to be prepared to hit back.  He stood there ready for a fight and told the new boy, at least “little Hedge knew to keep his shovel polished.’  Every kid in school erupted in laughter until some of them had tears. The new kid never bothered Lil Hedge again.  

Little Hedge

I think your new kid Jeb is someone who doesn’t know enough to keep his shovel polished.  Grant thought awhile then said, “should I hit him?”  “No, I think just find something to do with Devon and ignore him. What does Devon like to do?” Grant said “oh he loves to shoot hoops, he is better than everyone. No one wants to lose all the time.” I added, “I think it doesn’t have be about losing, simply hang and practice with him.  As more kids come to play, you could choose teams and play three on three.” Grant opined, “who will join us?’ “I think if you start just having fun, kids will come over. With two or three start playing teams.” Grant seemed to brighten up he must have thought it was a good idea. He added as he started to slide off his chair, “I’ll hang with Devon, and if Jeb bullies us I’ll hit him” I said, “do the right thing and have fun; it will be OK. If you have to, then hit him, don’t hold back. Now, don’t tell your mother, I said to hit him.”


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Forgottonia is a place where you can endlessly wander the lonely roads, and never once miss the fast lane. The name Forgottonia captures an image of a region, off the beaten path, which is very true of Western Illinois.

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