The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Rise & Shine
It took a minute to realize I wasn't dreaming. My eyes were still fogged over when I heard the unmistakable sound of Pa's voice in my ears.
"Rise and shine you two. Coffee's a waitin'. Can't sleep all day. Sven, your pants are on the ladder down here. Good as new. Mother is an artist with a needle."
"Yes, sir," Sven said, as I tried to keep my eyes open, but they kept snapping shut.
I heard Sven on the ladder a minute later, but my eyes still refused to cooperate. Maybe just five more minutes.
When I got to the kitchen there was a steaming cup of coffee in front of my chair. Sven and Pa were working on a biscuit and I reached for one as I sat down. Mama stood in front of a stove full of pans with all the smells of farm fresh food filling the air. I was suddenly starving.
"Morning, Mama," I replied.
I spread her fresh butter on my biscuit, adding a scoop of her strawberry jam for color. It was like someone set a firecracker off in my mouth. The flavor woke me up and I sipped coffee and smiled.
"Biscuits melt in your mouth," Sven said.
"They sure do," I agreed. "Try the strawberry jam. It's perfect."
By five every morning of my life breakfast was being put on the table and the day's work never ended for Mama. Where she got the energy to keep going or enough sleep was a mystery. It wasn't a question I felt comfortable asking her. As I recall, she was always up when I got up and she was always up when I was crawling up to the loft exhausted.
"How far did you go in school?" I asked, having had time to consider my line of questioning.
"When I was fifteen the farm was in serious trouble. We'd had a flood that spring and we planted a month late. The corn hardly grew all summer, and the rains came early and wouldn't quit. The bank was sorry but the rules were the rules. I was fifteen is the best I can tell you. I never went back. I hope there isn't going to be a test," Sven worried in good humor.
"Lots of farmers sons quit going at fourteen and fifteen. You're way smarter than any of them. Do you read?"
"Yes, I do," Sven said. "When I have something to read."
"I've got books in the boys bedroom. I used to sleep in there with them. I'll make a list and bring you what you like," I said.
"That's an invitation I won't refuse. Thank you. I miss reading."
"You're awful smart for not going to high school," I said, looking for answers he wasn't giving.
"High school isn't the end all and be all. I got a little education along the way. A man isn't done learning until he's dead."
Sven talked like a farmhand some of the time, but there were times when he used words I didn't know. It wasn't simply what he said but the thought he put into saying it.
He was quick on his feet when it came to answering my questions, except they weren't so much answers as they were supposition. I was supposed to draw my own conclusions and I wasn't dead yet.
After Pa left with Sven and Ralph in the farm truck, Junior took off on his bike with jars of jam filling the egg basket he'd installed on the handlebars for safe transport to their destination in town. Also in the basket were two jars of cream and two blocks of fresh churned butter.
By lunch he'd return with his pockets jingling with change. My eyes followed the bike as it turned off the lane that ran in front of the house. I was mostly bird watching and taking breaks for water, although the day wasn't as hot.
He'd gone out and turned onto the lane at the start of his deliveries. Our lane went to the county road, where Junior went right. That road went into town seven or eight miles away, depending on where in town he went. That was the road I'd follow out of town when I left.
We were about to have one of our best harvest as far back as I could remember. If everything went right and the rains held off, with so few farmers left on their farms, we might realize the best corn prices in years.
That was what I was waiting for. Once I left, I'd do jobs along the way, if I didn't find something right off. I'd send money back. Even without being here, I'd contribute. That would show my father I didn't intend to desert my family, or at least I thought it would.
I imagined being on that road one day west of town on the new two lane that was no more than ten miles away. I'd follow it to the state line. I wouldn't stop until I reached someplace new and exciting, but I wasn't on the road quite yet. There were holes to dig and my Pa to shake his head at how I dug them. I'm sure I wasn't going fast enough, but there were hardly any left to dig.
"You made good time, Junior," I said, when he stopped next to me and the post hole digger.
"I guess. More fun in the meadow. Pa gave Sven my job," Junior complained.
"Well, he gave me Sven's job. So it's about even."
"Too hot to be out here in the sun. How long is Pa going to be pissed off at you. It's been going on a year now," Junior said.
"Pa's got a mind of his own, Junior. Your guess is good as mine. I'm just putting in time. Only a few holes left."
"I'll tell Mama you're ready for lunch. I'll ride out with you when you take Ralph and Sven theirs. I want a crack at that pond. I might stay until supper time if Mama says it's okay. You out to stay too. Pa ain't going to get no more pissed off than he already is, Robert."
"You have a point there, little brother. I think I'm going to take your advice. We could use a little free time. We've got more posts than enough already."
The sun was high enough to start baking my brain, while I dug and cussed, remembering how much easier it looked when Sven did the digging. The injustice was huge to me, although if I wasn't digging post holes. I'd have been helping Pa with the tractors. That never went well.
Pa got angry easy when I was around. He banged things, and asked for tools by names like "the thingamajig," "the whatchamacallit," and "the whim-e-diddle." When I guessed wrong, we exchanged words neither of us had any difficulty understanding.
By the time Pa returned I was digging up a storm. I was already tired. He glanced over to make sure I was there, and then he started firing up the machines. There was something exciting about hearing them all running in the open space between the barn and the house. It was a sound I could feel in my feet.
We had a McCormick that was nearly 'bout as old as me and a newer International Farmall Pa got at auction two years before. There were two smaller tractors to pull the corn wagons we kept filling during harvest.
Other peoples' misery had enhanced our capability by the middle of the Depression. When the Ingersol farm was in trouble the winter of 35-36, Mr. Ingersol parked his new Farmall in our barn to keep it out of the banker's hands. It was parked next to our newer International Farmall to keep his out of the hands of the bankers. When he lost his farm, Pa gave him what little he had in cash and the promise of more once times weren't so hard. They were still hard, but we had a second newer tractor with good pulling power.
Mama said, "It's an ill wind that doesn't do someone some good. It still makes me sick to think we can benefit from our friends' troubles."
"The Lord'll make 'er right," Mr. Ingersol said to her, walking down our drive toward his place, turning down a ride, wanting to have time to think.
We'd used the new International the year before and I got my share of time driving it. It was a step above anything we had before. It might make the difference in keeping another farm from going under. Mighty good people think about their neighbors at a time there is no helping them.
No doubt in my mind, they were right with the Lord. They hoped we might hold on because they helped us, when they couldn't help themselves any longer. Farmers were damn good folks.
Pa had the newer International out and running for a couple of hours that morning. When he went in to drive the old International out of the barn, the transmission let go, and Pa was swearing up one side and down the other. I thought the man might have a heart attack.
He'd gotten into his truck to drive to Des Moines to order the parts he'd need to have it running by harvest time. The International dealer was the only place that would extend credit before the harvest started, but they knew their machines were key to bringing in the corn.
Before noon Mama called me to the kitchen. She'd set me a place at the table with lemonade and a sandwich.
"I wanted you boys to sit in here and cool off before you take the food to Ralph and Sven. There's a couple of extra sandwiches for you and Junior. Take your time. Be sure to stay in the shade up there. I don't want you out in the sun any more today, Robert. Your Pa won't be back much before supper and you've had plenty of sun."
"You sure Pa won't be back earlier than supper, Mama?" I asked, wanting to be sure.
"You leave Pa to me and don't sass me, when I tell you something, Robert. I wasn't born yesterday. I know what I'm doing."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry," I said, but I knew I'd hear about it from Pa later if he knew I was lollygagging at the pond.
Once I cooled down, I headed toward the truck with Junior in two.
Mama was sympathetic to my feelings. She understood that I could have left the day after I graduated high school. Mama wanted me to be happy and Pa wanted me to do what was expected of a farmer's eldest son. The problem with Pa's opinion, I could end up being the eldest son of a farmer without a farm. Sven was living proof that farms fail.
Ralph was far better suited to farm life. He'd pick up right where Pa left off. Pa was just too hardheaded to admit it. He wanted things his way, no matter what I wanted.
I turned right onto the farm road and started to relax as I bounced along. I checked the sky for signs of rain. There were a few lazy white clouds that meant all clear. We'd gone without rain for a little longer than we liked, but rain now would mean trouble.
Rainy season was a month off if Mother Nature kept to her regular schedule. A few showers would be soaked up immediately by the dry soil, but we hadn't even had a shower.
The sound of the truck pulling into the clearing brought Ralph out of the woods. He plopped down at the table and waited for me to deliver lunch. Sven finished the post he was working on, adding it to the pile before coming over to offer me a hand.
"Robert, you're looking well today, and you've brought us nourishment."
"Lunch is ready," I said.
Ralph set out the containers of carrot salad and the rest of the rhubarb cobbler Mama kept aside for our lunch.
"Where's the cheese, Robert. Mama knows I can't eat sandwiches without cheese on it."
"Keep digging, Ralph. There are two slices in the bottom. After that you're on your own," I said.
"Here it is. Two'll do."
"You better claim another sandwich if you want one, Sven. Ralph will eat the bag he gets a chance."
"Will not. You calling me a hog?"
"No, I never thought of it that way, but now that you mentioned it..."
"Go soak your head, Robert. I work for my food."
Sven ate politely and didn't pay Ralph and me any mind.
"Fine lunch, Robert. Extend to your mama my appreciation."
"I'll do that, but if you want a second sandwich you better get it in front of you."
Sven had finished a sandwich before Ralph finally got around to sitting on the front bumper of the truck to eat his.
"Watch your finger's, Ralph."
"He drive you nuts, yet?" I asked.
"Ralph? He's just fine," Sven said. "Did his work fine. No complaints from me."
"We're going swimming after lunch. He's neat. Did you know he's been to Nebraska and Illinois," my brother shouted so he could talk around his food. "You should see him lay into one of them trees I cut, Robert. He can cut a post quicker 'an Pa cuts posts. Just whittles them right down. Look at all them he done already. He's fast. He's going to show me how, aren't you, Sven?"
"I'll teach you the way I was taught, after work is done."
Ralph sounded excited as he bragged about Sven's ability. Coming back to the table for another sandwich, he rummaged for a spoon to eat his carrot salad.
"Pa ain't twenty-one either," I said, "You learn to save some energy as you grow older. Pa's in no hurry."
"What the hell do you know about growing older? You're so… you're so… strange. Some times I wonder if you really are my brother, Robert. I don't see the resemblance you ask me. No, I don't. You must be adopted."
"Watch your language, Ralph. I've had cause to wonder the same thing as of late," I said. "Junior looks like me. You don't look like nobody."
"Mama's brother, Frank," Ralph reminded me. "Spittin' image, she says."
"Prove it," I said, knowing I'd get him going.
"He's dead. You know he's dead. You don't take Mama's word on a thing like that?"
My mind crossed over the conversation Sven and I had the day before. He claimed to have bedded women on the farms where he worked. No one ever knew Mama's brother, Frank, except Mama. As I looked at Ralph I found myself wondering if someone had paid her a visit one day while Pa was working in the field.
I shook my head to rid it of such stupidity. Ralph was my brother and always had been. I gave Sven a dirty look for setting such an idea loose in my head.
"Crimanny! Why'd you have to bring the food?"
"Ralph, I always bring the food. You'd starve to death by now if I didn't bring you lunch every day."
"You two are like a couple of old ladies. Give it a rest," Sven ordered, reaching for the carrot salad, placing a small amount on his sandwich. "You don't know how nice it is having good food."
"I didn't start it. He started it. He always starts it. Robert don't like me none. I don't like him much either."
"You always start it," I said. "You're always arguing about something. You never shut up."
"You're older. You should know better," Sven explained. "Brothers don't need to be fussing with each other all the time. One day you'll both regret it. You mark my words."
Ralph took another sandwich, searching in vain for a slice of cheese that wasn't there. He considered Sven's sandwich for a minute before opening his to scrape some carrot salad onto it. Once he spread it out, he looked it over, holding the other slice of bread at the ready. He loaded the rest of the carrot salad on top, slamming the other slice of bread on top of that and biting into it with carrot salad oozing out of all sides.
"You're hopeless," I said.
"This is good, Robert," he shouted. "You ought to try it."
Sven shook his head, setting down the uneaten half of his sandwich before drinking from his large glass of lemonade. He savored the flavor as I ate the rest of my sandwich.
"He's twenty-one, Robert. You look older than that, Sven. I figured you to be at least… twenty-two," Ralph said with careful consideration of the man sitting across from us. "You married? How many kids you figure you got? Any girls? Maybe I can court one one day, you figure. I got a lot of girls around here."
"Yeah, none of the girls around here are going to go out with you for long," I reminded him.
"Long enough. Long enough," Ralph boasted. "Besides, I don't want no kids. Kids'd slow a man like me down."
"Boy," I said.
"Do they all grow big as you where you come from?"
"Ralph, give him a chance to answer one question before you ask three more," I said, hoping to learn something.
"Okay," Ralph said, standing up to wait next to the table for his answers. "Robert says I talk too much. Do you figure I do."
"Ralph, lunch is time to relax. Lunch refuels the body to allow for a proper portion of work come an afternoon. Lunch isn't the time for questions."
"I wasn't doing that. I just wanted to know where you came from, Sven. We don't get hands our age very often, never in fact."
"You're hopeless," I said.
"You're both hopeless," Sven said after careful consideration.
Ralph decided it was time for action. He backed the truck up to the pile of posts and he started loading them alone. Sven got up to help him, while I gathered up what was left of lunch.
"We're going swimming. I know you got to get back," Ralph said.
"Not really," I said.
"He says they swim after lunch. Why don't you swim with us? You're red as a beet. You don't want to get sun poison."
"Let's go, Sven. Time's a wasting," Ralph said, pulling off his boots. He piled the rest of his clothes on the table. "I'll race you to the pond."
"We've got to work this afternoon, Ralph. We can walk to the pond," Sven said.
"Ah, come on," Ralph complained. "Does everyone get like that when they get old? You got time to take a dip. Tell him it's okay, Robert. It's okay, Sven."
Sven leaned on the front of the truck to strip out of his clothes. I usually left mine beside the pond, but I reluctantly undressed next to the table. Ralph came back to finish his lemonade before racing off again.
"Boy's a pistol," Sven said, waiting for me near the path.
"That's one word for it," I said. "Pa said not to let him be a pest."
"Ralph? He's no pest. Just a big kid. He works hard. Why be so hard on him?"
"Whatever you got caught in your craw. Ralph's fine, Robert."
"I s'pose. He gets on my nerves."
"He's your brother. That should be enough for you to ease up on him a mite. Maybe he hasn't grown up quick as you and maybe that ain't all bad from where I sit. We grow up too quick as is these days."
"He gets on my nerves."
"He's your brother. Brothers stick together."
"You got brothers, Sven. You know how it is."
"I got a passel and I know what it's like not knowing where they are. I know what it's like not remembering what they look like. I know what it's like at night when I'm all alone."
"You don't want to be caught alone with Ralph at night. You're the oldest?"
"No, I'm the youngest. We got three sisters but they have families of their own now."
"Where are they?"
"I have no idea. I run across John, he's the oldest, now and again. I know Paul was working in Iowa City last year. No way to keep track. My brothers are all lost out here somewhere."
"Where'd your parents get to?"
The answers got harder to come by as the questions dug deeper into the new hand's life. I was finally gaining some momentum once he let his guard down.
"I'm going to start calling you Ralph. Paw died year after we lost the farm. Mama's with her sister's family near Peoria over Illinois way."
"I'm sorry about your Paw. It had to be hard on him."
"Broke his heart, losing the farm. He believed his life was a failure. He took care of us all his life, but in the end he was helpless to save himself."
"I hope it never comes to that here."
"What I'm saying to you, Robert, is that Ralph is your brother. One day you're going to wake up and you won't know where he is, if he's safe or if he's even alive. That's all I'm saying. These are the best times you'll ever have. Don't waste them stirring up trouble for yourself. Let Ralph enjoy what's left of his youth. Don't deny him that. You're more mature. Act like it."
"He talks too much and never has a thing to say. Someone has to keep him in line," I explained, not sure of my reasoning.
"Well, we'll see if you can enjoy yourself," Sven said. "Don't worry, your job is safe. I doubt they'll hire someone to dig them holes in your absence."
We started down the path after Ralph. Sven put his hand on my shoulder as we walked. Why I felt close to him, I can't say, but I did. Being with him had me feeling like I belonged there. I hadn't felt like I belonged on the farm in some time. I realized he was smarter than he let on and he was sharing some of his wisdom with me.
They won't miss you for at least another fifteen minutes. You look like you need to cool down most of the time anyway. Must be hotter than the hinges in that driveway today. Smart of me to learn how to cut fence posts don't you think?"
"Real smart," I said, and he laughed. "Yeah, maybe I will go for a dip."
The shade the trees furnished cooled the day considerably, as the cool spring water feeding the pond refreshed us. For the first time that season I lay on the wooden raft.
Ralph would sun himself for a few minutes, jumping up to dive into the water and scamper back up the ladder to dive again. He'd repeat this over and over, until he'd burn off the energy that kept him in constant motion. I kept my mouth shut and let him be.
"Is this great or is it better 'an that?" Ralph asked, diving again. "Come on, Sven. Don't be a lazy bones."
Each time Ralph came back up onto the float, he'd make certain an ample amount of the pond was spilled on us as we relaxed. Sven finally jumped up, and taking Ralph by one arm and one leg, he tossed him into the water like he was a little boy.
Ralph's answer to this assault was to race back up the ladder to charge at Sven, trying to use his limited weight to force him into the water. More times than not Ralph bounced off the bigger man and ended up flying through the air, laughing his head off before he gulped more of the pond.
Sven was a man in total control of himself. He took no offense from Ralph's constant motion, and they both seemed to enjoy the exercise. Sven allowed Ralph to force him into the water. Ralph leaped in on top of him. When Ralph surfaced, he tried to dunk Sven but couldn't budge him. Every once in a while one of Sven's big hands would reach out to engulf the top of Ralph's head, and he'd push him under the surface for long enough to calm Ralph down.
I made the mistake of standing up, considering whether or not to make a dive into the water. Before I realized it Ralph came up behind me and was immediately trying to wrestle me into the water. Wrapping his arms around me, he pushed, jerked, and nudged me toward the edge of the raft. I was not someone who enjoyed being forced to do anything and my resistance merely inflamed his desire to triumph.
"Ralph!" I declared. "Cut it out."
"You're no fun," he said, backing away from me in capitulation and as soon as I took my eyes off of him, I found myself flying through the air, hearing Ralph in my ear. "Gotcha! You let your guard down."
"Ralph!" I yelled, before going under.
"One day you'll long to hear the sound of him rambling and running on. You'll consider days like this among your happiest, Robert," Sven said as I surfaced mad as a hornet.
"What do you mean?" I gasped, gulping more of the pond.
"I mean life is short and you ought to make the best of it."
As Sven and I shared another revealing moment, Ralph came raining down on top of us, screaming and laughing as he hit the water. He then proceeded to try to dunk me, having had no success at all trying to dunk Sven. I slipped his flailing arms, forcing Sven up against the raft as we jousted for supremacy of the pond. Without warning Sven used one of his hand to push me beneath the surface and with the other he sank Ralph. I came up gasping for air from the unexpected dunking.
"Whose side are you on?" I yelped as Ralph tried to climb on my shoulders to push me under again.
I came up gasping yet again and found Sven and Ralph wrestling next to me. I took the opportunity to push Ralph under. He came up spitting water and laughing crazily over the insult. Sven laughed and I laughed as Ralph went right back to trying to dunk Sven, which ended badly for him.
"I don't take sides," Sven said. "I defend myself. I do believe you're smiling, Robert. It's a lovely smile. You should use it more often."
"We use to do this all the time. Robert use to be fun before he decided he hated me," Ralph explained.
"I don't hate you," I said.
"Do to," Ralph argued. "You don't like you ain't the only bull and not even the best one."
"Ralph! You got a dirty mind on you."
"I just said we was bulls. You made up the rest," Ralph said as Sven took the newest insults under consideration.
"A couple of old ladies," he said, swimming back to the float and climbing up to look over the pond. "We played long enough, children. We don't get back to work, your Pa's going to reconsider keeping me on."
"Hell, you're working for food," Ralph said. "Pa got a deal when he found you."
"Pa didn't find him," I said. "Sven found us."
"What's the difference for crimanny sakes? He's here ain't he?"
"A couple of old ladies."
Once again I found myself wrestling Ralph for a superior position in the pond. Long gone were the days I had the upper hand. What Ralph lacked in logic and strategy he more than made up for in persistence and sinew. He was bold and brash and likely to say anything at any moment and there were things I didn't want to hear. My only strategy to deal with this dilemma was distancing myself from him.
"Your move, Sven," Pa said, puffing his pipe and studying carefully the checkerboard.
Sven sat motionless, hands folded in his lap. I sat beside him in the still swing. He looked at me and he looked at my father.
"Mr. Sorenson, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were trying to take advantage of me."
"Your move, Sven. Stalling isn't going to save you, son."
"No, sir. I can see that. I don't play checkers very often, since I left home."
"Stalling isn't going to help," Pa reminded him.
Sven unfolded his hands and scooted one red checker one space. Click, click, click, was the sound my father's black checker made as he finished Sven off.
"Another game, Sven?"
"No, sir. I know when I'm licked."
Pa laughed and sat up straight on the apple crate he'd pulled over to sit on.
"Pa, I know better," I said. "I don't play a game I don't have a chance of winning."
"No, you don't," Pa said in an indictment that spoke about more than checkers. "No, you don't. Thanks, Sven. Maybe a game of rummy later on. I need to check the gates and get things ready for the morning."
"I'll go with you," Sven said, and they left me sitting on the swing listening to the crickets and the frogs, while Ralph and Junior argued over cards.
"You boys sound like you're ready for bed," Mama said thru the screen,
"Ah Mama," my brothers said in unison.
"Get," Mama ordered, and they scurried off to bed.
Then it was only the crickets and the frogs after that.
The sound of night on a farm is like no other sound. I doubt a symphony orchestra could capture the music of a farm at night.
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