Long before I knew the term “red neck,” I was fascinated by my grandfather’s neck. It was reddish, with deep groves in diamonds that grew deeper when he turned his head. He’d lived in the sun, mostly in the South. He grew up on an Iowa farm, worked relentlessly by his father. Once in a bar in De Witt, my grandfather caught sight of an actual twenty dollar bill (this was some time ago) flashed by a traveler who’d gotten it roughnecking in the Texas oil fields. My grandfather high-tailed to Texas, where he shared a room, old car and one good suit of clothes with a friend. When the Depression hit, my grandfather was married with three children. Under a New Deal plan, he got title to a little farm outside Houston with $200 his mother somehow scrapped together.
There he worked, the kids and my grandmother worked, he delivered the Houston Chronicle, milk and eggs. His neck grew diamonds. When the kids married and went away and my grandmother died, he paid cash for a little duplex in a modest neighborhood with a yard for gardening.
At the funeral, my father wasn’t surprised to see a small gathering. My grandfather was 94, after all. But among the church ladies and old friends was a young Mexican woman, one of my grandfather’s neighbors. Her income covered the bare minimum for herself and her children, rice, beans, bread. Then bags of vegetables began mysteriously appearing on her porch before dawn. One night she waited up and nabbed my grandfather, who sheepishly begged understanding. “I’m an old man,” he said, “I plant too much in the spring. Maybe you can help me out.” He was 92 at the time, still a working man, his neck full of diamonds.