A drive through the country. This was not the typical leisurely Sunday drive. No, this trip was different. Early that morning, a hailstorm had ripped through the area. It began with an occasional clunk here and there on the roof. Then the pounding grew to a dreadful, deafening racket that sought to smother us as we sat in the kitchen, waiting, willing it to stop. The horrible clatter went on for more than twenty minutes.
Dad’s face was solemn as we turned down the road that led to the fields. Less than a half mile and we came upon the storm’s devastation. What had yesterday been a lush field of green plants with shiny long leaves reaching for the sun had become a tattered carpet from which protruded tarnished sticks, what was left of the young corn stalks. A sour smell drifted into the car’s open windows as the remnants of hailstones turned to haze in the morning sun.
From the back seat, I saw Mom steal a look at her husband, love and concern glistening through the wetness in her soft blue eyes. We drove on in silence to another pillaged field. Finally, I could stand the ominous stillness no longer. “Will we be all right, Dad?”
His quick glance in the rear-view mirror revealed six somber faces. A slight smile lit his face, and he answered softly, “Yeah, we will be all right.” He drove on for a few moments in thought, then went on. “We’ll have plenty of hay for the livestock. And maybe we can still get a crop of millet from this field.” Spirits lightened as we released a collective sigh of relief. The message came through, loud and clear: you just keep going.
My brother-in-law tells the story of a disastrous storm near Platte, South Dakota. He was working with his dad in the field when a huge black cloud hurtled into view. They raced for home in their ’48 Chevy pickup, but the hail did not wait. The golf-ball sized ice chunks slammed into the windshield, shattering the entire surface in seconds. The man and his son held their farmer straw hats against the surface in front of them to prevent flying glass splinters from striking their faces.
Fortunately, years of total crop loss from hail were few and far between, but nearly every year the rain stopped for some period of time in eastern South Dakota during the fifties and sixties. Corn leaves turned brown far too soon as small ears emerged. Some years, drought allowed little growth on oats, and it ripened barely six inches tall. I remember Dad and my brothers discussing whether or not the combine would be able to pick up the light windrows.
Our parents grew up on farms during the Great Depression and the continual drought of the thirties. Sometimes they would reminisce of the hardships endured, but they always added a positive note. “We never went hungry.” “Sometimes at school, the town kids had no food to bring, but we always had something in our lunch pails.” One of Mom’s friends announced one day that she was going to marry a farmer. “They always have something to eat!”
Dad used to speak of the farms that were lost during that desolate time in history. “If those farmers could have just stuck it out another year or two, they would have made it,” he conjectured. “There were good farming years after that.”
My sisters tell of happy times amidst the devastation of nature’s defiance. Sometimes, after weeks of hot weather without a drop of rain, we were allowed to run and splash when the welcome downfall finally came. Once, after a hail storm, the girls gathered the small pebbles of ice in buckets and we used them to freeze ice cream in the old crank freezer. “When life gives you hail…..”
One day a battered pickup pulled into the front yard as our father was about to climb up onto the Owatonna windrower. Dad walked to the driver’s window. The young man rented a farm a few miles south of us. The conversation turned to crops, and the visitor shook his head as he grumbled, “This year my corn got set back by a late frost. Then it didn’t rain for a month, and the wind came up and blew dirt that sliced off the plants. Then what was left got riddled with hail. Don’t know if there will be a crop or not.” He pounded his fist on the steering wheel and hung his head. “What do ya do?”
Dad leaned against the dusty pickup fender, just next to the window. His eyes took in our quonset, the chicken coop, barn and windmill. He heard the gentle calls of calves romping in the nearby pasture. Finally, he looked up at the house as two chattering youngsters emerged, chore buckets in hand. Then he cleared his throat and replied, “Some years are like that. In farming. In life. You just have to keep going.”