The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
My brothers and I sat around the kitchen table in silence. Sven stood with his back leaning against the door and his hands folded in front of him. I wasn't the only one deep in thought about our future. I felt like the eldest brother for the first time in a long while.
Ralph cried at dinner, as we ate the food Mama had been preparing for us. Once the food was on the table it gave us something to do. Only the sound of silverware on plates and requests for items of food interrupted the silence. Even tragedy couldn't cancel out the body's need for nourishment. We ate to stay alive and little more that night. There was nothing to do after we ate but think.
Sven sat pensive, leaning on his elbows with his hands folded together like he was lost in prayer. The rest of us sat numbed, trying to find a way to deal with what happened and what was to come. I'd need to get organized before we could start harvesting. That was what I was expected to do. Sven shared what was on his mind and he knew more than I knew about organizing the work.
"I know people who'll come help with the harvest. I can get two, maybe a man with two near grown sons. They were sharecropping nearby this spring. I might be able to find my brother John. He was near here a few weeks back. I'll put out the word I need him. He'll come running if he can, but he may have already taken work by now."
"Pa won't want that many strangers on the place," Junior said. "He don't cotton to strangers. He gets uncomfortable with men he don't know, Robert. You know Pa."
"Your Pa needs help, son. He's in no condition to handle the affairs of this farm. We've got to see to it that it gets done. He'll rest a lot easier knowing we're up to the task. That means Robert's in charge of decisions now," Sven said, looking up at me with a certainty in his voice. "He'll decide what's best and we'll abide by it."
Ralph questioned the idea with ideas of his own.
"Robert? He don't even want to be here. Mama keeps him safe from Pa. She been coddling him for years."
"It's up to us now, Ralph. We can all pull together or we can pull this farm apart," I said, making it up as I went along. "Pa hires hands every harvest, Junior. Without Pa we need more help than ever. Sven, if you know men who'll come to work I can't offer 'em no more than Pa offered you, but if they'll come I'll be glad to have them.
"We were barely holding on and without Pa I don't know if we'll make it, but I'm doing all I can. I expect no less from you. Mama and Pa are depending on us to get it done."
"When a man needs help, money don't mean a thing. The men I'm thinking of will work on my word if they know it means saving a man's farm. I'll make no promises, except they'll get paid before I do if there's any money after the bills are paid."
"That's settled," I said. "Sven you see about the help. Use the Ford truck in the morning."
"They'll work and not even know if they'll get paid?" Ralph asked. "Who are these people? Never heard a such a thing."
"People who know what it means to lose a farm. They won't stand by and watch another man lose his if there's something they can do about it."
"We got beef in the smokehouse, hams, plenty of eggs being laid and milk. They'll get fed well," I reasoned. "Lord knows who's going to do the cooking."
"Helping someone is always good for the soul," Sven said. "They have big hearts. You'll see."
I was never sure how to take Sven. I found myself trusting him to do as he said, because I never knew him not to. My two brothers weren't so easy to convince, but because it was Sven, we agreed to let him bring us help. I had made the first decision with everyone's approval, but we didn't have the help yet.
Sven's mind was clear and he seemed to know what you did when you got in a tight spot. It left me with one more debt to pay. Sven gave his loyalty to my father and now he was giving it to me. It was a powerful motivation to succeed, because he wouldn't have done as much if he thought we would fail.
We were up trying to cook coffee well before dawn. I knew to start all the machinery before we sat down to eat. I managed the coffee, while Ralph whipped up something he thought was pancake batter. I was never quite convinced, so I fried some eggs and bacon just in case. We probably had the best cook in the county at our house and we could hardly boil water without her.
Mama had never been so sorely missed as she was that first morning. How we'd make it through harvest on that menu was a mystery.
We moved the Farmall tractors into the main field to see if they were working properly. Sven had the International that attacked Pa down on its tires as Ralph and Junior watched.
When we took a break for coffee, Sven told me he was going to see about the help. I didn't question him as he drove away, heading toward town. We went back at the corn for several hours, filling the corn wagon that was pulled behind the International. All the machines were working fine and we broke for lunch a little early, figuring we were ready for the trucks the following morning. When I called Crosby's Feed and Grain to order them for the following morning, Mr. Crosby sounded surprised and he tried to get me to hire hands through him but I knew better.
Lunch was a haphazard affair with us cutting bread so thick we could hardly get our mouths around our sandwiches. We were novices at running a harvest and no better qualified to run Mama's kitchen. She made it look so effortless that I figured it wouldn't be all that difficult, but we'd been in control for three less than satisfactory meals and the kitchen looked like a cyclone had hit it.
"When are you going to get Mama?" Ralph asked once he'd wrestled his sandwich into submission.
"You know Mama ain't coming home until Pa does," I said. "We got to do this ourselves."
"We're gonna starve to death," Junior said. "You ain't going to go see about Pa?"
"Yeah, Robert, I want to know how Pa is," Ralph said.
"They said no one could see him until this afternoon. There's no point in us running over there until tomorrow. We got work to do."
"Mama can't just sit there, Robert," Junior said.
"She knows all those church ladies in Des Moines. I'm sure she went to see them as quick as we left. You don't have to worry none about Mama," I said. "The best thing we can do for them is work and let Pa heal."
Junior stood at the window pumping water into his glass when I heard the truck on the gravel in the driveway.
"They're niggers," Junior said aghast. "Pa wouldn't hold with letting a bunch of them up here, Robert. You best tell Sven to carry them back where he got 'em."
"Junior, I'm going to tell you just once: I told Sven to handle it and we all agreed. I don't care if they're blue-eyed Presbyterian Kangaroos. Beggars ain't in no position to be choosey."
"Lord have mercy," Ralph said, leaning against the sink. "They's black as pitch. I hope you know what you're a doin'."
"We didn't ask what color the help was coming in. I don't want to hear another word about them being coloreds."
"I didn't say anything," Ralph said. "Boy, you sure are asking for it, Robert. I hope no one else finds out."
"This ain't going to set well with Pa," Junior said.
"Pa ain't here and that's that," I stated flatly.
My brothers and Pa shared a natural aversion to all things new. Strangers, save the random hired hand, weren't necessarily welcome much past a meal or some chores.
We ambled out onto the back porch as Sven escorted the three of them around to look up at the three of us, who they'd come to aid.
"They ain't ete this morning," Sven said. "If it's okay, boss, I'll cut them some ham for sandwiches to hold them until dinner? Whatever that's going to be?"
"Sure. Welcome to the farm," I said as Junior groaned, moving back from the stairs. "Not much in the way of food prepared. Whatever we got we'll share. I'm Robert, this here is Ralph, and the grim one over there is Junior."
"Don't you be worried none about food," the bent old fellow said, stepping around Sven to face me. "I'm Jake, sir. I'm a cook and bottle washer right after I's a farmer."
"Mama ain't going to hold with no one running loose in her kitchen. You know how fussy she is," Junior said, finishing the last of his water as he went back into the kitchen, shaking his head.
"Don't mind him. He's a bit long on mouth and short on manners. We can sure use someone who knows his way around a kitchen. I was a little worried about how we were going to get enough to eat," I lamented.
"Ask and you shall receive, son," Jake said, doffing his cap. "These are my sons, sir. The long lanky fellow is Jacob and Kaleb may be short of stature but is able to work from sun up 'til dark without complaint."
"It's dark all right," Ralph said, following Junior back into the kitchen.
"Yes, sir," Jacob said, pulling the hat off his head and stepping subserviently out from behind Sven to present himself for inspection once named.
The youngest boy grumbled something and did not make his presence known to me otherwise, choosing to stay behind Sven, and yet he failed to stand far enough away from Jake's long black arm and the old man adroitly popped his youngest son on the back of the head, saying, "Keep shut. He de boss. You de hand."
"If youse'll show me that kitchen, I'll see what old Jake can do with what you gots. I can keeps us all alive for a spell on a corncob, a ham bone, and a fresh pot a water."
"We've got a little more than that," I assured him, as we headed for the kitchen in a long stream.
Jake was old by anyone's standards, how old I never knew for sure. He was a big bent black man. He bent over when he walked, when he stood still, and when he sat. There was a distinct drawl to his words. He'd been share cropping in a nearby town, but the equally old farmer had lost his place during the summer. The bank threw Jake and his boys off the place and the corn was plowed under about a month before it could be harvested, giving them no reason to return.
"Junior, you stay with the clean up. Take Kaleb with you once he's done eating so he can see what I need him to do. Ralph, you take Jacob with you. You can spell each other on the International. Make sure he knows the controls first. Sven and I will drive the other two tractors and we'll leave Jake here to see what he can rustle up for supper. We'll be filling the corn cribs, until Crosby's trucks come in the morning. By that time we should all know what's expected.
"I can spell you on the tractors if you like, sir. Won't be takin' no time to pull us together a proper meal."
"You can handle one of those big tractors, Jake?" I asked, not expecting such good luck.
"Well, sir, anything with wheels I can fix or drive, or fix while I be drivin', if needs be, sir."
"Not much he can't do," Sven said. "Don't let that bend in his back fool you none. Jake can outwork me. He was the first man that came to mind when I knew we needed help."
"These are some hard times for poor folk, let me tell ya," Jake said, after talking sorrowfully about the acres of corn he had lost, when his hard work was plowed under by a bank that had no interest in corn or farmers.
"I told him the circumstances. No money guarantee but work and they get paid before I do, if we do better than break even," Sven said.
"It's not much of a deal," I said, swirling the coffee in my cup while thinking about getting back to work now that the social amenities were done.
"No matter the money. I rather be workin' than sittin'. If the work be keepin' a man on his land, alls the better," Jake said.
"We sure need the help but not much of a deal."
"More an we had this morning, son" Jake said, giving me an easy going smile. "The Lord, he do provide. We just gots to be smart enough to be keepin' our eyes open."
I wondered how we'd ever get the crop in. We weren't much better off than before, except we had three more mouths to feed. I saw diminishing prospects but what was done was done. At least we could keep them fed for a time and the three of them had to increase our production by some.
I found myself responsible for other lives that had nothing to do with mine. I suppose it was uncomfortable for all of us that first day.
We continued our preliminary duties, readying the machines, adjusting for the cut, and filing a corn crib while going through the motions of what would become a full time job the following day, when the harvest went into full swing. Jacob and Kaleb had no problem keeping up and things ran smoothly throughout the day.
Later we sat quietly around the table, except for, "Pass the butter, the beans, or the biscuits."
Jake had somehow cleaned the kitchen so that you couldn't tell we'd left it a mess from our poor attempts at staying fed. He'd remade the meal from the night before, adding some of this and that. He said. It was a respectable meal under the circumstances, but it wasn't Mama's cooking.
Our new guests were quiet. Jake stood at the sink to eat, serving us when we needed something. Kaleb and Jacob sat at the small table where Mama kept her breads and let dessert cool there.
The lack of conversation seemed foreign to the Sorensons, but what was there to say. Jacob and Kaleb went outside once Jake started on the dishes. Sven and I retired to the back porch and took Pa's place, watching the night sky blossom. Ralph and Junior sat in the swing without their usual conversation. I had no idea what was running through the heads of the people I'd suddenly become responsible for. My head was a buzz with everything and nothing. I didn't have any idea how I'd get done what needed doing.
I spent a restless night after getting our new hands settled into the bottom of the barn in a large pile of hay. Dawn came all too early, but not for Jake, who had coffee ready and griddle cakes going by the time I started the tractors.
The trucks came on schedule at dawn as first light appeared on the horizon. They'd continue coming by our contract for ten days to take away the corn.
The day wasn't particularly hard but it was particularly long. Taking care of the small details seemed to be an endless job. Keeping the boys working was a task fraught with danger. Both Junior and Ralph seemed to have accepted my authority but we hadn't run into anything out of the ordinary yet.
When I passed the International tractor with Ralph and Jacob pulling the corn wagon, Junior and Kaleb were close behind, tossing random ears into the rolling corn bin. I detected some smiles and good cheer as the boys worked together, each trying to outdo the other in quantity of corn they recovered and the speed in which they did the job. My uncertainty about our new hands seemed to be without foundation.
Kaleb was younger, close to Junior's age, shorter in stature, but a bit bigger boned. He was a contrarian in most respects, wanting nothing to do with Jake's happy attitude, or Jacob's willingness to serve, favoring a bit more skepticism, but not so much that he could be disliked. To prove it he won over the most difficult member of my family first, Junior, who had his contrary moments as well. The two of them became fast friends, and after spending his first night in the barn with us, Junior had Kaleb sleeping up in his room by the end of the second day, much to Jake's alarm.
Junior was fast to find fault with the best of us and just as fast to forget his findings. He was an easy going sort otherwise, who learned lessons from the people he knew, but frequently disregarded them when faced with facts. He tried to fit but refused to remain obedient to bad ideas. He was more like me than I cared to admit in those days. We were both easy to convince once we knew the truth of things, but truth wasn't always easy to come by.
Jacob was Ralph's age, tall but slight, with his carriage making him seem taller than he was. A bundle of energy and motion but polite in every manner. He'd learned to become part of the background and was good at disappearing, even when he was there in the kitchen with the rest of us. The same couldn't be said of the way he worked. He used his considerable energy to achieve the maximum.
While the interactions were strained that first day, Ralph and Jacob learned to work together like a fine oiled machine, each being able to anticipate the actions of the other. When the work slowed and they took a break, they could be seen lying side by side, laughing and talking. At other times they wrestled in to drain off the sudden spurts of energy that possessed them.
The trucks drove easily along beside the tractors as their beds were filled with corn. Once loaded they drove the corn to Crosby's. With three of Crosby's trucks coming and going, this year the trucks came often enough that the corn wagons weren't as busy. Even Jake lent a hand when he didn't have something on the stove. From first light until near dark, the trucks came and went, and each time I looked at the sky, it looked like the rains would hold off long enough for the harvest to be completed.
We could keep cutting as long as we wanted, having lights Sven rigged on the Farmalls, but it doubled the work and it was difficult to see the many loose ears of corn that remained on the ground until we went back to pick it up when time allowed.
The first thing each morning what we'd cut after the trucks stopped was thrown into the corn wagons so the trucks would run over them, and we were back to loading the trucks at first light.
Later in the day the newer International pulled hooked to the corn wagon to collect the bigger piles of corn we'd left in our wake. By that time most of the big piles were out of the way with the four boys pitching it into the wagon.
After two days, everything was going fine. We had cut well over a quarter of the corn in our main field. This was easy picking. The field was flat and the rows were straight. If we completed it in a week, we'd be another week on the bottoms and the north field. The new International and our Farmall pulled fine on the sloped fields, but the McCormick was useless and if we wanted it to keep running, we didn't make unnecessary demands on it.
This was how Pa did it and my actions were dictated by my memory of Pa in most instances. The rest I made up as I went along, hoping no one questioned the wisdom of my actions.
Acting like I knew what I was doing proved to be enough to keep my hands from staging a mutiny. Keeping my brothers worn to a frazzle did have it's advantages, and the constant work got my mind off Pa. There was little time to cry over spilled milk.
If we didn't get the harvest in on time, we'd have plenty to cry about, but we seemed to have enough hands, even when those hands were small. They did man size work.
The sky was full of large billowy white clouds on day four and that rarely meant rain. Everything seemed to be going in our favor and we'd continue this way until the trucks were finished. The feeling that we were going to be okay crossed my mind by the end of the first week. I didn't tell anyone how I felt. We needed to keep pushing.
The fields filled with exhaust fumes as the din of machinery slowly reduced the rows of corn. The trucks came, filled their beds with corn, and went. Our routine had been established and we all knew what to do from the middle of the first day.
Jake brought lemonade and sandwiches to us early in the afternoons. We'd stop the machines as he stood by encouraging us to drink our fill before moving on to the next machine. He used the swathes we'd cut in the corn as his avenues of travel. He was remarkably agile, seeming to have no difficulty getting up on and down off the machines with the refreshments in hand, although, when I looked at the bend in his body, I imagined everything he did would be difficult for the man.
After dark Jake waved a lantern next to the gate to bring us in for supper. My first instinct was to forget food, but my back had grown stiff and I felt anything but agile climbing down off the machine as it belched exhaust into the night air.
I'd driven our newest tractor on the last harvest, sharing the duties with a Spanish fellow Pa hired for the task. It never seemed like I was in the seat all that long before I was being replaced.
I didn't recall any stiffness from it last summer, but it was now a year later, I was a year older, and I rubbed my back as I walked toward the house. I'd been in the seat since before dawn and dark set in around nine.
The trucks made their last runs of the day. We'd fill the corn cribs and then sleep until the trucks returned at dawn.
Sven and I walked away from our tractors with a dozen empty cornrows separating our machines. Meeting at the gate, he nodded, waiting for me to pass through first. He put his big hand on my shoulder as we walked, saying nothing for the longest time. His presence was a comfort.
"You've had a fine day for yourself, boss. I'd say we cut a passel of corn today. Fine job."
"It doesn't seem like enough," I said sincerely.
"Won't 'til that last field is cut. We've got hard workers and we'll get it done."
I hadn't paid much attention to the sky all afternoon and had no idea if the rain clouds had joined the billowy kind. Once the rain started, we'd be hard pressed to finish what we'd begun.
It took ten days to complete the harvest last season with Pa in the lead. I didn't expect to be done in twelve. Besides, we were doing the easiest fields first. The bottoms would keep us on hard angles for three days and even the trucks would strain to hold the ground they were on.
Once we hit the slopes and the bottoms, our progress would slow considerably. For now, all I wanted was to cut as much corn as fast as we could. Pa wouldn't do it that way, but I wasn't Pa and we didn't knew when the rains would come.
Ralph and Jacob walked together in front of us, trying to occupy the same space at the same time, playfully nudging each other off balance as they walked. They laughed, seeming not to have a care in the world. They'd given up on the International once it got too dark to see, so I assigned them to help Junior and Kaleb in cleaning up after us, until suppertime released them from duty for the day.
Neither boy was easy to rouse. We'd call them three times before the invitation of food got them out of the hay. Once they got going, none of us could match the pace those two set.
I'd let them rest up after they ate, but I planned for Sven to work with me at least another hour.
The smell of cornbread came on a wisp of evening air, making my stomach growl unhappily. I took the steps two at a time and went into the kitchen to see what else was cooking. For an instant I expected to see Mama at the stove, but reality took a quick grip on me.
There was fried chicken, kale from Mama's garden, and Jake was working on mashed potatoes, tossing in butter and adding milk as he beat it together with vigor and the biggest spoon in the house. He was devoted to his chore and paid us no mind.
Five minutes later the kitchen was a buzz with boys all talking at the same time. In my mother's kitchen you minded your manners and didn't dare get in her way. Jake was less demanding and tended to stay to one side. He required little from us as long as we stayed out of the way of the hand with the spoon in it. The table was full of familiar bowls and platters, but the food had an unfamiliar look.
Almost immediately the forks and spoons started to clang against my mothers dishes. There was laughter and conversation, as plates were filled. No one hesitated to dig in after a long days work.
Jake cleared his throat loud enough to stop us all in mid chew.
"Dear Lord thank Thee for your bounty. Bless this farm and all who dwell here. Amen."
Once I took note of the seating arrangement, I became less interested in the food. Off at one corner of the kitchen sat Jacob and Kaleb. Their plates were in front of them already prepared with no room for bowls or platters.
After we all had food, Jake sat on a chair next to the sink with a steaming cup of coffee at his elbow. I was in Pa's chair and Sven was in Mama's. Ralph and Junior faced each other, fencing for the choicest pieces of chicken.
I finally decided to take my plate to join Jacob and Kaleb, forcing my chair into a tiny spot it didn't fit, which made eating impossible. I sensed Jake's alarm.
Jake stood, spilling his coffee in the process. He looked at the three of us at a table that wasn't big enough for two. Jacob and Kaleb looked at me like I might be daft.
"Mr. Robert, they ain't gots no room as tis," Jake mentioned cautiously as the two boys looked dismayed.
"That's funny. I had too much room over there. Maybe we ought to all eat together at the table and we'll see if that might correct both problems."
"Mr. Robert, white folk and colored folk don't needs to be sittin' at the same table together. We got our place, sir."
"I've never been around… colored folk, and I suppose I'm white folk, but if a man is good enough to work for me, he's good enough to eat at my table, no matter what color any of us are. Let's all just be plain folk," I said, because it sounded fair to me.
I sat Kaleb's plate beside Junior and Jacob's plate beside Ralph, moving my chair back where I started. Setting my plate back at the big table with Jake's scrutiny. He didn't like it but he said nothing.
Kaleb didn't take any convincing, picking up his chair and dropping it beside Junior's. Jacob thought for a second, glancing at Jake before moving his chair to follow his food. Jake didn't hold with what I was up to but the four boys were all smiles. I felt better.
I asked Jake for some of his coffee, and when he got up to fetch me a cup, I scooted his chair to the corner of the table next to me. He brought me my coffee. He studied his chair like he wasn't sure it was his.
"Jake, bring your plate over and we'll make room," I said, knowing it was a tight squeeze.
"I don't eats much, Mr. Robert. I nibbles while I be a cookin' and coffee is about all I needs by this time."
"Then, bring your coffee," I ordered. "Well, this is a fine meal you've made us, Jake. Thank you."
"Not good as you Mama's, but best I knows how to do."
"This is some pretty good cornbread. Pass me them mashed taters," Junior said, smacking his lips as he reached for more. He plopped some on Kaleb's plate before returning the bowl.
Sven maintained his silence. He appeared to be concentrating on his food. Jake drank his coffee uneasily for a few minutes. He wasn't a man who would defy his boss. Once he got up to replenish the bowls that had been emptied, he dragged his chair back where it started, not ever looking at me.
There wasn't much I could do about what Jake believed. I knew what I felt and I wanted it to be clear not with talk but by action. I'm not sure Pa would agree either, but Pa wasn't here. This made me more comfortable in spite of Jake's obvious disapproval.
Junior took Kaleb out to show him his dairy cows after they finished. He sold cream to some families and delivered it on his bike early each morning. Junior took real pride in them, not wanting anyone else to tend them. While he'd never shown any particular interest in the corn, he wanted to take charge of the cows from the first day. I supposed he didn't like the ground so much as the animals on it.
I listened as the two youngest boys scampered off the porch, laughing and joking like they'd known each other all their lives. I reached for one more piece of cornbread and caught Sven smiling my way as Ralph and Jacob got up to play checkers on the table Jake had put in the corner. They laughed and argued and fussed with each other as they played, oblivious to the rest of us.
Ralph was a hard bird to figure. He was usually too busy to take up with anyone and in a couple of weeks he'd taken up with Sven and now Jacob.
"Best not fill up so much you don't feel like getting back out there. We can get a few more hours in I reckon," Sven thought aloud. "Maybe let the boys call it a day. They've done their share and that International ain't to be trusted comes the night."
"Yeah, I agree," I said, feeling tired and wishing I could call it a day. "Fine meal, Jake."
Jake nodded, sipping his coffee with his crooked fingers tangled in the handle of the small cup.
"We can help you clear this stuff up. Boys can lend a hand. We'll need them out before dawn to pick up the corn we cut tonight. The trucks should be here after first light."
"No, sir. You boys go on. I'll take care of the dishes. I'll have me some molasses cookies baked by and by. Them and cool milk will be tastin' mighty nice once you calls it a night."
"Sounds good to me, Jake," I said. "Thanks."
Sven walked next to me as we headed back toward the waiting machines. He walked at my speed for a change and I was glad to have him there.
"That was nice," he said.
"Yeah, Jake's a good cook. I don't know my Mama would sit still for him cooking in her kitchen, but it sure beats going hungry."
"No, I mean you, boss. You've grown up since I came along, Robert."
"With the boys, nice? I'm afraid that's not how it's done in most places. Don't get Jake wrong. He knows the boys getting too familiar can cause them a passel of trouble."
"Here, on my farm, a man does his work, and he's as good as any man doing his work. I don't see the difference."
"You don't. A lot of people won't like it. I'm saying I'm glad you're the kind of man you are, but don't bring trouble to people who will need to live with what you're doing here."
"I understand. You think Jake will take off?"
"Man won't go back on his word. What's done is done. It was bound to happen. Ralph and Junior don't know anything about one boy being different than another. Let it be where it is and we'll make sure there's no trouble," Sven said, and he said nothing more, splitting away from me as we closed in on the idling tractors.
The machine wiggled and waggled over the uneven ground as it coughed up corn and spit out the remnants. I had been trying to do something that Sven approved of since the day he walked up our driveway. This was the first time I felt like he approved of me.
That didn't help my back none but it did put a smile on my face. Needing his approval was still a source of mystery to me, but I did need it and I wanted it. It made me happy when I got it. I might catch on to running things yet.
Our new hands had that beaten down look, when they came that first day. Like they weren't sure what they were getting into. They looked certain that no matter what they did, someone would find fault with it.
I understood that feeling. I still felt as though, no matter what I did, my Pa would find fault with it. My father didn't get a lot out of me, because of it. I didn't want my hands feeling that way even for a few minutes, not Jake, not Jacob, and not Kaleb. I wouldn't do to them what my father did to me, and that's what made us equals in my eyes.
It's not something you explain to other men. You either understand that look or you don't. I could invite them to sit at my table, but I was powerless to protect them at another man's table.
I prayed my action didn't put Jake off me and have him taking his sons to a safer place, but if he did, I would stand by my move to treat my help as I wanted to be treated.
I'd once seen the same look on a farmer I'd known all my life. His pain ran deeper than anyone could see, after being told to get off his farm.
I'm sure he was rooted in the land before someone came and ripped him up by those roots. The farm was in his family for generations, like our farm, and he'd worked that farm his entire life. Then one day, it didn't belong to him any more. The bank said it belonged to them.
When we said good bye, I could see he didn't know what to do. He might never know what to do again. He had that look on his face.
Leaving the only life they'd ever known, leaving places their grandfathers had cleared and furrowed out of the wilderness with not much more than their bare hands, left them feeling they'd somehow failed. Now, a bank owned their farm, after they made payments on it for about a hundred years. Never making enough to get clear of the note, men with money waited for them to stumble, and they pounced on the land.
I was never sure what it said, when a man worked his entire life to keep his farm going, and in the first bad year, a man who has never worked, comes by and throws him off his place. It was wrong when I thought about it then, and it was wrong when I thought of it now.
I'd never treat another man that way. If I could help a man, I would, and I'd accept his thanks, asking no more. To offer a man a hand, and than steal his land, was a dirty business, and I knew such men were waiting for our land to come to them if we failed to get the corn in on time.
Times were hard. Farms were failing. Bankers were getting fat. They didn't care how much work went into a farm they took away from its owner. They'd make a tidy sum once times got better.
We'd been luckier than most, until now, but our luck wasn't so hot this year. if I got in the corn, we might hold on another year. I wanted to drive into Des Moines to check on Pa, but there was work to do. Mama and Pa were on their own, leaving me to wonder what would become of us all.
While Pa and I hadn't had much to say to each other as of late, I realized I loved him and the things he stood for, even when I couldn't feel the way he did about things. It took a tough character to do what he did without complaint.
My family was rooted on our land, but the responsibility was now on my shoulders and I couldn't be sure I was up to the task. It wasn't Sven's farm and it didn't belong to any of our new hands, but if I managed to hold on for another year, they'd be as responsible as me.
I'd be grateful if we were still here at years end. My first day of harvest, 1937, I had no reason to believe we would be here at years end. I'd do the best job I knew how to do, hoping we'd get our corn to market before the price started to fall. After the second day, I began to think we could do it.
The next day went well. The trucks came empty and went away full. Jake came out to spell me after lunch, suggesting I take a break. My back had stopped aching. It was numb now. There was a pleasure in seeing the corn getting cut row by row. Everything was running smoothly.
My brothers stayed engaged, and Jacob and Kaleb created a competitive atmosphere that kept Ralph and Junior on their toes. They didn't want to be outdone by hired hands. It was all good-natured fun and I let them do it whatever way they liked, as long as the corn got picked.
As I pumped water over my dusty head, Sven surprised me. He seized the handle out of my hand, pumping for me.
"You should go to town," Sven said in definite tones.
"Can't stop now. They expect me to be working. I'm ready to drop in my tracks," I said, letting it slip out.
"You need to see about your Pa. You'll feel better when you do and so will the boys. We've got this under control. Jake and I can run the big tractors."
"Where's your tractor?" I asked, noticing he wasn't in it.
"Ralph's running it."
"Ralph? He's libel to run over the rest of the help," I blurted.
"He'll be fine. I've got Jacob watching him. I showed him how to run it yesterday. You've got to trust him sooner than later if we're going to keep the machines running. We're all going to wear out. Use the help smartly and we won't wear out before it's done. Let the help help."
"I don't know what I'm doing," I said, letting him know the truth. "What I know is, Ralph is a cutup who doesn't take anything seriously."
"Give him a little responsibility and he'll surprise you. You've surprised me. I wasn't sure how you'd react but you've taken charge. Now, give Ralph a chance to help you. He knows what's at stake. He lives here too."
"You realize if I fail, for the rest of his life my Pa will tell everyone how I lost his farm the year he got busted up?"
"I don't intend to see you fail. This is about all of us doing all we can. We'll get it done if we work together. A good farmer delegates where he can and keeps something in reserve for the final push."
I watched him speak and felt like we weren't having the same conversation. I didn't feel confident or able, but I knew what I felt didn't enter into the picture. I'd been watching my father do it for years and now I had to do it.
"You've got confidence and you know what it takes to get all this done."
"This isn't on my shoulders. I'll help you but I can't be you. Your mother will want to know about the harvest. Your father will rest easier if you tell him we're bringing in the corn on time."
"He won't believe I can," I said. "My father has no confidence in me."
"Then, you'll show him and he'll believe."
"Thanks," I said, having a bigger view in mind. "I know I've acted foolishly. It's just that I never pictured myself doing this."
"It's what you got and you'll deal with it. There isn't much about life you can predict, Robert. You take what comes your way and do the best you can. If you're lucky things go your way, and if you're not, you do what needs doing to make things right."
The only way I could keep Ralph and Junior from going with me to the hospital was to leave Ralph in charge, and Junior wasn't about to leave the farm in his older brother's hands, knowing Ralph better than anyone. When I left, Ralph was driving my combine and Sven was back in his. Junior had taken charge of the International for the first time, filling the corn wagon, when the trucks were all on their way back into town.
It was a less stressful ride to the hospital. I still believed this was a temporary arrangement and I'd be turning the responsibility for the farm back to Pa in short order. Sven had just told me about not having much control over things that happen to you, but as usual, I heard what I wanted to hear and I didn't listen to the message in his words.
Sven was telling me the way things were. What I wanted was what I expected. I believed that's the way things would be, until it was obvious they weren't.
For years I'd been on my way to somewhere else. I never once thought somewhere else would end up being the farm. If it hadn't been for Sven's steadying hand, I'd have gone crazy.
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