Threshing 'bee'

FC_V5_I2_Sep_2002_17-1.jpg

Harry Macomber

Content Tools

My encounter with the bumblebee, still a vivid memory nearly 60 years hence, taught me a healthy respect for flying, stinging insects - especially their single-minded-ness once they zero in on a target.

It was in late summer, probably August, and it was wheat-threshing time. Weeks before, the tall golden grain had been cut and bundled in the field by grain binders pulled by teams of horses. The bundles had been shocked quickly in neat rows across the field to cure. Likewise, the oats, which usually matured just after the wheat.

Not many farmers owned one of the big grain threshers for separating the wheat from the straw; those who did hauled them from farm to farm. The threshers would rumble slowly down the road, their steel wheels, and those of the tractors pulling them, leaving behind a strange pattern as the cleats dug into the gravel.

It was a favorite time for me. I was 5 or 6 that year, so it was 1945 or 1946. I was old enough to appreciate all that was going on around me but too young to actively take a part in the hard physical labor involved. By the time I was big enough to help, modern combines pulled through the fields had replaced the threshers.

My grandfather owned the thresher that sat on the barn hill of our farm that long ago day. A long, wide belt ran down to the tractor, which powered it. The back of the thresher sat inside the barn with its front wheels up on planks to level it from end to end. Having the machine level was an important factor in effectively separating the grain from the chaff as it shook and shimmied from several sheaves to the screens below. A built-in fan blew the light husks from the kernels of grain. Dust and debris constantly floated in, around, above and below the pulsating, vibrating monster. 

A long, round blower pipe, big enough for me to crawl through if I'd had the nerve, extended out the back door of the loft. The bent and broken stems of the once-tall wheat exited at the end of the pipe. Two men below, with three-tined pitchforks, moved and stacked the straw as it cascaded down to the ground. The golden stack, carefully squared at each corner, rose foot by foot. A wooden ladder soon was carried out and leaned against the stack so the men could descend and get a much-needed drink while a new wagonload of bundles was pulled forward to the threshing machine.

On the side near the rear of the thresher were some smaller pipes. These carried the clean kernels of wheat into a bagger attached to the side. Tall, gray cotton bags, each able to hold three bushels of grain, were waiting nearby. Two men manned this station also. The bags were as tall as I was. It took strong men to lift the filled bags off the barrier, pull a string from their back pockets and in one fluid motion, tic a miller's knot around the neatly gathered top. Some bags were carried untied and dumped into a big bin in the granary on one end of the loft.

I'd crawl into the bin, sinking several inches into the soft sea of kernels, and take a small handful of the wheat, check it for live bugs and then pop it into my mouth. I loved the taste of the sweet, crunchy kernels, but I'd only eat a couple of mouths full as Dad warned me each year that any more was likely to give me a first-class bellyache. I had no intention of spoiling one of my favorite days of the year, to say nothing of the tasty meal my mom, sisters and aunts were preparing as we men quietly worked together outside.

My grandpa, after whom I am named, always fed the bundles into the thresher himself. He was a wisp of a man in stature but a giant in the eyes of the crewmen, who struggled to match the pace he set. My dad was bigger and stronger than my grandpa but he too remained in awe of his dad, reminding me years later the reputation I had to match if I was to do justice to my name.

But that day, the reputation I would build as a worker was far from my mind. Threshing happened just once a year, and my only wish was to be in a half dozen places at the same time so I wouldn't miss any of it. There was so much to see and do.

I'd hitch a ride on the wagon with Dad as he trotted the horses back to the field for another load. As I stood on the front standard of the wagon, I'd hold the reins while Dad was on the ground. I wasn't really driving for the horses were following Dad's verbal commands as he neatly stacked the bundles down both sides of the wagon, but it was fun to pretend I was. Two men walked beside the wagon as we stopped briefly at each shock of wheat. The three-tined forks flashed in the sun as the shock, bundle by bundle, quickly moved from ground to wagon. Dad would yell 'gidup,' I'd add my command and give the lines a flick across the horses' backs as I'd seen Dad do and we'd move on to the next shock. Two bundles would be in the air, headed toward Dad, by the time he hollered 'whoa.' When we finally had a load, I'd be standing on the second board from the top, bundles of wheat surrounding me on three sides. I could barely move, but at least I wasn't in any danger of falling off. Dad would sit atop the load, his feet dangling over the front beside me. He'd take the lines, flick them lightly, and we were headed to the barn. 

One of the few regrets I have about those times is that modern tractors came along 10 years too soon. By the time I turned 10, Dad had purchased a small Farmall, and sitting in its seat, handling a steering wheel instead of reins, was where I spent the next two years of farming. By the time I turned 12, I was driving the bigger tractors - rubber-tired monsters that had lost their original steel wheels to the welder's torch. As a consequence, I never got to establish that unspoken understanding with horses that men of my dad's generation and before had.

A team in the hands of a good horseman was merely an extension of his own arms. It was enjoyable to me to watch all that power responding to those two thin, black lines and a few verbal commands, and when it came to driving horses, my dad had few equals. I've seen his team back a four-wheel spreader through a barn door with only 2 inches of total space beyond the wheels. He'd get off the seat and walk beside the horses; their only clues as to direction were his voice commands. Blinders built into the horses' bridles blocked their side vision and kept them from being distracted by activities around them for their own safety as well as for the driver's. Wearing blinders, a team developed a deep trust in their handler, as they relied solely on him for direction.

By the time Dad and I returned to the barn, dinnertime had come. Back then, men would not be late for meals; as the food was pulled hot from the oven or scraped from the skillet, the men were at the table, ready to eat. To do less would dishonor the time and effort the women put into preparing the food. And what a meal it always was. The women at each farm knew the men would all go home and tell their families what they'd had at dinner that day, so no effort was spared to satisfy the hunger that the hard morning's threshing work had produced.

I also enjoyed watching the men wash up and comb their hair before coming into the house for dinner. Threshing is a dirty job; the men's faces and arms would be dark with sweat, dust and dirt. Those working right beside the great metal thresher were covered in dirt and chaff, and the two working on the straw stack were an even darker shade.

On the lawn, near the house, under the spreading limbs of a giant elm, Dad had placed Mom's wash bench and two large square wash tubs, both filled with water; towels and hand wash bowls were set out on another bench. Each man in turn would pick up a wash bowl, dip it half-full of water from the tub and sit it on a bench. Bars of Lava soap soon were dipping into the quickly darkening water. Hands, arms, then face and neck all got equal treatment, and then the dirty water would be thrown under a nearby bush and clean rinse water would be dipped out. After a thorough rinse, the wash bowl was passed to the next man in line.

Dad made me wait until the men were all finished, so I'd watch as they dried their arms and faces on the big burlap towels. A few combs lay nearby and a small mirror that usually hung in our wash room was now hanging from a limb on the elm. Woven into all these cleanup activities was the constant banter of the men discussing the success of the morning, the yield per acre, the weather and the price of wheat at the mill. I was at the to-be-seen-and-not-heard age, but I was so caught up in listening that voicing my own opinion never occurred to me. When it was finally Dad's and my turn, we had to hurry, as no one would enter the house until Dad did.

Mom would try to squeeze me in beside Dad at the big dining room table. Every extra leaf had been inserted in the center to accommodate the threshing crew. To my eyes, it looked as big as the wagons on which we hauled the bundles. Mom and her 'crew' started the big bowls of food at the end of the table nearest the kitchen. If a bowl emptied before it got all the way around, another was substituted without a pause, and then there were pies.

It was one of the few times during the year that I had to make a choice as to what kind I wanted. Cherry, apple, rhubarb, custard or lemon. No skinny 6-year-old boy, already full of mashed potatoes, roast beef and lima beans, should have to make such a choice - to narrow it down to just one. What a feast it was.

Then, almost as if a whistle had blown, the men would all get up and head outside again, each nodding and complimenting the ladies on a fine meal as they passed out the door. The sun had moved beyond its hot spot, allowing our tall silo to start casting its shadow across the tractor and the singing belt that powered the thresher. All the barns where I grew up were two stories. On the ground floor, stanchions held the cows while they were milked. A ramp of dirt was built so wagons could be pulled in or backed up into the second floor. It was a long dirt ramp, built so the horses could pull the loaded wagons up its grade without having to struggle.

That day, Grandpa's big, steel-wheeled tractor sat part way up the ramp. There was room for the teams and wagons to pass it as they pulled up beside the thresher, and once they were unloaded, the skilled teams would back the empty wagons down the ramp to where they could turn around and head back to the field

A fieldstone wall, built on each side of the ramp, held the dirt in place, and, unbeknownst to me, a bumblebee nosed around in the grass growing alongside that wall. A team and wagon had just left the barn and the next one had not yet appeared, so Grandpa climbed down from the thresher and slowed the big tractor to an idle. He stood there, impatiently waiting. I was on the ramp, walking along the wide stone tops when, amongst the grass growing along the wall, a weed caught my attention. It was a big pig weed, as Dad called them, and at this point in the summer, they had toughened and dried to the point of being almost indestructible.

I was dressed in a pair of bib overalls, just like Dad's, a cotton shirt, and shoes and socks. Underwear had not entered my dress code yet and wouldn't until I started attending junior high school in the big city. My skinny frame didn't come close to filling out those overalls, so plenty of room remained for air circulation between the cloth and me. I can describe myself best as looking like a small scarecrow on a stick after all the straw stuffing had fallen out. I was built just like my grandpa.

I'm not really sure why, but I grabbed onto that pig weed with both hands. Maybe I did it just because the weed was there or because it stood above the rest. I bent it, twisted it and gave it a couple of tugs to no avail. I reached lower down on the main stem with both hands and braced my legs. That weed was coming out! I gave a mighty jerk! Dust and dirt flew up into my face as the tough roots gave way, but before I could revel in triumph, I heard the dreaded buzz of an unhappy bumblebee.

I dropped the weed and looked down. My first mistake was not using that time to turn and run. I saw a moving flicker of yellow down among the grass and weeds. Still I didn't move. I am by nature slow to panic, but this was about to become a rare exception. Then, it was quiet, and the buzzing stopped. Before I could dwell on the meaning, I felt the faint breeze of beating wings on my bare leg below the knee.

I'm not sure which happened first, the jumping or the hollering. All I know for sure is that I was suddenly airborne and hollering at the top of my lungs as I twisted and turned. That bumblebee, flying blind in the dark interior of my bib overalls, was having his own troubles bumping and buzzing his way higher and higher.

Then I made my second mistake. I started trying to hit him through my overalls each time I felt his legs touch my skin. Looking back, I realize there was no good way to remove that bumblebee without getting stung at least once. If sheer force of movement could have shaken him out, he'd already had my best shot. Suddenly, though, my chest felt the fiery sensation I had struggled mightily to avoid. I grabbed my bibs and shirt and pulled them out from my chest. That bumblebee saw daylight at last and he was gone.

Tears of fear and pain were pouring down my cheeks. I looked around and Grandpa was roaring with laughter. I guess the look on my face must have touched him, though, because he came running over to where I stood. He helped me get my suspenders off my shoulders and open my shirt. There, almost perfectly positioned between the nipples on my chest, was a growing, burning red bump. My whole chest throbbed and felt like it was on fire.

Grandpa, I would realize over time, was the last one you'd call on if you were looking for sympathy, especially for something as trivial to him as a bee sting, but after calming me down some, he sent me to his house, to see Grandma. There, I got a hug and some baking soda to help soothe the sting.

I've gotten stung several times since that day and never cried, but to this day, I give bumblebees the right of way anytime our paths happen to cross. FC

-Harry Macomber lived on a Michigan farm until he was 24. He's now resides in Watertown, Term., and works in the printing and pubishing industry.