Vintage combine - courtesy photo from Paul Penner, Past President of the National Association of Wheat Growers

Vintage Combine Photo:Vintage combine – courtesy photo from Paul Penner, Past President of the National Association of Wheat Growers

As a preschooler, harvest time on my Grandparent Leppke’s farm, outside Peabody, Kansas, was an annual ritual I never forgot, even when our family moved from Kansas wheat fields to Alaska tundra.

July brought golden-headed wheat and harvest time – and soaking humidity and 100 degree heat. The farmers waited, carefully watching for just the right time. For several days prior, Grandpa would drive out to each field, climb out of the his red 1951 Dodge truck, and walk out into the wheat. He’d snap a head or two from a stalk. In the palm of his hand, he’d rub the head in a circular motion to shell out the kernels and gently blow the chaff away. One by one he’d take each kernel into his mouth, biting his teeth against it, listening for a “pop” as he bit it in two. Even when the sound and feel were right, and even when the urge was to hurry and harvest, he’d combine a few bushels and take a coffee can full to the Co-op for a moisture test, hoping for less than 13 percent.

Family and friends worked together, returning to their home places if they had moved to the city. Even as a child, I could feel the adrenaline.

Grandpa, Dad, my older cousin, Dean, and young uncle Wilbur stumbled out of bed at 5:00 am. Before preparing equipment for the fields—greasing combine bearings, pumping gas into trucks, checking engine oil and checking for loose machinery belts—they downed thick, buttered slices of homemade bread and frosted cinnamon rolls, cereal and milk. After the dew dried, they climbed onto combines. A snack was taken to the field in the mornings, and then at noon, dinner was served there as well. At 4:00 pm, Grandma, Mom, and other full-skirted women relatives returned with “lunch,” carrying baskets of homemade cookies, cake, and donuts. Jars of tepid tea, ice already melted by the glaring sun, barely quenched the sweaty, straw-hatted workers’ thirst. And regardless of the Kansas summer heat, Grandpa preferred a jar of hot Postum, a “healthy” coffee substitute from the 1890s, made from powdered roasted grain.

Women weren’t merely servers of hospitality. They drove trucks alongside the combines, caught the reapings, and transported them to the grain Co-op in Aulne, four miles north of the farm. I sat beside Grandma on these runs. Hot, dry wind blew through the open windows, carrying dust, chaff, and occasional grasshoppers. All was well in my world as I sipped from a shared bottle of strawberry or orange soda pop.

 Exhausted, sweat-drenched men ended their day at 8:30 or 9:00 pm, when dew dampened the fields. Fried chicken or pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed peas, sliced cucumbers in vinegar dressing, and peach pie were eaten in the near silence of numb fatigue. Windows that had been shut in the morning to fend off heat and dust were pushed up, inviting any breeze to bring whatever coolness the night had. Grandma and Mom finished washing dishes as hard-shelled June bugs clung scratchily to screens and crackled underfoot outdoors. Crickets chirped while everyone collapsed into bed and fell immediately into dreamless sleep, too tired even to dread the alarm coming in five or six hours.

Headering Wheat - Oklahoma - Henry Gaede and Frank Janzen

Everyone worked anxiously with an eye to the sky, watching clouds, always vigilant for a weather change; for wind, rain, and hail are harvest’s bitter enemies. Days and nights blended together in fatigue. Depending on rain, muddy fields, and machinery breakdowns, harvest would last for three to four weeks.

Sunday was the only day of rest. No matter whether clouds boiled in the skies and threatened destruction, Grandpa and the other men put on crisp suits and ties, and Grandma and the women smoothed out wrinkles in their Sunday-best dresses to sit on hard pews in the motionless heat of un-air-conditioned buildings. Here, they lifted their voices to sing hymns, and then listened to sermons and prayed, always mindful of Who made the wheat grow and Who gave the harvest. I sat beside Grandma. Through these country church experiences that were mixed into the everydayness of life, my parents’ and grandparents’ trust in God soaked into me, watered deep by shared experiences, singing in harmony, putting coins in the offering plate, hearing familiar Bible stories, and echoing “Amens.”

Throughout my life, when our many moves threatened to unhinge my security, I revisited those early experiences, trying to find and feel those moments of stability, until eventually they became idealized.

Excerpt from “From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra: a Mennonite Family Finds Home.” Find and purchase Naomi’s Prescription for Adventure books, at www.prescriptionforadventure.com or by calling 303.506.6181.

 

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