The Three-Day Job
The boy stood watching as the man pitched bundles of wheat onto the belt that went up to the mouth of the threshing machine. He had just been tricked into giving up the pitchfork.
Earlier that morning the boy had fallen through a hole in the hay-rack bed. He knew that the man had seen his step-father leap across the conveyor belt to pull him up before his leg got caught in the machinery. The bundles on the wagon floor had covered the hole. He had stepped on a bundle while pitching another onto the belt for its trip, heads first, up to the threshing machine separator.
“Is that a new pitchfork?” he had said.
“Yes, we just got it at the Co-op.”
“Let me see it,” the man had said, and when he handed it to him, he knew it was a trick. He had not wanted to have help unloading the wagon filled with wheat bundles, but the man, Raymond Renzelman, was Albert’s brother.
Raymond had his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, the way all the farmers did, and the boy watched the brown forearms as he tossed the bundles quickly into the conveyor. His arms must be twice the size of my own, he thought. He was just about as tall as Raymond now but probably weighed about half as much. It was July and hot and he had turned thirteen in February when it was cold.
He had not been frightened when he fell earlier in the day. He did not yell for help. He felt slightly embarrassed but not scared. The fear had come later when he thought about what could have happened. Fear was like that, he thought, it came before or after but not during. He had been sure he could get out of the mess by himself. He was willing to suffer a bit of pain to avoid the looks of others. But he was glad to have the help, and after being pulled up he had turned away and mumbled a “thanks” before getting right back to the work at hand.
Only a few farmers still used a threshing machine . Albert Renzelman had decided to bind his quarter section of wheat and to thresh it because he wanted the straw pile for his cattle. Almost everyone now had a self-propelled combine. One man could run the combine. But there was no straw pile at the end because the straw was spread out on the field in a wide swath or in a narrow windrow for baling later with a baler.
Threshing required lots of help. Albert had six hay racks each pulled by a tractor and a tractor to power the thresher. Four men were pitching bundles from the shocks in the fields up onto the racks to be stacked and unloaded by the men on top of the hayracks. Young boys from eleven to fifteen were driving the tractors which pulled the racks from shock to shock to be loaded. When full they drove to the threshing machine where the man on top of the hayrack unloaded the bundles while the boys sat on the tractors waiting to go out into the field again.
Twenty years ago, Otto had told him, all of the hayracks would have been pulled by horses and the fields would have been quiet as the bundles were loaded, stacked, and hauled to the threshing machine. Now “horsepower” had a different meaning.
Most of the tractor drivers had come with their fathers. Except for his brother and his close neighbors, the rest of the crew was being paid top wages by Albert for this threshing job. Three dollars a day for the boys who drove the tractors and eight dollars a day for the men who loaded and unloaded or who were pitching bundles in the field.
It was hot. Maybe 103° in the shade and there was no shade except under the umbrellas that were open on each tractor. Eastern Colorado was always hot in July. That was what made the wheat ripen and the farmers’ skin dark and leathery. We are all a bunch of rednecks, he thought to himself, until the necks become as brown as mahogany.
Raymond threw the last bundle onto the belt and gave the pitchfork back to him. Their eyes met for a moment.
“Let’s go!” he shouted to his driver, holding to the front of the hayrack for the ride back to the wheat field. The tractor and rack swerved suddenly and he would have fallen had he not been holding on. His driver had turned quickly to avoid a swarm of gnats. He wondered how gnats were able to stay in a universe the size of a basketball and move as one, bouncing across the land, moving up and down always together and never alone.
He felt renewed and ready for another load as they pulled up to the first shock. Raymond’s trick was OK, he thought, even if he had felt angry at first. The first bundle arrived and he placed it on the front corner to begin a row of bundles that would be held in by the second row and so on and on until the hay rack looked like a large loaf of homemade bread with a rounded top and complete with flanks that hung over the pan’s sides.
He could feel his muscles. Especially in his back and stomach. Each bundle was picked up and placed quickly in its proper place where it was held in by another and held another in. His mom had said, “Be sure and wear your gloves,” as he left that morning after breakfast with his step-father. And for once he had done as she said. He was glad to have them on now for the oak handle of the pitchfork, though smooth, was capable of making blisters on unprotected hands no matter how tough.His mom thought he would be driving one of the tractors with the other boys, and had suggested the gloves to keep the black rubber of the steering wheel off, but Albert had been one man short, and he had volunteered to handle a rack.
It was almost noon now and he started to think about dinner. The half-hour break for dinner at noon was a welcome thought. “After unloading this one it should be time to eat.” His driver must have realized that too, though he had no watch, for the trip back to the threshing machine was a fast one. Lying on the bundles on top of the load and clinging to his pitchfork jammed into the center, thinking about fried chicken and mashed potatoes and corn-on-the cob, he found the jaunt to the thresher soon was over and he started to unload.
As they washed up for dinner by the windmill there was a lot of talk about the weather and a few jokes aimed at the boys.
“We almost lost you there this morning, Bob,” said one of the tractor drivers.
“Yeah, my whole life flashed in front of my eyes.”
“That didn’t take long.”
Bob’s stepfather laughed as he handed him the towel.
“Did you see any girls?”
“A couple,” he said while drying his hands and arms on the towel, “a couple.”
As they finished washing in the cool water from the windmill the men talked and joked about the government.
“Ever see so many department of agriculture guys?”
“Ever since the war was over they just keep coming to town.”
“Like an army?”
“Yeah, there’s an army of them all right.”
“I saw three of them measuring my summer fallow the other day.”
“What did you do?”
“I took my shotgun out there and asked them what the hell they were doing.”
“What did they say?”
“They said they were measuring all the fields around so they would be ready when the government starts telling us how much wheat we can plant.”
“So, they were armed with A-sticks and you with a 12-gauge?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t have Old Bessy loaded!”
“We’ll soon have more people working for the government than farming.”
“They have some good programs too. I heard they’re going to be offering us $3 an acre to fertilize.”
“But then they want us to plant less. It don’t make any sense.”
“Whoever said the government makes sense?”
The crew went into the dining room. The women, who had eaten earlier, brought in plates piled high with corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, thick cream gravy, and platters of fried chicken. Bob could see himself in the mirror that covered the wall of the dining room. He tipped his head a bit to show his right side in the mirror. His nose looked better from that side he thought. Then he noticed that Joan, Albert’s daughter, and her mother had noticed him looking at himself in the mirror. The women exchanged a smile and he quickly turned away. He looked at the man who was telling a story.
“So, Bruce was working in the field with Roy’s Deere when he fell asleep in the heat.”
“Bruce, . . . you know, Roy’s hired man.”
“Oh. So what happened?”
“Well he fell asleep, I guess, and drove into a fence post.”
“I’ll bet that woke him up.”
“Yeah, but he broke the crank off the front of the Deere.”
Most of the men at the table laughed. Those who didn’t laugh got a strange look from the storyteller.
“What’s so funny about that?” asked Bob’s driver sitting next to him.
“There is no crank on a John Deere,” he answered. “Anybody knows that.”
It was the falling asleep part of the story that he thought about as he helped himself to a drumstick, a wing, and a piece of the breast. It was good chicken. And it was chicken. Everyone knew that Albert shot pheasants out of season and then when Loraine served them they always called it chicken. But with this chicken there were no shotgun pellets in the meat. The government had the season for pheasants set for October when the birds were already tough. The young cocks were best eating in July.
Falling asleep on the tractor was something that happened to him every day since he had been working in the fields. Right after a big noontime dinner and back in the heat of the early afternoon, lulled by the drone of the tractor’s engine, he had fallen asleep a hundred times, his head hitting the steering wheel and him fighting the sleepiness. He would drink water, throw some in his face, sing songs at the top of his lungs, dream about kissing Joan, and think about the danger of falling asleep and falling off the tractor to be sliced into twelve-inch pieces by the one-way. “I should tie myself onto the seat,” he thought.
Getting chopped into pieces. That always reminded him of the farmer south of Wray who had been playing hide-and-seek with his two-year-old son. He had finished the game and sent the boy to the house. He had gone to get his tractor and connected it by the long drive belt to his grinder. He started the tractor to grind some wheat, barley, and corn for the milk cows, and the flywheel spun the blades. His son had crawled into the grinder hopper to hide. It was a closed casket service at the Lutheran church, where the pastor said something about the mysteries of God’s ways and His wanting to have the boy with Him. Six months later the father had blown his head off with a shotgun in the garage at his farm.
“So, even if I could marry Joan, maybe something awful would happen to us,” he thought. “Anyway, the reason that His ways are so mysterious is because no one will answer any questions about God.” One day in Bible School as they were practicing the catechism they came to “The Lord thy God is a jealous God,” and he had asked the pastor, “What could God be jealous of?” And the pastor said, “Just shut up and memorize the passage.” He did. But he never paid any attention to the pastor again. At confirmation he performed without error. But they were just words. Memorized words.
He looked in the mirror one more time and saw that Joan was watching him. He felt the blush come up from his throat and turned his eyes to the plate in front of him. He remembered that time last summer when he had bid on Joan’s boxed supper and didn’t have enough money and was outbid. She had laughed and said, “ Next time bring more money,” as she went off with the winning bidder to eat the supper at a picnic table in the churchyard.
As the men finished eating they rose and walked outside and most of them lit cigarettes before returning to the field. Looking out over the field he could see that they had cleared about one-sixth of the wheat shocks in the morning’s work. The shocks looked like Indian teepees standing about a rod apart in rows. But they were homes for mice and small birds, not for Indians, who had hunted buffalo and antelope across these fields that were now outlined with barbed wire fences and gravel roads around each section of land.
The remains of an old soddy were visible from Albert’s yard about half-mile away. It was only about seventy years ago, he thought, as they drove the rack out into the field for the afternoon of threshing, that the Army had fought with the Cheyenne and Sioux at Beecher Island.
Roman Nose had been killed at that battle. He had gone to the site three times and found it much more exciting than the Hopalong Cassidy movies that were shown in town on Saturday night. The Indians had surrounded a small company of soldiers, who retreated to a small island in the Republican River and lay behind their dead mounts to fire at the Indians. Roman Nose had charged to the island unafraid of the white man’s bullets, only to be struck down.
Two of the soldiers had been sent to try to break through the Indian lines on the first night. One was captured almost immediately. The Indians had tortured him for several hours during the night. His screams drifted across the water to the soldiers on the island. The other made it through the lines but had to hide in the daylight. He had hidden in the carcass of a buffalo throughout the day and then pushed on when it got dark. Bob often thought of that young soldier hiding in that buffalo all through the hot day, walking and running the forty-five miles to McCook alone with his fear. “The fear of being caught must have been stronger than the smell,” he thought.
“He must have grown up that day.”
The afternoon went by quickly. They hauled four more loads to the threshing machine before quitting time. The haystack was growing bigger and bigger with each load. In the morning they would move the threshing machine so as to build a second haystack near the first one. He wondered what it would be like to be alone with Joan behind that haystack and to kiss her and to feel her body against his.
After supper the boy went to his bed on the front porch and turned on his radio to listen to “The Shadow.” He heard the first five minutes.
* * * *
He stirred in the bed. “Did Mom call me or did I dream it? It must have been a dream. I’ve only been in bed for a short time.”
But when she came back and called out, “Get up, Bobby, it is time to get ready for breakfast,” he knew that it was not a dream. He tried to shake the sleep out of his eyes. He wished his mom would stop calling him “Bobby.” He would remind her after breakfast.
Every breakfast that he could remember since they had moved to the farm six years ago had begun with oatmeal. Then came bacon and eggs with fried potatoes served up with plenty of cocoa and toast. He could not remember eating like this in the city. He could not remember much of the time before the farm. All he had clearly in his mind was the scene in the kitchen with his mom and dad shouting at each other and then the blood. He had been standing in his pajamas peeking around the corner when his mom took the pipe off the front of the combination range and swung it at his dad. The blood pushed out through his dad’s hair. His dad had just looked at his mom and walked out the back door. He had not seen him since. Some time later his mom, his little sister, and a step-father, a man who worked with his mom at the Gates plant in Denver, had moved to the farm.
His mom never talked about that night.
“Thanks, Mom, that was real good.”
“Mom, you called me ‘Bobby` again this morning. You’re not supposed to.”
“I’m sorry, son, it’s hard for me to remember that you’re not my little boy anymore. I’ll stop, though. I know you don’t like it.”
They got in the old Ford pickup with the wrinkled fenders and drove the one mile to Albert’s farm. Otto, the boy’s step-father, farmed this half-section for his dad. Paid him one-third of the crop for rent. “Grandpa” had fathered ten children, three of them born in a dugout soddy, and Grandpa and Grandma now lived in town while those children farmed. He spent most of his time in town now, but drove around to his farms to tell his children when to cut wheat. After church one Sunday while the women were setting up a picnic table in the back yard for a family pot-luck dinner, Grandpa had said, “Things do change. We used to eat in the house and go to the bathroom outside.”
Joan had been there, at the picnic. He could see her now. She had looked pretty that day.
His fingers were swollen and seemed to be permanently shaped to fit around the pitchfork. He placed them around the pitchfork and waited for his driver to hook up the tractor to the hayrack. Farmers always unhooked the tractor from the rack or implement at night and drove ten yards away so that the two units were separate in case of a lightning strike. Once hooked up, he swung aboard the rack and they headed out into the field for another day of pitching, stacking, unloading and threshing.
After the first dozen bundles his muscles loosened up a bit and the pain in his hands and forearms lessened. Pain was something to be gotten through, not avoided. He had watched as Otto, shirt off, arms stuck right up into the cow, worked for two hours to help deliver a calf that was in the breech position, until finally he had got the calf turned around and the front legs pulled out with a rope tied to them. The cow’s eyes had rolled back in her head and she had cried with pain. Last year they had lost a young heifer who got into the cane field and ate green cane until it bloated. He had been the first to see the heifer with its belly blown up triple size panting for breath. They had tried to relieve the pressure, first by pulling the tongue out and then by cutting into the belly. The gas that rushed out smelled like rotten silage. But the heifer died. Strange that cane, which was a perfect cattle food when dried, was absolutely deadly when green.
He thought of their dog, one of the dumbest dogs in Colorado, who had followed him to the field when he was cutting Milo with the mower. Gee had run all around, chasing mice and birds, and finally had run in front of the mower and had his pads cut off on two paws. He had picked him up and carried him back to the farmhouse. He was afraid his step-father would shoot the dog. But instead he had looked him over, called him a stupid son-of-a-bitch, and rubbed cow teat grease on his wounds. A few days later Gee was hobbling around, chasing things again.
One of the good things about farm work was that you had lots of time to daydream. Only part of you was required for the labor. The other part was able to roam all over the place. He had won many races that way. And caught lots of passes. And made love to all the girls he could think of. He was a singer, a dancer, a football star, an Olympic miler, a poet, a scholar, a war hero.
At one point he noticed that everyone was working in unison and that everyone seemed to be a part of a team, not talking, just working. He felt it. As he caught the bundle in mid-air and flipped it into its place on the last row of bundles, he could feel that the next one was in the air and on its way up to the pitchfork, which was back in just the right place to receive the bundle with a minimum of effort. The man pitching from the ground had established a rhythm that he easily matched and the two of them worked as if they had been following a script or a simple football play that had been drawn on the board for the freshman team.
Football was, at its best, a game that gave him the same feeling. When everyone on the offense was in sync, and all knew and did their assignments, then the result was a feeling of teamwork ; it was as if the team were just one being with an intelligence directing its parts in a unified action. But that was a rare thing. More often than not someone forgot his blocking assignment, or jumped offside, or was late in responding to the snap of the ball. Maybe that is why I like running better, he thought. In a race it’s all up to you. You are alone on the track and the results are yours. But this was fine too. The bundles came up to him and he placed them quickly on the growing load, one after another after another butt end out. Once loaded his driver turned the tractor toward the threshing machine, put it in road gear, and they bounced in to unload.
The morning went by quickly. He had been Gene Autry, Gene Kelly, and Alan Ladd, but had never missed a bundle. He had been to Europe, flown an airplane, and caught several game-winning passes, but he wasn’t tired anymore. Dinner time came and the crew all washed up by the windmill for the meal. Today it started with fresh string beans from Loraine’s garden. He told a story at table about a freshman in high school who had gotten into trouble for taking off his shirt in home room to offer it to a girl who had complained of the cold. Most everyone laughed and some knew he was the freshman and Joan was the girl. Most of the older men had not gone to high school. They had to help on the farm as soon as they were old enough, and schooling beyond the eighth grade was rare in those farmers. But, to a man, they could hunt, repair an engine, brand a calf, dehorn a young bull, castrate a pig, build a barn, and fix almost anything that broke. They went to church every Sunday, had no use for Catholics, or Negroes (but he did not know that yet), or homosexuals (and he did not know that yet, either), and were proud to be Americans. Several of them had fought in the War, and those who did not had been excused because they were farmers.
The sun was straight overhead. It was hot. No clouds in the sky except for one thunderhead way off to the west towards the mountains. Sweat rolled down his back as he loaded yet another rack of bundles for the thresher. The pitchers were hitting the water bag each time the tractor moved. It was a canvas bag hanging on the back of the tractor and the driver filled it from the windmill each time they made a trip to the machine. As the bag sweat it kept the ground water cool. “Water in — water out,” he said as the water bag was handed up to him on the half-loaded rack.
Just about three in the afternoon a breeze kicked up and the thunderhead which had been alone in the western sky suddenly started to move, growing bigger as it came.
“Looks like a storm coming.” Within minutes the sky was dark and the clouds were building and swarming like angry bees. And then one of the pitchers saw it. “Look, over there in the southeast; there’s a funnel.”
And there it was. The long black swirling funnel of a plains tornado. It looked to be thirty miles away and bouncing up and down as it came to touch the earth with its powerful kiss. Once last year he had been in the field working the summer fallow when a pencil-shaped cloud had suddenly started moving toward him. He had stopped, turned off the tractor and run to a ditch where he lay down close to the earth and prayed that the pencil would not find him. That storm had taken out a barn three miles from where he lay in the ditch. And it had driven wheat straws into fence posts. He had heard of that before but never believed it until he saw it for himself.
This one came and went in minutes. There was a sudden cool breeze and the temperature dropped about twelve degrees. The wind picked up and then it was gone. The sky cleared and the sun shone again. Everyone in the field was trying to figure if the storm’s center had been anywhere near his place. But no one said anything and the work went on.
At exactly four o’clock Loraine and Joan came out to the field in a pickup and delivered a sandwich and a drink to everyone. They had bottles of cold Pepsi for the boys and cans of cold Coors for the men. Bob slid down to the ground from the half-loaded rack and took a bologna sandwich and Loraine handed him a Coors. He looked at her and she smiled at him. He took it and the opener, and cracked the top of the can in two places as he had seen others do. “Take eat,” he thought, and “Take drink” as he took a bite and a sip of the delicious cold beer.
The cold can almost hurt and he put his glove back on to hold it. The beer was bubbly and as he swallowed it he could feel the bubbles on the back of his throat. A bite of sandwich, a drink of beer. Good together. He felt a little light-headed. It felt good. “Take drink,” he said out loud as he brought the can down for the last time and handed it to Joan. “Thanks.”
Joan took the empty can. Their hands touched for a moment. She did not look away from him.
“That was a scary storm, wasn’t it?
“Yeah, I was afraid it was going to drop down here.”
“Those funnels are dark and give me the shivers.”
“Are you going out for football this year?”
“Yes, but I don’t know if I’m good enough to make the team.”
“You never know until you try.”
They worked until eight o’clock that night and drove home as it was starting to grow dark. He was in bed and sound asleep by eight forty-five.
* * * *
He woke on the third morning without being called. He was up and dressed when his step-father came in from milking.
“Ready to go, Bob?”
“Yes. I am up, hungry, and ready to go.”
After breakfast the two got in the old truck and drove the mile to Albert’s field. There was no talk. Bob watched the sun rising in the eastern sky. You could already feel its heat. When they arrived the tractors were being checked and fueled, and Albert was greasing the threshing machine. Albert pushed the grease gun onto each zirk and pumped the handle forcing grease into the bearings. Bob picked up a grease gun and started to help. It was easy to tell where Albert had been, for the fitting would be clean and have a bit of fresh grease hanging on it. He had always liked the smell of bearing grease.
“Thanks for the help. We will finish today,” Albert said.
“It’s gone fast.”
“Time has a way of doing that.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“What are your plans for the fall? Are you going to play football?”
“Yes, I am. I’ll be on the team.”
“Good to hear. Joan says she wants to be a cheerleader. You’ll probably see a lot of each other.”
The rest of the crew arrived and the boys started their tractors and hooked them up to the hayracks by backing carefully up to the hitch and directing the drawbar just into the double metal “u” of the hitch. If you were good enough you could back the tractor up, slip into the hitch, and then lean down and drop the pin into the hitch and through the drawbar without getting off the tractor.
Raymond came over and said, “You should go off to the west and we’ll go to the east there where the steep hill is.”
“No, that’s OK. We’ll get the hill.”
Once they were hooked up Bob and his driver headed east to the field. Bob thought of the wheat fields of theirs that were just about ready to cut. A good harvest would mean they could get a newer pickup truck during the winter. It would be fun to watch his step-father negotiating with the car salesman for the best deal. Last year he had heard his dad tell a salesman that if it were true that the Buick he wanted to sell him was a car so good that it would not depreciate, then why was it nine hundred dollars less than new in just one year? He wanted to remember that for the time when he was ready to buy his first car.
There was a smoothness of motion to his work on the third day. He moved more slowly but also more surely. He was no longer fighting the pitchfork or the bundles. The fork fit in his hands. The bundles went where his mind placed them. The morning went by quickly, and, before it seemed time, it was time for dinner.