The first good corn planting day of spring finally arrived at my central Illinois farmette April 30. Like the month’s previous 29 days, however, no one within 100 miles used it to plant because near-record rains had washed April away.
So now it’s May and it’s late by any corn-planting standard. On the big southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth we sometimes finished planting corn in June, but we always started in April.
Those long ago planting seasons — all seasons, in fact — always marched to a two-step tune: the very predictable, twice-a-day milking of 100 Holsteins and the very unpredictable rise and fall of the nearby Mississippi River. The river was in God’s hands; the cows in ours.
That meant the acres planted any day were limited to the acres Dad could “work — field cultivate while applying a pre-plant herbicide — ahead of the planter between morning and evening milkings and at night. It wasn’t much, usually 50 acres most days and maybe 60 in a big day and long night.
Jackie, the farm’s loyal hired man, was the planter jockey. He worked 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, without fail. He had no watch because he couldn’t tell time, but he did have three times — starting time, quitting time and dinner time — programmed into his DNA and, like him, it never failed
The Oliver 77 he drove was nearly as faithful. Gas-powered with both hydraulics and a PTO, it was his go-to tractor for planting, manure spreading, baling, and pulling grain and silage wagons. It ran like the watch Jackie didn’t own.
The planter, an Oliver of mid-1960s vintage, was very different. It was the worst piece of engineered iron ever sold to anyone. It never completed one round — be it a quarter mile, a half mile or, like most of our fields, one mile — in a corn field without some minor or major breakdown.
If, by some miracle, its chattering collection of ground-driven chains and rotating planter plates held together long enough to actually plant six rows up and back, Jackie, a world class cusser, could be seen on his knees in the middle of the headland praising the miracle.
The planter stuck around as long as Jackie and my brothers and me. Since my father never ran it he seemed to overlook the fact that its main design feature was failure. To him, most of the planter’s failures were operator failures: we were going too fast or too slow; the ground was too wet or too dry; we wore our caps too low.
The planter’s final spring came in 1978. That cold, wet, forsaken season I planted every kernel, row and acre with that forsaken planter.
But I was more then the corn planter that year; I also was the planter monitor. Four or five times every round I climbed off the tractor to check every sprocket, chain and planter box to make certain it could make it another 400 or so yards. If reassured, I’d climb back on the tractor and off I’d go.
For another 400 yards. Then I’d stop, climb down and check it all again. Often on my way back to the tractor I’d smack the implement’s tongue with a hammer just to let it know I still was alert.
Late that winter, I took a freezer full of food, a new interest in writing and the lovely Catherine back to the Big U and off to a different future.
A couple months later, my father, threatened with the prospect of planting corn with a machine he had fixed — and everyone else had cussed—daily for 15 years, traded the planter for a six-row John Deere MaxEmerge with a Dickey-john monitor. Had he made the swap in 1978 I might have stayed.
Wait a minute, you don’t think …
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