All of us could see the hand writing on the wall. We had grown more corn than the market wanted to buy and gone into debt for fertilizer, seed, fuel and equipment to do it. No one had enough to pay the banks back so the Selling Out sales began, they began in the winter. The crops were in, the harvest was the greatest ever and the end result was worse than the worst year anyone could remember, worse than drought and that was bad but this was the end.
The upheaval was everywhere. We moved to a small 80 acre farm which we rented from the old farmer, now living in town. Renting land was different than share cropping. The rent was 25 dollars an acre and what ever you grew or produced was yours to keep. My dad’s plan was to rent this small farm and work in the iron foundry at night. He figured we could handle the little farm and about 12 milk cows during the day and do the night shift to make enough money to survive. A lot of our friends were doing the same type of thing, all part of the great population move from the farm to the industrial city. The farms no longer needed the families and the families did not know what to do.
The big move came when I was 13 years old. Everything was falling apart. My father was feeling the pressure and started to get bitter about the out come of the past 13 years, the failure to make a living after growing and producing One Million pounds of beef in the last year. That was the year we feed 1000 feeder cattle to 1000 pounds each, a million pounds of beef that was sold at prices that could not cover the expenses. Corn prices collapsed and with that all meat prices crashed. It was depressing in such a way that folks could not know who or what to blame. A lot of farmers started drinking or drinking more. My Dad was a functioning alcoholic even though folks did not really know about that, then and the fact that there were a lot of depressed exfarmers working in low level factory jobs and drinking heavily.
I was beginning to see a lot of things about how society worked and hated everything I saw. I resented the banks and land owners who lived from the labor, tears and hopes of poor people. I could feel the prejudice of wealth and status and hated it. The injustice of wealth and even relative prosperity is a certain kind of blindness, moral blindness.
The new farm was a new chapter for me. The work load was much less and I began to hire myself out to our two closest neighbors to help them with their chores after school and on weekends. Chore Boy, that was my job. The two farmers were as different as night and day. Jim was a modern day farmer that farmed 700 acres and raised pure bred beef cattle. He had all of the latest and greatest tractors, a brand new Oliver 990, four wheel drive, automatic transmission and powerful enough to pull a 6 bottom plow through the black clay loom of the Heartland. He had a corn cracker that cracked the corn making it easier for the cattle to digest. Jim was high tech. His biggest problem was shit, manure, specifically hauling it away.
My main job was to ride my bike to his farmstead after school, get on the super tractor hooked up to the largest manure spreader anyone has ever seen and haul manure. I would use another tractor with a front end loader and pile in the poop. The spreader held about as much as a large dump truck and when full I would drive out to one of the previous corn fields and proceed to spread 2 inches of manure on hundreds of acres of last year’s corn fields. We were replacing the nitrogen and required hundreds of trips. 10 trips a night after school was my normal production. I got started around 5 and worked until 8 using the lights on the tractor. For those 3 hours I made Three Dollars and I did this 5 days a week, to me, more money than I made trapping. It is true that I have spread more shit than anyone I know of or have even heard reported.
My other employer was Harold Eibs. Harold was unusual in every thinkable way. First off, he did not live on the farm. He lived in Marshalltown, 15 miles away and drove back and forth in a 1946 Plymouth filled completely up with farming junk. Bags of salt, halters, boots, tools, Harold keep all his tools in his car trunk and back seat. The front seat had just enough room for Harold and his dog Jack. He never took a bath or appeared washed up and ready for any occasion. The gate to Harold’s farm was right across the road from our house so when Harold arrived I would start work.
Jack, his dog was by far the smartest animal I have ever seen and as a farm hand superior to any human. He was that good. Jack could cut out any cow, pig, sheep, chicken or duck. He would take his que from your eyes, what you were looking at and knew it was show time. Dogs are wolves and Jack was a German Sheppard that could go into full wolf body, it is the stance, the way they hold their heads and the eyes, the eye contact between prey and hunter. Jack knew how to move and wait leaving the cow with one easy direction to go then closing, once again the cow takes the open way, right through the gate. Resistance is futile, Jack knows how this must end.
Harold raised a lot of hogs and had little hog pens all over the place. All of these places had water and feed pans that had to be cleaned out and filled everyday. That is what chores are all about, stuff you do everyday to keep the Farm Alive. It is always a matter of life or death. Chores matter. Little things matter. The Farm teaches this sacred truth, everything matters.
Chores are dangerous, especially the pigs. I can not tell you how many times I have been attacked by brood sows either protecting her piglets or crazy to get food. The problem was that to clean out the water pans you had to get into the pen and work on the ground level. I always carried a hammer. These sows weighted 300–600 pounds and did not appreciate anyone or anything being near the piglets. You had to move smart and quick. First of all you feed the sows. This gives them something to do, something they are very interested in, eating food. Then in that moment of distraction you jump the gate and bend down to clean the water bowl.
The danger zone requires true multi tasking, clean the water bowl with one eye and the other on the sow. She will charge 1 out 4 times, enough to cause me to have a hammer in one hand while cleaning with the other. If she charges I try to jump out, most of the time that works, sometimes I can not move and am 3 feet away from an angry Sow. When they charge they come in with their noses low to the ground, squealing with indignation. It is Hammer Time.
The only soft spot on a charging hog is their nose. Do not bother trying to hit them on the head or attempt to scare them. The Nose. The hammer comes down right on the top of their Nose. The hog screams and turns away for a second. You must leave because now they are really mad. It is not a surprise for farm kids to find out that people can get very angry with you even when you are trying to help. Farming must be the root source of the proverb, ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ and the moral resolve to do it anyway.
Working for Harold was the first time I had ever met someone who lived in virtual isolation, just him and the farm. He had no wife, she had divorced him long ago, never went to church and in general did not have any friends. The only people Harold talked to were me and Silvia at Silvia’s Restaurant, right in the heart of little State Center, Iowa. He drove into town everyday and ate dinner. We called the mid day meal dinner, not lunch.
I was getting paid $1.00 per hour plus the meal, an added benefit that introduced me to fine dinning in restaurants. Sylvia’s place was the first restaurant I had ever experienced and it was a revelation on many levels not the least of these being that it was possible to have other people prepare entire meals, great meals and serve them to you, ON DEMAND. This was a new idea for me. All the meals I had eaten I had eaten had home or in the home of a relative. The entire world of food you could buy was a new and tasty place.
Sylvia was a big woman who you could really tell, knew how to cook and cook well. You know what I mean. In life, if you are lucky, you will encounter a few cooks who have the gift, skill and spirit to make people happy with their gastronomic creations. She was one.
The restaurant was on main street right across from the Bank, a long, narrow place with a couple of booths up front then a sit down bar with 12 stools, beyond that the kitchen and bathroom. It was amazing, the smells of the menu, which was also printed on the wall with chalk, you could choose what you wanted to eat. More Amazement, Everyday, roast beef, boiled potatoes, gravy and a vegetable in a little dish, all served within minutes, whatever you wanted! It was easy to see why folks liked town life, I think it is the gravy. Silvia’s gravy was perfect in all perfection and the pinnacle of her power. Silvia’s gravy could make old corn cobs taste good and I never left a drop of that nectar on the plate.
So working for Harold was an exercise in flexibility. His plans could change during the day and he drank whiskey. I was used to people drinking all day, my dad drank beer from morn to night, but Harold drank hard licquor and could get quite drunk. One time Harold made a sheep drink some whiskey. He just grabbed the ewe and held her head back while pouring the whiskey down her throat, just to see what would happen. That sheep felt it right away and started rocking back and forth, then moved sideways until she hit a fence. The ewe leaned against the fence for a second and then just started following the fence line all around the yard, a lot like Harold does sometimes.
Farmers take a lot of pride in their crops and animals. The corn rows have to be straight, healthy and well weeded or else, or else shame. One spring day I came over to start work and looked out at a corn field just coming up and could not believe what I saw, just sprouting corn rows swerving into and across one another. Harold used a 4 row planter and the idea is to plant 4 rows, turn around and plant 4 more right next to the previous four. Harold had planted over the top of several rows and I asked him, ‘What happened to the corn? The rows are all crossed.’ He laughed and replied, “I was drunk.”
“Drunk !”, I said, “how are you going to pick that corn?” He laughed again and said, “I’ll get drunk again.” That much I knew was true.
Farming is the kind of thing all sorts of different folks can do even Harold could stumble through doing all that needs to be done to a level that allowed him to live. That is the farm, forgiving.