Cresco came awfully close to declaring martial law this winter. At least, some residents felt that wouldn't have been the worst course of action under the circumstances.

Turns out there was a serious water problem. Both water towers went dry. You know what no water in my community means? It means there wasn’t a key component of the life-sustaining beverage that fuels a certain executive within my organization.

No water means no coffee at the coffee shop! The usual gathering spot for the retiree crowd shut down for one day, because they couldn't make food and they couldn’t wash dishes.

If you think old guys are crotchety WITH coffee, you oughta see ’em without it! Not pretty. Not pretty at all. They were jonesing so bad that they ended up going to a tea house for their gathering. A tea house. Retired farmers all sitting around sipping from dainty cups with their pinkies held out (except for those who had ’em whacked off in an auger, or a circular saw, or a fan belt, or some other farm accident. In this case, no pinky gets you an automatic waver waiver.)

The Chairman has been going to town for coffee for about as long as I’ve been out of college, maybe even longer. It has gotten to the point where he will hit three different towns for coffee in a single day sometimes. Each one has a certain schedule and a certain crowd that shows up at a given time. When I asked one time if he ever ran into a certain guy at coffee, the response was, “No, he’s second shift.” The implication was that anyone who shows up late is less of a person — beyond lazy.

And what do all of these old guys do when they gather each day? Gossip like a bunch of church women! Guy No. 1 and I always get a kick out of how much information The Chairman comes home with, and how inaccurate it eventually turns out to be. When the guys behind the Power Platform came to Cresco a few years ago to look at the Ranch Hand, they wanted to meet me in town for breakfast. We ended up going to The Chairman's hangout. That’s when I saw firsthand how loud it is and roughly how old the average attendee actually is. Out of the 10 to 20 guys who were there, there may have been three good sets of ears. Those three sets were spread across at least five individuals. There was so much squealing from hearing aids being adjusted that dogs had to be barking for miles.

So what do they cover in their discussions? Everything. You will hear how much someone paid per acre to rent a farm; how much someone else paid to buy a farm; who has their corn planted/sprayed/combined/sold so far and who doesn’t; what the weather is going to be like the next three days; which businesses want to come to town and build a building; who's building a new house; whose kid got into trouble over the weekend; who’s driving a new car and what kind of deal they got on it; and most importantly, who’s either really sick or dead and why.

Wouldn’t most of those things be considered personal information? Of course they would. But in rural America, if it’s known, it’s out there.

My all-time favorite description of this phenomenon came from a local businessman. He had a farm and fed cattle. He also owned a car dealership. He owned a bank at one time. He also sold livestock trailers for one of Cresco’s major trailer manufacturers. He was diverse.

Arnie was feeding a lot of cattle in the 1970s. So were we, but not nearly on the same scale as he was. I’d see him in the sale barn when I was there with our order buyer getting some more cattle for the feedlot. Keep in mind, I was about 9 or 10 years old at the time. Even so, Arnie always treated me with tremendous respect and talked to me like an adult. He was sitting not far away when one group of steers came into the ring in Decorah one day and LeRoy, our buyer, didn’t bid on them. The guy in the sale ring asked why and LeRoy said, pointing at me, “I’m working for him and he didn’t want ’em.”

I know Arnie heard that discussion, but he didn’t say anything. He just smirked. He also called me Mr. Ryan every time he saw me from that point forward. When I got to know him better a few years later, he turned out to be a first-rate character, which happens to be my favorite kind. He had an incredibly colorful (and accurate) description of the coffee shop crowd: “Leeches! Nothing but [multiple expletives] open-eared leeches! You don’t want to give them any information, but they just suck it out of you like a bunch of [multiple expletives] leeches!”

Ever since then, Guy No. 1 and I always ask The Chairman when he gets home from coffee, “Well, what did The Leeches know today?” Some days the response is more productive than others. The day after the Death Valley episode, several theories were floated (okay, tossed out, because you can’t float anything without water) as to the cause of the insta-drought. There were three leaks in major water mains in different parts of town, probably because of old pipes. There was only one big leak and it was in a water main in the newest addition. (This was a direct contradiction to the crowd with the old pipe theory. Leeches love conflict. They’re like Keith Olbermann with a smaller audience, which I guess would make them Tucker Carlson without the bow tie.)

And my favorite solution of all: The guy who is in charge of the water system for the city of Cresco is dying of cancer. Only he knows which valves are supposed to be closed and which ones have to be open for the water to flow and the world to turn like it was meant to turn. Some rookie probably stepped in in his absence and flipped the wrong one.

I had the perfect solution for The Chairman prior to the next day’s session. After another round of adventures with a troublesome woodchuck screwing up my hayfield, I had a large wagon full of water sitting in the yard. The adventure was successful on my end (services were held for the woodchuck), but I still had my wagon ready to go for another round. I was willing to forego another adventure if The Chairman would agree to go to coffee with a pickup instead of the car. All I wanted him to do was to hook onto my 1,100-gallon water wagon, pull up to the front door of the coffee shop, and announce, “Here I come to save the day!”

Doing it in a Mighty Mouse voice was mandatory, not optional. I mean, just think how elaborate the story would be by the time the second-shift leeches showed up and rehashed it.

Guy No. 2