Despite Thanksgiving’s late November arrival, neither we nor the neighbors of the southern Illinois farm of my youth were done with harvest by the harvest holiday.
We weren’t slow; everything else back then, however, was: slow-drying corn, slow two-row combines, slow-as-molasses hired men.
On top of the design delays, corn picking rarely began before the World Series. We then often stopped the corn harvest to combine soybeans so we could then stop harvest altogether while we worked the ground, then seeded, winter wheat.
Juggling act. The juggling act carried upsides and downsides for me. One of the upsides was hauling grain from the combine, always operated by my father, and unloading it at the bins.
From morning to dusk, it was done by a man, usually Jackie, the farm’s main fieldhand. When Jackie’s day ended at 6 p.m. (it began at 6 a.m.), one of my brothers or I would take over until Dad called it day, usually well after dark.
Knowing how to do it wasn’t as important as being trusted to do it. It was an early taste of manhood we boys gobbled up every chance we got. The downside of harvest came with those chances.
Since my father was the exclusive combine driver and my brothers Rich and David were both older and stronger than me, my place in the pecking order usually guaranteed my exile to the dairy gulag for the evening milking.
Trapped. It’s not that I disliked milking or working with the ever-pleasant Howard, the herdsman. I did hate, however, being trapped in the barn for three hours after being trapped on the school bus for an hour after being trapped in school for seven hours.
The trap was always sprung by Mother who delivered the most dreaded words of my teenage years: You’re milking tonight.
Whether I worked with Howard or worked with Dad, harvest brought two other benefits. First, it gave my brothers and me hours. Since we were paid by the hour – just 50-cents, but that was 50-cents more than any other farm kid we knew – we wanted hours because we wanted the money and the freedom those quarters upon quarters bought.
Freedom, for instance, to go to the barber for a haircut rather than to Mom for a buzz cut. Freedom to buy black Levis rather than blue jeans. Freedom to go to a movie and, later, to college. Freedom my brothers and I used to create our own, very different and very independent careers.
Time with Dad. The second benefit was equally priceless: We late-shift workers got to eat supper with Dad. During most of the school year, it was common for us kids to go days without seeing my father. He had gone to the dairy barn by the time we boarded the bus in the morning and he had returned there by the time we got off it in late afternoon.
Since milking and chores kept him at the dairy until 7:30 p.m. or so, we’d see him only for a short time while he ate supper, always alone, before our 8 p.m. bedtime.
Harvest, however, delivered all the “men” of the farm to the supper table by 8 p.m., a rare and wonderful time where I saw – and, more important, was old enough to recognize – my father’s warmth.
I only recall one year when we completed harvest by Thanksgiving. I don’t remember how we managed to finish so “early,” but I do remember that my parents celebrated by leaving the farm, the cows and hired men to three, 50-cents-per-hour high school boys for three days to go fishing.
It was a wonderful Thanksgiving for us boys, and maybe even for Mom and Dad.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)
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