“I inherited that calm from my father, who was a farmer. You sow, you wait for good or bad weather, you harvest, but working is something you always need to do.”
— Miguel Indurain
Some of my fondest memories are of lying atop the newly harvested wheat in the bed of that old Dodge flatbed truck and studying the sky.
During the heat of the day, we didn’t spend much time on top. It was just too hot. But as the wind lagged and the sun dropped below the cloudbanks in the west, we would scramble up into the truck to burrow into the pile of wheat, still warm from the sun.
Half covered in grain, chaff and more than a few amputated grasshoppers, we waited patiently to discover which palette of colors the sky would choose as the sun set. We studied the shapes of the clouds and speculated on which ones would boil up into fierce thunderheads. We were often entertained by fantastic lightning shows, best when watched from a safe distance a county away on the eastern horizon. Those were spectacular but safe, brightly lit by the setting sun ... and moving away.
Looming storms to the west were another matter.
During quick stops to unload, we manned scoop shovels as the wheat poured down, spreading it flat and into the corners of the truck bed. Gulping a cold Pepsi in a tall 16-ounce bottle, Dad watched and worried about those approaching storms. Standing alongside, we would offer our uneducated opinions, imitate his worried look, then follow suit as he chewed a dozen or so grains of wheat to check the moisture level, crumbled a clod into dust to check the direction of the wind, and sniffed for rain in the freshening breeze.
Would it sweep across our farm, go north and delay the cutting on the Meharg place, or damage his share-cropped wheat on the Kejr place? Dad cut a lot of acres looking up at the sky.
Harvest was an all-day affair, and the threat of a storm stretched a normal day into an endurance contest. Once Dad flipped on the combine floodlights, he could go past midnight on a dry night. When the moisture started to show up in the wheat, he would shut down ... because the grain elevator docked you for moisture.
Rain was a nuisance and would delay the harvest. Rain combined with wind would flatten the wheat in the field, turn the ravines into mudholes, and create much more work to retrieve fewer bushels of wheat. Rain, wind and hail could be devastating ... especially in years Dad gambled and didn’t take out hail insurance.
Hail was the difference between profit and loss, good times and bad, buying a new car or driving the old Mercury another few years. Hail damaged our uninsured wheat three years in a row.
On dry, no-worry nights, life was easy, and we would cut wheat until midnight or later. Stu, Galen and I enjoyed the freedom, floating on a bed of warm grain under millions of stars in the Milky Way, watching for Sputnik or Telstar or UFOs, and telling juvenile stories in low voices muffled by the sounds of the night.
Serenaded by a chorus of oilwell pumpjacks, croaking frogs, the occasional frenzied howling of a family of coyotes, and the soft rattle-roar of the combine, we dreamed of faraway places, imagined high-flying jets were flying saucers, sang favorite rock and roll lyrics, and sometimes even talked about girls.
We brought our new portable, brown and white plastic, battery-powered transistor radio to the field. On it, we could bring in stations like KOMA in Oklahoma City and WLF in Chicago, both of which played the latest rock and roll hits.
The best station, however, came in on the weekends when Wolfman Jack’s howl (How-ooo!) would skip in over the clouds on XERF-AM Radio “broadcasting with 250,000 watts of power from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico.” We enjoyed his “oldies but goodies,” but we loved his banter and the silly commercials that hawked everything from dog food to baby chicks, weight-gain pills to religious figurines “with eyes that glow in the dark.”
Across the field, lights stabbing out of the dust cloud that enveloped his combine, Dad worked to harvest the last patches of wheat he knew could make the difference between a lean year and a less lean year.
He worked until exhaustion set in, but I know he enjoyed the work. We were his truck drivers, grease monkeys and wheat handlers, but none of us labored nearly that hard — at least while we were young. But the long hours in the sun and wind took their toll, and we always left the field ready for sleep.
Burrowing in the wheat with my brothers will always number high on my list of favorite times. Those special, worry-free nights, lit by the Kansas moon and stars, serenaded by night sounds and far-off radio voices, half-buried in warm mounds of ripe wheat ... were about as near to perfect as I have ever come.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.