Most of you know I grew up on a farm in Illinois. It was like this:
I wandered down the dirt road, staying on the smooth ridge between two hard ruts that melted into black mud after a good rain. On this sun-baked summer day in 1953, I dragged my bare feet to raise puffs of dust as I passed–little clouds that hung for a moment in the air then sifted back to earth, leaving a powdery trail behind me.
Bored with reading, I snuck down to the drainage ditch to watch the muskrats and to wade in the shallow cold water. Wading was against my mother’s rules. Dirty shards of broken glass, as well as rusty nails that had worked free from the bridge’s worn boards, buried themselves in the loamy creek bottom, and poisonous snakes occasionally hid in the weeds and tall grasses along the banks. I looked back the quarter mile to the house to make sure my mother wasn’t watching before I climbed down the path my brother and I had worn in the steep bank below the bridge.
Perched on a large, flat rock, I plunged my feet into the water. The cold numbed my toes and eased its way up my legs. I stood up and took a couple of steps into the ditch then stopped and felt the mucky earth squish up between my toes as the creek bottom sucked my feet down like quicksand.
I yanked my feet free, stepped out of the murky swirl of mud I had created, and stretched out against the steep ditch bank. With my head tilted back, and both hands gripping clumps of tallgrass so I wouldn’t slide into the ditch, I watched cotton ball clouds stretch and bend as they practiced their Tai-Chi forms in the sky. The silence was disturbed only by the far away drone of a tractor and the ringing song of a red-winged blackbird bouncing on a low-hanging branch of the spiny osage-orange tree that guarded the corner of our soybean field. The air smelled of white sweet clover and fresh-mown hay.
We were tenant farmers and not rich in possessions, but as a child I had no idea how poor we really were or how precarious our existence. Whether attacked by vicious thunderstorms, waves of ravenous Army worms, persistent and devastating droughts, or simply the landowner deciding to sell his farm, we were vulnerable to forces we could not control. In the midst of all this uncertainty, my father did what he could to make our lives better. The installation of indoor plumbing in the old house provided by our landlord was, in my childish opinion, his greatest accomplishment.
The original bathroom contained a yellowed utility sink equipped with an old-fashioned hand pump which spewed forth icy well water after a few seconds of hearty pumping. A large, claw-footed, porcelain-coated tub sat under the window.
The critical facility was outside: a weather-grayed wood outhouse inhabited by huge spiders and a stink that took my breath away in spite of, or maybe because of, the germ and odor fighting chemicals my parents poured into the pit.
When the weather was really wicked, my mother gave up and hauled out a white enameled metal pot.
“Do you remember,” my mother once asked, “how it felt when you got up in the dark, half asleep, and sat down on the pot without remembering to remove the freezing cold lid?”
Oh, yes, I still remember that.
We had electricity in those days, but our house was heated in the winter by two oil-burning stoves, one in the kitchen and one in the living room. On wintry days we huddled close to the stoves to play our games or read because the other five rooms were so frigid we could see our breath.
To combat the chill my mother conducted this drill at bedtime: she took soft flannel sheet blankets and warmed them over the heating stove then bunched them tightly against her chest and rushed toward the bedroom. At the last second my brother and I raced to our beds, jumped in, and curled into tight little balls to hold in as much body heat as possible. My mother then wrapped each of us in a warm blanket, tucked us in like cocoons, and covered us with blankets and comforters.
There were other ways our parents enriched our lives over the years. My father planted an ambitious garden that provided enough vegetables to feed us all summer plus fill the freezer for winter. He raised all kinds of livestock including cattle, pigs, and sheep so we ate high on the hog compared to many of our city friends. The work that accompanied livestock farming wasn’t always pleasant but the rewards made it worth the trouble.
Except maybe raising the dumbest and dirtiest creatures I’ve ever known: chickens. I didn’t think eggs were worth the blue pointy bruises the hens pecked on the backs of my hands when I invaded their nests; and I didn’t think eating chicken was worth the disgusting job of raising them, much less the machete murders and boiling water de-feathering procedures that preceded gutting and washing the carcasses.
The worst farm chore I ever had to perform was cleaning out the chicken house. When I lifted the first pitchfork load of straw matted down by ripe chicken manure and broken eggs, a foul ammonia-like stench filled the structure and contaminated my sense of smell for hours. To compound my misery, I had to dust the cleaned building for chicken lice, an odd requirement since by then most of the vermin were crawling around on my body. I ran for the house as soon as I was finished, jumped in the tub, frantically scrubbed, and finally submerged myself to drown every last tiny insect.
I had another bad experience in that chicken house. Too lazy to put on shoes and socks to gather the eggs one day, I slipped my bare feet into a pair of rubber boots and shuffled past the row of wooden nests, running the top of my foot directly into a rusty pitchfork that had fallen off its nail and lay partially hidden under the straw. I still have my foot, thanks to the knowledge and attention of my mother, the R.N., but it was a tough and painful lesson about common sense.
My brother, Bob, also has unpleasant chicken memories. When he was young and cute, he was also fearless, rebellious, and downright ornery. When Mother needed to do barnyard chores she lifted my brother up onto the seat of a tractor and left him well-guarded by a large and evil white rooster. The attack rooster was vicious; it circled the John Deere, making angry pecking and scratching motions and flapping its wings as if to threaten an aerial assault. Bobber, as we called him when he was little, wasn’t afraid of much, but he was terrified of that rooster. He stayed put, howling in protest, until my mother finished her chores and chased the rooster away by flailing at it with a broom. My mother’s intent was not malicious and definitely not intended to scar Bob for life. He seems okay . . . most of the time.
Bob and I were not allowed to climb the trees on our farm, but I wasn’t sure whether my father was afraid one of us would fall and break something, or whether he thought we would damage the trees. It didn’t matter. We climbed them anyway, every time his back was turned. A small cherry tree was our training tree, but we eventually broke a couple of limbs and my father found out. That was a painful lesson on the subject of obedience, a concept neither of us ever fully grasped.
When I was older, the perfect tree was a black cherry that stood at the corner of our orchard. I climbed very high and straddled the solid support of a big smooth-barked limb, hidden from the world by a natural lattice of branches and leaves, tiny sprays of white flowers in the spring, and small, blackish cherries in late summer. It was cool and quiet there. I leaned against the huge trunk and hid out for hours, reveling in the privacy and freedom (not to mention the thrill of getting away with something I was not supposed to do). I was one with the earth and yet high above earthly concerns. I felt as though, safely anchored by that tree, I could wander anywhere in the universe, and no one would ever know I was gone.
Now, of course, I realize my mother knew exactly where I was and what I was doing there, but being an experienced and rebellious tree-climber and secret-traveler herself, she never told my father.
When Bob and I were kids it was standard practice for central Illinois soybean farmers to “walk the beans.” The obsessive drive to keep a soybean field free of volunteer corn plants, butterprint, milkweed, and thistles (and the harvested grain free of foreign matter) created good summertime jobs for kids and farm crews for hire. It was a beautiful thing–a bean field with straight clean rows.
We walked the beans every summer, bullied out of bed at first light and sent to the fields with a hoe or a hook–a handle on a long rod with a sharp hook on the end. We usually covered three or four rows on either side, and walked from one end of the enormous fields to the other, back and forth, over and over. We spent at least two hours a day in good weather browning our skin, thinking, day-dreaming, or just being friends–but mostly arguing and throwing dirt clods at each other.
There were things to be learned out there in the fields. We learned that the velvety soft leaves of butterprint weeds make the best substitute for toilet paper; that our father had a very sharp eye and always noticed when we carelessly chopped out bean plants along with the weeds; that nothing tasted better than a drink of cold well water after a couple of turns around the field; and that even a dirt clod to the head didn’t hurt as much as skin brushed against the stinging hairs of a nettle plant.
My brother and I fought with great enthusiasm when we were kids, and the dirt clod battles were characteristic of how we dealt with our differences. As we got older our fights became more frequent, louder, and often involved smacking, pushing, and shoving. One day we stood on the porch and argued with such obvious loathing that my mother calmly came out of the kitchen and handed each of us a butcher knife.
“If you hate each other that much,” she said, “why don’t you just kill each other?”
She then turned and stalked back into the house, letting the screen door close softly behind her. I felt guilty, but I suspect my brother had his moment of temptation. I later found out that my mother stayed hidden inside, by the kitchen door, watching, just in case one or both of us missed the point of her lesson.
I had dawdled down at the drainage ditch long enough. A breeze had picked up and the clouds had become thicker and darker. As hot as it was, a thunderstorm was likely so I knew I’d best head home. I scrambled up the steep bank, pulling at old roots and strong weeds to ease my climb. On the worn planks of the bridge I stood, legs apart, hands on my hips, and stared across the clean orderly bean fields with a sense of pride.
When I looked to the west, however, I sucked in my breath to see the clouds had taken on the greenish black hue of an old bruise. I turned and started running down the road toward our house. My mother stood at the end of the driveway jerking her arm back and forth, waving something white in my direction. I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t care. I was scared. I wanted to get home.
We made it through that storm as well as we made it through most others: the oak tree lost a large limb which fortunately missed the house when it fell; the wind jerked a storm window out of my mother’s hands and smashed it against the ground; and something cut a path through the once tidy soybean field leaving a fifty-foot-wide trail of flattened, twisted, and uprooted plants.
I didn’t think of the financial impact of that assault on our crops. I thought about the hours I’d spent in the field, the beauty and order I’d created, and how quickly and easily it had been stripped away. However, there wasn’t much time for the philosophical musings of an eleven-year-old. We were soon back at work, lifting and straightening the damaged plants as best we could, walking the beans, moving on.