Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Broken Chain--a story (i)

Just about forty years ago, my wife's grandfather told me a story from his own boyhood. He'd been hired to pick corn, to help a neighbor with harvest. Picking corn by hand was no picnic, he told me; and what his neighbor didn't do made the long hours much more difficult. 

That's my father-in-law's husking glove, by the way, still sweat-stained. 

So what follows is piece of fiction with a true-to-life prototype gifted to me by a man who never forgot that day. I don't know that my rendition of it is all that great, but I'm happy to have written it, to preserve it and something of him--and his father. 

You might say, this family story is heritage.

He had seen the broken chain lying like a bullsnake on the bed of the wagon when the raw frost still gloved the leaves of the yellowed corn. He didn't mention it when Henry DeRegt had given him instructions about picking his corn, because he knew the man, or at least his father did. After all, he told himself, Henry DeRegt and his wife had coffee with the Van der Walls nearly every Sunday between the services at the church in Ireton. He just assumed De Regt had also noticed the chain and would fix it as soon as possible.

So he started snapping ears from the stalks and tossing them blindly off the bangboard and into the wagon. It had been nearly dark when DeRegt left the field; the sun had only begun to lighten the eastern sky. A few down ears, covered by dirt and stuck by frost, made work more tedious, but De Regt was a proper farmer--he knew when to harvest his corn. The stalks stood high and proud in straight rows.

And John was proud of his abilities. He had acquired a reputation among the farmers for being a tireless and efficient worker. He got a dozen job offers him during the harvest season. The frozen ears, the down ears, were all part of the job, and although their stubbornness wore at his nerves and fingers, he never thought of complaining, for he had picked corn in many fields more ragged than this one.

De Regt had left his son behind to pick the down rows. Henry was nearly thirteen, Henry's oldest boy, and he, too, worked hard to clean the ears from his row. But when dawn warmed into morning, when the sun quilted the soil, melting the frost from the rows, Henry's head popped up more frequently from behind the wagon, signaling the boy's weariness, and John would wait, impatiently, to signal the horses to move ahead.

Little more than an hour had passed before John shed his overall jacket and hung it on the wagon. He glanced back and saw the boy chucking clods of mud at a meadowlark perched on a fence post.

"Here, jongen!" he commanded.

Henry glanced at him, then threw two more clods before the bird finally flew from its perch.

"Ja, ja--I'm coming. I'm coming," he grumbled.

John stood for a moment, allowing the boy to catch up, and looked into the wagon. Hundreds of nearly clean ears were piled unevenly against the right side, beneath the bangboard, but the bed was still visible near the left wall. Buried already was the chain that should have spanned and secured the sides of the wagon. Henry would be back to fix it soon, he told himself. His father always said that Henry DeRegt was a good farmer.

He signaled the horses, and the work continued. The ripened ears cracked off the stalks cleanly. His gloves were old and worn, but he was an experienced picker. He had the right touch. Pull the hook back through the leaves, holding the ear with the left hand; jerk the ear and pull it away with the right, leaving a handful of leaves in the left, and toss it off the bangboard and into the wagon-all in one smooth motion. He had been at it for years, doing a man's share long before he was fourteen. He could barely remember picking the inside rows. On almost any day he could pick a hundred bushels.

The ears banged off the board-"clunk," "clunk," "clunk"-evenly, almost mechanically.

By mid-morning his fingers and wrists were loose and supple, warmed by the October sun and the constant jerking motion. He remembered other jobs when stubborn ears would stick to the stalks as if nailed there. Regular jerking wouldn't break them, and pain would flow through his hand and arm, and his wrist would pull itself out of joint. The pain would be so bad that he would be forced to quit; his wrists would swell as if they were infected. The Van der Walls couldn't afford any lost time this harvest. His father counted on the money he could make picking corn. 

When the sun stood nearly above his head, DeRegt returned to the field, straight as a poplar. By then the wagon seemed filled, its sides bulging.
Tomorrow:  DeRegt, the boss, looks over the progress.

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