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The Witness of Combines

The Witness of Combines

Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Witness of Combines
    Book Description:

    When Kent Meyers’s father died of a stroke, there was corn to plant, cattle to feed, and a farm to maintain. In a fresh and vibrant voice, Meyers recounts the wake of his father’s death and reflects on families, farms, and rural life in the Midwest._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8890-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. The Witness of Combines
    (pp. 1-8)

    I don’t remember being told that the combines were coming, but I knew they would, so when they arrived they went to work as if I had planned them. So much of my life that summer and fall exists to me now as a kind of habit-molded dream. I can’t distinguish between making decisions about work and life and being decided by work and life. It wasn’t until three years later, when for a composition class in college I wrote an essay about my father’s death, that I wept for that death. It’s not that I was holding myself aloof...

  2. Windbreak
    (pp. 9-24)

    My older brother, Kevin, built the windbreak as a Future Farmers of America farm improvement project. It was a seven-foot-tall wall of boards, extending from one corner of the west barn south about forty yards along the grove. An old grove loses its power against wind, lofts its crown too high in the air, and the wind rams through the loose picket of trunks. To anyone choosing to settle on the prairie rather than roam over it, stopping wind is a noble enterprise. In O. E. Rölvaag’sGiants in the Earth, one of Per Hansa’s many victories over the prairie...

  3. Straightening the Hammermill
    (pp. 25-38)

    In the winter, in rat-scurrying corncribs, with the dog waiting and our breath white, we handled the shovels, dumping corn into the roar of the hammermill while the Five-Sixty wailed, the rain cap on the top of its muffler opened wide to the sky and blue smoke pouring out. We couldn’t speak over the noise, but we knew what we were doing, so that speech became something we easily put aside. We cheered the dog on in white puffs of breath when he took off after a startled rat, leaning hard upon his own cornering force as he disappeared around...

  4. Chickens
    (pp. 39-44)

    In early May, Dad went to the hatchery in town and brought back baby chickens, and we came home from school and rushed to the brooder house. We had to contain our energy and noise before we opened the door, however, or the chicks would panic and flee over their peanut shells like butter melting in the red light of the heat lamps, becoming a mass of quivering yellow in the corner. Even though Dad nailed cardboard to the walls to round the corners out, the chicks would suffocate each other unless one of us walked over and scooped them...

  5. My Mother’s Silence
    (pp. 45-56)

    There was the blue speckled canner with its wire rack inside it, and there was the stainless steel pressure cooker, which we children trod around quietly as if it were a bomb, as in fact it was. The canner and the pressure cooker came out of the dirt basement in June, and one or the other of them sat on the stove constantly and mercilessly until August. The canner clinked and bubbled, the wire rack inside it holding quart glass jars. The pressure cooker made no sound. One was friendly, talkative, maternal, the other brooding and uncommunicative as a gunfighter....

  6. The Conversation of the Roses
    (pp. 57-60)

    After church on Sunday mornings we parked in front of my grandmother’s house and piled out of the car. Under the shade of her weeping willow littering the yard with twigs, in the hot stillness of the July cicadas’ cries, within the slow, suffused quiet of a small town after church on a day already humid, we filed up the narrow sidewalk, through the screen door, and into the tiny kitchen—the gray linoleum floor, the old heat registers, the painted cupboards. Some of us found our way to the cool cement basement, where we played with a plastic bowling...

  7. My Grandmother’s Bones
    (pp. 61-68)

    My grandmother stood at the top of the road ditch, unmoving. At my mother’s words I turned around, puzzled. I stopped bounding through the tall, unmowed grass of the ditch, stopped swinging my ice cream bucket, stopped feeling the luxury of gravity pulling me down, making me feel like a deer for the few bounds it took to descend the ditch to where the elderberries drooped like heavy hearts. I turned and stared at my grandmother, at her thin legs and the way she wasn’t moving, at how she stood on the road and didn’t come down.

    I hated elderberries...

  8. Old Waters
    (pp. 69-82)

    Not family only, but land too, has its stories. When you make your living off the land and belong to it, you come to feel it as something with force and presence, and as a past that is not dead but an ongoing narrative in which you partake. I grew up on flat prairieland, so flat my father used to remark that you could stand on your hat and see ten miles—one of his typical dry and understated jokes; it took me years of hearing him say this to realize that if you stood on your hat you’d crush...

  9. Rafting
    (pp. 83-86)

    In spring, the cattle yards turned to swamps, the cattle pulling their hooves out of the mud with loud, sucking sounds. If we worked in the feedlots we buckled our overshoes tightly or we’d lose them. When we were very young, we spent hours digging channels from one large puddle in the driveway or field road to another, draining the water, watching it flow. We made miniature rivers between miniature lakes, imitating the immense and ancient history of the land without knowing it.

    One April the rains came too hard and soon, and the weather warmed too fast, softening the...

  10. Rocks, Roots, and Weeds
    (pp. 87-96)

    When we had free time we spent it in the haymow above the west barn or in the grove. These were places where imagination throve, places of shadow and secrecy and small unexpectancies. As an adult I visited a patch of virgin long-grass prairie in Iowa, and I saw there how imagination might thrive on the prairie, the plants too numerous for the mind to contain—bright, delicate flowers hidden among the grass, at knee level, at waist level, and finally, at eye level or above, the compass plants bending to the sun. I was astonished at the variety and...

  11. How Joel and I Almost Became Mountain Men
    (pp. 97-104)

    We found the plans in a book—a way to trap a rabbit. The book was the same one that told us we could eat burdock, and the device it showed us this time was a beaut, ingenious in its simplicity, marvelous in its design. The moment I saw it I recognized its inherent goodness, and I ached, as only an eleven-year-old can, to realize that I could have thought of it myself.

    Following directions, Joel and I got a wooden peach crate, discarded from Mom’s canning. We took the crate back to the grove and with a saw cut...

  12. Night Grove
    (pp. 105-108)

    Joel and I snuck the sleeping bags out of the attic by our parents’ bedroom. We hid them in the haymow, in a tunnel between some straw bales and the roof. We’d planned for weeks. Why we thought we had to be secret about it, I’m not sure. If we’d asked our parents, they’d have certainly said yes. But we didn’t want to ask them. The secret was as important as the deed, part of the adventure, part of the daring.

    We went to bed dutifully and pretended to sleep, but lay there awake, listening to our parents go to...

  13. Dragline
    (pp. 109-116)

    A mile from our place, a dredge ditch ran alongside the county road. Because of some weirdness in the postal system routes, our mailbox wasn’t at the end of our driveway but was up where the county road “T’d,” near the ditch. One of our favorite things to do in the summer was to walk or ride our bikes to get the mail. Always we spent time in the ditch.

    Early explorers to southern Minnesota describe it as a summer paradise. It was all wetlands, shallow lakes, and marshes teeming with ducks and geese, herons and egrets, deer, coyote, wolf,...

  14. The Eye, Taken to Eternity
    (pp. 117-124)

    Erazim Kohak, inThe Embers and the Stars, says that human beings exist in time and eternity both. We make our lives within the hour-by-hour and the day-to-day, but we sense—and more than sense, know—the eternal. Much of life on a farm, like life anywhere else, consists of overwhelming hours—time inexorably passing and jobs that must be done. But when you live upon the land, even if that land has been domesticated for farming, there are times when hours disappear, when your activities are ruptured by the disturbing grace of other beings who take you out of...

  15. Working
    (pp. 125-140)

    In November the calves arrived from a western ranch, packed into semis, barely weaned and wild as deer. They poured out of the metal doorway, clattered down the ramp, and took off, getting as far away from anywhere as they could. If they’d ever trusted humans, that trust had been destroyed by their recent handling—branded, castrated, hauled to a sale barn, forced into trucks, to emerge at a place they’d never seen. They lit out.

    But they couldn’t go far. Dad put up gates to confine them near the barn and feed bunks. After the trucks left, we stood...

  16. Slow Flies
    (pp. 141-146)

    The plywood above me was black. In the rising morning light it glittered like some dull, half-slumbering eye too dim to intend evil but evil nevertheless. I was focused on getting the cattle fed, and at first I didn’t notice. I walked into the feed wagon with a scoop shovel and a two-handled basket, set the basket down, and dug into the ground corn with the shovel. It was September, the first fall morning cold enough to require both sweatshirt and coat for morning chores—not insulated coverall weather yet, but weather of visible breath.

    I filled the basket, but...

  17. Frozen Silage
    (pp. 147-152)

    In Minnesota the winter cold gives no pause or relief. In order to do chores in the morning we put on our ordinary work clothes and two or three pairs of socks, then thick hooded sweatshirts and insulated coveralls, two sets of gloves, stocking caps, and boots. On really cold days we put a coat over the coveralls, though the bulkiness made work difficult.

    The Oliver and the International Five-Sixty, both diesels, sometimes wouldn’t start, even if plugged in, even with starting fluid. Some Saturdays we had to grind corn with the Super M, making the work in the cold...

  18. Stuck
    (pp. 153-158)

    The drift was a good forty yards long, heaving itself up out of the dredge ditch, which itself was full of snow, and across the road like an immense, slumbering snake. We couldn’t see the ditches or the road, just a white blankness stretched out before the car the moment Kevin turned south, about a mile from our place.

    School hadn’t been canceled. Parents in those days weren’t the suing types, and were more likely to get upset if a superintendent canceled school when it wasn’t necessary than if he didn’t when it was. If school wasn’t canceled Mom and...

  19. A Constellation of Cockleburs
    (pp. 159-174)

    I can still bring to mind the names and shapes and characteristics of the weeds that we had to pull by hand from the soybean fields when I was younger. My father was the most meticulous man in Redwood County at keeping his fields clean, capable of seeing from ten rows away a cocklebur, only a slightly lighter shade of green than the soybeans, hidden in a row being walked by one of his children. We were, of course, complaining about the humidity, heat, and mosquitoes, and the lumpy soil under our feet, and the length of the round and...

  20. Black Snow
    (pp. 175-190)

    Ever since John Deere invented the steel moldboard plow, which allowed the tough prairie sod to be broken, it has remained, until recent years, the primary way to till soil. Dad used one, but because it turned the soil over, leaving it black and uncovered, blizzard winds scoured it, mixing it with snow to form “snirt”—black snow that drifted into road ditches and in the spring melted to mud.

    Fields plowed in the fall yielded better crops than those plowed in the spring. The soil warmed sooner, winter freezing made it softer and more tillable, and it could be...

  21. Birds Against the Glass
    (pp. 191-202)

    They rose from the freeway in front of me, white, gray, and blue, angling from the side of the road as if in slow motion, yet instinctively sure of their own speed, unable to comprehend anything faster. Yet they seemed to me, at seventy miles an hour, to be dragged down by air currents they hadn’t expected, held in stasis in front of my windshield. I knew what was going to happen and ducked behind the windshield the moment before two of them exploded against the glass. They turned from birds to gray blurs rushing at me, to nothing but...

  22. The Night Trucks
    (pp. 203-206)

    The cattle trucks came at night so that they would arrive at the stockyards in the morning. Their lights down our long driveway in late winter cut shadows across the upstairs bedroom where my brothers and I slept, the web of the naked elm in the front yard moving slowly over the walls like an ineffective net. Shadows of crooked branches slid over the wall above my bed, over the ceiling, over my sleeping brothers, over the model cars and airplanes we had built and placed on shelves, over the chifforobe where we each had a drawer to store personal...

  23. Selling the Parts
    (pp. 207-218)

    Some men arrived early, to look over the machinery and determine its worth. Once they’d checked things out they passed time by going places they had no right to go. Two of them, dressed in overalls and wearing seed-corn caps, wandered away from where the machinery was parked, crossed the yard in front of the house, leaned on the west cattle yard fence, and then drifted to the barn. I saw them from inside the house and thought to tell them there was nothing for sale where they were going. By the time I left the house they were going...

  24. Going Back
    (pp. 219-231)

    The driveway slopes slightly—not enough to notice in a car, but when I was a child on a bicycle I worked up wonderful speed going down it to home, pebbles kicking out from the wheels like sparks, the wind a gale in my face. I stand at the end of the driveway now—no longer a child, the driveway no longer mine—and look down at the old house, a quarter of a mile away. I used to walk this driveway every morning and afternoon to catch the school bus, and often at night I would walk it just...