by Jessica Lindsey of Beavercreek, OR
Aged bed springs creaking, Sam pushed the tangled blankets back, swung his feet down onto the woolen brown rug and sat up. Resting his elbows on his knees, he put his silver-haired head in his hands. The jester, Sleep, had eluded him like a cat playing with a mouse, and after laying awake an hour, his active mind nagging at him, he willed himself up. Sam dragged his blue denim overalls up over his red plaid shirt. An agonizing whoosh of breath forced its way out of his lungs as he bent over to lace up the supple leather work boots. Groaning, he caught hold of the headboard and forcefully dragged himself to his feet. Muscles quivering, he let time steady his exertion. If this was what old age was like at 73, he was ready to die now and avoid the misery. What did he have to live for anyway?
Strength returning after the dark hours of inactivity, he picked up his coat and hat off his varnished walnut chair and put them on. Opening the door, he stepped out into the hallway and went down it to the kitchen. Sam wasn’t all that hungry but he got out a black cast iron frying pan, like the ones his mother used to use, and started some bacon cooking. When the bacon was sizzling and oozing oil, he cracked three of his home-grown brown eggs into the pan. Turning up the heat and adding pepper and salt, the salty fried smell was overwhelming. Stomach rumbling and mouth salivating, Sam realized that he actually was hungry.
Hunger’s hold loosened, Sam wandered outside to finish the new nest box that he had been working on for the chicken house. What years ago would have been a glorious opportunity to exercise his innovative creativity had turned into a dull chore to pass time now that his existence had morphed into an oppressive abyss of blackness. While cutting some boards on his electric table saw, Sam was visited by a familiar thought: “The day I stop being able to work is the day I will die.” Like a north wind driving cold through a threadbare coat, Sam was overcome with a tremendous sadness and misery that threatened to snuff out the dying embers of his soul.
Longing filled him as the rough, tanned face of his father filled his mind. Heart aching for his old life he sank down onto an overturned bucket and tried to fight back the liquid flooding his eyes. His shoulders hunched and his arms wrapped around his pulled up knees in an unconscious effort to draw away from the brutal world. He knew he was too old to cry. Why was his wretched life so far from where he had expected it to be?
The world had changed so much in the name of progress but how much better was it now? “Get big or get out” summarized how farming had changed during his life. People hardly went outside anymore and became fat sitting in their homes avoiding the weather. Children stayed inside, constantly watching TV or playing video games. When he went to the store, strangers would hurry by without even looking at him or each other. And families were disconnected and broken. Young adults couldn’t wait to leave their parents and their parents couldn’t wait for them to go. Instead of walking to neighbors houses to visit, like Sam had, people only connected online.
Loneliness welled up like a weight pressing down on him, causing a constant aching in his chest. Working distracted him long enough to cause the misery to subside to the back of his mind but increasingly often it would burst forth into a wild fire that tried to force the ache up his throat and out his mouth in a sob of misery.
Sam had been so happy as a child. Days flew by in a blissful paradise. All Sam had wanted was to grow up like his father – living in harmony with the world, feeling the immense pleasure and satisfaction of a hard job well done, and treasuring an intimate bond with the horses and animals. Then 63 years ago in 1949 his life had started to turn upside down like a great hand shaking a snow globe or a hurricane cruelly devastating a town. He could clearly remember the days as it happened. His mouth twitched upward in a half smile. That morning before it had all started to happen, he had burned his finger on his mother’s cook stove. Just thinking about it made his finger tingle. He had been a rosy-cheeked 10-year-old, slim but sturdy with a desire to please.
White pain seared up my finger and I jerked my hand back. Carefully I put my finger in my mouth to suck away the throbbing hurt that pulsated under my skin. Drawing it out of my mouth I examined the damage. A thick line evolved from a blistering red to a deadly white.
“Sam, have you finished with that yet?”
Trying to avoid bumping my finger I quickly maneuvered my arm around the black iron door of the cook stove that I had burned my finger on while opening it. Squatting, I scooped up a medium-sized log from the box near the iron stove and shoved it into the hot, gaping hole out of which heat radiated from the fiery depths within. The log fell back away from the flames so I grabbed another stick and tried to roll the first log back onto the pile of searing embers. When the log was situated nicely atop the red hot cinders and the skin on my hands had started to bake, I swung the door closed and twisted the latch shut. Standing up I brushed the debris that had fallen from the log off my pants and went to report to my mother.
Outside the warm sunbeams fell onto my face and a little breeze lifted the line of hair along my forehead. The enormous blue sky was clear except for one small white brilliant cloud that hung lazily way up there. Birds were chirping in the stand of trees lining the banks of our small creek and a drone of buzzing came from the pasture of wild flowers.
“Ah, good.” Mother was coming from the well outside carrying a bucket full of rippling, clear, cool well water. It was said that one drink in the hot summer from our little well under the big walnut trees could make any man feel ten years younger. Stopping in front of me, Mother re-tied the strings on her apron behind her back. She was wearing a faded robin red dress with sprigs of little blue and yellow flowers scattered over it. Mother was a strong, stout woman with a rounded, pleasant face and long honey brown hair that she braided and pinned up into a bun. She had soft blue eyes and a ready smile that would light up her face. Mother had been a school teacher for a few years before she married Father.
“Your father is hoping that tomorrow will stay this hot and keep up these breezes so he can harvest the upper meadow.” Father owned 160 acres in the Willamette Valley. He had planted 40 acres of wheat, 20 acres of corn, and 20 acres of oats. The rest was pasture, hay, and forest with a vegetable garden near the house. We would need several good days and a lot of help in order to harvest the wheat.
“Where is Father?” I asked.
“He’s in the barn fixing Billy’s harness.” Yesterday one of the trace keepers that held the traces up so the horse didn’t step over them broke while Father was pulling a stump out of the sheep pasture.
Turning around I reached through the door and grabbed my straw hat off a peg on the wall. Pulling the hat on, I ran to the barn. Sure enough, I found Father sitting on an overturned metal bucket in the harness room of the horse barn leaning over a heap of harness. He was stitching through the leather with a leather needle dangling some feed sack string in one of his large calloused hands with a thimble on his thumb and the harness held in the other hand. I stood above him watching his quick sure strokes.
“Ma says we might harvest the wheat in the upper meadow.”
Father grunted his confirmation.
“Do you think the wheat is ready?” I asked.
“Son, pass me my knife. It’s over there on that box.” I looked around the room. Harness was hanging on pegs along the back wall. Single trees, double trees, clevises, chains and other various hitch equipment were hanging and piled along another side of the room. The rest of the smallish area was devoted to odds and ends hung, piled, and stacked along the walls, on shelves and on the floor. Father pointed to a box a few feet away where his ivory handled knife lay with its four-inch blade open resting on top of the box.
After I handed him the knife, he said, “I don’t want to wait much longer before harvesting the grain because if it gets much drier the grain will fall out. I would rather harvest right when the stalks have just turned golden. No point in waiting until they brown and you risk losing your crop. On the other hand, if you harvest too soon, while the stalks are still a little green, you lose some of your crop because the grain hasn’t filled out all the way. We’ll have to wait till tomorrow to see if this weather holds.” Father closed the knife and put it in his pocket. Then he picked up a little paper box that fit into the palm of his big hand and put the needle in it before storing it back onto a shelf. Side by side with Father, carrying the milk pail, we walked out into the barn yard and took the little stepping stone lined walkway up to the back of the house.
Up against the side of the house by the back door was a wash stand with a white ceramic bowl, a pitcher of water, and a dish of grey homemade lard and lye soap. Nailed to the side of the house was a little square mirror and next to it was hung a faded pink wash towel. Father set the milk pail inside the house and then stepped up to the stand and poured some of the water from the pitcher over one of his hands that was above the bowl. Then switching hands on the pitcher, he poured water over his other hand. Putting the pitcher down, he scrubbed his hands with the soap and rubbed until he had loosened up all the dirt. Then he poured more water over his hands and dried them with the towel. Grabbing the bowl he took it over to some of Mother’s flowers growing at the base of an alder tree and flung the water out over them. When he had replaced the bowl, he sat down on a log near the back door and proceeded to take off his worn brown leather boots. Then it was my turn at the water.
When I was all washed up and dried, I followed Father into the house. The sweet smell of peach cobbler hit my nose and sent ravenous hunger through my belly. Inside everyone was bustling about to get breakfast ready. I was born third with two brothers and three sisters. Mother and Father had alternating boys and girls. First was my older brother Charles, my sister Sarah, me, sister Mary, brother John, and baby sister Betsy. Father had sent Charles into Oregon City to buy some teeth for the McCormick binder and to remind the neighbors that we would be needing help to harvest the wheat soon so Charles wouldn’t be back till that evening. My older sister had a stack of mother’s forget-me-not china bowls resting on her arm and was placing them around the table. Mother was pulling the cobbler out of the oven. Mary was trying to keep John out of the way while holding the baby.
Finally everything was ready and Father sat at the head of the oak extension table that he had shipped from the Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog. Father blessed the food and finally I was allowed to eat. Mother spooned several lumps of cobbler into my bowl and gave it a good covering of the syrupy peaches. Over it all she poured cream out of a little pitcher.
After breakfast Mother and Sarah washed the dishes, with water heated on the cook stove. Father and I headed outside to the equipment shed to make sure the equipment we might need tomorrow was working correctly after the winter of sitting and to readjust it for this year’s crop. Father and I hooked the three-horse evener up to Father’s McCormick grain binder. Then Father pulled the three white canvases out of a box that had been resting atop the binder. I helped Father unroll the canvases and we carefully threaded them through the wooden roller bars and strapped each canvas’s ends together completing three conveyors. Getting the right even tension in the canvases was very important so that they didn’t walk across the roller as the machine ran and cause damage to canvases or machine. As Father was finishing up with the canvases I carried the grease gun and oil can over and started to squirt oil onto the moving parts.
“Oil it like you were borrowing the neighbor’s oil can.”
I pumped more oil out of the can and watched it run down the metal into the cracks. I pulled a tangle of last year’s old wheat stalks out of a crevice. The knotter mechanism didn’t look like much but I was always fascinated to watch it at work. How could anybody have invented something so wonderful?
“I’ll go harness the horses while you finish with the grease and oil.” Father grabbed the seat post and hauled himself up from the position on his back under the binder. As I worked, I could see his long legs carry him over to the horse barn. Out in the small field that led into the barn the four horses looked up from grazing the short grass that managed to poke up in such a well-used area. Father’s shrill whistle sounded and the horses came plodding in with dominant Bess at the front followed by Billy, Molly, and Hank bringing up the rear. This routine had become so ingrained in human and horses that each motion flowed with a purposeful grace. I suppose the oats that Father poured into the manger box of each tie stall helped lure the horses a bit as well.
Father curried and brushed Billy, Molly and, Hank before he slid their collars over their heads to rest against their shoulders. Then he pulled each of their harnesses down off their hooks on the wall and let them slide onto his shoulder while he held one of the hames that went onto the collar in each hand. He swung a harness up onto each horse and buckled it on. Then he led each horse out of the barn and tied it up at the hitch post where he put the bridles and lines on and hooked up a neck yoke in the front between Billy and Molly. Then, like a “U” shaped rope fence, he snapped a rope onto the outside hame of Billy who was the left outside horse and ran it around the back of the horses, through their breachen and back to the front, to snap onto the outside hame of Hank who was the right outside horse. This way the horses couldn’t turn their hindquarters away from each other and end up with the horses turned completely around facing the out-of-control teamster.
I realized that I had been so mesmerized by watching my father that I had forgotten about my job. Quickly I hurried to finish squeezing grease into the last fittings. Sidestepping, the three-abreast team swung around beside the equipment shed before Father guided them forward, with Billy stepping over the tongue, into place. Father handed me the lines but the horses knew the routine and stayed put as he walked around to the front. He slipped the end of the tongue into the ring on the neck yoke until it ran up against the stop about five inches from the end of the tongue. Then he tied the neck yoke to the tongue with some wire. Coming around behind, Father started from the inside and working out, hooking each horse’s traces to the three-horse evener. Then, taking the lines from me, he climbed up onto the cast-iron seat of the binder and with a “Git up” started the horses out into the barnyard while I ran ahead to open the gate.
When we got to the field, Father had me hold the horses while he went out to look at the wheat heads and stalks. He came back with a few stems that bent with the weight of the wheat kernels in them. The wheat field had turned golden and lazily waved in the breeze. The hot sun beams on the wheat made a smell like baking bread. Father brought over the stems of wheat so I could see. All of the stems were completely golden except the smallest one that had a green tint near the root.
“See how they are almost dry but not too crackly yet? And see how big the kernels are?” He cracked a head open between his thumb and forefinger to reveal fat little wheat berries.
“If the sun keeps shining, by tomorrow we will surely be able to harvest the wheat.” Father was excited which made me excited too. He climbed up on the binder and started the horses. When he got to the edge of the wheat, he turned the horses right and flipped a lever that started the gears turning in a clicking, clattering raucous. Going counter clockwise around the field, the big wooden arms swung around as the sickle bar cut through the wheat stalks and laid a swath of wheat onto the conveyor. The golden wheat stalks were bunched and tied before tumbling into the dump-basket. Father pushed a lever with his foot and with a clatter the basket dumped five tied bundles. I ran to stand up the bundles on their ends in a shock with the heads leaning together, making sure to leave a tunnel going through the middle so the breeze could dry out the wheat.
“Son, come here.” Father had stopped the binder and climbed down from the seat. I hurried over to help him.
“The knotter is missing every few bundles and on other bundles the twine is too long.” On the ground I could see the scattered stalks of a burst bundle. Father handed me the lines and went to adjust the settings on the knotter. After working on the knotter awhile he turned a handle that allowed him to hand-run the machine in order to clear the grain stalks out so he could start fresh. Then he climbed back up onto the seat and started the horses again.
Hand-tying the broken bundles, I set them up into a shock to dry. After stopping and adjusting the binder several more times, Father was finally satisfied and we headed back to the barn.
Back at the barn, Father announced that he was going to tell the neighbors that we would be harvesting tomorrow and to bring Uncle Tom’s threshing machine over from Tom’s farm down the road. Father unhitched Hank and left him in his tie stall before climbing up onto Molly and driving the team down the road.
When Father’s tall, straight back had disappeared down a dip in the road and the clip clop of the horse’s hooves had faded, I turned and went into the barn. Putting the single lines on Hank, I drove him out to the equipment shed where I hooked him up to the lightweight wagon. Climbing up onto the bench seat I drove him across the barnyard and down the aisle in the barn. Coming to the end of the isle I stopped him and tied the lines to the wagon seat in a slip knot like Father had shown me. Eye lids drooping, Hank cocked a back foot and hung his head, dozing in the little pool of light streaming through the barn door onto his blackish brown back.
Using a pitchfork, I stabbed into the layers of manure and bedding straw that covered the horse pen inside the barn. After the wagon was full I climbed up onto the wagon seat and drove Hank out to the field behind the barn. There I pitched the manure and straw onto a big decomposing manure pile. The fresh new material flung from my fork with a dull thud on the old shell that covered the moldering pile disturbing the digestive process beneath and releasing a musty steam.
Later that day Father came home driving the team pulling the thresher. There, beside Father was Charles, swaying to the rhythm of his mount. When they rode into the barnyard, Charles unbuckled his leather saddle bags and tossed me the replacement teeth for the binder. While we ate supper, Father said that everything was ready to start the harvest tomorrow. Snuggled up against Charles and John, under several of mother’s patchwork quilts, we went to bed early so we could get up as the first glimmers of light danced across the sky.
I awoke to Mother calling out for us to get up. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I pulled my clothes on. John mumbled to himself and turned over burying his face in the pillow.
In the dining room we heard the mantle clock sound the hour. Dong, dong, dong, dong, dong. It was five o’clock. I rushed ahead of Charles into the dining room to eat before the neighbors came. As Father stabbed his fork into the last bit of pancake, I entered the room. Smiling at my haste to begin the day, Mother set a plate before me and I started to eat as Charles came in. As I was finishing up, I heard a wagon pull into the barn yard and a horse snort. Then I heard Father talking. Stuffing the last bit of pancake into my mouth, I stacked my dishes on the pile near the dish water and hurried out the back door. Standing up on the flat bed of his hay wagon, with the ends of his lines tied to the front rails was the bulky mass of muscular power that was Uncle Tom.
“Ready to git to work Sam?” Tom’s lustrous brown eyes were looking down at me.
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Well, Bud,” Tom said to Father, “if you’re wantin’ to stay here until them neighbors come, I can get the equipment set up.”
“Don’t tighten the canvases on the binder yet.” Father started off to the house.
“Hey, Bud!” Tom called out, “care if the boy tags along?”
Father turned around to face us. After glancing at my eager face he nodded to Tom and continued on his way to the house. Tom winked at me and I jumped in the air with a whoop before running to open the gate. Hooves clopping and muscles bunching and rippling the two massive chunks of horse flesh swung around pulling the wagon through the fir-log gate. On the other side of the gate, Tom shouted out “whoa” and those big horses planted their feet. I quickly shoved the wooden latch into place before running to scramble up onto the bed of the wagon.
Tom’s massive draft horses were his pride and joy. Father didn’t see the sense in having so big of horses to feed when they weren’t needed all the time. At times of the year when extra horse power was needed, Father and the neighbors helped each other out. Tom had always liked big, powerful things and when he was a kid he would skip school while my Father and their other brothers and sisters diligently did their schooling. He loved nature and would go fishing on the Willamette River trying to catch the largest and heaviest fish he could. When he went hunting he went after the biggest game, but he was never wasteful and he never killed for the fun of it. As a kid, he was always getting in trouble with his father because Grandpa and Grandma thought children should have a good education and Tom didn’t see the use of one.
After I had crawled up onto the bed of the wagon, Tom started up the team. With a lurch the wagon rolled forward. I hung onto the rails at the front of the wagon beside Tom and after a few minutes Tom handed me the lines. Tom’s horses worked into the bit and the moment my hands were on the lines in contact with the horses’ mouths I felt alive. Energy ran up and down the lines. I could feel the horses’ thoughts as they reacted to the world around them. My arms relaxed and moved with the motion of their bodies. With the heat of the sun on my back, and a breeze licking my hair, my world was perfect. I was in one of those moments where it felt like the world had stopped for a moment of blissful paradise, a moment of heaven on earth.
All too soon, Uncle Tom took the reins back and we jolted to a stop beside the wheat field. As I clambered off the wagon, Tom swung down, unhitched the horses, and tied their lead ropes to the back rack on the wagon. I helped Tom set up the four arm horse power to run the thresher. We each held an end of the 30-foot belt that ran between the thresher and horse power and Tom gave it one twist before we slipped the ends onto the pulleys. About when we had finished setting things up, the neighbors came in their wagons, riding horses, and some on foot. Tom and I could see them crowding into the barnyard. Father came out of the house followed by Charles. I could see Father’s mouth move as he talked. A little later the women and small children went inside to help Mother prepare the noon meal.
Soon the men and older boys came out to the wheat field. The younger boys, who wanted to, went off to play by the creek. Glowing with pride and jittery with excitement, I went to work among the crew of men. There were 19 grown men total and a handful of boys. After putting the canvases on, Father climbed up onto the binder and started off down the field. A few of the men and boys followed after the binder with pitchforks to stack the bundles into shocks. The rest of us got ready to thresh the grain from the shocks that Father and I had bundled while we were adjusting the binder.
On the horse power, four teams of horses pulled the arms in an everlasting circle. Freckled, skinny, and topped with a straw hat, a boy armed with a whip stood on a platform above the horse power, monitoring the speed of the horses. Several teams pulling hay wagons flecked the field with men and boys scattered among them pitching dried bundles up onto the wagons like bees swarming around hives. When a wagon was mounded, so that extra bundles just slid off, it pulled up beside the thresher while the men with that wagon stood on the shocks and pitched them into the mouth of the thresher. Spinning on a shaft, strong blades shredded the bundles, shattering the grain from the heads. Every man and boy used the utmost care to keep their body away from the mouth of that machine. One moment of carelessness and it could blend you into a mutilated mess. At the back of the machine a whirlwind of pulverized chaff blew out, piling up to into a mountain of slick straw. On pegs at the side of the machine, a burlap sack was positioned below a chute to catch the cascading grain. Rough threads snagging on callused hands, a man carried the sack away to be sewn shut while another sack replaced the first.
“Sam!” Uncle Tom called me over to watch him adjust the machine. Standing beside the hurling chaff Tom stuck his arm out into the bombardment. “Stick your hand out.”
Doing as told, I stuck my arm out into that tornado. Chaff whipped by my arm. Suddenly, I felt several stings like from a bee. With a small cry I pulled my arm back.
“Those are wheat berries.” Tom told me. “The fan inside is blowing too much. Too hard.” Grabbing a wrench Tom expertly adjusted the mechanism. Again Tom extended his arm and looked at me expectantly. Anticipation gnawing at my stomach I hesitantly stretched out my arm. I caught my breath as I felt a sting, but it wasn’t so bad after all. This time Tom directed me, while I twisted the bolts. Satisfied, Tom hitched his horses to his hay wagon.
“Hop up there and drive the horses while I toss bundles in.”
At the front of the wagon I ran the supple leather lines through my fingers. Feeling the contact once again, I called out “Git up” and guided the horses out into the field. Stopping at a shock, Tom climbed down to pitch the bundles up into the wagon, heads inward. Jim Green and Frank Malone came over to help.
“Seems to me that this here’s a darn good year fer wheat,” Frank declared with a grunt as he tossed a bundle onto the wagon.
“The weather’s sure been good for it,” Tom agreed.
“Yer boy gett’n better?” Frank asked Jim.
Jim’s son, Billy, had been hit in the leg by flying shrapnel during the war. Five years later he still had a bad limp and recently he had been trampled by a half-broke horse because he couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.
“Billy’s still feverish, but recovering,” Jim informed us. “Yesterday Billy saw one of those new Buick Roadmaster sedans. He likes automobiles.”
“What was the color?” Frank asked.
“He said it was dark maroon. Your brother still have that Austin 7 from 1940?”
“Yah. Ya know, I sure am glad I don’t have no car.”
“How come Frank?” Jim asked.
“They’re just noisy, smelly and dangerous.”
“They sure are dangerous,” Uncle Tom said. “My elder brother died awhile back from one.”
“I heard about that,” Jim said sympathetically.
“Makes me glad I live where folks still are usin’ horses.” Frank launched another bundle up.
“Did you hear about that commercial passenger airliner test flight over in the UK?” Jim asked.
“Wasn’t it called the Comet?” Tom said.
“Yah, that’s right,” Jim agreed as, the wagon being full, I started the horses towards the thresher.
By the time we were done harvesting yesterday’s wheat, the new shocks were dried enough to thresh. As the day wore on, my excitement was roughly pushed aside to be replaced with tired muscles. Sweat trickling down my back and dripping from my forehead made my joy at the warm sun beams turn to regret and annoyance from the constant burning that seared my skin through my long-sleeved shirt. Mouth dry, I put the reins in one hand and with the other dug down into the hay piled behind me on the wagon until my hand touched a cold, moist jug. Water sloshed inside as I eagerly hoisted the jug onto the crook of my arm and brought the cold ceramic to my lips. Sweet, cool water flowed over my parched tongue and washed down my throat. I leaned back against the hay and imagined I was under a palm tree beside a spring in a desert oasis. Suddenly, the light was gone and the dusty air filled my nose. Struggling and sneezing, I sat up letting the hay slide off me. Leaning over with his hands on his knees, laughter peeling off him in waves, was Mack Hamilton.
“No sleeping on the job, Sam,” Mack, who was a few years older than me, taunted.
“Ain’t ya supposed to be doin some’um?” Uncle Tom came around from behind the wagon. Grinning, Mack strode off.
“Back to work Sam. Noon’ll be along soon and we got lots to do yet.” Tom reached up and ruffled my hair. I hated it when Father ruffled my hair because it made me feel childish, but when Tom did it I felt proud and happy like we were partners.
“Tom, how come you and Aunt Martha never had any kids?”
Tom looked up deep into my hazel eyes.
“I suppose we got to help yer Pa look after you young’uns. Now get up and drive them horses.”
When the sun was high in the azure sky, Mother came out of the house and rang the bell twice. Every head turned to hear that long-awaited sound. Wagons that were full finished unloading before men and boys climbed aboard and we headed to the barnyard. After unhitching, the horses were led to the big water tank powered by a windmill that sat at the edge of the barnyard and the corner of three pastures. After a short drink, the horses were tied to a taut line and each given a nose bag of oats and corn. Horses cared for, we went to get washed up. We sat at long tables under the walnut trees, blue table cloths blowing in the wind as we dug into the feast that the women had been busy preparing. Besides the sparkling well water, one of the neighbors brought a wooden barrel full of sweet, cool, yellow lemonade. After eating, the horses were watered again before we headed back out to the field.
The rest of the day went much like the first part. The only casualty was when Bill Thompson’s team trod on a yellow jacket’s nest. Yellow jackets swarming and stinging their hides, the surprised horses jumped into a frantic run. As the wagon jolted forward, Bill’s young boy, Tommy, fell off the back of the wagon onto his arm. Bill quickly calmed the horses and Tommy, tears streaming down his face, was taken to the house to recuperate.
Bright moon lighting the dusk, the neighbors went home. Standing tall on his wagon with a twinkle in his eye, Uncle Tom drove his horses out behind the procession. Feet hanging over the side, Aunt Martha sat looking up at him and hummed a soft lullaby. Unconsciously, her fingers fiddled with a handle on her wicker picnic basket. The moonlight glinted on her silky brown hair.
When the wagons disappeared down the dip in the road and the clip clop of hooves faded, Father, Charles, and I headed to the barn. John had fallen asleep in the grass under the whispering leaves of an alder, worn out by the excitement, so we let him sleep. Father unharnessed the horses while I forked down loose hay from the loft and spread it in piles around the horse paddock. Snorting contentedly, the horses lipped up the wisps of hay. Entering the barn again, Father handed me and Charles each a lit lantern. Holding the lantern in front of him, Charles went off to do the milking, while Father took the third lantern to slop the hogs. I hung my lantern on a wire that ran along the alleyway ceiling before I mucked out each tie stall. As I went from one stall to the next, I slid the lantern down the wire. Chores done, we headed back to the house to rest before the next long day of harvesting.
Over the next three days we harvested the rest of the wheat. By the third day my body ached with sore muscles, but as I went to bed that night my heart soared and tingles flitted through my stomach. The wheat was finally all harvested. It had been a bumper crop of 50 bushels per acre to total at 2,000 bushels. Mother told me that one bushel of wheat would make about 73 loaves of bread. Doing the math in my head, I had been amazed to discover that was 146,000 loaves of bread! I was ecstatic. Mother and Father had rapidly tired of my incessant questions. My pride was paramount to have helped in such a thing.
Monday of next week Father and Tom climbed onto Father’s box wagon with several bags of wheat slumped in the back. Headed off to town, they were going to check wheat prices at the shipping yard. As they were pulling out the gate, I ran to the wagon and begged to be allowed to come.
“Might as well let him Bud. Ain’t no use to stop a boy from learning,” Tom winked at me. Chuckling, Father motioned for me to get in.
“Hey, get up there Billy. Come Molly.” Trotting, the horses turned right, pulling the bumping wagon down the 10-mile dirt road to Oregon City. As we got closer to town, a rattling, clanking, banging automobile veered around us, honking its horn. We were left in a cloud of dust, choking on the black exhaust. Father’s arms flexed, holding the horses steady.
“Them filthy things! Crazy driver should know better’n to go scaring horses.” Red faced and furious, Tom could hardly sit still.
“Remember, Tom, blessed are the peacemakers.” Father put his hand on Tom’s bulging arm. Tom sighed and glanced at me.
“Okay Bud, you’re right,” Tom agreed, but I could tell that his heart was still seething with silent rage.
As we came closer to town, more automobiles zoomed by. A few teams were still tied up outside stores here and there, but even I could tell that there were a lot less horses than last time I was in town. Father and Tom carefully kept their eyes forward, thinking about where we were headed in a brave effort to keep emotion away, but I could see the sagging in their shoulders. One time Tom turned around to look at me and the sadness in his usually sparkling eyes made me want to cry. Not one word was said between us from when we entered town to when we got to the shipping yard. The shipping yard was down the hill by the river, backed by red brick warehouses. Paul Dawson, who ran the shipping yard, came out of his office building at the front.
“How are things going, Paul?” Father asked.
“Well, you know, ever since the war, prices haven’t been so good. Farmers are producing more food than there is need of it. It’s partly from all the subsidies the government is giving out.” Out of the corner of his eye, Paul glanced at me.
“Sam, why don’t you wander off and find some boys your age?” Father told me. As I went out the door and walked by the side of the office, I heard a tremble in Father’s voice. Unable to help myself, I peeked in a window and listened.
“Tell me straight, Paul. How bad is it?” Father asked.
“Currently wheat is at a dollar seventy five per bushel.”
Tom swore and turned away. A moment later he turned back. For a second Father’s face was open, revealing, unable to mask the shock and fear.
“I’m sorry Bud. Surely you must have known that prices are bad right now.”
“I know Paul, but I thought with a good crop I could make it. Earlier this year wheat was at two ten a bushel. At a dollar seventy five per bushel how am I supposed to pay my expenses?” Father was trying to hide his emotions but was betrayed by the quivering muscles in his jaw and the clenching of his fists. The playful light had gone out of Uncle Tom’s eyes.
“Bud, I can’t help you. Yesterday I bought wheat from a man down south. This year he switched to a tractor like most of the guys down there. With tractors he can do faster work with less labor.” Paul scratched his head. “The time of the horse is over Bud, whether we like it or not.”
At first Father was speechless but then he said, “All my life I’ve worked horses and I always thought my children would grow up working horses, yet I don’t see how to go against the world. I feel like I am standing on train tracks with 5,000 tons bearing down on me and I’ve got to stop it with my bare hands.”
“I know what you mean,” Paul said. “I feel the same way sometimes but there’s nothing to do.”
“Would tomorrow work to bring the grain?” Father asked.
“Sure, and if the price is lower tomorrow I’ll let you keep the price we discussed.”
“Prices are that unpredictable?”
“It depends on what’s brought in, but yes, since harvest time they have been.”
“Come on Bud.” Tom put his hand on Father’s arm. “Let’s go find Sam.”
“Wait a minute Tom.” Father looked Tom in the face before turning once again to Paul. “I want to sell you the bags of grain we brought and we’ll bring the rest tomorrow.”
As Tom and Father came out of the store, I ran to Father and threw my arms around him.
“Pa!” I choked through sobs as tears streamed down my face. “I didn’t mean to listen.”
“Son, sometimes the world can seem harsh and impossible but you have to keep trying. Do you understand me?”
I looked up into my father’s face and was awed at the strength and determination that had manifested itself there.
The next few weeks and months danced by in a hazy half-consciousness of increasing tension. Father and Tom sold the rest of the wheat to Paul. Then I was stunned when Father finally gave in and borrowed money to buy a tractor. Within the turmoil of my thoughts, the day that Father sold the horses stands out in my mind. Father hired an open box truck into which he herded our white-eyed horses. He forcefully told me to stay home but I snuck into the back of the cab, while he was in the house. With a roar, the truck sped into town. Stopping at the railroad loading yard, Father climbed out to talk with the loading-yard man. Looking out the window my mouth fell open at the horrid sight. Thousands of scraggly horses were crammed, heads hanging and knee-deep in mud, into stockyard pens. Fear and confusion turned loyal, gentle workmates into a crowded turmoil of crazed beasts that turned on one another in hopeless insecurity. Some had open wounds oozing pus down into blood and mud-clotted fur. The stench of sickness and urine floated on the air in nauseating waves. Hesitantly, Father backed the truck up to the unloading chute and herded our horses into an empty pen for the stockman to look over.
“Slaughtering price is the highest I can offer,” the man said. Hurt, Father’s jaw clenched at the insulting dismissal of the value of his past life. He was mad because he needed more money to pay off his bills. Father bargaining with the stockman, I jumped out of the truck and ran to gentle Hank. Wrapping my fingers in his mane, I collapsed against his stout shoulder, sobbing. After years of faithfully giving their lives, all of these trusting horses had been brutally betrayed as the world moved on without a care.
A big hand roughly grabbed my shoulder, ripping my hands from Hank’s mane, as I was pulled back. Viciously spun around, I stopped with a smack to the head.
“I told you to stay home.” Father’s voice was low and venomous.
“Don’t kill the horses,” I pleaded.
“Don’t tell me what to do.” His eyes were glittering like a snake’s as his breath whooshed into my face carrying the foul odor of liquor. For a moment I was taken aback; Father never drank alcohol, he thought it was sinful.
“Get in the truck.” As Father shoved me in that direction, my world came crashing down. My spirit broke and my terror turned to hate. Suddenly, I had to get away. I had to escape from this hellish nightmare. I ran from that evil place, down the street. Hearing commotion behind me, I ran faster. Like a trapped animal, I had one purpose, one goal, and nothing could get between me and escape.
Come nightfall, Uncle Tom found me curled up in a willow thicket where we used to go fishing. I wouldn’t go home, so Tom took me to his house. Tom and Martha couldn’t get me to speak or eat so they sent me upstairs to bed.
The next morning as I was getting dressed I heard voices outside. Peeking out the window, I saw Father and Tom talking. A ways away, Aunt Martha had her arms around my silently weeping mother. My heart stung at the hurt I was causing her.
“Where is he, Tom? I want to see my son.” Sober now, Father’s face was flushed with remorse and urgency. At the sound of his voice, my insides churned with loathing.
“Bud, ya can’t. It’s not so good a time. He’s full a hate, Bud. He’s full a hate.” Tom’s reasoning and compassionate voice contrasted sharply with Father’s harshly strung-up one.
“Tell me where he is,” Father’s voice demanded, leaving no choice but to obey.
“Yer boy‘s upstairs, but Bud…”
“Get out of my way!”
As Father came into the house, I climbed out the window onto the roof above the porch. Running to the back edge, I jumped down, landing on one knee but I didn’t care. As I ran hard toward the ancient forest on Tom’s place, I heard Father’s pleading voice ring out above the shouts of the others, “Sam, wait!”
Later that day, Uncle Tom brought me to his house again. As the days wore on my mother and siblings came to see me, but I wouldn’t see my father. My mother told me that all this was wearing hard on him. For the first time, she noticed he was growing old. It was hard on me too. After a couple weeks, I stopped running away when my father came to see me, but our relationship was never the same. I could no longer trust or look up to my father; instead my nights were haunted with nightmares of that terrible scene. I still wouldn’t go home, so since Tom and Martha didn’t have any children they decided to let me stay on at their house. Father became mad when Tom told him but there was nothing he could do about it.
Sam got up from the bucket. Wishing for the past wouldn’t bring it back. He longed to yell to everyone, “things are headed the wrong direction!” But he didn’t feel he fit into this world. Instead of working for it, people now thought they could buy happiness. They ended up weak, helpless, unhappy and dull. Even worse they didn’t even realize it, because they were so busy grabbing for the pacifier, technology like Sam’s neighbor boy who played video games all day during the summer.
Sam couldn’t understand why people would give up the simple, steady, yet fresh and exciting life he had known. Sam was watching the world race itself off of a cliff and he couldn’t do anything about it. People were detached from each other and nature. They didn’t care how they were harming others and the natural world. It made him hopeless.
Disheartened, he went and got his seven-foot, A-frame, metal ladder so he could take some plywood off the chicken house and put the nest boxes on. While he was taking the screws out of the plywood, he heard the school bus stop. Laughing, the immediate neighbor boy, who looked to be fifteen to sixteen, got off the bus and started walking home.
Done with the screws, Sam grabbed the plywood and started carrying it down the ladder. Suddenly, the plywood wouldn’t move and the ladder started tipping. Heart pounding, Sam froze. Leaning his weight, the air born legs of the ladder returned to earth. Experimentally he tugged on the plywood and realized it was caught. A rope tied to an eye bolt that was screwed into the plywood was attached to something in the chicken house. Unable to reach the rope and untie it, Sam couldn’t move. Fear set in as his body started to ache.
“Hey! Old man! Do you need some help?”
Startled, Sam looked down to see the neighbor boy standing below him. He was wearing a black t-shirt with a white skull on it and a pair of ratty blue jeans that someone had taken a knife to. The boy had a pale white face from being indoors so in Sam’s opinion he looked sickly. The kid had one of those newer haircuts where his longish blond hair was smoothly combed sideways over his forehead.
Sam had to fight his repulsion to this impudent boy. How dare that boy call him ‘old man?’ He was just as bad mouthed as the rest of his generation. If he hadn’t been in such a bad situation, Sam would have told the kid to leave. Reluctantly, Sam explained the situation and the boy untied the rope before helping Sam get the plywood down.
“Why in the world didn’t you get someone to help you?” demanded the boy when they were done.
“I thought I could do it,” Sam said.
“Don’t you know old people shouldn’t be climbing ladders? Come on!”
Sam was quickly losing patience. He had to do something before he let all his frustration and misery out on the boy. Quickly he walked to his shop to get tools to install the nest boxes. The boy stood, undecided. One, two, three minutes passed and curiosity won out.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m putting some new nest boxes on the chicken house.” Sam was glad the boy at least hadn’t called him ‘old man’ again. “I bet you don’t even know what a nest box is, do you?”
“Of course I do. They are where the chickens sleep,” the kid said smugly.
“Actually, chickens lay eggs in them.” Sam tried to hide his disgust at this good-for-nothing know-it-all.
“Same difference,” the boy said. Sam decided to drop it.
“Pass me a three-quarters wrench.”
“Where is it?”
“Behind you in the red tool box.” “Couldn’t the boy even see?” thought Sam.
“So whatz your name?” After handing Sam the wrench, the boy leaned against the shop door frame as Sam twisted a bolt into the clean yellow wood of the nest box.
“Aren’t you going to ask me my name?”
“What’s your name?”
“Gabe.” The boy pulled a comb out of his pocket to re-stylize his already smooth hair.
Finished, Sam bent his knees in a squat, to pick up the nest box. Gabe leaned over to help with the weight.
“Bend your knees, not your back,” Sam warned Gabe.
“How come?” Gabe asked as he squatted.
“Because you can hurt your back otherwise.”
Together, as a team, they carried the nest box over to the chicken house. Gabe went back to get two saw horses that Sam had leaned up against the shop. They placed several pallets on top of the sawhorses so the nest box would be at the right height. In unison Sam and Gabe squatted to lift the nest box onto the pallets. Sam started to climb the ladder to screw the nest box on, but Gabe asked to do it instead. When the nest box was securely screwed and bolted to the side of the chicken house, Gabe climbed down and brushed his hands off on his pants.
Looking up, their eyes met and held. For the first time, each really saw the other. Looking through Gabe’s eyes, Sam could see down into his soul. Deep inside their spirits were moved with the need of true friendship, creating an unlikely connection. Finally they were able to look past outside appearances and feel the bond made through teamwork and common purpose.
“Well, I guess I’d better get home now,” Gabe said, still unable to tear his eyes from Sam’s face. Finally, he turned to go and went to get his backpack.
“Gabe, wait!” Sam’s voice cracked with the emotion he had felt. As Gabe turned around, Sam said sincerely, “Thank you. I couldn’t have done it without your help.”
“No problem. I guess I’ll see you later.” Gabe smiled before leaving. Sam didn’t see Gabe again until the next week while he was outside weeding his garden. Not realizing the boy’s presence, Sam was startled when he asked to help. Soon Gabe was coming several times a week after school. Imparting his knowledge, Sam began to teach Gabe everything he knew. One day, watching the boy walk up his driveway, Sam realized he was content and happy. He had found new life, new purpose, new hope, and something to live for. Gabe had given him a reason to keep clutching to life. Through the tormented nightmare, the tunnel of gloom, he could see the buoyant brightness that splashed across his eyes in a pastel rainbow. Desperately, Sam was clutching at that glowing light.