just before the great Illinois corn-and-soybean harvest begins, it is customary to tell farm-injury stories. These graphic tales of startling disfigurement are told in the poker-faced manner of the heartland Midwesterner, who handles everything life can throw at him — from winning the Illinois State Lottery to a farm foreclosure — in the same way: a nod of the head, a pick of a stubborn callus, possibly a spit of tobacco, and a tight grimace that says, “Oh, well, what can you do?” Grim encounters between man and jagged mechanical parts are usually recounted while the storyteller is engaged in the very activity that led a neighbor to lose a knuckle, or a testicle, or half his face.
“Caught his shirt sleeve in the grain auger,” the farmer might say, while loading grain into an auger himself. “Ripped off all his clothes and broke about every bone in his body before it spit him out. Lay there quietly for hours before anyone came by. Vultures started circling. Rats, too. The only person within shouting distance was the boss’s wife, which is why he kept quiet. He was embarrassed, you know, about being naked in the vicinity of a proper lady.”
An auger is a large, screwlike mechanism that conveys grain from ground level to the top of one of those tall silver bins that break the flatness of the prairie landscape. Augers are noisy, dangerous, and unforgiving. It’s no wonder many a shipment of Midwest grain includes a missing digit.
Farm-injury stories are useful if for no other reason than that they scare the rest of us away from farming. They may explain, in part, why fewer than 3 percent of the workforce farms and the rest of us eat merrily away without knowing exactly where our food originates. (We know that milk comes from cows and beef comes from cattle, but what’s a steer? And why would one “poll” an Angus?)
If you have a strong stomach and can listen long enough without fainting or retching, you’ll find that farm-injury stories have an important underlying message: pay attention. Furthermore, when you think things are going well, pay extra attention. By the Midwestern farmer’s philosophy, bad is bad, and good will probably turn bad if you don’t watch out. Average is ideal.
My brother-in-law summed it up one afternoon while changing one of the massive dual tires on his John Deere combine: “John Jordan had one of these tires fall on top of him. Suffocated him to death. Slowly. He was having a good day . . . too good.”
after twenty-seven years of living out west, I have moved to rural Illinois so my wife can be near her family. When we first arrived, I began bragging about my previous farm experience, at a dairy in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I was once employed as an “assistant dairy herdsman.” Impressive as the title sounds, all it meant was that I toiled like an indentured servant seven days a week, twelve hours a day, without coffee breaks. During daylight hours, I milked sixty messy cows — twice — and helped with the unrelenting field work. Nighttime was reserved for locating strays in nearby forests, where they loved to play hide-and-seek, and chasing them back to their pasture. Any remaining time was usually spent on my back studying the insides of my eyelids. For compensation, I was given a drafty farmhouse to sleep in, the princely sum of six hundred dollars a month, and an unlimited supply of high-fat milk and red meat.
This was twenty years ago, during my failed back-to-the-land period. My experience was hardly the pastoral ideal I’d had in mind. I’d pictured more of a Wendell Berry essay: farming with draft horses; growing weed- and insect-free patches of organic carrots and tomatoes; working in harmony with like-minded people who never had trouble reaching a consensus. There would be black Labrador retrievers named Molly, with red kerchiefs around their necks, frolicking in poppy-covered meadows. Someone else would cook large, stewlike meals and bake round loaves of brown bread. I would have ample time to write poetry and learn to play the dulcimer. In the afternoons, we would take long naps in handmade Guatemalan hammocks. Three-day weekends would be the norm. (That’s as far as I got in my predairy fantasy. Actually, imagining the naps, stews, and homemade bread was usually good enough.)
The reality, of course, was something else altogether. Squatting beside a manure-covered cow and squeezing her teats as she tries to kick you in the head is about as glamorous as it sounds. Getting slapped in the face with the same cow’s urine-soaked tail is also high on my list of experiences never to repeat. Dairy cows are extremely stubborn, but also bony in the hips, so hitting them is a bad idea, and the reason why so many dairy farmers break their hands. But the most valuable lesson I learned was: never stand directly behind a cow when she coughs. Their bowels are looser than creamed corn.
Heavy-machinery breakdowns are common on farms, and my mechanical skills were as nonexistent as those of most city kids. Whenever one of the tractors I was driving malfunctioned, all I could do was stand around and fetch wrenches for my boss. My status further deteriorated when I valiantly refused to spray herbicide on the corn (I was reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at the time) or participate in coyote hunts, which were popular among the farmhands. Nor did it help when I remarked that the artificial-insemination guy seemed to be enjoying his work a little too much. (He was a friend of my boss.)
After nine months, I had developed a serious case of silage cough, everything I owned stank of Holsteins, and all those rich dairy products had caused my cholesterol level to soar. At this time, my employer and I reached an agreement: I would leave in two weeks (sooner if I wanted) and look for another job, preferably a nonagricultural one — in another state. And he would let me. I thought this was a great arrangement.
i didn’t dare tell my Illinois brother-in-law that I’d been a dismal failure in my former agrarian life, but I suspect he could see how green I was. Farmers can gauge your mechanical competence the way animals can sense fear. They see it in the way you wield a throttle, pop a clutch, or pull a choke. They can take one look at your hands and tell if you’ve ever disassembled a carburetor or torn apart an axle. My hands were soft and pink, like the ones you might see on a Jergens lotion commercial. My fingernails were trimmed and clean. My only calluses were from playing my guitar.
My brother-in-law put me to work mowing acres of lawn and walking the endless fields, cutting down weeds with curve-bladed scythes that — in my inexperienced hands — could just as easily hack apart an ankle or a shin. Shatter cane was sprouting up among the seed corn, and contagious water hemp had jumped into a soybean field from a nearby drainage ditch. This was hot, humid, itchy work without bottled mineral water. For a week afterward, my delicate hands and arms were covered with welts and rashes. But I didn’t dare complain because, as any farmer will tell you, “things could be worse.” After all, I still had my thumbs and both of my testicles.
Sure, I made a few minor errors, especially while mowing. Who else could get a riding lawn mower stuck on a flat piece of Illinois ground? Who else would run the mower blade over a tree stump at the exact moment when his brother-in-law was cautioning him about having the blade too low? I missed slicing through electrical lines and toppling rosebushes by the thinnest of margins. Still, because I was family, I was given a second chance. Come harvest time, I got a promotion. My new job would be to haul soybeans in from the field. My brother-in-law would fill two grain wagons from the combine. All I had to do was hook a tractor up to the wagons, drive them half a mile to the farm, rev up the dreaded auger, dump my loads, and watch the beans rise up into the silver bins. Most Illinois farm kids could perform this same task effortlessly by the sixth grade. But before my brother-in-law turned me loose upon the golden prairie, he felt compelled to present me with a story:
“A guy climbed up into a bin to smooth out the pile. A beautiful day, just like today. He was just about done, and the harvest was going great. Bean prices were going up, too. That should have warned him. Anyhow, he got too close to the center of the bean pile and was caught in a whirlpool. Beans just swallowed him up. Drowned in his own bounty. He was still holding on to his shovel when they found him. He was about your age. Kinda looked like you, too. . . . Well, we’d better get to work.”
I failed on my first attempt to line up the wagons next to the auger. The next three tries were no better, but finally I was able to negotiate all the various throttles and brakes and on-off switches and maneuver the wagons into position. Not bad for my first time out, I thought. But I didn’t dare celebrate or even vaguely smile. I dumped my two loads and headed back to the field for more.
“How did things go?” my brother-in-law asked over the walkie-talkie.
“Oh, so-so. About middling,” I answered.
“Good,” he replied.
I loved talking on that walkie-talkie.
When I reached the fields, I unhooked the two empty wagons and attached the two full ones that were waiting for me. Then I noticed a radio in the cab of the tractor I was driving. In hindsight, I should have ignored those shiny dials. But it was two in the afternoon, and Fresh Air was just coming on NPR. So I flipped the switch, turned the volume up high, and settled in for the short ride back to the farm. A bubbling Terry Gross was interviewing political consultant David Gergen about his new memoir, and there I was, bringing in the crops in America’s heartland, just like a figure in a Grant Wood painting.
I turned into the farm’s driveway like a conquering hero and, to my delight, lined up the wagons on the very first try. This was getting easy. My Michigan misfortunes must have been just bad luck or poor supervision. I adjusted my Amish straw hat and pulled on my dirty work gloves, feeling very authentic. I was in control of large machinery manufactured by union laborers. I was farming. Now, couldn’t I allow myself to feel just a little bit satisfied? Must all traces of ego be sublimated in the Midwest?
I unloaded the first wagon, careful to keep my sleeves rolled up and stand clear of the deadly auger, which was spinning like mad and calling my name. Attached to the lower end of the auger was a basketlike contraption that caught the beans as they fell from the wagon. In my haste to get back to Terry Gross, I neglected to raise the basket out of the way before moving the second wagon into place. As the tractor rolled forward, I heard the unmistakable sound of crumpling aluminum, not unlike the crushing of an enormous beer can. Looking hesitantly back at what I had done, I felt as if I had lost a testicle.
As if on cue, my brother-in-law’s voice crackled on the walkie-talkie: “How’s it going?”
“Not good,” I answered.
“Great,” he replied.
“No, you don’t understand,” I said.
“Copy that again?”
My brother-in-law delivered his lecture in the machine shed, his words punctuated by the angry sounds of a sledgehammer hitting metal. “Didn’t I tell you: just when you think things are going well is when you should pay the closest attention?” All I could do was hang my head in shame and hand in my walkie-talkie. The next day, I returned to supervised mowing.