My friend Clem is, and was, a talented farmer. We grew up together as boys and then became closer in college. He was a superb student and a gifted classicist. I believed he would surely attend graduate school and become a professor of Latin or Greek. I was stunned when he told me otherwise: he wanted to return to manage the family farm.
"It's something I'm good at and like," he said, "and that's what I'm going to do."
So I moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue my career, while Clem remained in Wisconsin and managed his very profitable farm. Eventually we lost touch with each other. But one day, many years after I had last seen him, he called to ask a special favor. "I need your help," he said. "I'm in a little bit of trouble. I want you to co-sign a loan. I need a little money."
I returned to Wisconsin and drove through the cool rolling countryside to Clem's home, set out just below a hill named for his family. I couldn't believe what I saw: acres of burned out farmland greeted me--and near a structure that had once been a barn he stood, hands in pockets, smiling in embarrassment.
"It's a pretty simple story," he said. "I decided that this year instead of leaving some of my land fallow I would burn out the corn husks and let the ash seep into the ground. The next Spring I would sell wild berries."
Things didn't turn out as he had planned. Clem started the fire--and burned out his fallow field, then acres of planted corn, a nearby stand of trees, the forest near the creek, then his barn, his two tool sheds and then his garage. He saved his house. As he stood, smiling sheepishly, he provided a solemn judgment: "Once you a start a fire," he said, "it's almost impossible to stop it."