The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Turn, Turn, Turn
The carefree attitude and happy banter comes with an afternoon off, but it left the truck quickly as everyone focused on what was straight ahead of us as we stared out of the windshield. As I picked up speed, there were two discernible bounces that sent us all toward the ceiling, although I don't recall if they came from a particular rut or from the startling specter suddenly set in our path.
My face first ran hot, then cold. An unfriendly foreboding took hold even before I had an understanding of what was taking place.
"It's Mama," Ralph said, leaping from the truck as the words penetrated my ears.
Ralph wasn't one to wait for even an instant once an idea came into his head. It was obvious to him he could get to her faster on foot than the truck could and so he lit out on the run. The door flopped on its hinges as we lurched the final fifty feet, unable to come up with a reason for Mama's presence in the meadows.
She collapsed into Ralph's arms as we were arriving. They settled into one of the larger ruts along that section of the farm road. Sven and Junior weren't far behind Ralph. I was the last one to get out of the truck. Ralph explained the situation in two words.
"It's Pa," Ralph yelled at me as he let Sven hold Mama off the dirt. "Get her home, Robert. I got to get to Pa."
Ralph took off in a gallop disappearing swiftly into the sky high corn.
"Junior, take your Maw," Sven said, easing Mama into Junior's arms as he guided her into the truck. "Don't mind me none, Robert. I'll hold on," he said, jumping on top of the posts in the back.
It was about a mile around two sides of the main field from there back to the house. It was half that distance through the corn. Our speed would be restricted by the ruts we faced. Pa would be reminding me to keep my speed down to protect the truck's axles. I used as much gas as possible, leaping from rut to ridge and back, as the speedometer went from forty to twenty to fifty and back to twenty as I turned right along the fence line. I could see the barn, but it took forever to get there.
We bounced hard on the seat and back to the ceiling. I could see fence posts bouncing off the back of the truck scattering out behind us as Sven bounced up as high as the rear window and back down out of sight. I worried about losing him along the way but I was more worried about Pa.
"We was having coffee," Mama recounted. "Your Pa said he didn't have the breaks right and the transmission needed more adjusting. It would only take a few minutes."
Mama's voice was mechanical. She reran the facts in her head, telling us what she could see.
"It wasn't long after. I heard a noise. I couldn't relate it to nothing I knew. Then, there was a most disturbing silence. There's always a sign of your Pa, a noise he's making, banging on something, talking to himself, one of the machines coming on, going off. There's always some sign of him in my ear. I wiped my hands and walked out onto the porch to check on him. I thought maybe he'd walked out into the corn like he does. Then, I saw the tractor. Your father's legs were poking out from under it. It was tilted to one side. It was on top of him. He was pinned under it. I didn't know what to do. All I could think of was getting you boys."
Ralph was climbing over the fence next to the barn as I turned the truck into the yard. There, under the farm tractor, Pa was pinned with only his legs visible to me. My heart sank and my insides all but came outside. There was no movement, no sign of life.
Before I could get the truck stopped everyone was out beside it, racing to Pa's aid. Ralph got there first and a cloud of dust sprang up as I came to a final stop with the truck taking a large lurch, reacting to me taking my foot off the clutch without taking it out of gear.
My heart sank and my feet were lead as they hit the ground. It was worse than I could have imagined. Facing my father's mortality was something I'd never done. He'd always been there and there was no reason for me to believe the day would come when he wasn't there any longer.
Ralph slid on his knees as he came to the tractor. The jack that held up that side was in several pieces beside the tractor. First Ralph tried to lift it off Pa with his bare hands. Realizing his effort was futile, Ralph he became frantic, pulling on Pa, the tractor, and then running toward the barn before running back without accomplishing anything. He pushed and pulled at the tractor. His efforts were futile; he was unable to do nothing at all.
Ralph was a sight. His shirt was soaked and sweat ran down his face but he wasn't ready to give up yet.
"Do something, Sven," he pleaded, collapsing to a seated position beside the tractor as he wept and gasped for air. "Help him, Robert."
My father was pinned up under the tractor with the weight on his thighs. The oil pan rested across his chest. Ralph went to work trying to fix the hopelessly bent broken jack.
"I can't budge it. This thing's broke. I can't get it to work," Ralph said, not knowing who to turn to for help. "Damn it," he yelled, slinging the jack handle against the iron machine. It ricocheted right back at him, becoming tangled in his flailing arms as he cussed it and the world. "Damn it all to hell. Do something, Sven," he begged. "Please!"
"He's breathing but his legs are bad broke. He's bleeding but I can't see from where," Sven said, scooting out from under the other side of the tractor. "Junior, block this side up the way your Pa had it before. Don't want it falling down on us."
Pa was always in charge in my world. There was never any doubt what was to be done, because he wasted no time telling you. Now, Ralph was on his own with Pa laying silent, so pale I was sure he was already dead or soon would be. With all that weight on his chest, it seemed the place to start, but how to lift it up without injuring him more.
I wanted to join Ralph and weep and wail but I found myself calmly calculating the situation while formulating a plan.
"Ralph, get your ass up and role that log over here. I'll get a piece of wood to lift the weight off him," I ordered.
I came out of the barn with a thick cross beam we'd used to reinforce the loft. It was much longer than I would have liked but there wasn't time to cut it. Remembering my high school math classes, I rested the wooden lever over the log serving as the fulcrum to pry the frame off Pa's legs. It was an easy principle applied to a hard situation.
Once Ralph realized what I was doing, he rolled the log a few feet toward me to increase the levers lifting power. As I applied all my weight to the lever Ralph joined me, adding his weight to the operation.
Sven moved down beside the machine, ready to retrieve Pa if we succeeded. With a great deal of grunting and groaning and Junior adding his weight to the lever, I was certain we'd raise the machine high enough for Sven to retrieve Pa out from under it. At the same instant we applied the maximum weight to our lever a distinctive snap ended my hopes of freeing Pa. The wood in the beam I'd selected had splintered, sending the three of us sprawling on the ground.
We'd been back for almost five minutes and had accomplished nothing. Mother stood to one side sobbing as we picked ourselves up off the ground. Sven stood up next to the machine.
"Get another piece of wood to pry with," Sven ordered, looking at Ralph, who sprang into action.
My mind told me that we'd get the same result a second time, because the weight of the tractor was too much for the wood to hold. A thicker piece of wood wouldn't fit far enough under the frame to lift it.
Ralph brought back something that looked like a small tree trunk. It wouldn't slide under the machine no matter how hard we tried. Ralph ran back into the barn and came back with another beam the same size as the first. The result was the same. It took three of us to get it to move the machine. The wood splintered as soon as it started lifting the machine.
We put our backs against the machine, trying to lift it with our hands, but it didn't budge. We had to do something to get the weight off my father but what we were doing wasn't able to make a difference.
Sven moved to the other side from where we were picking ourselves back up again. Sven disappeared under the machine and when he came out he stood with his hands on his hips. We all looked to him for help as he surveyed the situation.
Ralph kicked the International and I stood up without being surprised by the woods failure. We were helpless against the monster that had my father trapped. My brain had no more answers.
"We can't wait. He's got to come out of there now," Sven said, moving back under the machine.
Sven seemed to have something in mind.
"You've got the right idea. We need a smaller lever. Half as thick as the beam but no less than half," Sven explained.
The only thing I could come up with were framing boards not half as thick as the first beam.
"Sven, that won't work. We broke two better boards already," Ralph said.
"Do what I tell you boy. Get another one. Do it now," he ordered from beside Pa. "Don't worry, Mr. Sorenson, we're going to have you out of here in just a minute."
Sven sounded certain as Ralph and I put our weight against another piece of wood. Junior stood back this time. Adding his weight to Ralph's and mine was more weight than the wood could hold. The wood bent over top of the log as we fought to get the frame of the tractor to move.
"It moved. You're lifting it," Junior shouted and we became more determined.
Sven disappeared and went silent. I could feel the board taking the weight of the tractor. It was only a matter of time before it snapped. Junior moved from my mother's side around to the other side of the tractor. As he stood looking under the machine he seemed to be waiting for something to happen.
"It's not going to hold much longer," I shouted.
"You've got to keep it off the ground," Sven yelled. "Get some blocks, Junior. Once you see the weight is up off your Pa, set them blocks under the frame.
By the sound of Sven's voice he was up under the machine. How we would get it high enough to block it was a mystery to me, but holding it where it was took every ounce of strength I possessed.
We couldn't see that Sven was moving into position by wedging himself under the tractor.
"Okay! Put your backs into it," Sven yelled.
With Sven inching further back under the tractor, Ralph and I were suddenly lifting the weight an inch and then two and three. As the weight was taken off the board the machine began to sag back toward my father's legs.
A powerful groan came from Sven's depths as the frame danced precariously over Pa. Sven huffed and puffed from the weight of he'd taken onto his back.
No one could lift a thousand pounds by himself, I reasoned as the machine continued to sag ever so slightly. I watched it hang there, waiting for it to settle as grunts and groans emerged from down under it. Then, I thought it started to rise almost imperceptibly at first. I wondered if it was wishful thinking.
With more grunts and groans it rose an inch and then two inches more. Then, it moved another inch and one more. I heard loud puffs of air and something that sounded like a wrestling match going on inside the thing. I ran to the other side to see if there wasn't something I could do to help.
In the end the tractor came eight or ten inches off the ground. When it was as high as it was going to go, Junior scurried along the side placing the thick blocks under the frame.
"It's done, Sven. The blocks are set. Let 'er down," Junior yelled.
"Get your Pa out of there. Don't pull on his legs. Robert, ease him out to them from this side. Use his hips and shoulders."
Sven dropped down on his hands and knees once he was sure the blocks were holding. Pa didn't make a sound as we moved him to safety but his breathing seemed weak.
"Thanks, Sven," I said in great appreciation as I backed out from under the tractor.
Ralph was immediately hugging Sven as he appeared. Lost inside Sven's arms Ralph let out a sob, "Thank you. Thank you."
"We've got no time for this, son," Sven said. "There's no telling how much blood he's lost. He needs a doctor right now. We can load him in the Ford truck. It'll be easier to secure him."
"Get something we can tie him to. We need to keep him still," Mama said in gentle tones, surveying the situation as she spoke, regaining her composure. "I don't know if Dr. Randolph can help. Ralph, call ahead. Tell him we're on the way."
"How far is it? There's no time to change our minds," Sven said. "We don't have time to waste. That one leg looks bad and we need to stop the bleeding. He isn't breathing right. His skin is cold."
We strapped him to a door I dragged from the barn. Ralph ran back from the house, "Des Moines, Dr. Randolph said. Take him to the hospital on account he can't do much for him at his office. He'll come over later."
Mama looked old and worn out holding Pa's head in her lap in the back of the Ford truck. Ralph and Junior sat on each side of the door to hold it steady. I'd never seen my mother motionless before, Pa either for that matter. She seemed to have run out of gas, her life ebbing with Pa's. She was caught in a nightmare she couldn't understand.
Time no longer had meaning that day. Had I been driving, I could have gotten lost in the road and the routine of it, but I wasn't driving. Thinking about the damage done to Pa, I considered the damage I'd done to him over the years with my willfulness. I had time to regret it all on the forty minute drive, and there were prayers to a God I had little known for years.
We were almost immediately pulling up at the front entrance of the hospital. Sven was out helping my mother out of the truck and Ralph raced through the double doors. I forced myself out of the truck and stood there trying to regroup.
The harvest was due. Pa was done for this year. He'd always run the show. Now, we'd have to run it and get it done proper or lose the farm. It was more than I wanted to know. What had been a life and death struggle was now a struggle to survive a harvest, bank bills, and now, we were faced with hospital bills.
I looked at Pa's leg as Sven adjusted the tourniquet he'd put on it. My father's left leg looked mangled, and he stirred ever so slightly as Sven tightened the tourniquet again while we waited for someone to come to our aid.
I cringed at the color of Pa's face. I had no idea what the future held, but I couldn't conceive that anything good could come of something so bad. I didn't know how we could possibly do all that needed to be done without Pa.
As I pondered larger issues, the meaning of time changed yet again, once a nurse appeared at the side of the truck after what seemed like hours but was more like two minutes.
She ran back inside after taking a minute to assess the situation. In another minute we suddenly had the attention of the entire hospital staff as doctors, nurses, and orderlies hurried out of the hospital. After taking another minute to determine his injuries, they whisked Pa away.
We stood staring at each other at a loss for what came next. We ended up in the waiting room, staring at each other still. No one said anything, because to say something meant we had to consider what was happening to Pa. No one wanted to do that.
The fact that no one came to us indicated he was still alive. The rest was something I wasn't prepared to deal with. My mind was filled with thoughts, racing from one to the next unable to hold onto one long enough to make sense out of it.
Ralph leaned his head back against the wall with his eyes closed. My brother became motionless for the first time I could remember. He even slept in a fit, wrestling the covers, the pillows, and me some nights. I helped my mother watch the doors through which my father had passed. We waited for some word while dreading what those words might be.
Sven stood across from us, his hands folded in front of him, his big back holding up the wall. I figured he could hold up anything by then. He seemed more powerful than I had previously imagined, although I had seen him as part god and part sinner with far more knowledge than anyone his age with his past could possibly have attained.
Now, he was Pa's savior, and mine. I knew then, I'd never be able to repay the man for what he'd done, but he always seemed to know and could do what needed to be done whether it was carving out fence posts or administering medical aid to stop Pa's bleeding. In between time he merely held the world up on his shoulders like Atlas. The entire Sorenson family was forever in his debt.
He never ceased to amaze me with his wit and wisdom, and now that he'd saved my father's life, I would no longer wrestle with my feelings for him. A mere farmhand when he came to us, he'd transcended to a place that no other ordinary mortal had reached in my house. My admiration for him was unflagging after that day. The mysteries that surrounded him no longer mattered to me. I'd finally learned to accept what was without asking why.
Sven was a find in Pa's words, and now, he was a saint.
The doctor finally came to face us. He looked stern and lacking in emotion. We all stood at attention, waiting for him to speak.
"We've stopped the bleeding. He's being prepped for surgery on his left leg. He's lost a considerable amount of blood, but he seems to be responding. There's every indication that he will live if there are no complications. The leg and internal damage needs to be addressed. We'll determine our course of action once he stabilizes. There's no good reason for you to stay here. You won't be able to see him for some time, probably tomorrow, but then, for only a few minutes. By next week we should be seeing some improvement, but his leg will never be the way it was. He'll likely need assistance for him to walk."
"Next week?" Mama said. "I'll be staying right here with your Pa, son. It's up to you to take care of the harvest. You'll need help. I'll pray that you find it, Robert. You boys listen to what Robert tells you. He's in charge. Don't let me hear that you've gone against his word.
"You'd better be gettin' back, Robert. You boys will need all the rest you can get. Your father and I will be okay, but you've got work to do, and my place is here beside your Pa."
Mama spoke directly to me in words my brothers couldn't deny. I was the eldest son and there was no question about who was responsible while Pa was on the mend. I would be expected to do what needed doing to get the harvest in and save our farm for one more year.
It was a place I never wanted to be with responsibilities I was ill prepared to assume. Pa had always been there and I figured he would always be there.
"You want to drive back, boss?" Sven asked me as I approached the truck, facing the reality of how my world was changed that day.
Boss was an odd word to be directed at me. Sven had used it in jest before, but he meant it this time. Sven knew his place, and mine, and it was his way of reinforcing our places in respect to one another. He knew I was little prepared for what would be expected of me, and I was going to lean mightily on him for advice, but I'm sure he knew that as he stood outside the hospital that day.
"No, you drive. Thanks, Sven. For everything," I said, grasping his forearm and squeezing. He patted the back of my hand with a reassuring smile.
"No problem, boss."
"I'll drive," Ralph said, buoyed by the news of our father's survival while ignoring the doctor's cautionary tone.
Junior sat in the back, having nothing to say. He'd lost both his father and mother. At sixteen he was more dependent on them than Ralph and me. We were going back to an unfamiliar house with no idea of how we were going to stay fed. Mama was the cook and except for ice cream and sandwiches, we were severely limited in the kitchen.
We had yet to face the reality of Pa's condition. He was going to live. Life was all we asked for on the first day. My brothers and I all saw Pa coming back and taking over the farm once he'd healed. These would be hard times but we saw it as temporary. I suppose we simply couldn't face the reality of life on our farm being forever changed.
My brothers both resented the idea of my being in charge. Even with my mother's blessings, they knew I intended to leave one day soon and that canceled any right I had to assume responsibility for a farm they intended to remain on forever.
With the resentment came the understanding that Junior was simply too young to take charge and Ralph wasn't mature enough to handle the responsibilities. While I had no desire for the job, it was up to me to get the work done.
I'd need to find a way to involve them without appearing to order them around. I'd assign tasks that needed doing and remind them it's what Pa had them doing the year before. With Sven and me driving the Farmalls, Ralph and Junior pulled the corn wagons and clean up corn that didn't make it onto a truck. We all did our part.
The ride home was a quiet one. I had too much running through my mind to think about talking. I knew most of the steps but figuring out how to get each step done wasn't so obvious for the amateur in charge. I didn't know anything about anything because I'd carefully avoiding knowing what I now needed to know if I was to succeed.
I'd never expressed any interest in the details and did only what I had to do in order to keep peace in the house. I hadn't liked that either and I had let everyone know about my feelings early on. Now, it was up to me to see to it that we didn't lose the farm, because without the farm we were without any ability to survive. I looked at Sven and wondered how his family had lost their farm. I made up my mind not to lose ours.
I once again prayed for help, saying I'd do whatever I had to do to bring in the corn and pay the bank so we'd hold on until Pa was back in charge.
I would not complain again about my life or living on the farm. I didn't matter any more. Only my family mattered, my mother, my brothers, and the man who was responsible for keeping the farm going all these years.
It had yet to occur to me that my father would never again be the man he was before his run in with our International tractor. I already had more than my share to worry about, and letting Pa's injury run its course was best for the time being.
I didn't want to depend on the land for survival, because you can't trust the land or fate or even God to keep you safe. Once again the farm had proved to be a mistress that couldn't be tamed and it could crush you in a minute along with all your hopes and dreams. I never liked the odds, but we were betting everything we had on a harvest that might be more than I could handle.
Disappointing my father was the least of my worries now. Shaming my family had never been a bigger possibility. The entire responsibility of the farm was mine now. I was nineteen going on getting off this place, and now I had to make a go of it. Not for me but for my family and especially for Pa.
The quickest way to an early grave for my Pa, was his eldest son failing him at a time like this. Life had always been cruel but never quite as cruel as this.
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