I was tired.
Dog tired. Dirt tired. Dead tired.
And this was just one more tiring day in a long string of seemingly endless fall harvest weeks.
After a while the constant hurry, hurry, hurry wears you down. You go to bed tired. You wake up tired. You’re considerably more tired by noon.
Sundown comes, and the weariness settles in on your shoulders like the gentle weight an old coat, nearly worn out, yet so familiar you can’t quite bring yourself to discard it. The interesting thing about that version of tired is that it can make you stupid or it can open windows of clarity allowing you to see reality through a different filter. It seeps into your bones, stalks your dreams and wanders through the mirrored halls of memory.
This was yet another dusty, hazy, spectacularly luminous autumn evening, and as I drove the semi-truck and trailer out of the field and on to what the county entertainingly calls a numbered road, a glimmer of motion caught the corner of my right eye.
My first thought assumed it to be the reflection in the window glass of the western horizon, drenched as it was in all the colors of the day, or perhaps the starlight beginning to emerge from the deep purple of the eastern sky.
Nothing so simple as that.
I was startled to see a passenger in what until then had been the empty shotgun seat on my right, a passenger who I immediately assumed to be a figmentary symptom of my fatigue or a harmless hallucination. But as hallucinations go, this one was a dilly. I hadn’t seen anything that wasn’t really there since … um … Kathmandu. Winter of 1971. At this point I wasn’t even all that surprised, illusions of interest come and go depending on the state of weariness. I could blink and refocus my eyes and it would be gone, but then I thought, what the heck, any company is better than my own at this stage of the day.
This passenger was remarkably familiar though.
CW. The Old Man. Dad.
Oddly enough, I considered the possibility that he’d probably been there all day, maybe all week or even the entirety of harvest. Not too surprising as he’d always been a powder keg when it came time to bring in his hard-won crops. Perhaps he just wanted to see if his descendants managed harvest any differently. Some strange alchemy of too many hours behind the wheel was allowing me this vison so I decided to enjoy it while it lasted.
“Evenin’ son,” he said with a dusty smile. “You’re looking kinda old with all that grey in your beard.”
This spectre now seemed a bit too real.
I decided to play along with what I hoped was only my imagination. Figmentary or not, I thought we might as well catch up, seeing as he passed away in 1999.
Kinda surprised to see you down here Dad, being as you departed this realm 23 years ago. You do realize you’d be a 114 if you were still walking this earth with us. I’m only 70. Cut me some slack.
He smiled at that.
“What are we hauling... and to where?”
Its milo, Dad. From 5 & 6 and into the Bartlett & Company elevator in Towner.
“Milo!” He snorts. “Waste of time. I never grew any that was worth a damn. You should stick to wheat and millet.”
We grow a fair amount of it these days, Pops. Better varieties, no-till planting in a two out of three-year crop rotation, a good local market. It’s working well for us ... most years.
“Humph,” he says with a bit of a disbelieving snort. “If you say so. Last time I remember growing a decent crop of it was in about 1960. It was about this light out and you were riding with me on that old open cab JD 95 combine. I thought I could tighten a loose belt on the clean grain elevator while it was still moving. Got my thumb caught between the pulley and the belt. Good thing you were there to shut the machine off and help me get untangled.”
Yeah, I remember that. You wrapped your bloody thumb up in a red bandana and said, “We won’t tell your mother about this.” Like she wouldn’t know. Well, to be fair, I could never hide anything serious from her either. How is she?
“Doing well. Enjoying her rest. Spends a lot of time haunting the deck up at the cabin. You know how she loved to sit out there and soak up the mountain sun. However, she’s annoyed that you got rid of her old New England style furniture.”
My turn to say “Humph.” So, is that why you’re down here, to convey that message?
“Nope, Saint Peter asked Earl Scruggs give me banjo lessons. I’m not picking it up as fast as I thought I would, and well, I got the hint from her that she would rather listen to Lawrence Welk for a while.”
I allowed myself a small chuckle over that revelation.
“So, nice truck.” he says, “Never could afford anything this new and shiny myself.”
Dad, it’s a 15-year-old ‘07 Colombia Freightliner with 750,000 miles on it.
Another “humph” on his part. “Lotsa gauges and gadgets. What’s this big bright yellow one do?”
Do not touch that Dad, it’s a parking brake and we’re going 65 mph on a gravel road that hasn’t been properly graded since Three Dog Night had a top 40 hit.
“How much grain do you have on here anyway?”
About 10,000 pounds more than we are supposed to have. Maybe 1100 bushels, so try not to attract unnecessary attention.
“Is Johnny Mills still the elevator manager there?”
Pops, he died long before you did. Maybe you ought to check your neighborhood directory.
“Well, it’s a big place. I hadn’t thought of him in years.”
He’s mostly silent for the rest of the short ride to the elevator, staring out at the fall landscape of newly planted wheat and ripening crops. He’s a bit startled when we turn off Highway 96 and on to an approach road a half-mile west of the grain handling facility.
“I thought you said we were going to Bartlett’s?”
We are Dad, it’s changed a bit. They added 800,000 bushels of storage, a new leg, automated sampling and ticketing as well as high-speed railcar loadout.
He looks skeptical as we arrive at our destination.
“What’s that big tube with a hydraulic cylinder arm on it?”
That’s how they probe the load for a sample.
“But there’s no ramp to stand on ... and while we we’re at it, how do you roll your tarp without a walk-around platform ?”
See that two-story building behind the office? The probe is controlled from there by an operator with a closed-circuit monitor. The sample is then automatically conveyed through this maze of tubing and up to their analyzing equipment that determines test weight, moisture content and foreign material. The tarp I roll by punching a button on this remote control. I never get out of the truck.
“Then how do they know who the load belongs to?”
It’s right there on that digital screen to our left. Their computer scans this RF card that’s hanging from the visor and ID’S the load ownership and share splits. If I change fields, I just call on my cellphone and let them know and they adjust the inputs.
“What’s a cell-phone?”
Never mind, Dad. I’ll explain later. Right now there’s another truck behind us and the LED message prompt is telling us to move on up to the scales.
“Good grief, how long are those scales?”
80 feet, I think.
Before he has a chance to ask, I point out that as soon as all the wheels are on the beam, the gross weight is recorded and displayed on the message board, along with instructions to advance to the dump pit.
“Hold up,” he says, “These scales don’t line up with the entrance to the house! We’ll never make it in there!”
Watch and learn, Pops. As soon as we clear the scales, I’ll swing waay out to the left and after a few feet waay out to the right ... and just like that, the trailer straightens out and we clear the entrance with our side mirrors by at least two inches on each side. Bit of a design flaw on their part. Oh good, they’re going to dump us in the inside pit, it’s faster than the outside one.
“Well either way it’s going to take half an hour, right? I mean this thing holds three-four times as much as my trucks did and they took fifteen minutes. Don’t want to backleg the conveyer belt, right? These guys always hate digging out the leg pit.”
Bigger pit, faster leg, Dad. We already have the front hopper empty and in another thirty seconds the back one will be too. Yep, we’re unloaded. Took about a minute.
“What!” He sputters. “That can’t be!”
He looks like he’s about to have another stroke, like the one that took him down in 1994.
Yep, all done. On to the east scales and ticket box.
“East scales? Why don’t we just turn around and go back through like we always did?”
Naw, we just go straight on out to the second scale, it records the weight and by the time we reach the end of it a ticket is ready for us. I reached out the window, plucked it from the machine, and showed it to him. He just shakes his head and gives me that old familiar look of his that means “I haven’t quite figured out what is going on here, but I don’t believe all is as it appears.”
We turned out westbound onto the highway and began our return to the harvest field. He looked over at the dash clock and said “I see it’s after 5 o’clock. I don’t suppose you have any Scotch in here, do you? I left a couple of cases of Passport behind.”
Dad, I tried to drink that stuff, but finally wound up using it to light the charcoal in my BBQ. The lighter fluid had a slightly better taste, but this was cheaper and readily available. If you had switched to Glenlivet, you might have lived longer. Besides, you being a shade and all, I seriously doubt you could actually hold your liquor … in any way.
That merited a baleful glance and then a grin.
As we rolled back down the highway he now had a wistful look on his face, what I could see of it in the deepening shadows, and then he said, “There’s not much here that I understand, but it does appear you are keeping up with the times. I should be heading home. It’s almost time for my next banjo lesson. It’s been good to riding with you.”
Glad you dropped by Dad. Will I see you again?
“He raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, maybe. You really shouldn’t assume that no one is listening to the language you use when you’re repairing all that sorry John Deere machinery.”
And with that he was gone. I looked deeply into every corner of the cab, but he had vanished as quickly as he had appeared.
Then, far up and away into the rapidly darkening sky I saw him again. Shining like the Texaco star was his beat up 47’ Chevy 2-ton truck with its weathered red paint and wooden grain box. He had on his old, faded cap and polished aviator sunglasses and was comfortably settled in behind the worn steering wheel with his deeply suntanned arm stuck out the window. Clearly, he was homeward bound, and as the familiar silhouette bounced slowly along a now obvious route, it was one that I could finally recognize. It should have been apparent from the start; he was heading directly towards the “second star to the right and then straight on till morning.”
Godspeed, Dad. That slope looks pretty steep. Hope you still have a spare axle behind the seat in that old clunker and a rock to chuck behind the wheel when you stop. I doubt they keep them in stock up there.