The end of central Illinois’ heat-stoked, rain-starved summer is being whispered in the yellow leaves rattling on my backyard’s black walnut trees.
September’s first cool breeze shakes some loose and the faded leaves slowly settle on the brown lawn.
Crops. Soybean leaves, too, are yellowing. Many, though, sapped of water and nutrients by wave after wave of heat-fueled mites and aphids in August, are already gone.
Acre-sized blotches of dead plants float amid lime green seas of beans the bugs bypassed. The corn is dead maize stalking, bushwhacked by June’s lack of rain and July’s murderous heat.
Farmers hope for 100 to 130 bushels, half of last year’s remarkable yields.
Maybe they’re right; September’s yellow will tell the tale. The cash grain markets long ago yellowed. Corn futures drift 50 cents per bushel under July’s highs and bean futures sag a wallet-cracking buck-and-a-half under mid-summer’s high watermark.
School’s start. And now, the most certain sign of summer’s leaking away – big, yellow school buses that lumber to a stop and lumber to a start up and down the crop-lined roads.
The machines appear far too big to carry the handful of children that remain in the country. That wasn’t so 40 years ago.
The bus I rode for 12 years was a rolling sardine can jammed with kids ages 6 to 17. We rode it for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, because we had to.
“The bus stops at the mailbox twice a day,” we were told if we griped about the brain-frying ride. “I suggest you get on it or you walk.”
Since we lived 18 miles from school, the admonition was more like a sentence than a suggestion. We weren’t the only farm kids with flinty, public-transportation-supporting parents.
Nearly every rural elementary- and high school-aged son or daughter who lived more than a mile outside of town had parents cut from the same cloth.
The ride. Some of us spent the long, often dusty rides fruitfully: reading books, doing homework, planning 4-H meetings.
Others, usually the less scholastically-inclined, filled their boring breech with card games, saucy stories and bullying anyone within arm’s reach.
The bullies weren’t the likable Eddie Haskell-types. They were tough and mean and not afraid of your blood or theirs.
Once, I saw one pull a shiny, switchblade knife on another and I also saw in the guy’s yellowed, bared teeth and hooded, green eyes that he would use it.
I don’t know what the drivers were paid for their duties, but on our bus route – the longest in the district, if not the history of the nation – it could not have been enough, given the yelling, swearing and mayhem that rode with them.
Our route went through drivers faster than the drivers went through clutches. Few men – there were no women drivers back then – wanted the rock road run to the River Bottoms.
Only one – the quiet, reed-thin Ralph – lasted longer than a year.
Ralph’s secret. Ralph succeeded where others either failed or went mad because of a clever trick he employed whenever his havoc meter redlined: He simply pulled off the road, switched off the bus’s ignition, and, calm as a napping cat, wordlessly leaned back into his vinyl seat until we morons noticed we weren’t moving.
The first time Ralph pulled the pull-off-the-road trick, the back-of-the-bus bullies pelted him with screams and curses.
Ralph’s reply forever destroyed their never-before challenged power. He pulled – again wordlessly – the key out of the ignition and slipped it into his pocket.
In two minutes, the bus was as quiet as a cemetery on a winter’s night. Two minutes of silence after that, Ralph re-fired the engine and we proceeded homeward.
The lesson was quick and indelible. In the subsequent two or three years he drove the route, all Ralph had to do was downshift a gear along a spot in the road where no one on the bus lived and everyone’s lips locked tighter than a rusty lug nut on an old hay wagon.
Ah, September, you’re yellowing, yet wonderfully alive.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)