The Kansas wheat harvest has always been one of my favorite times of the year. Although I lived in the country as a child, my father was not a farmer. But my aunts and uncles were, and each year I spent part of the harvest riding on the combine with my uncle or in the grain truck as my aunt made trips to and from the grain elevator.
I really can’t explain what draws me to the harvest season. I have been a “city slicker” now for most of my life, but I guess you can’t take the country out of the boy. I still love watching a combine at work.
The combines of today are a far cry from those of my youth. My Uncle Everett’s combine was an old “Gleaner” and his only protection from the burning hot sun was an old umbrella. His combine was loud, and would jar your insides out as it made its way around the field. It also created a lot of dust, and he would be covered from head to toe by the end of the day.
The heat, dust and long hours never seemed to bother him. Those old farmers were tough characters.
I used to love watching him pull the combine up to the truck to unload. He’d pull a small lever by his seat, and a waterfall of golden grain would start pouring into the bed of the truck. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I can still smell the fragrance of that wheat. I couldn’t help grabbing a handful. It was very hard, but if you chewed it long enough, it eventually turned into sort of a gum that you could chew for hours.
The trip to and from the elevator with my aunt was also a lot of fun. We would wait in a long line of trucks for our turn to be weighed on the scale. After the moisture content of the wheat was checked and weight of our truck and grain was recorded, we pulled inside of the elevator to unload.
An added plus to the trip was the fact that my dad was working in the elevator, so I also got to see him. He normally worked at the school, but he always took vacation time at harvest so he could earn money to fill our freezer with beef.
It was hot, dirty, dangerous and exhausting work with very long hours. He’d come home looking like he had been caught in a dust storm. I don’t know anyone who worked harder than my dad.
After unloading the wheat, it was back to the scale to be weighed again, and then we would return to the field to get another load.
My father also loved harvest. He grew up on a farm, and told me many stories about cutting wheat with a horse-drawn machine. In those days, farms were much smaller because of the primitive equipment. But even so, harvest was an exhausting time, and just like the farmers of today, weather was always a concern. The wheat that had been so carefully nurtured all year could be gone in an instant from a lightening strike, a spark from the machinery, or a carelessly tossed cigarette. It was always a relief when the last field was cut and the grain safely delivered.
In his heart, my father never stopped being a farmer. I can’t begin to count how many Sunday afternoons our family spent driving the back roads so he see how the wheat crop was doing. He had to check out the fields of all of his relatives, and of course visit the old homestead where he grew up.
My siblings and I found those trips to be very boring. It was always the same routine. He’d stop, get out of the car and go pick a head of wheat and look it over. He always gave us his assessment of how that year’s crop was going to turn out.
Then came the stories, the same old stories. He’d reminisce about all of the different people who had once owned that land, with stories that always began with, “ I remember once when…” We’d groan and settle back in our seats and listen to that story for the umpteenth time.
Years later, I finally understood how important those memories were to him, and how much he missed being a farmer. So much so, that when harvest ended, he would then help out his family by driving a tractor to plow the fields, preparing them for the next crop.
My father’s family once farmed a section of land that was across the road from the local cemetery. As a young teen, he spent many long summer nights working that ground. In those days, tractors didn’t have radios. Going around and around the same area all alone, hour after hour, could get pretty lonely.
But apparently it wasn’t that lonely for my father. He told us stories about the many nights where ghosts from the cemetery would come sit on the fender of his tractor to keep him company. He said they were always very nice and he enjoyed their visits.
We were pretty sure he was pulling our leg, although he seemed serious.
The days of my childhood are long gone. My aunts and uncles have passed away and their farmland has either been sold or passed on to their grandchildren. I am about as far removed from harvest activity as one can get, but I still love the sight of a combine working a field of golden grain. Like my father, I treasure my harvest memories, and I guess I always will.
My youngest has been a “city boy” all of his life. He has no clue how the harvesting process works, but he’d like to find out. One of these days I hope to get him out on a combine, and then have him make a trip to the grain elevator. Knowing his fascination with big machines, I have no doubt that he’ll love harvest just as much as I do.
CourierTraveler reporter John Shelman can be contacted at (620) 442-4200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.