Man of the dirt

The Missoulian

by Betsy Cohen

BIG SANDY – Stretched beneath his tractor and staring into the belly of the broken-down behemoth, Jon Tester looks like Jonah swallowed by the whale.

Only his tread-worn boots and grease-streaked pants poke out from the machine.

He's been in there for hours, trying to replace a clutch gone bad at the worst of times.

Outside his metal garage, a storm is gathering. Three hundred acres need to be tilled and seeded, and there are only a few days left before he must swap his jeans for a business suit and head east to his other job as a U.S. senator.

Antelope traverse nearby stubble fields. The farm's only horse wanders in from the pasture, seeking shelter. A wrench clangs in the recesses of the tractor, a bolt drops unexpectedly to the concrete floor and Tester stops to take a break.

He's fighting time and a head cold.

Sharla Tester arrives with the couple's 2-year-old granddaughter, Kilikina, and a small pack of exuberant dogs.

The young girl looks around and stops in surprise when she realizes her father, James Schultz, is under the tractor too.

"What are you doing, Daddy?" she asks.

"I don't know," comes the reply. "I'm doing what grandpa tells me to do."

The exchange is both accurate and humorous, and breaks the pall of frustration.

Everyone laughs, and James explains, "He's teaching me how to be a farmer, honey."

Except for a short night's sleep and a drive to Great Falls to pick up parts, the unexpected chore has eaten nearly 24 hours of Tester's first real time off from his responsibilities in Washington, D.C. – where he took the oath of office as Montana's freshman senator in January.

He extracts himself from his duties as chief mechanic and his son-in-law's teacher, and stretches.

It is Congress' spring recess, and Tester is well aware that many of his brethren – the other 99 most powerful lawmakers in America – spent their morning on "Meet the Press."

But he'd rather be wrenching than yakking, he says.

There's a slim window for planting, and Tester can only get the work done on his rare days home. He's got peas, red lentils, white and red wheat, and black barley to get in the ground, and the broken tractor is the only one large enough to pull the farm's tiller and seed planter.

The clutch must be fixed, so he'll bird-dog the problem until it is resolved.

Tester walks off toward the farm's windmill to find the spot on his 1,800 acres where cell phones work and calls an old family friend for advice.

The endless sky above him has darkened and there's a hint of snow in the air.

Moments later, he returns with renewed hope he's closing in on the problem that's hung him up – and that he'll at last plant some acres before bed. The tractor has powerful headlights, and nighttime farming is a common reality for those who live off the land in north-central Montana.

On the tractor seat some 15 feet above the ground, Tester says, is where he does his best thinking.

"When you are running tractor, you can actually clear your mind," he explains. "You get the chance to work through stuff. It's kind of like doing math problems three or four or five different ways, just because you can."

Grinning, he says the seat in the glass cage is what he calls his "think tank," and these days there's a lot to think about: helping son-in-law James and daughter Christine take over the family farm. The war in Iraq. The St. Mary's water project and its effort to ensure there's enough irrigation water in the Milk River drainage. Legislation coming through the Veterans Affairs Committee. Building relationships with his fellow senators. Building a responsive communication system with all of Montana. A tribal conference he's hosting. A visit to Malmstrom Air Force Base. Finding a home in D.C.

Tester gives Sharla a tired smile and a hug.

She knows from her 30 years on the farm – and with her husband – the day is far from over and heads back to the house with Kilikina to fix a hot supper.

"The best way to get grease out of clothes is to use hot water and strong detergent," Sharla explains as she makes a tomato-based pasta sauce.

She's going to need a lot of each to get her husband's work clothes scrubbed clean. James' work clothes? They're so tattered and filthy, it would be best to throw those out, she says.

Christine smiles in approval, and checks on her sleeping infant, 4-month-old Brayden.

Penne noodles made of Durham wheat, one of the crops the Testers grow on their organic farm, are boiling in a pot on the stove.

Kilikina sits at the counter watching her grandmother bustle around the spacious kitchen. Like their farm, everything in the Tester kitchen is neatly ordered.

It's good to be home, Sharla says.

"Back there," she says of life in D.C., "we're just tourists."

She smiles at Kilikina, fills the girl's tippy cup, and pauses at the sink window to admire the last lingering pink of sunset. The expansive vista is dramatic, the unobstructed horizon so big it's like looking out over the ocean.

"I really miss this, it feels strange not to be here," she says, "but I know it's not a lifetime for us back there."

The first two weeks of her new life in the nation's capital were awful, she admits. "I wanted home so bad."

But things have improved and an exciting new world opened up once she got her geographic bearings, learned how to navigate the subway and hail a cab, and was able to unpack in their rental – the late Sen. Lee Metcalf's townhouse.

"I love walking from the house to Jon's office," she says of the 15-minute trek. "Along the way, I pass the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court building and the Capitol."

Right now, the city's famous cherry blossoms and dogwood trees are reaching full flower, she says, and there is lots to see and do.

"I figure if I'm bored in D.C, it's my own fault," she says.

Spouses of senators have many social functions to attend on their own, and Sharla has been to a few.

She's become friendly with Barbara Grassley, the wife of Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and the only other farmer in the U.S. Senate.

"She's very nice," Sharla says, "and I've seen her several times."

Eventually, Sharla wants to do some volunteer work after decisions are made on whether they will buy a house in D.C. or stay in a rental.

Meetings with real estate agents fill her calendar these days, and this coming week the couple will tour several prospects.

"I've got sticker shock, that's for sure," Sharla says. "I've looked at everything from 900-square-foot condos that cost $379,000 to 1,300-square-foot townhouses that cost over $700,000.

"It's a whole different league out there, something we're sure not used to," she says, while checking if there's enough dessert for her husband when he comes in for dinner.

"We're still eating the cake from the party the Big Sandy Chamber threw for Jon on Dec. 10," she explains, reaching into the freezer. "It was the biggest cake you ever saw, so I brought home what was left and froze it.

"It's still really good."

A full moon shines on the farm by the time the tractor is fixed.

Tester enters the house with good news and a big smile. He wolfs down his dinner, and takes a moment to play with the grandchildren.

His head cold has turned fierce and his face is drawn.

Sharla makes him drink some water before he heads back out to seed the acres James tilled before the clutch went out.

James cleans up and Christine prepares for their early morning departure to Helena, where they have full-time jobs at Shodair Hospital and a house of their own.

It will be a week before they are all together again.

James explains the farm work gets done on the weekends, only when his father-in-law is in town.

"We keep in contact daily," he says. "But I don't do anything on the farm without him around. I personally wouldn't attempt anything unless Jon's here. I trust his judgment, and I wouldn't want to run this farm without him.

"I'm from Butte. I'm a city kid," he explains. "I don't know anything about farming."

This season, the young couple commutes to the farm every weekend, but they plan to eventually – sometime soon – make the transition to the farm full time.

"We decided together to keep the farm in the family," James says. "We decided a small school is best for our kids."

For Christine, the move resolves some long-held conflicts about moving away from the place where she grew up.

She's ready now to be the fourth generation of her family to work the land her great-grandfather homesteaded in 1912.

"I was always torn about leaving the farm," she says. "There's a lot of family history here and I don't want that to go away."

"This whole thing," Sharla says, "is a big transition for all of us."

Outside, Tester climbs into the newly repaired tractor and heads off into the fields. The tractor's headlight beams slice through the night, illuminating the acres he has yet to work.

The threatened storm blows in with a vengeance just as dawn breaks. Rain becomes sleet, sleet becomes snow, and it doesn't stop.

By 10 a.m. and the second pot of coffee, a full-fledged snowstorm arrives, blowing sideways in a wet heavy curtain and dropping a foot-deep blanket over the farm and surrounding fields.

Sharla welcomes the weather, calling it a blessing. Her husband needs some rest; he's got several meetings coming up that will take him across the state and back again before the week is over and work resumes in Washington.

"Now I wish I had seeded," Tester says with a sigh. "But water is always good, unless it's during harvest. This moisture sets you up. It's like money in the bank."

Talk turns to James and the clutch debacle, and Tester laughs.

"I got the opportunity to work with my dad and my brothers and even the neighbors for 21 years before I took over," he explains. "James has to learn all this from scratch.

"Part of what was good about the whole thing with the clutch yesterday, is that it's a job I could have hired somebody to come out and do, but the truth is, he's not going to be able to afford that. Changing a clutch in a tractor is something that's pretty easy actually, and if the bell housing went on easily we would have been in the field a whole lot earlier.

"His disadvantage is he's got to learn everything. He has to learn how to fill a grease gun. He's got to understand that when you take the lug nuts off a tire, it's counter-clockwise, unless you're dealing with an International truck, then it's the other way around on the lefthand side. And those are the little things.

"But his advantage is he hasn't been corrupted by learning stuff wrong."

Part of the learning curve, he says, "is the more you do it, the more you know. Part of learning how to fix stuff is just doing it."

It's a lesson, Tester says, he learned most acutely on the campaign trail, and one he applies daily to his new job in the U.S. Senate.

"I didn't fully understand what kind of machine was against me out there. I didn't have a clue that existed," he explains. "You keep going.

"We could have quit many times and there were many times we wished we would. But you keep going and just keep pushing if you think it's the right thing to do – that's what you've got to do."

Life in Big Sandy hasn't changed much since he assumed the new title as Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Tester says.

Folks still treat him the same, and the coffee klatch down at Alice's restaurant – and most of Chouteau County – still back the Republican ticket.

"This is a very good community," he says. "Politically we may differ, but I will tell you if I got hurt tomorrow or Sharla got hurt tomorrow, they'd have a fundraiser in town the next day."

"And if it were harvest time, they'd all be out to help," Sharla chimes in.

Tester says he doesn't know why he has a different life view than most of his neighbors, but he does.

He's trying to understand why many of them remain supportive of the war in Iraq.

He's supportive of the troops, he says, but he's troubled by the Bush administration's lack of a plan, and the cost it has on American health and society.

"I don't think where the connection is made is that

$2 billion a week is being spent on this war – and what are we accomplishing? I don't know if people understand there's a proposal to take

$18 billion out of the farm program – and that's going to be money out of these folks' pockets," he says. "And you know what? From a fiscal standpoint, we've got to get the money from somewhere to pay for this war."

The telephone in the kitchen rings. It's Sharla's mother calling from Havre to report there's no snow there. Tester quips: "Why is she telling us that? Does she want me to go seed in Havre?"

The phone rings again. It's a neighbor wondering how the clutch project went. Son Shon calls from Missoula to say hello and reports there's no snow there.

The war is perhaps the most discouraging part of the new job, Tester says when the calls end.

While there is a sense of workability on most issues in D.C., he says, the war is the great division that has people drawing lines in the sand.

"It's very polarized, but I think it's because the president has dug in on it, and I can't figure out why. I get the same briefings they get," Tester says.

"I got to tell you, if I was a Republican right now – or if I was a Democrat and we had a Democratic president going down this line – I would like to think I'd be in the same boat as Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and say the heck with this, this doesn't make sense to me."

Things won't likely change until a new president is elected, Tester says. In the meantime, he'll continue developing relationships with the people he works with and represents, and push for change on the national front and at home.

He's operating on some general truths that have guided him well, he says.

To be effective, he explains, he's learned "you have to be open and accessible, and you have to listen."

Unlike the Montana Legislature, where you can mosey down the Capitol hallways and talk with each and every legislator, the U.S. Senate is a huge campus and each senator has layers of staff involved in every move.

"I think personal relationships are really important to the political process and when you are spread out as we are, and there are so many things pulling people in different directions, it's tough to build those personal relationships," Tester says. "It takes more time, is what it does."

Because of their new status, the freshmen senators have a tight bond, and Tester says he's working on expanding his circle to include veteran politicians like Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

His friendship with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is perhaps the strongest, if somewhat unexpected, he says. It started during freshman orientation when the great-grandson of the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller put his arm around Tester's shoulders and said: "You know, we didn't start from the same roots, but we ended up in the same place."

"That was pretty funny," Tester says, laughing in the story's retelling. "Sometimes you just meet people and you like them."

In and around the necessary personal politics of D.C., Tester says he's working on how to reach out to different areas of Montana to get more information and open up communication lines.

Maintaining and building on his connection to Montana is his priority, he says. And he's acutely aware that some Montana footsteps he's followed to D.C. never came back.

"I can see myself working back there getting as much done as I think needs to be done or until the point when we start losing effectiveness," he says. "But I cannot visualize myself spending a liftetime back there.

"I do not see that – like Conrad (former Montana Sen. Conrad Burns) goes back and stays as lobbyist – I don't see it.

"I'd rather sell farm equipment."

Sharla nods in agreement.

"D.C. is nice," she says, "but it's not Montana.

"This is home."