Brilliant gold took turns with dark green on the rolling South Dakota hillsides; fields of ripening small grains lay between corn and alfalfa. The thin stems bent to the wind in glorious sun-kissed waves. Oats. Wheat. Barley. Every year Dad planted cereal grains, which ripened in early August.
The trouble was hail could strip those amber waves of grain to bare brown sticks in a matter of minutes. Or, one torrential thunderstorm could leave them drowning in a lake of ruin.
Maybe our father had witnessed Mother Nature’s random fury first-hand. Or, maybe the weight of paying bills and seven mouths to feed weighed heavily. Whatever the reason, Dad carried a sense of urgency into harvest.
Once the grain heads filled and dried, the guys checked the fields daily until they were just right to cut. On the day harvest began, Mom and the siblings geared up to the task. They realized how critical the time was and how much their help was needed. As the youngest and only ten years old, I sensed the urgency, but had no clue why it was necessary.
Usually, Dad pulled the swather behind the John Deere 520. It cut and laid down the crop in a neat row, ready for the combine. Once harvest began, Don and Delmer drove tractors that pulled wagons to the field to be filled from the combine’s auger.
The boys raced home faster than the tractor speed limit to empty the 100 bushel wagons. Mom hurried out to help the second she heard the tractor pull into the yard. The big green elevator loomed next to the granary, its spout inserted into the square opening on the roof. They pulled the trailer onto the hoist to lift the front end. Mom lowered the hopper and cranked up the engine on the elevator. As the blades began moving, she pulled up the bar to open the end gate on the trailer. The tan kernels began their journey up and into the grain bin. I stood a few yards back taking in the scene, not minding the noise or the itchy chaff. Soon the wagon was empty and quickly carted back to the field.
In the kitchen, Mom and the girls mixed batches of lemonade and baked cookies. Sandwiches were made in minutes. Sometimes, Dad requested early dinner in hopes of starting the minute the windrows were dry of nighttime moisture.
One warm afternoon Dad needed another grain hauler. “DeAnn, you bring the 730 to the oat field right away.” He showed me where to park and gave strict orders to watch him. He would wave when the hopper was full. I was to bring the wagon and get it under the auger as fast as possible.
I sat and waited as puffy clouds floated under the sun. Suddenly, a movement caught my eye. Something scurried from one windrow to the next, hiding in the grain-filled straw. Another shape followed the same path. Young pheasants flitted through the field, soon to be in the path of the combine’s ravenous jaws. I had to do something! A quick glance at the hopper revealed only a tiny mound of oats, not quite full. Dad focused on the windrow. I scuttled off the tractor and ran to the birds’ hiding place. They must have heard me as they scooted out toward the fence row. Just then three more feathered creatures appeared. When they hunkered under a swath, I tried to flush them out. Finally, the fifth bird glided into the safe tall grass.
I heaved a sigh of relief, then suddenly remembered the combine. Oh, no! Dad was off the combine, stalking toward me. I wasted no time checking for smoke coming out of his ears. I climbed onto that yellow seat and pushed the starter. I had never driven in any gear higher than second, but decided this was an emergency and pushed the lever into fourth. Ramming the clutch forward, I tore through the field. Dad was back at the combine, ready to flip the lever and empty the overflowing hopper into my trailer. The tractor hurtled in next to the combine. The wagon was directly under the auger. Dad flipped the lever, and the oats poured out. The wagon sped by. I jerked back on the clutch as hard as I could, but I could NOT stop that tractor!
There was only a small mountain of oats on the ground as I circled back, finally having managed to stop and shift down. I stayed on the tractor as Dad shoveled the spilled grain into the wagon. I felt terrible, knowing I had caused extra work and wasted precious time and grain. Finally, the oats were transferred to the wagon, and it was time to face the music. I climbed off the tractor, looked up at my father and said I was sorry. Hands on his hips, he huffed, “What were you doing, running around in the field?”
I told him about the little pheasants, and that I couldn’t just let them get run through the combine. He shook his head and started to climb onto the tractor. All at once he stopped and bowed his head. For several seconds he just stood on that step as I waited next to the wagon. Then he turned back and looked at me.
I swear I saw tears in his eyes as he spoke. “Did you get them all out?”
DeAnn (Wolkow) Kruempel’s books, the “Promises to Keep” series, are available at Amazon.com. Watch for her soon-to-be-released book, Once Upon a Midwest Sunset, a compilation of the stories from the NOOKS AND CRANNIES column. Contact her at email@example.com and receive free weekly stories, recipes, photos and updates.