VISITING TOM by Michael Perry
What can we learn about life, love, and artillery from an eighty-two-year-old man whose favorite hobby is firing his homemade cannons? Visit by visit—often with his young daughters in tow—author Michael Perry is about to find out.
Toiling in a shop Perry describes as "an antique store stocked by Rube Goldberg, curated by Hunter Thompson, and rearranged by a small earthquake," Tom Hartwig makes gag shovel handles, parts for quarter-million-dollar farm equipment, and—now and then—batches of potentially "extralegal" explosives. As he approaches his sixtieth wedding anniversary with his wife, Arlene, Tom, famous for driving a team of oxen in local parades, has an endless reservoir of stories dating back to days of his prize Model A, and an anti-authoritarian streak refreshed daily by the four-lane interstate that was shoved through his front yard in 1965 and now dumps over 8 million vehicles past his kitchen window every year. And yet Visiting Tom is dominated by the elderly man's equanimity and ultimately—when he and Perry converse over the kitchen table as husbands and as the fathers of daughters—unvarnished tenderness.
As much as I enjoy reading fiction, every once in a while a true story will come along that is better than fiction. Such is the case with "Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace" from author Michael Perry. "Visiting Tom" is a real slice of American Pie, a tart cherry pie topped with farm-fresh sweet whipped cream. Tom Hartwig and his wife of six decades, Arlene, still live in the Wisconsin farmhouse in which Tom was born. In their eighties, they are as full of spirit as they are stories, and by now, they are two halves of one person. Tom is a natural-born mechanical genius and a builder of cannons and maker of black powder to fire his homemade artillery. Visitors to the Hartwig farm are greeted by the sight of a fully functional cannon, a fact which intimidates the likes of traveling salesman and other uninvited guests. The Hartwig farm is split by a government-enforced four-lane highway, an ever-present intrusion upon daily life which the Hartwig's have endured with admirable perseverance. The author writes with humor, heart, and wryly astute observation. The affection between Perry and the Hartwigs is obvious, and while the men are quite different, they share a great bond. Observations on wives and children, the land, the government, and life in general are funny, touching, and simply profound. There are a few photos in the book, and I would have loved to see quite a few more--each picture is a story in itself. Author Michael Perry also writes articles and essays, performs as a humorist and radio host, and tours with his band, "The Long Beds".
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Michael Perry is a New York Times bestselling author, humorist and radio show host from New Auburn, Wisconsin.
Perry’s bestselling memoirs include Population 485, Truck: A Love Story, Coop, and Visiting Tom. Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then wound up writing by happy accident. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an amateur pig farmer. He hosts the nationally-syndicated “Tent Show Radio,” performs widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long Beds (currently recording their third album for Amble Down Records). He has recorded three live humor albums. Michael Perry is a New York Times bestselling author, humorist and radio show host from New Auburn, Wisconsin.
Perry’s bestselling memoirs include Population 485, Truck: A Love Story, Coop, and Visiting Tom. Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then wound up writing by happy accident. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an amateur pig farmer. He hosts the nationally-syndicated “Tent Show Radio,” performs widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long Beds (currently recording their third album for Amble Down Records). He has recorded three live humor albums including Never Stand Behind A Sneezing Cow and The Clodhopper Monologues, is currently finishing his first young adult novel, and can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com.
Perry’s essays and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Backpacker, Outside, Runner’s World, Salon.com, and he is a contributing editor to Men’s Health magazine. His writing assignments have taken him to the top of Mt. Rainier with Iraq War veterans, into the same room as the frozen head of Ted Williams, across the United States with truckers and country music singers, and—once—buck naked into a spray-tan booth.
In the essay collection Off Main Street, Perry wrote of how his nursing education prepared him to become a writer by training him in human assessment, and he credits singer-songwriters like Steve Earle and John Prine with helping him understand that art need not wear fancy clothes. Above all, he gives credit to his parents, of whom he says, “Anything good is because of them, everything else is simply not their fault.” His mother taught him to read and filled the house with books; his father taught him how to clean calf pens, of which Perry has written, “a childhood spent slinging manure – the metaphorical basis for a writing career.”
Perry has recently been involved in several musical collaborations, including as lyricist for Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer, and as co-writer (with Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon) of the liner notes for the John Prine tribute album “Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows.” Perry also collaborated with Vernon and Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne on a project that began when Vernon approached Perry and said, “Say, you’re a nurse…” The results were bloody, but then that was the point.
Of all his experiences, Perry says the single most meaningful thing he has ever done is serving 12 years beside his neighbors on the New Auburn Area Fire Department.
"If I had to sum up my ‘career’ in one word, it would be gratitude. I get to write and tell stories all around the country, then come home to be with my family and hang out at the local feed mill complaining about the price of feeder hogs. It’s a good life and I’m lucky to have it."