For my brother Bill
The farm equipment circles in funeral procession from the edge of the driveway all around the barnyard to the east door of the Morton Building machine shed, waiting for the auction to begin. The John Deere combine sitting by the driveway leads the procession: the hearse, the massive be-all-end-all of the farm, the purpose and the heart of things, the harvester of a year’s investment. When it’s gone, the farm is dead.
This John Deere combine, this green monolith grasshopper munched through thousands of acres and poured tens of thousands of bushels of corn, soybeans, and oats into waiting gravity box wagons.
In fall, that season of cornstalks crisp underfoot and grain dryers scenting the air, you found your dad at night by scanning the flat miles of Iowa farmland. The combine headlights, big as a UFO landing in the darkness, crept through the field while the machine consumed the plants and reduced them to kernels, ripe and dry enough to use or sell. If you needed help with math, you made your way through the stubble and waited for his headlights to shine on you so he’d stop. You had to be careful, Mom said, not to trip and fall into a furrow and never be seen until after you’d been run over. You jumped around to make sure Dad noticed you, mesmerized as he was from lining up the combine snoots between rows all day, staring into the lines of golden stalks hour after hour.
And on Halloween, you went out to the field in your costume early, right after school, while it was still daylight so Dad could see you dressed as a ghost and Bill your brother in his hobo outfit; otherwise, Dad would miss the whole show and the candy besides unless you saved him some, but you always saved him Mounds bars ‘cause he was the only one in the house who liked coconut.
Those days, Dad chored the livestock early and left the barnyard as soon as the morning dew lifted enough so the combine wouldn’t plug, and he went ‘til late into the night ‘cause the stalks were dryer late at night than early in the morning, and that way he’d get in every possible hour of harvesting ‘cause you never knew how long the weather would hold, how long before a blanket of snow would fall. For evening chores, you’d help Bill let each sow out of her farrowing crate, away from her row of pink piglets for a long drink and a bit of exercise. And when you got bigger, as big as junior high, you did it all by yourself so Bill could drive the tractor all evening. You let the sows out one or two at a time so they wouldn’t fight and cause a big ruckus, and you measured out cracked corn and vitamin supplement from red-striped Supersweet bags into their feed pans.
And on October Friday nights during junior high, you took your Catechism book with you and walked toward the low roar of that same John Deere grasshopper-combine, because Dad was a whiz at memory work, and he could help you memorize while you rode along with him, your forehead pressed against the combine cab glass, watching the rows wash into the combine in a golden upstream waterfall while chaff and corn dust swirled around your ankles. And the next morning in Confirmation class, when Pastor Nygaard called on you to recite the meaning of the Second Commandment, “Thou Shalt not take the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain,” according to Luther, you shut your eyes and envisioned the rows of corn streaming into the combine while you had memorized it the night before, and you could say perfectly: “This means that we should fear, love, and trust in God so that we do not curse, swear, conjure, lie, or deceive by his name, but call upon him in every time of need, and worship him with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. This is most certainly true.” And now, even thirty-four years later, you can’t capitalize “God” when you swear in emails, remembering memorizing commandments in the combine cab.
Any trip to the combine meant Mom handed you Dad’s lunch or cookies or a fresh thermos of coffee to save her one trip to the field. When she took him lunch or supper, she drove the pickup to the end row and waited. She didn’t traipse across the stubble like you did, to catch him mid-field. She always took a book along in case she had to wait.
Now I understand that back then Mom timed it so she was heading toward the field when Dad was driving away from the end row, so she’d get to sit and wait, moments of peace, and not have to feel guilty for not working those few precious minutes.
And this is the same combine that Bill rarely drove while Dad was still alive. Dad’s replacement knee and hip made it hard to climb up into the cab, but once he was there, he wouldn’t budge ‘til the day was done. Bill drove the Allis Chalmers tractor with two gravity boxes behind, and passed back and forth from combine to our grain bins or to the Co-op grain elevator in Cambridge, one of those obelisks that marks a prairie town, where Bill unloaded the golden kernels in a torrent, into the auger box or the Co-op floor bin. The only time all year when farming produces gold.
Then Bill had to do it all, by himself, starting the March day Dad dropped dead, heart attack in the morning before breakfast, get up and get it over with, don’t dawdle through the day putting off what’s got to be done.
Today is a day like that day, that burial day, only it’s February instead of March, sky tissue-paper blue, thin and pale so the sun can’t quite burn through, and the ground is mush from fresh-melted snow. Funeral day let up its steady drizzle on dirty snow long enough to walk from the church to cars, and from cars to the gravesite. And that day, behind the hearse, the limo where Bill and I rode got stuck in cemetery mud. Today, anybody could get stuck anywhere, so they park on high spots of gravel and on any square of grass.
I count ninety-eight pickups, up and down the driveway, wedged together, in the house yard, the orchard, the barnyard, strung along the edge of last year’s cornfield stubble. My car is one of only three on the place, four if you count a mini-van. One for each woman in attendance. It’s a man’s world, and we’re here, out of place, awkward in the men’s eyes, though the ones who knew me forty years ago know you don’t outgrow tomboy, and they’re not surprised to see me walking between the tractors. Bill’s wife Cathy and my niece are here of course, and Cathy’s sister for moral support, warm inside the machine shed. One other wife is here. The rest are men. Pickup-driving men. If Mom were still alive, she’d be peering from behind the gauzy living room drapes, hand over her mouth, sucking in gasps, “My stars, look at what they’ve done to the lawn. Just look. All those tire tracks? Don’t they have common sense? You think their wives don’t mind them digging up the grass like that?”
But it doesn’t matter, the grass here anymore. Mom is gone, and the house is scheduled to be a practice run for the fire department before the school district bulldozes it and puts in a soccer field. The renter left fireworks on the porch—a whole garbage bag of them—and Bill and I have stashed them in the attic for a last hurrah, a going out with a blast, for the firemen. I’ll be in Minnesota when they explode, but it makes us feel better to know we’re not taking this in utter silence. The barn, too, is scheduled to go up in flames after our friends, the Lewis brothers, scavenge its usable lumber. The remains of the corn crib, the garage, cattle shed, separator house, outhouse, and any other leftover outbuildings will burn, too. The granary is already gone, where during my softball pitching years I chalked a strike zone on the wall and wore dents in the boards with my fastball. The hog houses, Morton building, and grain bins will be dismantled piece by piece, moved to other farms, where life still breathes in and out with the planting and harvesting seasons.
Following the combine-hearse in the funeral procession are the tractors. Between the White and the old Farmall M sits the 8N Ford.
The 8N was the first vehicle you ever drove besides a bicycle and a pony. Your job at age eight was to drive on the hay fork. This meant you sat on the Ford, all-important and waiting, while Dad, atop the hayrack by the barn, jammed hay fork tongs like a six-foot loose-jointed claw into hay bales and gave you the signal to go. Then you concentrated on not popping the clutch and backed the Ford alongside the livestock tank, hog house, and corn crib, slowly, keeping the rope taut to the pulley system inside the barn that lifted the hay from the rack, up to the hay door and into the haymow. The hay door was a giant mouth, opening almost the whole top half of the barn, its tongue hanging down over the bottom half on giant hinges. The barn had a bottomless appetite for hay and bales would be stacked from floor to roof by the end of summer.
It was tricky for you as an eight-year-old to do all three things at once: watch behind you, watch the rope, and listen for Dad’s shout to stop. When he yelled, you tromped the clutch and the brake, and Dad jerked the rope that tripped the fork so the bales dumped where he needed them in the hayloft. Then you kept your feet on the clutch and brake, put the 8N into first, and crept back to your starting place to be ready for the next hay fork full of bales.
All this time, Bill was out in the field, driving the Farmall H on the baler, competent by himself at age eleven.
The H is long gone, but its replacement, the M, sits with its front-end loader alongside the other tractors. Parked outside in February, the tractors seem out of season.
Wagons follow the tractors in the procession. Last fall, just four months ago, the gravity boxes made a train along the edge of the corn rows, waiting for loads from the combine. In the field, they looked sturdy, useful and well-used. Now, they look empty, rusted, and worn out, a funereal parody of that train.
Next, the baler. Then plows, whose blades cut soil and turned it bottom-side up in black furrows but have been wiped clean and shiny for bidders. Then disks, harrows, cultivators, planters, augers, the grinder and the elevator.
Closest to the Morton building, last out and first to sell, in the way of all farm sales, sit the hayracks, piled with the collected leftovers from the machine shed, garage, and tool shed.
When the auctioneer is ready to start with the little stuff, he climbs on the first hayrack and motions Bill to stick close, to answer questions. The auctioneer’s voice gallops over the items on the racks, inviting bids for log chains, fence stretchers, posthole drivers, disk plates, wheels, tires, wrenches, a welder, soldering irons, sprockets, front end tractor weights, and the last of the hog farrowing crates. Bill stands stoic, hands in his pockets, unless he’s answering “Yes, it works.” “It’s fifteen years old.” “Last used ‘em in ’91 and they worked great then.” His hair curls mostly gray below his red and gold Iowa State cap. He has lost weight in the last few years; stress has stripped it from his six-foot frame. His coveralls, neat and clean, are looser than they used to be.
These men gathered round the hayracks in striped overalls and Carhartt coveralls are mostly my brother Bill’s friends, come to pay their last respects. Every man in work boots standing in the barnyard breathes, “There but for the grace of God go I.” They’re here to be a support for Bill, hands in their pockets, come to buy something at a fair price.
A very few of the buyers are vultures, strangers from other counties, drawn by farm sale ads and blending into the crowd in their own Carhartts. The vultures circle, bidding to pay the least and take away the most, picking over the bones of my brother’s loss.
Twenty-one years ago, I wrote a story that opened with this scene, the galloping voice of the auctioneer removing each item from a family’s life, evacuating them from their farm. In my imaginary world, the day was frozen winter gray, and the girl walking the barnyard was only fifteen. Her pony was sold on auction, so her love in life, her passion, was gone to bidders. Now, this sale is not selling my passion—just my brother’s. I’ve been gone for thirty years, other states, mostly cities, but this black Iowa soil still runs deep in my veins and is in the marrow of my bones. This land is part of my soul, but it’s not in my bank account, my sunrise and sunset, chore time, planting, and harvest, like it is in my brother’s. It’s his passion that we’re selling here. I’m burying my childhood, my roots, but he’s burying his life.
In the story that I wrote, the brother and sister had a living mother, had lost their father to a heart attack just as suddenly as mine dropped almost ten years to the day after I’d written the scene. It terrified me when I realized I’d prewritten history. Now, another eleven years later, the farm sale I wrote twenty-one years ago has sprung to life.
It’s tenuous business at best, farming in the twenty-first century, and small farming is already a thing of the past. But it’s been the dream of each of the men who stand here bidding—since each one was big enough to sit in his own daddy’s lap, on the seat of a John Deere 60 or an International Harvester H, and to push a toy tractor around the sandbox by age two.
Farming has always been my brother’s only dream. In his first Sunday School class, Mrs. Kronk held an Easter lily for her three-year-old charges to sniff. Bill, then Billy, exclaimed, “It smells as good as tractor gas!” By age four, he had mapped out an entire farm under the spreading branches of our backyard elm tree before Dutch Elm Disease. He erected fences and worked the soil with the proper toys to match the season. Disking, plowing, harrowing, and dropping seeds behind his toy planter that couldn’t really drop full-size corn kernels or soybeans into the ground. His tiny plants sprouted and grew, and he cultivated, baled, picked corn, and combined. What implements weren’t available in toy size at the dealer, he made from tin and laths. Bent over the short work bench Dad made him in the separator house, he hammered together a corncrib with lath slats so the corn could dry, cut a heat-houser from a sheet of tin and bolted it onto his little Farmall H, conglomerated a self-propelled combine from wood blocks, lath, and tin before toy combines were on the market, and erected a machine shed from plywood with a tin roof to house his precious implements.
Bill wore out the knees on every pair of his pint-sized overalls, farming his backyard under-the-elm dirt farm. He loved overalls, and his kindergarten picture shows a five-year-old fighting tears because his stern teacher made him drop the overall straps for the picture so he wouldn’t look like a hick farmer. He never wore overalls to school again. But he kept wearing out the knees at home, and Mom patched them all.
Now that little boy is all grown up and gray around the edges, as he walks among his friends, greeting them, answering questions. Some of these men I haven’t seen for thirty years, and they come up to greet me. My bus driver from grade school is here, my second and third cousins, old neighbors, members of Fjeldberg Lutheran Church. They admire Bill’s care of his tractors, the meticulous maintenance his combine received, and his honesty when asked if things run perfectly. The baler does, and it brings top dollar. The John Deere 3020 brings over $5000, which surprises everyone, and so does a White that Bill says needs bearings.
The John Deere combine, the massive be-all-end-all of the farm, the purpose and the heart of things, is the last thing sold. The combine brings only $3100, $4500 if you count the extra for the corn head and grain head. A new one costs six digits. When the auctioneer, standing on the cab platform points and shout “Sold!” it’s the lowest note of the day, the last of the funeral procession, the lowering of the body into the ground, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” sprinkled over the casket.
Then it’s over.
I remember a funeral when I realized I was watching a wife become a widow at the moment she turned away from her husband’s grave. This is such a moment.
There’s nothing more to do, and there’ll be no after-burial lunch in the church basement. We’re on our own. We want to turn away, to leave before the men finish loading duals, hooking up planters, driving the last tractor down the driveway. All day, my brother has held himself together. Today, he’s my hero all over again, as he has been since I was three years old and wished I could drive a tractor like he did at six.
The auctioneer sidles up to us and says, “Well, guess it’s all over but the shoutin’.”
Bill and I look at him, at each other, nothing to say back to him. The sun winks through the tissue-paper blue, leaves a thin shadow on the north side of the machine shed, and we load ourselves up and head down the driveway.
We’re a Norwegian Lutheran farm family. There won’t be any shoutin’.