Sunday, October 24, 2010

Farm Life

I lived in Kansas in 1974-76. Our tiny town floated like a ship on an ocean of wheat and corn. You could walk from one city limit to the other in fifteen minutes, and when you reached the last street, you faced an endless, flat horizon of grain. Despite the isolation, I liked the town and the school I attended.

A young farmer hired me to help with his operation north of town. His name was Don and he lived in a trailer on the flat land, with no cover from the vast Kansas sky. He was married to a pretty woman named Rosa, so they named the place RosaDon Farms. I usually worked at Don’s paired up with another boy from my high school. Don treated us with respect and paid us well, far above the minimum wage at that time.

It was hard, physical work, exactly what you’d expect on a farm. At that time, I had spent most of my life in rural areas, but as things turned out, Don’s was the first and last farm I’d work on. We cleaned up his pig pens, sweeping and pushing their poop down a trough toward a drainage pond. Pig poop has a very distinctive smell. It nauseated me at first, then vanished. I no longer smelled the pigs and their wastes, only the grain in their feed troughs, which smelled delicious. I was reminded of Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, who got hungry for pig feed while similarly employed. 

A less agreeable task was cleaning out a long, low barn where the baby pigs were born. Baby pigs need shelter. On the other hand, putting a roof over blood, water and poop has predictable results. This biomass attracted thousands of flies who multiplied furiously then died. The floors were covered in heaps of dead flies. We aimed a high pressure hose at them to help sweep them out. The smell those fly corpses gave off when the water hit them is the foulest vapor that ever entered my nose. As I type this, I’m still gagging thirty-five years later.

Don came from a farming family, but he did a lot of things that were, well, um, unskillful. Obviously so, even to 15 year old boys like us. There was no shelter for his vehicles, and he left his car windows down, so the dirt blew in. When we went to get seed or equipment, Don left his pickup’s engine running the whole time he was loading.

Most of his irrigation was accomplished by pipes along the ground with spout holes where the water came out. To be effective, he needed to plow in a specific pattern and line up the spout holes so they faced down hill. Gravity ensured even water distribution. But Don often got it backwards, so the water puddled around the pipes.

One night as the sun was setting, my friend Paul and I were ready to go home. We walked back to Don’s truck through a wet field. Don had pumped way too much water into the field, and we sank down to our calves in the mud. Don drove for the house, and asked us if he should take a short cut across the field we’d just walked through.
“Do you boys think I can make it across that field in this truck?”
“No, Don, there’s no way you’re going to make it. There’s too much mud.”
“Paul, do you think I can make it?”
“No, Don, don’t try it. You won’t make it.”
Don revved his engine until the pickup was doing about fifty down the dirt road between fields. Then he hung a sharp left across the mud. The momentum carried us about twenty-five feet before I felt the tires go squishy and heard the whirr, whirrr of their futile spinning. We opened the doors of the cab and saw mud all the way up to the door frames. Don was a faithful Christian man, studying for ministry, so he breathed a sigh and said, “shucks.”


Tired and dirty, Paul and I were not in the mood to deal with this situation, but we had no choice. Don tried to pull the truck out with his standard red tractor. The tractor got stuck in the mud also. In the darkness, Don went balls-out and came back with a giant green John Deere tractor. Its wheels were tall as I was. Even these enormous wheels spun a little in the mud, but eventually pulled the red tractor and the pickup out. I laugh hard every time I think of this story, but I liked Don. He was a wonderful guy. He gave up farming, became a minister and died many years ago. Today Paul lives in a huge house on Highway 83, directly across the road from the land we helped Don farm in 1975 and, of course, the place we got stuck.

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