This story is by Dave McClure and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
My Dad grew up on a farm near Danvers, moved to Chicago at age nineteen, and came back ten years later to farm with his father in law. I think it changed him. He had more to talk about somehow. Among the farmers I grew up with talk was often scarce.
Their wives, on the other hand, were champion talkers. But because the lives and the roles of men and women were more separate then, the conversational skills of the farm women didn’t seem to rub off on their husbands. Nearly all of those men had wives, with the notable exception of the bachelor brothers, two farmers who never married and ended up single and stranded in their dead parents’ farmhouse north of us, with no women to look after them. What the quality of life was like for the bachelor brothers no one really knew, despite all the conjecture. It was assumed by all, but especially the farm wives, that housekeeping was lax and their diet was terrible, but that was just gossip. I walked beans for them. They seemed happy to me.
Farmers spent a lot of time alone and grew comfortable, I think, with silence. There was one seat on the tractor, and while I used to ride on the fender from time to time, my Dad spent most of his hours in the field as a solitary man. Because implements were small he farmed at the most four rows at a time. Until I was in high school his biggest plow was a two bottom. He and our closest neighbor Henry would recall days as kids spent behind a horse going between corn rows with a one row cultivator. That was how Henry acquired most of his extensive arrowhead collection. ‘The horse knew what to do,’ Henry explained. He simply sat on a low seat a few feet above the ground, tied the reins onto the implement, and watched between his knees as the small spade drug down the middle of the row turning over dirt. Men did this for hours and hours day after day. Without ear buds. Just the sound of the horse and the rustling of the corn leaves. Imagine that for just a minute, now multiply it by millions of minutes. That was the kind of solitude and quiet those men experienced during their lives.
As tractors replaced horses loud noise erased the silence but nothing changed the being alone. My Dad would go off in the tractor in the morning after chores, sometimes he came back to eat, but often I would take dinner out to him in the field at noon. I’d take my dog Champ with me. In the south field, past the waterway, there were still some hedge trees we could sit under. I liked to meet him at the end of the row where the trees were. When he saw me he would make the turn, shut off the tractor, and climb down stiffly. We would sit in the grass and let the quiet catch up to us. Especially Dad. No wonder his hearing went bad. When the muffler rusted out on the Minneapolis Z Dad replaced it with a length of round rain gutter straight up from the exhaust port not four feet away from where he stood straddling the seat. No sound protection at all.
Lunch was usually baloney sandwiches on white bread with Miracle Whip and lettuce. Mom packed other stuff; bags of chips and apples, maybe a candy bar, and glass quart jar of milk. We shared it; both drinking from the cold jar. It would sweat in the heat and get slippery. I remember all of it tasting wonderful. Dad kept a water jug on the tractor. If we thought Champ was thirsty we would pour some water in the lid and give him a drink.
We didn’t necessarily talk much. It wasn’t like Dad to save up things to say. Talking to Dad, and all those farmers, was casual and easy.
“How’d the Cubs do yesterday?”
He left for the field before the Pantagraph came and didn’t always catch the sports on the WJBC.
“Yeah. Lost big too.”
“Ellsworth hasn’t won a game in a month.”
He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed. After he swallowed he went on.
“Anybody do anything for the Cubs?”
“Lou Brock stole second twice.”
“He’s going to be a good one that Brock.”
Mom cut the sandwiches straight across in two halves. He would eat one half, leave the other piece lying on the brown paper sack, then eat the chips before going back for the rest of the sandwich. I ate my sandwich all at once.
“We need rain. The leaves on the bottom of the stalks on that rise in the east corner are drying up.”
“Doesn’t look like it’s going to rain.”
“I don’t think so either.”
As he chewed Dad looked up at the clouds. His eyes were as blue as the sky.
“This would have been a good time to cut hay.”
Dad continued to study the sky for weather. I never knew what he was thinking when he did that.
“Did you help Mom wash the milkers?”
“Did you hoe the garden like she wanted?”
“Do that, will you? It helps her out.”
“I know. I will.”
If it was a nice day, Dad would stretch out on the grass and put his cap over his face. He was bald, and the top of his head was real white.
“If I go to sleep, don’t let me sleep long.”
“Dad, you want all that candy bar?”
“No, you take half.”
We were pretty polite to each other. It was a nice way to live.
The trees above us grew bright green hedge apples the size of softballs. I’d look in the grass for them and pile them up, then throw them at a fence post. The fence posts were made of hedge, most likely from trees that once grew where those stood then. If you got a direct hit on a fence post, the hedge apple would explode into a burst of pith and seeds. That’s what I was going for. When the pile of hedge apples was gone Champ and I would go down the fence row looking for things. There was always something to find. Little birds called Killdeer would scurry away from their ground nests. Once I scared up a blue racer snake. I liked it there. It was quiet.
Dad never needed waking. He had that short after dinner nap down pretty good. When I saw him sitting up, Champ and I would go back to where he was.
“Time to get back to work David, for both of us.”
“Thanks for bringing my dinner. Hoe that garden.”
“You want a ride down to the gravel road?”
You couldn’t ride the fender on the Z, so I stood on one side of the platform, careful not to step on the brake, while Dad stood on the side other by the hand clutch. Each wheel had a separate brake. If you spun the wheel sharply and tromped the one brake you could make real tight turns. To start the John Deere you still had to crank the flywheel by hand but the Z was newer and had electric start. Dad would give it throttle then hit the starter and the engine would crank over and then catch. You could see the engine in front of you and imagine the parts working inside it. For a little tractor, it was loud. The rain gutter didn’t help.
Other times, Dad would let me steer the tractor but he didn’t let me cultivate ever. If your mind wandered and the tractor went off course you could wipe out a four row patch of corn real easy. We called them lightning strikes. My mind wandered quite a bit. Since we had just one cultivator for one tractor, Dad always did that job himself. He was good at it. I thought he was good at everything.
Before he let me out at the gravel road he put his hand on my head and smiled at me. His face was tan. It was only a short walk back. Champ, who had followed the tractor through the field, walked home beside me. I went slowly, not at all anxious to start work on the garden.
I miss those summer days. Dad was in the field, Mom was in the house, my dog was with me, and everything was all right.