The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
This story is about a man's man living in a man's world, the people he touches and who touch him. This is the story of how he lives, loves, and measures up to the challenges that confront him.
Always moving forward, Sven is the kind of man other men follow.
A year out of high school I wanted to be far from my family's farm. The circumstances of my time denied me my dream of seeing the world and writing about it. The dream wasn't dead, only postponed, but time moved agonizingly slow in those days.
Farm work was drudgery for which I had no taste. It was my misfortune to be born on an Iowa farm.
My second mistake was being born a first son. I was expected to serve my father, until he could no longer do the work, and then the farm became my responsibility.
This was my destiny, according to my father and his.
The sun beat down on me hot the day my life changed. I was digging post holes for the new fence Pa had promised Mama for two years now.
Having fallen out of favor with Pa, I was told to dig the fence post holes as a measure of his dissatisfaction with me.
My younger brothers cut the fence posts from the stand of trees above the meadow, where there was a pond to cool us on the hottest days of summer.
I was left to swelter in the sun. My punishment for daring to tell Pa, 'I couldn't wait to leave his farm.'
Certainly it was poor judgment on my part to dare to say such a thing to my father. I'd learned a valuable lesson in life, but being honest meant I'd tell him regardless of the hundred yards of post holes he sentenced me to dig.
I was determined to leave the farm by the time I was ten. My mind was too fertile to be tied to a piece of soil. I couldn't grow or learn anything I wanted to know on a farm in rural Iowa. I had to be free. By nineteen it was my vow. Because of hard times, I put off leaving. I wondered if I'd ever be free of the farm.
That's where I was the day Sven walked up the driveway and into our lives.
He was a big man walking in powerful strides, looking like he knew where he was going. He paid me no mind as he passed. I stopped digging to watch him stop at the bottom of the three stairs leading to the back porch and the backdoor.
He paused as if to gather his thoughts before he'd ask for work. It wasn't unusual to see hands walk up our driveway in search of work.
Times were hard but few farmers would turn Sven away from his door. If size was any measure of the man, and it was in this case, he'd be a treasure when the backbreaking labor of harvest took its toll on the best men. My father was a farmer. He knew a hand when he saw one. This man was as good as hired, I thought.
The latest arrival interested me far more than the dull job Pa assigned me. By this time in my life everyone was of interest to me. I wondered where he'd been? What did he know that might interest me?
I intended to find these things out, but Sven didn't come with simple answers.
It was a bright, clear, too-warm day, as days often are in Iowa in August. A gentle breeze stirred the stale air. This kept it from being stiflingly hot. These were the last typical things I can recall the summer Sven Gustoff came looking for work.
He might have walked up any one of a dozen driveways in the vicinity but fate brought him to ours. My family was lucky he came to work for us. In particular I was the luckiest one of all to come to know Sven as I'd never known, or ever would know, another man. As I stood there, looking where Sven stood a moment before, my destiny changed.
It was the week we'd stopped hoping for rain. Too much rain after this point would do more harm than good. The corn was high and harvest time was near. The rich sweet smell of ripe corn is as rich in my nose today as it was that day. It's August again. My thoughts always traverse back over the years just before I start harvesting the corn. It was a time of change. It was a time I'll never forget for as long as I live. There was no better time in my life than the summer I finished growing up. The summer Sven came.
I calculated the odds were high he'd get hired. Good hands are hard to find this close to harvest and big hands are good to find. They don't tire as fast and men like Sven tend to strive to outdo everyone else. If I could see it, Pa would seize on it. Sven was as good as hired in my mind.
My mind was already working on the questions I'd ask him, once he reappeared, asking me for directions. Pa would send him to me, so he could finish his lunch. I'd give Sven his first orders on our farm. Maybe that would earn me some answers to questions I'd yet to develop.
My brothers, Ralph and Junior, were given choice jobs in the meadow's shadiest spot. I was turned out into the driveway to dig fence post holes. It was too much to hope that Pa would put Sven on post hole digging. He saved that work for his most disappointing son with the hope the sun might broil some sense into my brain.
I'd fallen out of favor with Pa but we'd never been close. I favored my mother and she kept me out of the field when I was real young. You couldn't get Ralph out of the field or off the tractors. He was the farmer among my father's sons. I saw Ralph as running the farm one day and that knowledge made it easier for me to justify leaving.
My position as eldest son carried no weight. Pa saw the farm as our duty to the land. We were born on it and we owed loyalty to it. For me to deny my birthright was disloyalty of the highest order. The land came first, last, and always with Pa. He wasn't an easy man in the best of times.
Mama did her best to keep peace between us. She let Pa call the shots but counseled me to hold onto my dreams. She encouraged me to write, excel in school, and not to take the things my father said to heart.
"His father's father handed the farm down to your grandfather. Your Pa took it over from him. He sees you as the natural caretaker, once he's too old. You and I know Ralph will make the best farmer, but you're the oldest Robert, and it'll take time to shake that idea out of your Pa's head," Mama explained. "Be patient with him. He is your Pa and you owe him respect."
While we waited on the corn, I dug without complaint. I waited for the day I was sure would come. I didn't hate the farm or farming, but I saw the horizon and I had to know what went on beyond it. It spoke to me the way the land spoke to Pa. I might come back to the farm, but I had to leave first. I had to know what the rest of the world was like.
As we waited to harvest, we were finally tending to the fence Mama kept asking us to repair, after a late summer storm took the old one down two summers before.
The old fence posts had rotted. Ralph and Junior were cutting the new posts. It would be a new fence by the time it was done. It was a fence Mama would be proud to have in her driveway when the church ladies came calling.
I wrestled with a fence post hole digger. It seemed as big as me. With the sweat rolling freely late in the morning, the heat was on. The stark white shirt Mama laid out for me before breakfast was glued to my skin. I'd need a fresh shirt after lunch.
Running out of fence posts an hour earlier, I dug holes anyway. My brothers would have cut enough posts for all my holes by now, and if the shade of the trees wasn't enough to keep them comfortable, there was a spring-fed pond set back among the farm's largest stand of trees. There they could cool off when they had a mind to.
The idea of it didn't cool me off at all. The vision of my brother's splashing around in the pond had entered my head for the second or third time, when the crunching sound of footsteps reached my ears.
I don't know how long I considered the sound before discovering it wasn't part of my daydream, but they led to something else for me to daydream about.
Sven's fine blond hair indicated to me he was one of us. The first time he spoke left no doubt about the purity of his heritage with the "old country" hanging in his words. Most Iowa farm boys in our corner of the state came with light hair and blue eyes. Many families came from the same region of the "old country."
Grandfathers who came here often knew other farmers' grandfathers who did not migrate to America. Their love for the "old country" was too great to leave it. The sons who were on the farm now were second and third generation Americans. Sven was one as were my brothers and I.
Pa always put on an extra hand or two at harvest time, driving into town to the Crosby Feed and Grain, where men knew to gather if they were looking for work. I didn't suspect there would be any such drive this season, but Sven had the initiative to come asking for work. He was a different kind of hand. He didn't take to waiting somewhere for the work to come to him. Sven went to find the work.
I'd stopped my post hole digging to consider him. He barely noticed my stare, dismissing it as he passed me to survey the line of holes I'd left behind. With a firm eye he checked my work and the placement of my post holes.
He acted like I wasn't even there, which raised a rancor in me. Didn't he know I was the son of the man who just hired him? There was such a thing as respect.
No, in fact he didn't, and even more troubling to me, he didn't care who my father was. He acted as if he was in charge of the fence. He acted as if I wasn't even there. I waited to see if he might find his manners. He didn't.
I saw the grain sack swing in his left hand. I suspected his worldly possessions were inside. He'd consider a day's work for a good meal and whatever pay Pa could spare, but, with money scarce, and a hole in his belly, he'd stay on for a sturdy roof above his head and three square meals a day. He came to the right place.
That would be the deal Sven was after. He didn't walk the roads looking for work to be turned out to look again tomorrow. It was close to harvest time. He wanted something steady, and our farm was as good as any.
I knew the story but I still didn't like his demeanor.
My Pa was a fair man, when it came to farmhands. Good ones were hard to come by at harvest time. Pa let go the two hands we'd kept on for two years. Both Ralph and Junior were old enough to carry their own weight now. When money was short, you didn't need hands if there were strong sons to do the work.
He'd explain to Sven what we had to offer. He'd listen to what Sven said. If the harvest was good there would be cash for pay. If the harvest was disappointing, the bills came before the hands got paid. In that case Pa would keep Sven on for the winter to make it fair. That would be the final word on their deal, made over supper tonight. I'd seen the dance before.
There had been time for a short conversation, no more. When Sven came back, he seemed full of himself. He walked off my fence line and had yet to speak to my father's eldest son. He knew I had my eye on him.
The backdoor closed. Pa stepped out onto the back porch. Right off he cast a glance in my direction to bare witness to my leaning on his post hole digger. I went into motion to get his eyes off. Once I did, a curt comment came my way. The conversation was brief, the outcome predictable. I leaned again once I heard the backdoor close. I immediately looked for Sven.
From fifty feet away he took the same determined strides back in my direction. He took time to consider me as he walked my way. His expression gave me nothing to go on. I may as well have been a fly on the fencepost.
He was ready to go to work. He wasn't wasting any time. If he hadn't been hired, my mother would have told him to wait on the porch while she fixed him two sandwiches.
When she handed them over, wrapped in last months newspaper, she'd tell him, "I'm giving you one for now. You save the second one for later. You'll want to eat it right off, but don't you do it. This evening you'll be glad you have it."
Many more hands came up our driveway than we could hire. I'd memorized the routine over the years.
Sven wasn't inside long enough for Mama to make him sandwiches. He walked too purposefully to be moving on. He took too long looking at my post holes. to be sightseeing, and I'd be the last to know what had been decided.
I was certain he'd stay on for harvest and the cleanup afterward. I knew how Pa's mind worked and Sven was his kind of hand. It remained to be seen if Sven was willing to work for food and a place in our barn, or if he needed more to secure his labor for more than a few days.
I wasn't sure about the long term arrangements yet, but I didn't think Pa would let him get away this close to harvest. While the pay might not be the best, the food was the best this side of Des Moines. I'd never been to the other side of Des Moines.
Those were my thoughts the first time I saw Sven, but he had no interest in the meandering thoughts inside my head. He closed the distance between us as I watched him walk. That's when his eyes locked on mine. There was still no expression on his face. He disarmed me with a word.
"Sven," he said, sticking out his hand. "Your father has chores for you. I'll be digging your holes for you. You're to go to the house and see him. I wouldn't hurry. I think I interrupted at the wrong time. You might give them a few minutes."
In the middle of our handshake, I found the man totally objectionable. His voice carried enough of the "old country" to confirm what I figured at first glance. The handshake had been solid but not cordial. I had no doubt about his strength.
"Robert," I said, more than happy to give up the digger. "Have at it, and my parents don't conduct themselves in that way in the middle of the afternoon. I can assure you," I said, leaving no doubt where I stood.
"Just the same, I wouldn't hurry none, but you don't look like the hurrying kind."
I turned at the step to watch him. He handled the digger like it was a toy, which left me feeling a bit more useless than usual. He finished the hole I'd been digging since he arrived in three man-sized bites of the digger. It was on to the next hole. The digger took more large chucks out of the black earth.
He'd cut down on the labor I'd have put into it, but he was still an arrogant cuss. It was like I wasn't there watching him, until he went to where I'd marked the spot for the next hole. He didn't need to look for me. He knew exactly where I was when he wanted me, after calculating my error.
"Your holes are crooked, boy. Where's your line?" he ordered with his voice, wiping his brow while giving me a long look as if to see what I might be good for.
"It's only a fence. I'm setting the new holes a foot inside the old holes, more or less," I explained and neither of us believed that one.
"It's crooked. Bring me back a piece of string. I'll set her straight for you. Won't do to put up a crooked fence."
"It's okay," I assured him, having followed Pa's orders to the T.
"I ain't putting up no crooked fence, whatever your name is. I need a string to set it straight."
"Robert is whatever my name is and the fence is fine," I yelled at him in my, I'm-the-farmer's-son voice.
"Don't you take pride in your work, Robert? Don't you want the fence to represent your home? It's the first thing people will notice when they drive up. Ask your Mama if she wants a fence to look like there's no pride in her house."
He sounded like my father, which wasn't good coming from a hired hand. I left it at that, going into the kitchen to avoid further criticism. I wondered about Sven, while pumping fresh water into my glass.
Leaning up against the sink to peek out of the crack in the curtains, I watched him dig. There was one more hole dug and a new one he was digging. He was trying to make me look bad and I didn't need any help.
"What are you up to, Robert?" Mama asked, as she came from the parlor, pinning her hair up behind her head like she did when she got out of bed in the morning.
"His name is Sven," I said, pushing the calico curtains aside so my Mama could help me watch our new hand.
"Don't get familiar with the hands. You know how things are," Mama used her be cautious voice.
"But we've got harvest," I reminded her, holding the curtains far enough apart to watch him work. "He's a good worker. I can tell. He wants a piece of string. Says my holes aren't straight. He's full of himself too."
"Yeah, and I'd like to keep him if you two don't run him off, but he's got to be told that there's no money guarantee here," Pa said, buttoning up a clean shirt after his noontime clean up. "I'll give him a cut of whatever's left after we've paid the bank and the feed store. He's a big one, isn't he? I really want to keep him if I can."
Pa watched over our shoulders as Sven dug.
"He needs some string," I said again, leaning my backside against the sink to drink some of the fresh water I'd pumped up to cool my parched throat.
"String?" Mama asked.
"He says my holes are crooked. Says he ain't diggin' no crooked fence line. He wants string. I told you he was full of himself. He's been here fifteen minutes and is an expert on putting up our fence."
"You're setting them holes a foot in front of the old posts, like I told you?" Pa asked, suddenly concerned.
"Yes, sir, just like you said," I said, and he parted the curtains to watch Sven dig.
"I set them posts myself the year after you was born. Crooked! You mean he thinks I build a crooked fence?" Pa said with a hint of being insulted in his voice.
"No, I think he meant he wasn't going to follow a crooked line," I said. "And he wants string. The man takes pride in his work. How bad is that?"
Sven had been here twenty minutes and he'd insulted both me and my father.
"Let's not lose him over the fence," Mama said. "I'll find some string. We need to keep him for harvest if possible. You too put away your man sized egos and let him do the fence if he's going to do the fence."
"Amen," Pa said. "On keeping him anyway."
Mama brought me a roll of cord she took out of her sewing basket.
"I want this back," she said, shaking it under my nose for emphasis. "You tell him I want it back. It's the only sample I got of this color cord. It's the cord I use on the robes for the church choir. Can't have a dozen different colors on those robes. We'll look like hayseeds."
"Watch it, woman. You're married to a well-known hayseed from these parts," Pa said, in unusually good humor, as he kissed my mother's cheek.
"Mama, he ain't gonna steal your string," I assured her.
"You best get yourself in gear and go pickup the posts your brothers are cutting. We just might get that fence done before harvest starts," Pa said, emptying the last of his coffee before kissing Mama and heading out the back door.
Pa didn't use the steps, moving right off the porch onto the black soil on his way to the barn to tend the machines. This is how he spent most of his time the last two weeks before harvest time every summer. The barn was cooler and the machinery was old.
"You take him a glass of water. Tell him I'll mend them britches after supper. He can't be taking no meals at my table looking like he might come out of his pants. They come up here looking like strays. You boys don't know how lucky you are."
"He ain't done that much work yet, Mama," I mentioned, looking at him moving to the next hole and praying he slowed down soon.
"He had to get here, Robert. It's near about afternoon. You want him to dig them holes for you, don't you? He needs a sandwich and that's all there is to it. Quit sassing your mother and take him a glass of water. I'll get lunch for you and your brothers and make a sandwich for him, while I'm at it. Your Pa came in early to eat."
It was early for Pa to eat and I never saw him eat anything. He and Mama were somewhere else in the house and they were acting like a couple of school kids. I remembered what Sven said and I blushed. No wonder Pa was so agreeable.
"Yes, ma'am," I said softly, realizing this gave me time to question him and Mama would cover for me when I was late coming back with the fresh cut fence posts. The way Sven was digging post holes., my brothers were going to need to work faster.
"Your Pa'll get in the corn with or without help. He'll work around the clock if need be. If we can keep this one by a little kindness, we'll all be better off, Robert," Mama said, standing back at the window and peeking out. "He is big."
"A hard worker, too, Mama," I bragged, turning back to the window to help her watch. "Tell Pa I waited to take the boys lunch and that's why I'm slow."
"Robert, go out and take care of that man. Quit wasting time. When you're done with him, come get the sandwiches I'm making for your brothers and take them their lunch. Quit your foolishness now. I'll take care of your father."
"Yes, I'm sure you will," I said, and my mother gave me a stern look for my suggestion.
"You're not making sandwiches for anyone, Mama. You're watching our new hand," I reminded her, as she stood beside me.
"You quit annoying me now. I got work to do," she said, letting the curtains fall back in place, as I held it open a crack on the other side.
"Yes, ma'am," I said, giggling about her curiosity as she raised the corner of the curtain again.
"Mama, you're never going to get those sandwiches fixed if you don't quit wasting time," I kidded her.
"You hush and take him out that water and this here string he asked you for last week," Mama said, mussing my hair and encouraging me to move before my father back in to find out why he hadn't heard the farm truck start to tell me to quit lollygagging.
My fascination with Sven had only begun. I wanted to know who he was, where he came from, and how he got here. Life was suddenly interesting right on our farm. My desire to leave could wait until I got my answers.
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