2731 Harmony Drive, Bettendorf, Iowa 52722
And make me a child again just for tonight. The words came back out of the years with a rush of memories, treasured memories, happy memories, of boyhood on an Iowa farm.
Growing up on a farm and in a small town community is a privilege that we may not appreciate until later. The pull back toward the land surges strongest in me, come spring. It was that way too, when I was a small boy. When the snow, the cold, and the mud were gone, when grass grew and water ran, the annual miracle of regrowth burst forth everywhere. Once again birds sang, animals returned to outdoor pasture and April showers brought May flowers.
The good earth sliding black and fertile from the moldboard of a plow had a nice smell all its own. Pigeons would swoop down on it to feast on earthworms recently evicted into the sunshine. First, the oats crop started to green the fields. Then, a happy shout, 'You can row the corn' announced that a stand of tiny corn plants was thru the surface and on its way.
Spring dissolved into summer. There was the chirp of crickets, the buzzing of the katydids on a hot summer night, and the sun rising brilliant and hot between the barn and the corncrib. Nature give the and it can also suddenly take away. The onset of a thunderstorm from a black, lightning-pierced sky looked as if the end of the world was at hand. But the crescendo hit and passed and brought with it the pricesless rain; water, water for the land, and renewed promise of a crop.
There was the snort and whinny of horses, the creaking of their leather harness, the sharp clop of wagon wheel hubs sidewise on their axles. Hogs aren't very romantic. They just grunt, and squeal, and root, and smell some, and pay the billsand help feed the world. The mooing of cattle is much nicer, especially when they are white-faced Herefords dotting a grassy pasture.
Almost as if it were yesterday, I can see our old John Deere Model 'D' coming home from the fields at nightfall after a long day. Because lugged steel wheels were rough, you stood up some of the time to avoid the jolts. The short flame from the exhaust stabbed out into the darkness beside the radiator, and the staccato tutt-tutt-tutt grew steadily louder as it emerged thru the grove back of the house.
Few odors are as pleasing as that of freshly mowed clover hay. Few spectacles were as impressive to a small farm boy as seeing enormous ball-shaped chunks of loose hay hoisted high up to the big haydoor at the peak of the barn, ropes and pulleys singing under the strain. Before disappearing into the mysterious depths of the haymow, the huge hayball would swing sharply outward. And the sound of the fork carrier rapidly changed as it rolled in out of sight on its steel rail track.
Eight feet each round the grain binder transformed the amber waves of grain into bundles; sweat, muscle, and hard work arranged the bundles into neat rows of shocks, and picturesque scenes loved by calendar artists.
I suppose we tend to think that the most exciting day of the year for a small boy on a 1920's farm would have been Christmas and yes, Christmas was a big and meaningful occasion. But the most exciting day of the year wasn't Christmas, it was Thrashin' Day. In my small world then the thrill of thrills came while I stood with eyes wide and heart racing, pressing my face against the woven wire of the houseyard fence.
'Here it comes' I probably shouted as the giant gray-black Reeves steam engine slowly turned into our driveway I remember its distinctive arched canopy. In unstoppable, massive majesty it came ever closer, obediently followed by an equally large dull red Nichols & Shepard Red River Special thresher. The uphill slope of our driveway made the engine hint at its great Dower, like an enormous fist in a velvet glove. The little boy eyes were saucer-sized as the great wheels pressed wide, flat tracks onto the ground. Reciprocating cylinders and cams contrasted with the smooth rotation of the cast iron flywheel. An auro of heat, steam and smoke seemed to surround the engine. Stray drops of water scattered with a spitting sound as they landed on the hot boiler.
More than anything else the exhaust sound kind of brought goose bumps. Sonorous, slow, clipped, soft but mighty, the chuffa, chuffa, chuffa seemed to come charging up from the bowels of the boiler and out the smokestack.
The engineer's name was John Kahler. Yes, he saw me gazing up thru the fence. Reaching for the whistle cord, he rewarded me with a splitting blast from the brass whistle. I suppose I looked up at him then with the same wonder and admiration as a child today might look upon Apollo astronaut, Neil Armstrong and his lunar landing.
Eagerly, and from a respectful distance, I got to watch the ponderous threshing outfit 'set' and begin its work. Power flowed down the long crossed belt, while the now stationary steamer had a gentle undulating motion. With a comfortable load on it, the engines exhaust responded with surging power to variations in the steady stream of bundles moving head first into the feeder conveyor. A bundle pitched in crossways brought an instant no-no signal from the boss man standing atop the threshing machine. With feet planted well apart, his body seemed to gently move back and forth with his machine, much as a skipper on the deck of his ship as well he was.
Rather like a pipe organ background, the steam engine dominated a pageant of horses, bundle wagons, flashing pitchforks, water jugs, coal smoke, chaff, oil cans, bib overalls, straw hats, and a straw stack. And all the time, filled grain wagons clattered off to the granary.
Thrashin' Day lasted until after dark. Tired people dispersed, genuinely tired tired in a satisfying physical way. But this little guy had to take one more look at the now silent monsters out by the new straw stack silent except that those occasional water drops still went 'spitt' on the boiler. John Kahler's final act for the day was to tie down the whistle cord to release the steam pressure. In the quiet of the night the whistle, much like a great trumpet, sent waves of sound shimmering out over the miles, across the cornfields, and thru the countryside.
My father wasn't as impressed with all the thresher activity as I. He brought me down to earth with, 'I'm glad to see them come; and I'm glad to see them go'. For me it was different. Though the gentle steam monarchs of the plains no longer rule the harvest fields, they truly wield a spell over me, a spell begun on Thrashin' Day long ago.
Foxtail grew high in the oat stubble, it got dark earlier, leaves of brown came tumbling down, and frost ended the life span of the corn stalks. The corn picker rattled and chattered its way thru the brittle dry corn rows. Again the snort of the horses, the creak of the harness, and the slap of the neckyoke and doubletrees was heard. The ear corn was moving to the corncrib; the breath of the straining horses could be seen in the chill air. In due time the crib was full, and for that year the harvest was gathered in.
The seasons came full circle when sundogs preceded the awesome isolation of a silent, frozen winter night. When it was that cold you probably opened the oven door on the kitchen cookstove to keep warm and there was ample time to reflect and to be thankful. But the promise of another year soon took over. The conversation would get to family plans and a few dreams for the next year.
There by the warm stove with Mother, Dad, and sister, my little world seemed so simple, so secure. Soon it would be Christmas, and in what then seemed light-years away, there would be another wondrous Thrashin' Day.