Tom Hartwig, a man in his mid-eighties, has lived under the same Wisconsin roof his entire life. Tom was born in the family farmhouse, moved his bride into the same bedroom he slept in as a baby, and has worked the family farm from that house since 1958 when his father retired and moved up the hill to a small cottage. This is not to say that Tom is a stranger to change, however, because, thanks to President Eisenhower and the Federal-Aid Highway Act, an interstate highway now runs through his front yard. The highway that opened in November 1967 carries over 8 million cars and trucks past the Hartwigs’ kitchen window every year. One has only to consider the constant hum of road noise the Hartwig’s have learned to cope with to understand the depth of what was stolen from them all those years ago.
Author Michael Perry (Population: 485; Truck: A Love Story; and Coop) is Tom’s friend and neighbor. Perry does not consider Tom to be his mentor, but recognizes that with each visit to the Hartwig household, he “accrues certain clues to comportment – as a husband, as a father, as a citizen.” Readers of Visiting Tom are likely to come away from the book feeling much the same.
The official opening of the new highway offered an immediate glimpse of things to come. The ribbon-cutting’s opening prayer included a local pastor’s plea that drivers “use sound judgment when driving” the new road. Then, the fifty-car motorcade of state dignitaries led away a group of locals and others wanting to be among the first to test drive the new route. Just twenty-three minutes after the celebratory ribbon was cut, the interstate suffered its first traffic accident - and Tom’s life has never been the same.
Visiting Tom is a dual biography in which the author alternates sections recounting his visits to the Hartwig farm with chapters about the goings-on at his own house just up the road from Tom’s – and how Tom’s influence is helping him cope with his own set of everyday problems. Tom Hartwig is one of the most self-sufficient men imaginable. During his eight decades, he has mastered all the skills necessary to keep a farm running despite anything the economy might throw at him. If Tom cannot find a spare part for one of his farm implements, he makes one. He delights in scavenging parts from broken down machinery to put together one complete machine that works – and he has a story to tell about every machine, building, and corner of his farm, including a tale about the push broom left behind by the highway construction crew in 1967.
But the beautiful thing about Tom and Arlene Hartwig is the couple’s grace under fire. After losing their battle to keep the interstate highway from their front door, the Hartwig’s proceeded to adapt to the lifestyle left to them. Utilizing a combination of grace, patience, and inward placidity, they have made the most of what they have. Rather than becoming bitter about what they lost, they enjoy what is theirs.
There is a valuable lesson there for all of us.