As the four of them drove back to the farm from the Lutheran Church service that Sunday, “three miles west and three miles south of Wray, Colorado,” they passed a tall man dressed in dark clothing walking briskly on the side of the highway. He had on a cap with the earflaps down and a heavy coat to keep out the cold.
“Who is that?” his Mom asked.
“Looks like Clyde,” said his stepfather, driving the ’38 Ford at 60 miles per hour, going “lickety-split” the farmers said.
“Who’s Clyde, and why is he walking.”
“Don’t have a car.”
“Should we give him a ride?”
“No, he likes to walk,” he said, making a circular motion with his finger just above his right ear.
“Oh, I see.”
After they got to the farm and parked the car in the garage next to the washhouse, they went inside and had some lunch.
“I think I’ll go out to the shop,” his stepfather said when he had finished his coffee.
Bob went into the living room and picked up the family Bible. “Mom, what’s a womb?”
“Where on earth did you hear that word?”
“It’s right here in the Bible. See, it says, `And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.’ “What is a womb?”
“Oh; well it means, it means, uhh, that Rachel will be able to have children. Here, put the Bible back and go out and play until it’s time for supper. I’ll call you.”
Bob put the book back on the cabinet in the living room. He put it on top of Moby Dick because you were never supposed to put any book on top of the Bible. He walked into the kitchen and reached for fried chicken in the black iron frying pan wrapped in a towel. He was dressed as usual in his Oshkosh overalls and denim long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up to just above the elbows. In his pockets were a jack knife, two 8-penney nails, a bandana, a small stone, a quarter, and two empty 22-caliber cartridges. His mother was dressed as usual in a flour-sack print dress that she had made. The dress had a pattern of small blue flowers on a white background. He called it a flower flour dress. She had no pockets.
Bob had asked about “womb” to see what his mother’s response would be. He already had a pretty good idea what was going on. He had seen farm animals doing “it” for the three years that they had lived on the farm. He had watched as his stepfather had stuck his arm well up into a young heifer in an attempt to turn the calf around in the womb so that she could deliver normally. He had stood in the barn and watched and listened as finally Daddy had put a rope around the leg of the calf and with the cow tied to a stanchion had pulled and pulled to get the calf out. He would always remember the young cow’s eyes rolling back in her head and the bawl she made as she birthed. He had never seen Rachel give birth to Joseph. He thought it must be similar, but without the rope.
As soon as the war was over they had been able to buy a new tractor. They had gone to McCook, Nebraska to load it on a trailer and bring it back to their farm. Bob had gone along in the old Ford pickup pulling the trailer. They loaded the new tractor on the trailer at the farm equipment place and tied it down with chains. All during the war they had been unable to buy any new equipment because all production had been devoted to planes and tanks and jeeps. They had made do with a 1929 steel wheeled Farmall that had long levers instead of a steering wheel. Its drive wheels were metal with great iron claws for traction. It had to be cranked to start it. His daddy said it had no doubt broken many a man’s arm in its goddamned life. It was noisy and hard to turn. Bob had tried to drive it once but couldn’t handle it.
Their new tractor was a beautiful orange Case with rubber tires. It had the wide front tires instead of the row crop set up. It had a power take off and a belt drive wheel, and it had lights. “We can work at night,” his stepfather said. The neighbors came to see them unload the new tractor. They helped fill the back tires with water for additional traction and when you drove it in the farmyard you could hear the water sloshing around in the large tires. Bob had driven it to the field and around the yard. It was easy to turn because it had a steering wheel. It had an electric starter so even a child could get it going. The clutch was a metal handle to the left of the seat and the turning brakes were easily in reach. The throttle was ratcheted and mounted on the right, push the throttle forward and then quickly and smoothly push forward on the clutch and away you go. It had a road gear that took it along at about 15 miles per hour and that plus its rubber tires meant you could drive it to the fields on the county roads and didn’t always have to trailer it in.
All that afternoon Bob played in his summer fallow fields. His fields were in a large area in among the trees that formed a windbreak on the north side of the house, and he played there every day. He had fields outlined there and was working on some buildings and fences. He liked to play there alone for hours and hours, working in the fields with his tractor, a nice bright green John Deere with rubber tires and a hitch. He wanted to make a new implement to work his fields so he went to the shop.
“This shop is the greatest place on earth,” he thought. It was packed full of stuff. There were buckets filled with nails from the barn they had taken down in the early spring. They had saved the lumber and every nail from the old barn. There were pieces of metal, angle iron, tin roofing, strap iron, and various hinges, hooks and containers. On the outside of the building neatly stacked on wooden arms were several two-by-fours, two-by-sixes, and clapboards. The workbench held a large vise bolted to the heavy planks. The foot-operated forge was kept inside the building when it wasn’t being used.
He found a piece of one by four about eighteen inches long and put it in the vise. He grabbed a crosscut that was hanging from a nail and cut the board to about eight inches in length. Then he took a Popsicle stick and nailed it perpendicular to the board to serve as a hitch. He drove six-penny nails through the board to make two rows. He ran to his fields in the trees and hooked the new chisel to his John Deere. He started to push the tractor and the new implement around one of his fields. It worked fine. He saw that he needed a marker to tell him where to drive so that he didn’t either overlap the last cultivated area or leave any ground untilled. He took a small piece of Popsicle stick and nailed it to the outer edge of the wooden deck. He then took a small segment of light chain and wired it on the end of the arm with a small piece of bailing wire. Now when he drove along his chisel not only ripped up the soil, it also left a scratch for him to follow with the tractor on the next round. On his hands and knees he pushed the John Deere toy around and around until he had finished chiseling the entire field.
“The great thing about this work is you can see exactly where you have been and how much more there is to do,” he thought. When he made the last round he drove to the first of the four corners and worked out the area left untilled by the turning tractor so that the entire field was cultivated.
“Bobby, come in now,” his Mom called. “We have to go to the Other Place with some dinner for Daddy.”
He turned off his tractor and ran to the house to help load the food.
“Beth, honey,” his Mom said, “put those pieces of bread in some waxed paper after you butter them. Daddy wants to eat in the field to save time, but he’ll get a real dinner, not some little lunch.”
She had fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and gravy, and fresh bread to take to her husband. She also had some apple pie and had put some coffee in a thermos to take along too. She knew how important it was to get the fields ready for fall planting, and she understood why Ott wanted to keep working as long as he could with no interruptions.
“Your daddy would probably not eat at all if we didn’t take the food to him,” she said to her two youngest kids. “He can’t get enough of his new tractor.”
When they drove into the quarter section of summer fallow they could see the Case coming toward them pulling a one-way plow. The kids waved and they could just make out the wave from their stepfather through the dust cloud that rose around the tractor. The constant roar of the tractor’s engine grew louder and then after making a sharp turn Ott pulled the clutch and throttled down. He left the engine running in idle to cool off as he dismounted and asked Bob to drive the pickup truck over closer to the tractor. Bob ran off to get the truck, parked at the beginning of the morning’s work. He ran across the ridges and the triangular islands of stubble where the tractor and the one-way had turned. These would be worked out as the last part of the plowing of the field. He arrived at the old Ford truck, got in, adjusted the spark and the throttle and pushed on the starter with his foot. She started right up and he put it in compound low and drove slowly across the corner ridges, bouncing across the deep ruts left by the one-way.
When the tractor had cooled a bit Ott turned it off and they refueled it with cans of gas from the back of the truck. “Check the oil, Bob, will you?”
Bob went around the side of the tractor and found the small plug for checking the oil. He removed it with a crescent wrench and saw the oil level was OK and reported that to his stepfather who was back at the one-way greasing the bearings with a grease gun. “As soon as we get finished here I’ll start the tractor and get you going.”
“You mean I can drive it?”
“Don’t see why not. You’re a pretty smart ten year old! While I’m eating all this food your Mom brought we might as well be gettin’ some work done around here.”
The Case started up with a roar. Bob pushed the throttle forward with his right hand and then quickly engaged the clutch by pushing it forward until it locked in place. Down the row they went. “I’m driving all by myself.”
All he had to do was keep the front wheel in the furrow dug by the one-way on the last round and get ready to make the sharp turn required at each corner of the shrinking field of wheat stubble that was being plowed under to prepare for the planting in the fall. As he approached the first turn he was sitting on the metal seat with his left foot ready to use the turning brake. He entered the turn, spun the steering wheel and hit the turning brake. The tractor and one-way came smartly around and he spun the wheel quickly to straighten out and get the wheel back in the furrow. Then suddenly he went over the furrow, but he made a correction and was quickly back in the groove. He looked back and could not see any difference between the corner he had just made and the earlier ones made by his dad.
All in all he was on the tractor for just under an hour and had made four complete rounds of the field. That was sixteen corners he had turned and they had gotten easier toward the end. He had no idea that he would make thousands of such corners over the next few years. The Case had a powerful and steady roar. The blades of the one-way slipped easily through the brown soil, turning it over and covering the straw. As he came toward his parents on the last trip around the field he could see them standing in the corner triangle looking toward him. He sat straight on the seat looking at the right wheel to keep it in the furrow.
His dad waved at him and he stopped after turning the corner.
“Thanks for the dinner, honey; I want to finish this field today so I may work late. Good job, Bob. I’ll take her now.”
Bob climbed off the tractor and stood by his Mom and waved as his stepfather throttled up and left in a cloud of dust. He saw his dad’s back, his straw hat, and looked down at the earth being turned over by the one-way plow. The plow sliced through the stubble and rolled it over, covering it with brown soil. He knew they would work the summer fallow at least three more times before planting wheat. It all depended upon the weather. Everything on the farm depended on the weather.
“I’m so proud of you, Bobby,” his Mom said and took his hand.
“For what?” he said and took his hand away.
“For handling the tractor just like a man,” she said.
“Oh, Mom. It was nothing; and I’m not `Bobby’.”
Back in his fields later, Bob wished he had a one-way for his John Deere to pull. He had seen one at Shea’s Hardware in Wray and he was saving his allowance to buy it. It had curved blades that turned and a frame to put weights on to push those blades deeper into the soil. He played for some time and then went to do the afternoon chores.
First there were eggs to gather and then he had to feed and water the chickens. His sister Beth used to gather the eggs, but ever since the day she reached into a nest and felt, not the shell of an egg, but the skin of a bull snake that had squirmed into the nest to feast, she had refused to gather eggs “ever, ever again.” He smiled as he thought of her running out of the chicken house screaming. He carried some pellets in a bucket and filled the feeders. He filled the metal water containers and then sprinkled some wheat on the ground in front of the chicken house. “Chick, chick, chick,” he called.
He had to get the milk cows in from the pasture, feed them some grain, and then milk them. Then he carried the milk to the milk-house where he ran it through the separator. He poured the raw milk into the large stainless steel container on top of the machine. He took the clean cones from the shelf beside the sink, placed them together, screwed them down onto the shaft, and turned the crank of the separating machine until it reached speed. When the bell rang he opened the valve to let the milk run into the cones. The cream went into a steel can to be sold in town on Saturday. Skim milk went into a large bucket to go to the pigs, the dogs, and the cats.
It took him about two hours to do the afternoon chores. As he slopped the hogs he thought of New, his 4-H pig from the previous year. New had never been taken to the Yuma County Fair because the fair had been cancelled that year. New had been a humiliation for him and it seemed only right that they were eating New as bacon, ham and pork roasts. “New bacon is good bacon,” he thought.
It had been the first time he had seen a pig butchered. His Dad had shot New between the eyes once with a twenty-two. Then they dragged him to the center of the granary and hung him upside down using a block and tackle that was connected to the rafters.
“Bob, hold that basin right here,” his stepfather had said, indicating a place right above the hog’s head as it hung there upside down. His Dad had cut New’s throat and as the dark red blood flowed out of the cut and into the basin it also splashed onto Bob’s hands. It was still warm and it was sticky. They saved the blood for Grandma who used it for blood pudding. Bob watched his Dad gut the animal. He put the liver in a clean pan to cook for their supper that night.
“I won’t be able to eat it, Daddy.”
“Oh, sure you will. Just remember to say thanks for the hog’s life. He died so we can enjoy ham and eggs!”
His Dad then took a sharp knife and a scraper and scraped the bristly hair off the pig. They cut the layer of fat off to cook down for lard and soap. After it was all over they loaded the carcass in the back of the pickup and Ott took it to town to a butcher who cut the hog up and fast-froze the packages of meat to be put in their freezer box. The butcher would cure the hams and bacon for several months.
It had been when they were rendering the tallow in the washhouse that he had first seen Clyde. Large chunks of hog fat were simmering atop the coal stove in a metal container capped with a heavy screw-on lid. The fire underneath had to be kept at a low but constant heat. They tended the fire carefully to be sure that it never got too hot and never went out. On the first evening of cooking while Ott was still in town dealing with the butcher his Mom had gone out to the coal shed to get a bucket of coal for the fire. He had heard her shout.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
He and his sister had run outside. They saw their Mom in the coal shed holding a bucket in one hand and the coal shovel in the other. She was staring at the back of the shed. There in the dark they could just make out the figure of a tall man dressed in overalls and wearing a cap. He just stood there looking at their Mom.
“`Who are you?’ I asked, and what are you doing in my coal shed?”
The dark man was silent. Finally, as his Mom had backed away toward the doorway so that she was standing still holding the shovel, he said, “Name is Clyde.”
“Well, Clyde, you better skedaddle out of here before I call my husband out here with his shotgun!”
Clyde had waited until Mom was out of the doorway and then he slunk out of the coal shed and with the long stride of one who walked a lot he moved toward the gravel road in front of the house.
“But, Mom,” Beth said, “Daddy’s not here!”
“Be quiet, for once, will you?” Bob said, grabbing his sister by the arm.
Once Clyde was gone his Mom had put the shovel down and picked Beth up and held her in her arms. “It’s OK, baby, sometimes you have to tell a fib.”
She had put Beth down, picked up the coal bucket and went to the washhouse to stoke the fire.
“Were you scared, Mom?” Bob had asked.
“Yes, I certainly was. I wonder who that man is. He didn’t say much, did he? I was just getting the coal and there he was. I’m glad you two came out here so I wasn’t alone.”
“Were you going to hit him, Mom? With the shovel?”
“I was just so startled. I don’t know. I’m glad I didn’t have to hit anyone.”
When Ott had returned an hour or so later Beth ran out to the pickup shouting, “Daddy, Daddy, a bad man was in our coal shed and Mommy had to chase him away, and I was scared and I thought he would kill me.” She had started to cry and Ott picked her up and carried her into the house.
“What’s this I hear about bad guys?”
“Would you really have shot him?” asked Bob.
“Shot who? What are you two talking about?”
His Mom had told the whole story, and his stepfather explained that Clyde was a local, a son of the Hootmans who lived west of their place.
“No need to shoot ol’ Clyde, Clyde’s slow-witted, that’s all. He’s like a boy in a man’s body.”
“It’s that man’s body that I was afraid of,” stated his Mom.
“He is not dangerous. About thirty years old, he is, and never hurt anyone that I know of. He walks everywhere, ‘cause he ain’t smart enough to drive. Probably just resting in the coal shed before he went on home. Can’t drive even a tractor. He can do some work, like help with building fences, or clean out barns and chicken houses and such, but he ain’t worth much.”
“I could sure use Clyde now,” Bob thought as he looked at the growing pile of manure in the corral. Each afternoon he mucked out the cow barn for the next day’s milking. The manure pile was about the size of one of the smaller Rocky Mountains. After he finished slopping the pigs he went up to the house to wash up and see what was for supper.
“Did you finish the chores, honey?”
“Yeah, Mom; what’s for supper?”
“Sandwiches, salad, and cold chicken.”
“Sounds good; when do we eat?”
“In a few minutes. I have to wash Beth’s hair and braid it and then we’ll sit down. I don’t expect Ott until late. He’s going to finish the field.”
“It’s great to have a tractor with lights. Did you see that light that shines back on the equipment?”
“I did. And I saw you drive the tractor in the field today,” she said while toweling Beth’s long thick hair.
“It’s funny, isn’t it, Mom? We used to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Now we have breakfast, dinner, and supper.”
“Yes, and it does make sense to have the big meal at midday.”
“Do you think Clyde was going to hurt you?”
“I don’t know. I know he was looking at me with a greedy look. But, Daddy’s probably right, he’s no real danger. Still I’m glad you and Beth came running out to the shed.”
“It is kind of lonely here sometimes, don’t you think?”
“I know. But we are so busy that we hardly can think of it. Do you miss your friends from Denver?”
“I do, you know. But the farm is kind of neat. There’s so much stuff to do all the time. And school is fun. We have only eight kids now. I guess Clyde never went to school, did he?”
“No, I would think not. Too bad. Everyone should go to school.”
“I like school, Mommy, and I’m smart too,” said Beth while sitting on a kitchen chair.
“Yeah, you sure learn some good stuff. I was reading about Indians the other day and they said that some of the tribes had medicine men that could heal people and see into the future. And they were sorta slow like Clyde. They were special in some way. It’s like they weren’t smart in this world but were listening to some other things that most of us can’t see. Do you think that Clyde can see into the future?”
“Oh, I doubt it, son. It’s really hard to know what another person can see or what he thinks about.”
“I wonder what God thinks about.”
“Only God knows.”
“Ouch!” screamed Beth. “Mom, you’re pulling my hair right out of my head.”
“Sorry, honey, I’m almost finished braiding.”
“Are we going to church tomorrow?” asked Bob.
“Of course. Sunday is the only time Ott gets off of that tractor of his. Church is a place to rest the body and nourish the soul.”
“Do you like the minister, Mom?”
“Sure, he is a good man.”
“But he is so, I don’t know; it’s like he talks in capital letters all the time. Do you think he really knows God?”
“Of course he does. He must have been called to the ministry.”
“Called? By God?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so.”
“I wonder if God will ever call me.”
“So many questions! Let’s go ahead and eat our supper now.”
“At least I’ve been called to supper. No, at last I’ve been called to supper.”
The next morning after chores they took the weekly bath in the washhouse. They bathed in a large galvanized tub filled from the water tank and heated with kettles of hot water from the coal stove.
“When will we ever get a real bathroom?” asked Bob. “It’s so weird having to go to the outhouse and the washhouse instead of the bathroom.”
“As soon as we get electricity. Then we can get a hot water heater and a pump and have a modern bathroom,” said his Mom.
“I hope they hurry. It’s so embarrassing to have any friends here.”
Clean and dressed they drove the six miles to town to the Lutheran Church. In Sunday School they were shown pictures of the Holy Land and told about the way the Jews killed Christ on Good Friday.
Bob didn’t pay attention to the lesson. He was thinking about Clyde. Could Clyde be special? Maybe he was like some of the prophets. Maybe he was a prophet. They seemed odd too. Always just sort of showing up and telling the future, warning the Israelites to stop doing bad things or they would be punished. He couldn’t think of a good reason why there couldn’t be prophets walking around now just as they did two thousand years ago. Why were all the prophets who had talked to God from some other country and some other time? It didn’t make sense. And why do they call it “good” Friday if it’s the day Jesus was crucified? Dying that way, nailed to a cross, doesn’t sound good to me, he thought. Samuel was a prophet and he was pretty crazy. The way he chopped up Agag. Why would God have him do that? It didn’t make a lot of sense, but every Sunday they came here and heard more about prophets and sins and souls.
After church they drove home and had dinner. Mom had left a pork roast, surrounded by potatoes, cooking in the oven while they were in town. It only needed some gravy and some peas and it was ready to eat.
“That was quite a sermon,” said Ott. “The minister got all wound up about how bad things don’t happen to good people.”
“It was nice,” said Mom.
“Nice? I thought it was crazy.”
“Well, wouldn’t you say the Renkes were good people?”
“Well, then why did they end up with Billy? The poor little kid was not even a human, just a vegetable, for chrissakes!”
“God works in mysterious ways, dear. It is not for us to question His doings.”
“Oh, Jesus, you sound just like the pastor. It just don’t make sense to me. Last year almost everybody in Yuma County lost their wheat crop. Everyone was hailed out except for John Marlin. Everybody knows he is a drunken, lazy, wife-beating no-good who never goes to church.”
“Eat your dinner, dear, before it gets cold.”
“This pork is really good, Mom,” said Bob.
After dinner Bob asked permission to take his horse, Babe, for a ride to the pasture at the Other Place. Babe was a ten-year-old mare, given to him for his ninth birthday. He had learned to ride on her. She was gentle and because of a spavin on her right front knee she could no longer gallop. She was perfect for kids. He threw the saddle blanket over her back the way he had seen Hopalong Cassidy do it. Then he got the saddle on her and tied the cinch tight. He then waited a minute or two and tightened it. Babe often would hold her stomach out until after the cinch was tightened and then release the air and the cinch would be loose. She was actually pretty smart. Once she got out of the barn and opened the feed bin latch and ate her fill of grain. He mounted and rode off out of the yard and down the gravel road the mile and a half to the Other Place and the canyons where he often played cowboys and Indians. On the way he thought about what his dad had said at the table.
He rode along the edge of the canyon that stretched along the end of the half-section they called the Other Place. About one third of the land here was too rocky and steep to be farmed so they used it as pasture for the cattle in the summer. It was home to coyotes, owls, hawks and other predators. He had shot his first rabbit here with a single shot from his twenty-two rifle. Currant berries grew wild on the hillsides and his Mom made jelly from the berries. “Remember,” his Dad had said the first time the went picking currants, “when they’re red they’re green!”
Suddenly something spooked Babe and for the first time since he had gotten her she bucked. He was not ready and was thrown off violently. He tumbled part way down the side of the canyon.
“Here, I have your horse. Get on. Get yourself home.”
It was Clyde. He had come from nowhere.
When he arrived home his Mom cleaned up his scrapes and scratches and painted them with Mercurochrome.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, Mom.