The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Team Work & Child's Play
We gave the boys half an hour of uninterrupted cleanup time, figuring that was twice the normal time they took to wash up, but it was early and the sun was still high in the sky. After securing clean towels and the last fresh bar of soap I'd hidden away, Sven and I headed for the barn and the pump behind it, expecting a peaceful cleanup of our own.
We were mightily surprised when we rounded the corner, expecting to see the boys as clean as a whistle and dressed in the fresh clothes Jake put out for them. The thought that comes to mind is, boys will be boys. Much to our chagrin, these particular boys weren't quite finished.
As Jacob washed under one of his outstretched arms a shiny clean Ralph manned the pump to keep the water flowing for his friend. They'd had enough time to get most of the folks in Iowa washed up, but they hadn't managed to finish yet.
That wasn't the worst of it, because Junior and Kaleb were wallowing like a couple of sows in the mess that formed downhill of where we washed. The length of time they'd spent pumping out water led to a gathering mud bog working its way toward Jacob's feet.
"Junior," I yelled, unhappy that their scheduling conflicted with mine.
Sven touched my shoulder as a reminder to the new and improved Robert who no longer needed to run everything every minute of the day. There was plenty of time before supper and the sun was still high over the barn shining brightly on the bathers to take the chill off the cold water wash.
"What," Junior yelped in a sharp tone.
"You're the same color as Kaleb," I answered. "You must be brothers."
Everyone cracked up, having expected to hear my unpleasantness emerge. Jacob and Ralph laughed hardest first noticing the milk chocolate colored mud that covered their brothers. Jacob leaned on the wooden frame that kept the pump and the slight rise it was built into from collapsing onto the bather. He held his sparkling clean forearm against Ralph's to compare the color.
Ralph looked at Jacob's arm comparing it to his own before looking toward Junior and Kaleb. As Jacob turned to see what Ralph was looking at, Ralph came off the slope onto Jacob's back causing him to stumble off balance.
Now, ankle deep in mud, his knees buckling under the addition of Ralph's weight, Jacob was on his way down. In an impressive maneuver Jacob put one of his hands on the ground shifting his weight onto one leg, twisting his body until Ralph ended up being the first to meet the mud.
"Jacob!" Ralph yelped as he splattered mud like a tidal wave that showered all of us.
"I just got washed," Jacob bellowed back at him, as he sat in the mud.
Junior and Kaleb leaped on top of Jacob, forcing his back down into the muck. Ralph launched himself on top of the other three boys. They wrestled, cursed, and laughed hysterically with each boy plastering mud onto the others. After two minutes, I could no longer tell them a part. They all looked exactly alike—muddy.
"Well, time to bathe. You see if you leave them alone, they get out of the way that much faster," Sven said with confidence, stripping out of his clothes and stepping under the pump for what he intended to be a quick wash.
This time I manned the handle, being careful to undress before getting near the water or the mud. I stooped on the ledge and pumped as Sven shook the water everywhere, when the first cold rush hit him.
"We're brothers, too," Ralph said proudly, putting his muddy forearm against Jacob's muddy forearm as they wallowed in the mud.
"We're all brothers," Junior said and his eyes came upon the pure white Sven, who just then was carefully lathering his hair for a thorough cleaning.
Unwisely, Sven had taken his eyes off the children, confident in his well being. The four muddy buddies stopped what they were doing to look at him. Without speaking they knew what they were predisposed to do. Slithering out of the ooze, they made their way toward the unsuspecting washer. Junior positioning himself behind Sven's legs, Ralph and Jacob each grabbed an arm, yanking Sven back toward the muck. With Kaleb's help there seemed to be no way for Sven to escape his fate, and yet, somehow, he maintained enough balance to keep the four boys from dragging him down. He had no intention of cooperating as he used his strength to regain his balance, tossing the boys to the side one by one. It was an admirable display.
Sven's blue eyes were open wide as he sensed victory was in his grasp. He looked directly at me, expecting my unconditional support under any and all circumstances. I, on the other hand, must admit I wanted to impress Sven with my loyalty by going to his aid, except it was all too perfect for me to resist. Not only couldn't I help Sven, but I couldn't even help myself. I took my two very clean hands, planted them on his freshly scrubbed chest and shoved him back toward the muck and mud and the direction in which the popular momentum was flowing. He got one leg over top of Junior, avoiding an immediate fall for a second or two, but when Junior raised up, Sven's second leg became hooked on my brother and he was doomed. To add insult to injury Kaleb leaped on top of him as he hit the ground and then all five of them were wrestling, cussing, and laughing their heads off.
I stood watching the melee, laughing at the spontaneous fun. I had little experience with spontaneity or vast good humor. My life had been a controlled operation for a long time. It was the only way I could keep it on course. Doing anything on the spur of the moment was not something I did.
I stood watching the exuberance as they all got lost in their joy. I was a part of it in more ways than one. With enough never being enough for Ralph he leaped from the mess to get me in a bear hug and he carried me to the gathering. In spite of my protests, he deposited me in amongst the great unwashed.
I bounced off Kaleb and ended up flat on my back with Ralph leaping on top of me. Sven held my shoulders to keep me from arising, at which time they proceeded to plaster me with mud. Each time I thought I could make an escape, someone pulled me back into the middle of the muddle, and we wrestled and cussed and laughed, but especially we laughed hard and long.
"What in God's green earth is you boys a doin'?" Jake yelled, coming to a sudden stop as he got to the corner of the barn. "No wonder use is takin' so long. I could hear yeahs all the way up ta the house."
Jake stood in my mother's gingham apron, the large wooden spoon he favored in his hand. There was a disbelieving look on his face as he examined us carefully. It was then that Jacob left the fun and started toward Jake like some stealthy cat, stalking his prey.
"You best stop where you is boy. I'll brain you for sure you try an get me in there," Jake warned, waving the spoon like an ancient war club.
These are the memories that permeate my mind as I think back on the happiest time of my life. It was as Sven told me it would be. I stopped writing in my journal several years back. I lost interest in detailing the struggle life had become, but Jake died last week and once I started to think back on the day I first saw him, I couldn't stop the words as they ran out of me like tears.
I've written day and night, except for his funeral. My most vivid memories of Jake are of him in one of Mama's aprons carrying that spoon.
The funeral was a private doing. Most of the town folks were never too keen on his place at our house. Mama and Pa were there, Ralph came over from Omaha, where he settled. Junior and Kaleb were the only other people there besides me. Pa suggested Junior take the land west of the meadows for his dairy cows, once he returned from the war. There weren't a lot of friends but those of us that were lucky enough to have known Jake loved him. I would have been lost without his cantankerous companionship in the years everyone went off to war.
On his last day he was in the field with me as I walked through the corn. He'd helped me plant each of the ten seasons he lived with us and this will be the first harvest he missed since he came.
We sat at the dinner table sipping Mama's coffee after supper. Him and Pa played checkers on the porch, smoking their pipes and watching the stars.
"Why Jake, I think you're slipping. That's two games in a row you let me beat you."
"Use outplayed me for sure, Mister."
Jake called it a night early and came back into the kitchen, standing motionless just inside the screen.
"I's a mite tired this evening. I think I'll turn in early."
"I'm making cocoa, Jake. Want me to bring you a cup."
"Oh, yes, ma'am. That'd be just the thing. Nudge me if I's a drifted off. I'll wake up for a cup of your cocoa."
Mama watched Jake pass through the kitchen slower than I'd ever seen him move. It sure wasn't like Jake to be dragging so early in the evening. It wasn't fifteen minutes later Mama carried the cup of cocoa into the Parlor where Jake slept on the sofa for all those years.
"Robert," she called like something had startled her.
I left my steaming cup of cocoa and walked down past the staircase and stopped beside Mama. There, lying on the sofa, Jake had the most blissful look on his face. He was smiling. One of his long arms drooped down and his bent and tangled fingers lie still against the dark wood of the floor. There was no movement and no sign of life. Jake had simply gone to sleep for the final time.
I felt tied in a knot as Jake was the final firm piece that connected us all back to my first harvest. I went to the phone in the hallway and dialed the phone exchange to get me the sheriff. I reported Jake's death but there was never much interest concerning the facts of the matter.
When I went out onto the back porch I couldn't look at Pa. I stood at the railing looking out on my farm, considering the past ten years and all that had passed me by.
"What's wrong, Robert?" Pa asked, his voice not at all clear.
"Jake just died," I said in a sob.
Pa sat silent for a long time and I gathered in my emotions. It was easier to regain self control now, but there had been a lot of tears over the years.
"He was a good ole' boy," Pa said after he gathered himself to give his assessment of the man that had come to mean as much to him as he meant to me.
"Yes, he was," I answered softly.
"We can put him out near the meadows. There's a spot out there where I wouldn't mind being planted myself. We'll go out in the morning and I'll show you."
Jake was 78, or thereabouts, according to his own accounting, which is what we put on his marker, 'Here lies Jake Pruett, Farmer, father, and Friend, 78 or thereabouts.'
On more than one occasion I would walk the distance from the house to pay my respects.
I stopped writing after that flood that came over me after Jake's death. My desire then was to relive the harvest of '37' and recall how young and alive we all were. I wrote all those details for my own benefit. It was the best of times for me.
Today, less than a year after Jake passed, we buried Pa in the spot he showed me. Had the locals known we'd buried Pa next to a black man, well, I don't want to dwell on what goes on inside of other people's minds with the mysteries of my own mind being considerable.
When Mama told me where she wanted Pa, I asked her about the church and the graveyard behind. I wondered if she didn't want him buried in holy ground.
"Your Pa sweat and bled for this ground. There's no more holy place for a Sorenson."
Mama endured the scorn of her church going piers. Once they found out we kept Jake in the house with us, they soured on us. They were happy to have our business and were pleasant enough to our faces, but the looks and offhand comments told a different story. It just wasn't Christian for a white family to have a black man living in the house with them. There was a noticeable strain on Mama's face when approached by one of them to make small talk, when we were into town to shop.
With Pa's death comes the realization that I won't live forever. It became clear to me that I needed to write down what took place in the years after my first harvest or it would forever be lost.
It was never my intention to dwell or regale my private remembrances, but once I die there will be no one to remember and regardless of what happens to it, once I write it down it will live on after me. That has become important to my life if I'm going to move beyond my past.
It's important for me to explain the people who meant so much in my life. While it's likely of no interest to anyone else, in a way it will keep them all alive once I'm gone. Why that's important I can't say, except it is, and I need to let it out after so many years.
Pa came back home from the hospital long after the harvesting was finished. The machines had all been pampered and placed back in their corner of the barn. We'd picked up the remnants over the following weeks and readied the soil to be turned before winter set in.
My life had once more reached a defining moment. Where did I stand? Where was my place? I became tied in knots over Pa's return. I wanted his approval and blessings, but it was difficult to forget the past few years when Pa decided he didn't care much for me.
Sven and I walked hand in hand in the field, talking and making plans the day before Pa returned. The soil had turned gray and there was a crust on top that yielded under our footsteps. We'd had several good rains and the seasons were passing without incident.
Sven and I were standing at the gate to the main field when I heard the vehicles in the driveway. The first thing that indicated what was coming was a wooden wheelchair that was set on the back porch next to the swing.
As we got to the corner of the porch, Pa was standing up out of the backseat of Mrs. Wilkerson's car. Mama shoved crutches under Pa's arms as he looked toward the gathering waiting to greet him.
On Pa's left leg was a huge brace installed over the outside of a pair of trousers. He refused help as an elderly man approached and then withdrew. Mama and Mrs. Wilkerson stood back helpless to deal with Pa's refusal. My stomach took to churning at his presence.
"Hi, Pa," Ralph said, smiling broadly at the sight of his father.
"Hi, Pa," Junior said. "Glad you're finally home."
Pa immediately caught sight of Jake standing on the back porch, leaning on a section of railing next to the stairs. Jake nodded and Pa took to looking at the ground pretending the agony on his face wasn't real. Each step took a minute and at times more as he fought his infirmity and broke out in a sweat in the cool autumn air. Once Pa came to the stairs it was apparent he might as well have been looking up at the Great Wall of China.
Ralph moved up, trying to replace the one crutch, but Pa brushed him back, looking up at the porch as though he might be able to will himself up there. We were all in pain, watching Pa try to regain some sense of manhood in the life he had to look forward to. No one dared touch him as he readied himself for the climb. He kept looking up the steps and down at his feet but he didn't or couldn't move any further.
"Excuse me Mr. Sorenson. I don't mean to presume, but we can all stand here waiting for this new coat of paint to start to peal, or I can take you up them stairs. Once you get rested you can come back and practice without the audience. No point in us all standing out here."
Sven didn't wait for an answer, moving up to take Pa into his arms. Pa handed one crutch and then the other to bystanders without commenting. Sven carefully supported the braced leg while carrying Pa into the house and into the pantry where Mama had told us to put the new bed she'd brought from the hospital for Pa, because he couldn't get up and down the stairs to their room anymore.
There was no one else that could have done it. Pa wasn't about to refuse help from the man who saved his life. Men are complicated beings and my father was more complicated than most in my mind. He knew he couldn't make it up those stairs, so I don't know how long we'd have stood there if Sven hadn't gone into action.
Jake sat a bit dejected looking on the swing. You could hear Mama in the kitchen, where Jake had been working two entire days to get it spotless for her return. Since the harvest Jake had been mainly a cook for his hungry hands. Now, his future was as uncertain as my own.
I leaned my butt on the railing as I faced the kitchen screen reluctant to go inside. Sven sat on the top step, throwing back a handful of gravel he'd gathered from the driveway.
Mama came to the screen and leaned out, looking at the swing.
"I don't dare make coffee for this crowd, Jake. Isn't it Jake?" Mama's voice sang.
"Yes, ma'am. I's Jake," he said, yanking the hat from his head and standing at attention.
"If you wouldn't mind, I've heard a lot of compliments about your cornbread. Would you mind making us up a batch for lunch. Pa'd like that. That and tea will suit him fine. I'm sure glad we have you're here to help."
"Yes, ma'am. I'd be more 'an happy to oblige."
It was a start. Jake dove back into the kitchen and started cooking and never stopped. Mama and Jake could rustle up a meal together like they were working in a restaurant. Mama had her dishes and Jake had his and none of us were about to complain.
The tough nut to crack on Jake was Pa. I'd never heard him speak ill of another man, but I wasn't sure how he'd feel about having a black man sleeping in his parlor. Jake wanted to move back to the barn, once my parents came home, but I wasn't about to subject him to the cold we'd endure that winter. I figured Mama would side with me on this but I didn't know about Pa.
Pa stayed in bed most of the time because he hated that brace and the only thing he hated more than that brace was the wheelchair that wasn't allowed off the back porch, where it became a toy for Ralph to play with and fall out of.
That first supper with Mama back kept me on the back porch for the longest time. I didn't know where to sit at our table. It might seem like a small thing but Pa was back in the house, and sitting in his seat, even if he couldn't sit there, seemed somehow disrespectful. I hated moments like this.
"Robert?" Mama called once the food was on the table.
"I can't say a proper grace with you on the porch."
"Yes, ma'am," I said.
Everyone was at the table except for Jake who sat at the sink, where he was most comfortable. Pa was sleeping in his bed and Mama had fed him hours before supper was ready. The only empty chair was at the head of the table. I moved into the kitchen and sat where I'd been sitting for some time.
"Dear Lord, bless our family, which has grown considerably of late. Thank you for this meal you've provided. Amen."
"Amen," came an off key chorus of male voices.
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