Auburn University, Alabama
It was in summer after I was ten
That I was big enough to work with men
As they went through the July threshing run,
And for a boy like me, it seemed all fun.
Each year the season was begun in June.
To get the old steam engine all ‘in tune’
Elijah Hall repaired each boiler plate
And checked the hinges on the firebox gate.
Then with a rag and squirt can full of oil
Prepared the thresher for the summer’s toil.
He tightened all the bolts, set the scale,
Then checked each belt down to the last detail.
At last, one day I saw the big machine
Majestically come down the road between
The border fences. Ponderous it moved
So like a monster in a friendly mood.
It panted chug-a-chug-a-chug to breathe
In air, while clouds of smoke and steam would seethe
And billow from black front smoke stack,
As Lige sat tall and steered it from the back.
The engine rolled into the feeding lot
And pulled the thresher over toward the spot
Where Dad had said the straw stack would be built,
And Lige was soon all set to go full tilt.
He pulled the whistle cord to give a toot,
Then yelled and pointed toward the feeder chute,
And men on bundle-wagons tossed the grain
Onto the belt turned by a sprocket chain
The straw and chaff came out the blowers mouth
To be stacked up by winds out of the south.
With men out in the field my work began.
I took the water jug from man to man.
And watched them as in turn they tipped it high,
Heard water gurgle down throats so hot and dry.
‘Hey Bud, you know that tasted good and wet.
Now get back soon for water helps us sweat.’
As wagons moved from shock to shock of grain
Each driver stopped his team and tied his rein
Around the frame up front. He built a load
Of bundles square and high that he then rode
Back to the thresher where he is stopped his team
Beside the chute in the unloading scheme.
I smelled the heat that rose in dusty clouds
Around the feeder chute and watched as crowds
Of beetles scurried to escape their fate
Back where the thresher worked to separate
The straw and chaff from golden grains of wheat
That men could taste and say, ‘This crop is sweet.’
The day wore on, and as I moved around,
I listened to the men express profound
Ideas, thoughts of life they based upon
The School of hard knocks from all hell and gone
Heard Elmo Teller say, ‘The preacher said
Last Sunday, just as soon as I am dead
Then I will leave this vale of tears and strife,
Go where I will enjoy eternal life.’
But Steven Grayson stopped and scratched his head
Then told about a poem that he had read
Some years before when he had been in school
That life is freedom, not a rigid rule.
‘The earth that nourished thee, shall claim thy growth
To be resolved to earth again, and, lost
Each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
Yet not to thine eternal resting place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world, with kings,
The powerful of the earth, the wise, the good.’
But Elmo, with a laugh to stop him, said,
‘Now Steve, you cannot tell me that you read
Such words in school. How could a farmer boy
Say such a poem was something to enjoy?’
‘Oh yes, I read it and it helped me see
That life on earth is good and should be free
Of fear of death so I can be serene.
The poet was a boy of seventeen,
William Cullen Bryant was his name.
He tried to say that life is not a game
And that the beauty of this life on earth
Should be appreciated for its worth.’
I watched as Elmo gave a pat to set
A bundle in its place. He wiped the sweat
From off his face and looked again at Steve,
Whose thoughts were such he just could not perceive
‘Eternal life is ours to obtain,’
Said Elmo from atop the load of grain
‘And it is promised to us if we go
The way of Him who went before to show
Poor sinners, like the two of us, if we
Believe and we are not too blind to see.
I wonder why though we are left alone
To work so God-damned hard for what we own.’
But Steven, as he tossed each bundle up
To Elmo, said, ‘You wonder why your cup
Is still not full. You should be satisfied
With life right now and all it can provide.’
‘But Steve, the preacher said that he was sure
The Hardships of this life we can endure
If only we accept His word as true.
Eternal life of peace is ours to view.’
‘My point is this,’ said Steven with a smile.
‘What will I do with life for all the while
That I am here, alive? I can be sad,
Unhappy with my lot. Why not be glad?
I don’t know much about an absolute.
It binds me in, and leaves me destitute
To find a way to do as I see fit.
Tradition stops new thoughts you must admit.’
As if to find a way to change the talk
‘Mo said to me, ‘You can’t stay here and gawk,
The other hands will need that water jug
And all that Steve has said is just humbug.’
Then Steve, the smile still on his face, spoke out.
‘But Bud, you can’t learn much when you doubt
The world of facts that is in front of you.
Best use them all to form your point of view.
‘ I made the rounds to all the men that day;
I heard them talk of girls and the horseplay
And fights that went on at the last barn dance
And made so much excitement and romance.
At noon I sat and ate with all the men.
I stirred iced tea and wondered if again
Elmo and Steve would start their argument
About this life and death and what it meant.
But no, they talked of weather, need of rain
Now that the threshing run was through again.
Work left them no time to philosophize
Or energy to try to be more wise.
Some problems come from livestock and their care;
How to get ready for the County Fair.
The work went on but changed as seasons passed,
Relief was short and never seemed to last.
I stood beside my father late that day
And watched the old steam engine chug away.
I asked exactly what had Steven meant
When he objected and would not consent
To rules, nor would accept the preachers’ word.
He seemed to think beliefs were so absurd
And absolutes as unattainable,
The view of facts as more admirable.
‘Well Bud,’ Dad said. ‘Have you become a man
To bring such questions all about life’s plan?
The thing to do is have an open mind,
See everything and never be unkind.’
The summer’s threshing run was past and gone
But with the hay to make, work went right on.
I hitched the horses to a sulky rake,
Wind-rowed the hay as straight as I could make.
I listened as the men all talked about
Their ideas, with some of them devout,
While others joined with Steve, advanced the though
That learning was a goal that should be sought.
It seemed to me, they just could not agree
About the way that one’s own destiny
Must be a balance using all the facts
Combined with charity in all life’s acts.
Not all was work; I rode with other boys,
Went swimmin’, always one of summer’s joys.
We took our livestock to the County Fair;
Heard Elmo named the ‘Fiddler with most flair’.
With fall, we all went back to school
And learned again to live by teacher’s rule.
The talk I’d heard required that I should think,
Face up to all the facts and never shrink.
I read the books stored in the small book case;
Combined the knowledge of their facts with grace
And the belief that only comes in church
To find the peace for which we all must search.