Friday, January 20, 2006

Summer Days of Cultivation

One of my childhood jobs on the farm was cultivating. After the corn and soybeans had emerged from the ground, there are six to eight weeks to weed between the rows before they get too tall to do so. This was done with a cultivator that could straddle six rows at a time and turn over the soil with long steel shanks. Because corn grows a lot faster than soybeans, it was usually a race to get them done first and them a more leisurely time for the soybeans.

During cultivating season in early summer, my day would start early with a quiet knock on the bedroom door. My father and I would eat our breakfast and then head outside still an hour before the first rays of sunshine would scratch the sky. By the sulfur yellow glow of the outdoor light, we would grease our tractors and cultivators in the chilling morning air serenaded by the crickets. We would set off for the field and usually arrive just as the sky starting turning a rosy orange and begin work, driving up and down, six rows at a time, taking out weeds before they had a chance to get started.

The work was pretty dull with most of the actual work happening at the end of the rows. There you would have to lift the cultivator out of the ground, throttle back, shift down, turn by hooking the front wheels just past a row of beans on the end rows making sure the rear dual ended in-between two rows as well to avoid crushing more plants than necessary, counting off another six rows, getting lined up, throttled up, geared up and cultivator back in the ground. After that, all you really had to do was go straight and keep the wheels in-between rows so that the cultivator shanks didn't take out six rows of crop or as my grandfather called it, cultivator blight.

Back then, most of our fieldwork was done on open tractors. These days, tractors have cabs with radio and air conditioning but back then you were open to the elements for the most part. We did have small umbrellas that we mounted on the fenders of the tractor to shield ourselves from the sun but did little to protect you from the wind, rain, dust and heat. Mornings were my favorite time mostly because of the lighting conditions. I guess those were my first lessons in morning light that would later help me as an amateur photographer. The crops would be deep green like properly sautéed vegetables in a hot wok, the sky would be a deep blue and old weathered gray fence posts would almost appear white. The heat of the day had yet to set in making a light jacket comfortable.

But soon the sun would rise up over the canopy and the heat would appear causing us to shed layers like a snake. Soon after, the top layer of soil would dry of its morning dew and clouds of dust would rise up. If you were lucky there would be a cross wind but more often than not, it was either at your front or back... one-way. This meant that on half of your trip to the field, the dust kicked up from the cultivator would drift past the open tractor choking the occupant. I carried a handkerchief for just such an occasion and tied it around my nose and mouth bandito style to filter it out of my lungs. It was uncomfortable for sure but necessary unless you wanted to cough up black dirt later that evening. By the end of the day, I would be coated head to toe with a thick layer of dust which I am sure drove my mother to fits doing the laundry.

Some days my mother would drive out at lunch time to bring us our lunches, other times if we were close to the home farm we would drive in and occasionally when neither of those two options were feasible we would bring our lunches with us. I disliked doing this simply because I hated blowing off the thick layer of dust off of my food before eating it and the spout of the water jug always ended up a muddy paste that had to be wiped away with your shirt sleeve, also covered in dust, before drinking. You just learned to like grit. Back in my childhood days, farmers often stopped for lunch whether it was brought out to the field or we brought it in lunch buckets. Now a days there are just too many acres to cover and not enough time so you work why you eat. You learn to eat a sandwich between the ends of the rows or learn to hold it in your mouth while working all the levers. I normally timed it so that the last bite was crammed into my mouth just before the turn.

Iowa springtime weather can change on a dime as with most of the midwest. You can go from a cloudless day to a full out lightening thunderstorm in less than an hour. Many times I was caught out in the rain and there was nothing to do on an open tractor but learn to get wet. It kept the dust down but turned all the dust coated objects into muddy ones. Sometimes I would have to take off a sock or something so that I could clean the steering wheel of the mud so that I could keep a grip. I'm sure my mom always wondered how the one sock got muddier than the other one. If it were a light rain, we would continue working until the ground would start balling up instead of crumble. Spring showers are often short so this was the case most of the time. Occasionally we would get rained out for half a day or perhaps a whole day but not often. More than once when lightening was near, we would get off the tractors and hunker down in a nearby ditch until the worst was over and make a dash home.

With no radio and just enough mental focus on the job at hand to do it correctly, I was still left with a surplus of mental power that I needed to entertain myself with or get bored. I did lots of serious thinking on those days mulling over subjects that had been bothering me or sometimes I just sang woefully out of tune and mercifully drowned out by the tractor engine. I would sing every song I knew completely and then the parts of songs that I only knew one verse or perhaps the chorus. When I finished, there was nothing left to do but start all over singing them again. By the twentieth time, even that would bore me to tears. I did lots of mental designing trying to create solutions to make things work better, mostly answering questions that had never been asked. Sometimes I would build them later like I did my portable farrowing unit and other times they would quickly be forgotten as fast as they had been dreamed up.

Most evenings we would work until sunset, which came at eight or nine in the evening making it a sixteen-hour day. Those days were what I call slow days. Slow days are days that aren't physically demanding but still wear you out mentally. On more physical days, time always went faster mostly because you worked from the neck down and allowed your brain to sleep awhile while the rest of your muscles worked their butts off. Occasionally, even a slow day went slower. One day cultivating, I had just switched to a field much closer to the home farm while my father was finishing up the field that we had been working on previously. My Mom tried reaching him on the radio but he was too far away so I answered. She said my grandfather was having a heart attack and she was taking him to the hospital. A half hour later when my father showed up, I radioed him the news and he left for home immediately leaving me behind. Not knowing what to do, I continued doing what I was doing for the remaining eleven hours left in our day. My grandfather would end up dying of another massive heart attack while in the hospital a few days later, but the rest of that day were some of the longest in my life.

Eventually all days come to an end and so the sun would start turning red again near the horizon and we would head off in the twilight for home. We would fuel up the tractors and check over the cultivator replacing worn out shanks or broken springs as necessary. We would beat as much dust as possible from our clothes and then head into the shop and the air compressor where with a pump and electricity on our side, we would do a more thorough cleaning. Inside, our clothes went directly to the washing machine and the rest of us through the shower before sitting down to dinner. The crickets would be in full chorus and usually the only sound beyond the scraping of utensils on our plates, especially towards the end after we had recounted how many deer, snakes, eagles, bobwhites, etc. that we had seen during the day. Our brains, tired from the job of entertaining the rest of our body all day long, would shut down tight, allowing only a few stray sparks of the synapses to finish eating and guide us to bed. That quiet knock on the door always came way too soon.

No comments: