The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
In '40' we were short handed, but with Sven, Jake, and Junior and Kaleb, we didn't waste much time. With the experience from three previous harvests together, we were able to cut a day off of the year before. Junior and Kaleb were particularly pleased with their more meaningful roles as both took their turns with the combine, grateful for the break from the International.
We'd received a couple of postal cards from Ralph announcing he was okay. Jacob would scratch something beside Ralph's signature. Jake recognized it and it made him smile.
Pa and Jake continued arguing over checkers in the evening, while Jake and Mama discussed recipes during the day. Our best times were over supper, when we'd laugh and joke and all talk at the same time. I'd never felt more secure than I did that year. I'd never feel that secure again.
Pa stood by the fence and watched the machinery crisscross the fields. Sven had told me how the week before the harvest started Pa had Sven lift him into one of the combines. Almost as quickly as Sven sat him in the seat Pa asked to be put back on the ground. It was obvious that as bent as his body was, it wouldn't bend the right way for him to run the machines and with that he gave up his final hope of ever being in charge again.
Pa watched the harvest intently at first, guided the trucks, and stood at the fence and chatted with Mama, Jake, and Mr. Crosby, when he came out to pay his respects and see how harvest was going.
I continued to talk my decisions over with Mama and Pa, both together and separately. The final decisions were made once I consulted Sven with what had been said.
Much to my surprise, Junior started talking about Europe. He was out of school and got the same news we got, but something about the European war interested him in a way it didn't interest me. He sat listening to the radio every night like the Germans were in Davenport and heading in our direction. When he announced he was joining the navy, he got less resistance than Ralph got before heading to Georgia with Jacob.
I was still clinging to the idea we wouldn't sooner or later be swept up in the violence. I was surprised by Ralph leaving the land he loved, but Junior hadn't expressed any interest in world affairs until that year. It seems I didn't know my brothers as well as I thought.
Kaleb left with Junior to sign on as a cook or orderly but Jake told him this man's navy didn't want the likes of him. It didn't slow either of them down and we were a bare bones operation once the '40 harvest was done.
It was a modest harvest at best, but prices were still climbing and we held back less corn for our own use. The demand from war-torn countries was growing. Even in a modest year we were making more money than ever before.
Neither my parents or Jake approved of the military, but there wasn't a lot of danger where Junior was. After all we weren't in the war and Roosevelt kept saying we wouldn't be. It looked like Hitler might be in London within a year, which was troubling, but Junior wrote us from Michigan, Connecticut, and from a place called Hawaii out in the Pacific by the summer of '41'. Since navy escorts were patrolling in the Atlantic and being fired on while protecting convoys, he was about a million miles from any action and they mostly stayed in port.
He was happy with his life as a sailor, but he hadn't seen Kaleb in many months. He had no idea where he'd gotten off to. As we suspected, he couldn't join the navy, but he was working in a navy mess hall back east before Junior shipped out.
The news from Europe grew more ominous each day. We sat by the radio almost every night, listening to the latest information about Nazi advances. The one bright spot was the Royal Air Force, which seemed every bit the equal of Hitler's Luftwaffe, which meant an invasion from France was unlikely with the RAF able to keep an eye on the narrow channel that separated England and France.
With only Sven and me carrying most of the weight, we only planted the top fields and left the slopes and the bottom follow in '41. We did the harvest in a week and we still brought in more money than any year previously. Crosby's trucks took our crop straight to barges on the Mississippi River destined for new processing plants. In a few weeks it was on its way overseas.
We could have sold twice as much corn, but there wasn't enough help for the farms as the labor force was busy trying to keep England supplied with what it took to wage war.
My life was about the farm and Sven. My parents were always there for us, and I couldn't remember a time when it wasn't so. It was fine with me, because I'd never been happier.
One December afternoon we came in from a walk in the fields to find everyone huddled around the radio. There was no sign of dinner being prepared and it wasn't like Mama and Jake to both sit in front of the radio before supper was done and the dishes were washed and put away.
"What's got you so captivated?" I asked, not having a care in the world.
"The Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. They sunk all our battleships and bombed the air field. Caught our boys flatfooted they did," Pa said.
"Junior?" I asked, having heard the name Pearl Harbor from his letters.
"They haven't named his ship. We don't know."
We sat dumbfounded listening to a man on the radio reading from an ongoing description that was being transmitted from Pearl Harbor and broadcast straight to the American people.
It was one of those incidents that intrudes into your life and keeps on intruding. The announcer shook me to the core with his deadpan monotone delivery as he read the words as quickly as they were transmitted to him. His voice never wavered as he read on and on, until I couldn't listen any longer. I'd never heard such terrible details come from the radio. We hadn't been in the war and it had seemed far away until without warning we were thrust into the middle of the fighting.
Sven followed me out the back door. We walked the fields, checking the soil and breathing the fresh heavy December air. My mind couldn't grasp onto anything, rushing from one thought to another.
"I've got to go, Robert. I'll be joining the army after this."
"I'll join with you then," I said, certain of it. "We can stay together. I don't want to lose you."
"I don't want to leave you, but this comes under the heading of larger considerations than the two of us. What I want to do and what I have to do are two different things. We're only free because we fight to stay that way. I can't stay here and watch other men fight for my freedom. I've got to lend a hand."
"I'm coming, too. I won't let you go without me. I need you. I depend on you. I need to be with you."
"You can't, Robert. What are your parents going to do? We had trouble getting the corn in this year and it was only the top fields. Next year everyone will be in the military. There won't be any able bodies hands. Your folks and your brothers will be depending on you to keep the farm going, until the war ends. You are the last son at home, and farmers are going to be needed. Your fight is right here."
"You're a farmer. You can stay here with me and help."
"No, my place is over there fighting. This isn't my farm. Your place is here. I'll be back, when it's over," Sven promised. "I've never been as happy anywhere as I am right here with you. I'll be back. Don't worry about that."
"Some things we can't do anything about. This is one of those, but I'll never be any farther away than right here," he said, tapping my chest over my heart. "That's where I'll live forever, my love. Don't you ever doubt it. Besides, there's not an inch of this farm we haven't walked together. I'll always be here with you no matter how this turns out."
Sven would have been like a caged animal if I'd insisted he stay. Everything he said was true, but that didn't make his decision any easier on me. I wouldn't try to make him feel guilty or give him reasons not to return. The farm was a duty I'd perform because other people depended on me, or maybe because it was the easiest thing for me to do.
Sven stayed through the holidays for my benefit. We walked the fence line hand in hand on Sven's final day there. We talked and he bragged about the happy years we'd shared. I agreed with that observation, but letting him go was going to be a chore for which I had no appetite. I wanted to grab him and hold him fast to my farm, but I kept my mouth shut and let him believe I was taking it well.
He was right of course. Sven was always right, and with all the sacrifices being made by so many, I knew he wouldn't be happy staying on the sidelines.
It had taken me a long time to find happiness and there had to be a world war to bring it to an end. I'm sure they didn't start the war for that reason, but that's the way it worked out.
He reassured me, telling me he'd be back, but he'd be a leader. He wasn't about to follow lesser men. That would put him at a higher risk. I knew he'd die for his men before he'd let them die for him. The odds were against him and us, and we both knew it, but I made him promise to come back, and he did, and we both knew the truth, even while we were pretending otherwise.
Those last few days with him, knowing he was leaving me, were the hardest days of my life. Whoever said "war is hell" was right on the mark. It was a different kind of hell for those left behind.
Sven had helped ready the top field for planting, but I only planting half that. It was all Jake and I could do to bring in half the corn we harvested in earlier years, but we made even more money than any harvest before.
It was now a farmer's market. They'd run so many of us out of business that we couldn't keep up with demand. With most of the men in uniform there wasn't any extra help at harvest time.
By the holidays in '41 we'd gotten word from Junior and Kaleb. They were both alive and well, although Junior had gotten burned fighting fires after the initial attack on Pearl Harbor. He'd stood watching as the Arizona exploded and he told us he was certain that it was the end of the world. His ears were still ringing.
We heard from Ralph and Jacob. Ralph was in the army and Jacob had become a maintenance worker for the Army Air Corp in Alabama of all places. They were all fine and itching for a fight, except we weren't doing much of the fighting, and President Roosevelt kept reassuring us, we'd get our licks in when the time came.
The absence of my brothers left me feeling alone in a way I'd never been alone before. I missed Sven in my heart and soul, but I missed my brothers because they had always been with me. Everyone was in the war but me, except Roosevelt said we were as essential as any army, because we were keeping our boys fed.
I walked the fields alone, getting out of bed at night and walking to the meadows, recalling my youth and all the years when nothing beyond the farm mattered to me and my family. Suddenly we were scattered all over the globe.
The harvest in '42' was modest, but no less profitable and so our finances were secure. My plan was to follow the same pattern in '43' and hope the prices stayed high as long as the help was all somewhere else.
I sat at the table with my parents and Jake with each of us longing for a past that was over. We listened to the news each night. '42 hadn't been all that hard on us and '43' started out fine. That's when our boys went to Africa to help the Brits. Sven went there. Ralph was in Britain and Junior was still at Pearl Harbor. Kaleb was on a ship and met up with Junior at Pearl Harbor. Jacob was still safe in Alabama and happy about becoming a mechanic.
Junior became a radio man on board his newest ship, because he had a habit of getting things that were needed or greatly desired. When he got an admiral his favorite whiskey, he became known as a wheeler and dealer. All the officers owed him favors for deals he made on their behalf. When he asked his captain for Kaleb to be assigned to his ship's mess, Kaleb appeared a few weeks later.
My mind was often on Sven, and hearing from him was the highlight of any week or month. He wrote regularly and tried to reassure me, but in '43' he was in harms way much of the time. The weather was hot and the conditions fierce, but he saw little fighting as the German's were on the run by the time the American's were getting organized.
There had been a terrible armored battle with the Americans being badly defeated early on. Sven wrote he hadn't been there, but later on Patton had vowed it would never happen again, and the first chance he got he chased the Nazis and General Rommel's forces from the field in a rout.
Sven said they would be heading north from there. It turned out he was in Sicily and from there it would be onto Europe according to what the news reports said.
Then, I began spending my days in the field, staying away from everyone and all the news, fearing the worst and wanting to know nothing about what was going on out there. I can't be sure what was more difficult, actually fighting a war or watching helplessly as everyone you love does the fighting.
My mother sat with me, while I drank my morning coffee. She had become polite enough not to mention the war for fear of upsetting my day. At times I'd come in from the daily chores and Mama would be reading one of my brother's letters. Sometimes she'd be reading aloud to Jake if he'd gotten something from one of his boys. Jake kept their letters in his shirt pocket tied together in a blue ribbon Mama tied around them.
With Kaleb on board with Junior, Kaleb always added something for Jake, saying he didn't have time to write. It seems Kaleb was always in hot water for speaking his mind. I figured he'd end up in jail or in politics. Junior kept calling in favors to keep him out of the brig but even his influence wasn't always enough.
Harvest '43 we put money in the bank and in '44 we paid cash for everything. Crosby had come out to watch and talk to Mama and Pa. He wasn't particularly interested in talking to me. The next day we had one fewer trucks. I'd noticed Crosby looked particularly fat and pale. A week later Mama and Pa attended his funeral.
I went to school with Crosby's son. He was a snob, trading on his daddies influence, but we all knew it and he knew we did. It didn't go all that well for him. He took over Crosby's Feed and Grain. I was dealing on his daddies deal with me and so we had no cause to meet until harvest was over.
John Crosby gave me a warm smile and firm handshake the first time we met in his office. We laughed at what an impossible lad he'd been and it was then I realized how fast time was moving. I was a farmer's son doing business with Crosby's son. We shook hands and never had a bit of trouble between us.
A few months later he brought a new International out, having heard his father talk about the pathetic machines that got Pa. When I held up my hands and said, no, he laughed and said it was on loan. He wanted me to try it in '44 and if I didn't like it he'd come pick up. If I did like it, he'd make me a very good deal.
Crosby had mostly rented things like hands, trucks, and tractors. His son set up part of the feed and grain to sell equipment. I bought the International because it was cheap and clean to run. It was the start of a good friendship.
Ralph's letters indicated he was still in England. It was early '44 when Ralph started talking about seeing action soon. He couldn't say where or when, and it was just as well.
Junior had seen action in the South Pacific, having a ship torpedoed out from under him. They were lucky enough to be in a large armada, which saw him in the water for less than an hour. Kaleb was fine but ended up on a different ship from Junior. There was no talk of wheeling and dealing him back on with Junior's new ship.
Jacob had left Alabama and was now in the army in the Pacific with an all black unit, joining up as quick as he heard he could. His hope was to go to Europe to meet up with Ralph, but they sent him into the Pacific.
D-Day had all of us on pins and needles and in front of the radio, even with more work to do than I could handle, but I never went out into the field that day. Ike was going head-on against the Atlantic Wall and everyone said he could never penetrate the fortifications Hitler had put there to stop such a thing.
Jake was still listening in the den when I got up the day after D-Day. They were securing the shoreline and moving inland but we had paid an awful price. According to the reports, in the middle of the second day, the worst was over and the invasion of Europe was on. Ike had defied the odds but it was his men that made it happen.
I listened every minute on D-Day, because my brother was probably there. We wouldn't know anything until Ralph wrote or didn't, and so I went back to farming and avoiding the radio. They were all in harms way now and our appetite for the radio was gone.
The long silence after D-Day, gave us no pleasure. Mama moped about the house like she'd lost all interest in life. Ralph had posted a letter on a regular basis for the past two years, and now, we heard not a word. We all suspected the worst and I was left to lie awake each night with sleep rarely visiting me for long.
Ralph was the farmer. He should have been home and I should have been in the war. There is no explanation for the way things happen. Every time Mama talked about the Lord working in mysterious ways, I thought about how totally random life and death could be.
It was three weeks to the day that the phone call came. It wasn't from Ralph, but it was about Ralph. We all held our breaths as Mama held the phone tight to her ear, "Yes, yes, yes, yes. Thank you. Good-bye."
After she hung up, she put her hand to her mouth. Her eyes had teared up and her expression told us nothing.
"What in the hell did they have to say?" Pa demanded, ready to jump out of his skin.
"He was wounded. He can't write. He's coming home. Ralph's coming home. He's alive. Thank God, he's alive."
Everyone cried and laughed and smiled through their tears. Mama didn't tell us that he couldn't write because he had lost his right arm. It was just as well. He was well enough to travel and as quick as they could get him on a boat, he'd be on his way home. It was the best day we had that year. I was relieved.
The fields were growing high by the time Ralph walked up the driveway in his uniform, carrying his duffel bag with his only arm two days after his discharge from military service. Mama saw him from the window and shrieked like she'd just been shot. We all jumped on him before he could get up the steps. It was the first time he'd ever seen my father cry and he seemed embarrassed by all the attention.
There were hugs all around, but Ralph soon soured on the reunion. He sat at the table and spoke one time about what he remembered of D-Day. Ralph had lost more than an arm.
He was on a landing craft. The noise was straight out of hell. Half of them were seasick and the other half were too damn scared to be seasick. The landing craft hit something, turning it to one side. The ramp fell down and everyone started to charge out into the battle.
He didn't know how he was wounded and he didn't remember anything else until he woke up in a hospital in England. What he did remember was the instant his landing craft lurched to a halt and let them out. They found themselves facing a wall of fire that none of them were prepared to face. His face was splattered with other men's blood before it was his turn to charge into the surf.
Once he told us all he had to say on the subject, he said no one should ever ask him about that day again. It wasn't the wound that haunted my brother but the memory of all his dead buddies who never made it to the beach. He seemed to remember that part pretty well.
"Jacob?" Ralph said, without elaborating.
"Pacific," Jake said soulfully.
"He's in combat?" Ralph wanted to know.
"He's with a colored unit. He said they was going to fight."
"Junior and Kaleb," Ralph followed.
"Pacific. No news for months."
Ralph looked up as I walked out on him. I couldn't bear any more words. I never knew what pain was until I got the news about Sven. I'd never heard of Anzio. Word was it was a beach, but war is hell and beaches were deadly.
They'd taken that beach without much of a fuss. Sven wrote me he was in Italy. They weren't opposed at all, but once ashore no one seemed to know where they should go. This made Sven uneasy. The objective was Rome, less than a days march north. They were moved to a spot where the 5th and 8th Armies would meet. They didn't, leaving Sven's unit exposed to a German counterattack..
The details were explained by Raymond Moffit. He was in Sven's unit and drove to the house after his return from the war. He was no more than a boy with hair so blond it was nearly white. He had a baby face and he was as brown as if he'd spent the summer at the beach.
Raymond shipped to the Pacific after Germany's surrender. He got no further than Hawaii when the war ended. He waited there for orders home.
Mama sat him at our table as I paced the kitchen. Raymond kept watching me like I might be a sniper or worse. I didn't want to hear it, but I had to listen.
"I figured I owed it to Sarge, …Big Sven that is, to talk to his people. He says you was them and he described your place to a T. Hell, if it weren't for him, most of us new guys would a bought it in North Africa. He knew which way to go, when to hold tight, and when to go straight at them damn Jerrys. Excuse me ma'am."
"That's fine Raymond. Let me pour you some coffee. Would you like some molasses cookies?"
"Yes, ma'am," Raymond said passionately. "I'd rather have milk if you've some to spare."
Raymond devoured several cookies like he hadn't eaten in some days and downed the milk in a single long gulp, leaving his mouth surrounded by the white liquid making him look even more child like. He talked in quick choppy sentences like he didn't have much time. The words moved like bullets across his lips. You could almost feel the immediacy of his experience. He tried not to cuss but couldn't help himself, being too many years with only men in earshot.
"Can't get use to having fresh milk again. Boy, oh boy, it hits the spot. Thank you, ma'am."
I stopped and stood in the doorway, trying not to show the pain that came from the boy's mission, but I had a need to know and decided I had to listen. He still had a mouth full of cookies when he started anew.
"Sarge, …Big Sven, always kept us "sprouts" close to him. No matter what happened he wanted us following him. From the first day I came under fire I followed that order. He seemed invincible to me. He was something.
"We landed at Anzio Beach. We ran into Kesseling's boys, …that was the German General, after about a week. We'd sat on our asses…. Excuse me ma'am. That's direct from Big Sven's lips though. We'd sat on our duffs for days, waiting for Lucas, …that's our general, to make up his mind what to do with us.
"We landed behind the German lines. They'd held us up for months by then and someone decided on landing a bunch of us behind the enemy line. Big Sven said we was in the perfect position to give Gerry hell. Excuse me ma'am. We had the British and Canadians on one side of their line and we was up behind them. Big Sven said we could have all but wiped them out if we'd only taken the initiative. What the hell was the point of getting in behind Gerry if we wasn't going to finish him off? Excuse me, ma'am.
"But they was worried about the north and we waited, 'cause if the Germans came off the Winter Line they'd have us in the middle and with our asses hanging out. Excuse me ma'am. We wanted to get it done with.
"When Kesseling's boys came at us, we was caught flat footed. There had been little or no fighting for days. We'd been sitting around drinking coffee and resting from a year of fighting through North Africa and Sicily. Waiting is the shits once you get use to fighting. Excuse me, ma'am.
"When the battle started, Big Sven had us take cover in a gully. It was pretty hilly there, lots of cover. We hadn't seen them yet and the attack came sudden. We hadn't had any artillery or such as that up until then. It was three mortars coming in, puff, puff, puff. You can hear 'em before they hit anything. We ducked into a clump of trees next to that gully, but Big Sven wasn't with us. Once the fire moved off we went back to where we'd been. There he was. Took damn shrapnel to the chest," he said, unrepentant and looking like he was seeing it again. "Corpsman said he took it in the heart. He never knew what hit him. I thought it important you know that in case you figured he suffered.
"There we were all standing around him. Me and Green and Jessup was crying. I'd seen lots of dead guys by then, but none of them was Big Sven. He'd made soldiers out of us by then, when we was green as Maggy's drawers when he got us. Excuse me ma'am. He'd been there for us every step of the way for two years. Damn, we all felt exposed without him being there. Excuse me, Ma'am.
"If Big Sven couldn't make it how would we? Just a freak thing. That's what it was. No figuring who gets it who don't. No figuring that at all. It's war is all."
Raymond stayed for dinner, but I excused myself once grace was said, having no appetite for food or more of Raymond's war stories. He was the first person who came back and wanted to talk about it, but he was only a kid and hearing how Sven died didn't make me feel a damn bit better.
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