Bob watched his stepfather’s face as the hail pounded down on the fields west of them. The face of a dry land farmer: leathery, lined, stoic. That face usually revealed no emotion, but for a moment Bob thought his Dad would cry. Then anger clouded his face like one of the lightening flashes announcing that the hail was coming east toward their half-section. He had only seen that look once before in the six years they had been on the farm. They were all coming back from town on Halloween and had spotted a strange pickup in their farmyard. Three young men were about to load their outhouse onto their pickup to take to town for some Halloween mischief. His stepfather had confronted them, carrying his 12-gauge shotgun.
“Better put her back now, boys,” he had said quietly.
“Oh, shit! Yessir, yessir, we will. Sorry about that; don’t know what got into us. We were just funning around. We’ll get ‘er back right away.”
The outhouse was put back and the three partygoers left. But with the hailstorm there wasn’t anyone to threaten. Mother Nature didn’t give a damn if you had a 12-gauge shotgun or not. You could just watch and do nothing.
In ten minutes it was over. The damage to the neighbors to the west had been total. Their own wheat was bent over but not completely destroyed. After the clouds passed by they walked out into the field.
“Well, it looks like we can harvest some of it, but goddamn it, it will mean a lot more work.” His stepfather leaned over to hold up the plants to see how much of the grain had been knocked from the golden heads. “We’ll have to put pick-up teeth on the bar of the combine to lift all this straw up to the cutting sickle. We better go up to the house and call Hank.”
They had been hoping for a great crop this year. Last year they had lost about forty acres of wheat to a rain storm. When it rained hard, the land north of the house flooded because it was the lowest point in several miles. Much of the top soil from around their place had, over the years, washed into the area they called “the lagoon.” The soil was great, but if it rained too hard you could never harvest the crop. People at the Co-Op always said that Ott should plant half wheat and half rice in the lagoon.
One year they had cut wheat in the lagoon and it yielded eighty bushel to the acre. If only they could control the rain. You had to have rain, but not too much rain. Two summers ago they had tried to empty the lagoon. Ott and Hank had this idea that if they drilled a deep hole in the lowest part of the lagoon and stuffed some dynamite into the hole they could open up the land so it could drain.
Bob remembered the day of the big explosion. A well digging rig had been brought in and they punched a hole in the ground about one-hundred and twenty feet deep. Then they had wrapped several sticks of dynamite and crammed them down into the hole. People from all around had come to watch.
“We’re gonna pull the plug on this lagoon,” Hank said as he pushed the plunger to set off the explosion.
There was a deep rumbling sound and a two foot high splash of water just above the hole. Everyone waited for the water to drain out.
Call Hank. The idea of it was exciting to Bob. Not just because it meant he would see his brother-in-law and sister sooner this year, but also it meant he could watch his stepfather use the telephone. When Ott made a call it was an attack. He would accost the phone box mounted on the wall like a cat working a mouse. First he would move from side to side and then he would pounce on the crank with one hand while grabbing the earpiece with the other. He would spin the crank around a full turn and look at the wall-mounted box as if it were in his way to completing the call. When the operator came on to say, “Number please,” he would shout into the mouthpiece, “I need to call Denver.”
“What number in Denver, please?”
“I’m calling Hank. It’s 742-3388. Hank’s number.”
“Thank you, sir, I’ll put you through. . . . The lines to Denver are busy right now. I’ll ring you as soon as I can get through.”
Ott’s part of the conversation was so loud that Bob always thought he probably didn’t need a phone line. And when it was long distance his voice rose to another level of volume.
Within a few minutes the phone rang one long and one short. That was their number, 019R11, where the one-one meant one long and one short. As his stepfather picked up the phone earpiece and stood close to the mouthpiece, Bob could almost hear the clicks of others on the line picking up to listen in.
“Hello!” shouted Ott, probably causing severe damage to the ears of party line listeners.
“Your call to Denver is ready now; I’m ringing it now.”
“Hi, Ott. This is Peg. Hank is still at work. I’ll get him to call you back when he gets home.”
“OK. Thanks, I need to talk to him.” Ott shouted, “Yeah.”
The idea that voices could be transported on number twelve wire all the way to Wray and then on down the line to Denver had never registered with Ott even though he was responsible for maintaining the phone lines that ran along his property line. The line ran along the side of the county road and was a single wire hanging from glass insulators on twelve-foot high posts. How the voices traveled along that wire was a mystery. It was more puzzling even than how electricity would travel along the highline wires that were beginning to be built in some areas of Colorado closer to Denver. There was talk in Washington, D.C. that within five years the government would have REA electricity to all of the farms in the country. Bob was hoping that they would hurry because electricity would change their lives so much. They would have an indoor toilet. Running water. Hot running water for showers. They would finally have bright lights instead of gas lanterns to read by.
“It would be good to join the twentieth century,” he thought.
Peg, his oldest sister, had married Hank in 1943 when Mom had married Ott. “My mother and my older sister were married in the same year,” Bob always said if asked about marriages. Peg and Hank had moved into the house on York Street, the family house, until the family began going off in all directions. Hank was a Nebraska farm boy, who had tried his best to join the Army in the war but who had been found to be 4-F. As a kid, a kernel of wheat had lodged in his left ear. He had not complained until the pain became severe. The doctor found that the kernel had sprouted and broken the eardrum. Peg and Hank had married just before Bob, Beth, their Mom, and new stepfather had moved to the farm outside of Wray. Bob remembered one thing about their courtship. Every evening when it was time to do the dishes, Hank would call.
“You go ahead with the dishes and I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Peg would say, running to the phone in the living room. But the call went on and on, usually until the drying and cleaning up was done.
Hank was a plumber by trade. Like Ott he was a born and bred farmer, and both of them could fix most anything mechanical. Neither talked much, and around the farm equipment they worked quietly in an unspoken bond of knowledge. One of the early lessons they passed on to the boy was, “If a man made it, a man can fix it!”
When the phone rang later, one long and one short, Margaret picked up the earpiece and answered with a normal “Hello.”
“Oh, hi, Hank, how are you getting along? I’ll get Ott for you.”
“Hello!” he shouted. “Hank, we had a hell of a hailstorm this morning. A real gullywasher. Lightling and rain and then hail big as golf balls! Took out most of our wheat. Can you come next week and help me get the combine ready?”
Bob noticed the “lightling.” For some reason his stepfather could not say “lightning” and instead always said the “l” for the “n”. Maybe it was some pronunciation he got when he lived in Arkansas. “Arkansas” was a funny word too. The state was “arkansaw” but the river was “ark-kansus” – spelled the same but pronounced different. “English is a funny language,” he thought. He remembered what his English teacher, Mrs. Diss, had told him. She had said that an English writer, named George Bernard Shaw, had put up some money to anyone who could come up with an improvement to English spelling that would eliminate the confusion. As an example of the confusion in English pronunciation Shaw had suggested that we should spell “fish” ghoti — the gh from “cough,” the o from “women” and the ti from ”nation”. “I’ll bet the money is still waiting,” he thought.
“See you on Sunday then. Yeah.”
Most people ended a phone call with “goodbye” but Ott always said “yeah.”
“They can come up on Sunday,” he said, putting the earpiece back in its cradle and giving the instrument one last look of contempt.
“Oh, that’s nice, honey. It will be good to see Peg and our grandson. I’ll bet he has grown. Hank will be a big help in getting the machinery ready. What all do you have to do?”
“We’ll have to put pick-up teeth on so we can lift the straw off the goddamned ground and save some of the wheat. What a mess. It was lookin’ so good, too. Probably thirty bushel to the acre wheat for once, and then this. We could have cut in a few days too. Damn, damn, damn.”
On Sunday after church, Peg and Hank and Dick arrived at the farm. They had been coming up for harvest anyway, and the hail just brought them a week early. Dick had grown. At three he was talking, running about and mimicking his dad. That meant he used swear words in every sentence, and though he had trouble with ordinary words sometimes, he never mispronounced a profanity. He used a made-up word “boppy” as a kind of placeholder for any word he could not say. Within a short time he came running into the house after being down by the shop with the men to report to his grandma.
“Granddad’s goddamned boppy broke down!”
“Granddad’s goddamned boppy broke down!”
Mom looked at Peg, and they both laughed.
Granddad’s boppy was the old pull type combine that they were trying to get ready for the harvest. During the winter Ott had replaced all the drive gears that ran the separator and the fans with V-belts. This had meant a much quieter machine and eliminated the need for a lubricating oil drip system that had distributed oil to the chains. They were giving the combine a shake down cruise when one of the belts had come loose.
“She’s running good,” said Hank. “The V-belts make a hell of a difference.”
They had to adjust all of the belts for the correct tension. Together they tested them all and tuned up the machine, which was much quieter because of the rubber belts.
After his report Dick ran back out of the house and down to the corral to check on the cows and horses. Bob and Ott had put a single wire electric fence around the cane stacks to keep the animals away from the cane. Bob’s old horse, Babe, particularly had to be stopped. She would unhook the barn door and go to eat her fill. Dick wandered around the corral and up to the fence. Then he could be seen running up to the house again. As he ran into the kitchen he was crying.
“Grandma, grandma, I have to tell you somepin.”
“What is it this time, Dick?”
“Grandma, don’t ever pee on a ‘lectric fence!”
His fly was still open and the tears were falling down his cheeks.
Later that evening everyone sat down at the table for some supper.
As his Mom said grace, “Lord, we thank you for this day’s food,” Bob looked up at his stepfather’s face.
“But we sure as hell don’t thank You for this hailstorm.”
During supper Ott told a story that he had heard that morning after church while talking with the other farmers on the lawn outside the church.
“Old man Jones was a painter by trade and he used to always thin his paint with water so he could make a bit more on each job. Well, he was painting the Lutheran church last year, and, as usual, he had added some water to the paint. As he was about to finish the job a big ole rain cloud opened up and he watched as the rain washed off the paint. Suddenly a bolt of lightling hit in the churchyard pretty close to Jones and he was sure that God was angry with him for cheating on the paint job on a house of God. “Please forgive me, Lord”, he cried, “give me another chance.”
Jones heard the voice again, thundering from the clouds, “Repaint, repaint, and thin no more.”
Everyone had a good laugh.
After supper Bob sat at the kitchen table sharpening his pocket knife while his mom and sisters did up the dishes. Beth had gone to the matinee in town that afternoon with friends and was relating the entire plot while drying the dishes.
When the kitchen was all cleaned up, Mom got down the copy of Moby Dick and began to read a chapter to the kids. Every night, or almost every night, they had a chapter of a book read to them. They had gone through two Charles Dickens novels and a Jack London, and now they had joined Melville and Captain Ahab on the high seas in search of the White Whale. “Call me Ishmael.” That has to be the greatest beginning of any novel I know,” thought Bob. “And the description of the church with the pastor giving a sermon from the quarter deck is like you are right there in the pew.” After a while Mom stopped reading and the three talked about the chapter for a little while.
“Why did they kill whales, Mom?” asked Beth.
“It was their job. They hunted them for the oil which was used in all sorts of ways.”
Beth asked, “Why didn’t they just get their oil at the Co-op like we do?”
“There were no Co-op stores then, Honey.”
“Is Captain Ahab a good man?” asked Bob.
“Well, let’s finish the book before we try to answer that question. OK?”
“OK. It is a good book. Long though.”
“Off to bed everyone. Five o’clock comes early.”
Bob dreamed that night that he was a sailing ship captain. He was standing next to the helmsman looking out over the sea. But it looked like the sea changed slowly, ever more slowly, into a vast expanse of wheat. The color shifted from blue green to gold and the waves rolled on and on toward the horizon. The ship slipped through the waves silently. He looked at the helmsman. It was his stepfather steering the ship through the waving wheat. The sky darkened and the clouds stretched out to cover the sun. He looked over to see the wheel come off in the hands of his stepfather, who dropped it to the deck with a clang and looked up at the sky.
Bob woke suddenly to the sound of his Mom knocking on the door. “Time to get up, Honey.”
Most mornings were the same. Every morning the cows had to be brought into the barn, fed some grain, sprayed for flies, and milked. Get up, get the cows, milk the cows, feed the cows, slop the pigs, let the chickens out, eat breakfast, work in the fields.
As he pulled on his boots Bob was thinking about the camping trip they had taken to the mountains. Hank had built a trailer that held all of their camping gear. And he knew all the roads in the mountains. The trip to Hanging Lakes had convinced Bob that he would return to the mountains again as soon as he could. The Aspen forest was almost as large as the wheat fields in his corner of Colorado.
As Ott and Bob got to the barn they heard an awful racket coming from the manger at the back of the barn.
“Hurry up, Bob, sounds like a cat fight.”
In the manger were two cats fighting and screaming.
“It’s the Tom,” said Ott, “he’s killin’ the kittens!”
The mother cat was doing her best to defend her kits, but the tomcat outweighed her by twice and had done most of the damage already. When Bob shouted he jumped out of the manger and ran to the ladder to the hayloft, scampered up it and disappeared.
“Look, the kittens are all ripped up.”
“Why would the dad kill them?”
“Don’t know. Just happens sometimes. Before you know it that Tom will be back making more kittens. Maybe he thought they weren’t his.”
They cleaned up the mess and called the cows in for grain.
After chores and breakfast Ott, Hank, and Bob went down to the shop to get the combine ready.
“Here, Bob, you take every fourth tooth off the cutterbar; it’s probably a half inch wrench. Use the socket and the ratchet. Hank, can you solder that damn leaking gas tank on the tractor? I’ll get the pick-up teeth ready to install in the empty spots on the bar.”
Bob found the socket wrench, got down on the ground, and reached under the platform on the combine to loosen the nuts. As he started to remove the teeth from the cutting bar, he saw Hank get some soap from his toolbox and rub it along the bottom of the gas tank on the tractor where the slow leaks were. The soap stopped the drips in a couple of minutes. Hank fired up the gasoline torch to heat the soldering iron.
“Aren’t you going to drain the gas out of the tank?” Bob shouted.
“No. Shouldn’t have to.”
“But won’t it explode when you start to put hot solder on the tank?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s cool gasoline down here. But, if it does explode you better get the hell out of here!”
Hank picked the hot soldering iron up out of the cradle on the torch. He spread some flux on the area of the tank that had been leaking and applied the iron to the tank and to the long strand of solder which he had unwound from its circular roll.
Bob got up and walked around so that the combine was between him and Hank.
The solder melted and was sucked up into the holes where the flux had been. Some smoke rose from the tank.
“There we go,” said Hank as he put the soldering iron down and spit on the hot solder. The spit jumped around a bit and then disappeared. “That should do it.”
Bob came back toward the tractor. “Why didn’t it explode, Hank? I thought gasoline was very dangerous.”
“It is. But in this case there were no gas fumes. It’s the fumes that explode, as long as it’s liquid you’re OK.”
No one said anything about Bob’s having hidden behind the combine, and he returned to the job of removing the teeth from the cutterbar.
Hank hooked the tractor to the tow bar and they headed off to the field of wheat west of the house. The sixteen-foot platform on the combine was heavier now with the addition of the thirty-two pick-up teeth. Ott was on the combine running the wheel that controlled the height of the platform. He turned a wheel that let the platform down to the level for cutting. “He looks like Captain Ahab at the helm of the Pequod,” Bob thought. The combine engine was throbbing, the V-belts were singing, and the cutting bar was sliding back and forth rhythmically. Hank drove close to the fence to open the field of wheat up to the combine. After the first round they would drive on the stubble of the previously cut wheat. Only the first round would require driving on the wheat. “I hope we can get a newer, self-propelled combine soon; then we would not have to lose grain to the heavy wheels of the tractor and the combine.”
Hank was watching the fence line closely to stay as close as possible without running into the fence posts. Ott dropped the platform by spinning the helm. The pick-up teeth reached under the fallen wheat, picked it up and fed it to the wooden paddles of the reel that pushed the straw against the cutting bar. Because of the need to cut so much straw the combine engine was laboring to handle all of the material that was brought up to the separator on the conveyor belt. Ott dropped the platform some more.
Suddenly the pick-up teeth at the end of the platform rammed into the ground. The teeth bit into the ground, stopping the forward movement of the platform. Ott yelled from the helm, “Hank! Stop! Stop!” Before Hank could stop the tractor the platform snapped off from the main body of the combine, its broken parts dangling like intestines from a butchered hog.
Once everything stopped Ott climbed down from the combine to survey the damage.
Hank joined him by the hanging platform. “I just didn’t get her stopped in time. I was watching the fence line.”
“It’s not your fault, Hank. Goddamn it to hell. Look at that mess!”
A dark cloud passed over Ott’s face. Bob saw his stepfather take off his hat and hurl it on the ground.
Ott jumped up and down on his hat, swearing loud and frantic swear words Bob had never heard.
“They say only cowards commit suicide. That’s a goddamned lie. It takes courage to leave this rotten place. Why me? What else can go wrong?” Ott shouted. He jumped on his hat and waved his arms above his head. Looking up at the sky, where all of the hail had come from, he challenged his God, “Why are You doing this to me? What have I ever done to You? I should never have been born. Why? Why? What do You want from me?”
Bob looked up, halfway expecting an answer. There was no answer. Only silence. A small white cloud drifted in the blue sky. A sundog was visible. In the summer fallow across the road a small wind funnel twisted lazily toward the south.
Bob walked over to his stepfather. “It’s OK, Dad. We can fix it. I know we can.”
Hank got up from under the platform. “She’s not too bad, Ott. A bit of welding; some new bolts. We’ll have her going again before sundown.”
Ott picked up his hat. He knocked the crown out with his fist and put it on.
“Let’s get started.”