Sunday, November 15, 2009

Waking Up With Country

I’m not sure when I woke up, but I’m sure it started with a song. The morning milking was AM radio ringing in the house. It was five in the morning as I heard the radio ring. It was Boone and Erickson on WCCO AM and the songs my Daddy sang. It wasn’t easy, scratching the dust under my eyes. My Dad got up with a fire and a mission. I heard the “good morning” song on the radio and I watched my Dad get up. There were cows to be milked and Granddad was waiting. He sang the morning songs before the sun rose, songs meant to be sang as you grunted it out. As he showered, he was happy, the land which he farmed on was his and his father’s. The songs sung in affirmation to the world he lived in and was never going to be gone. I must have been four or five, when I rode with Dad on his tractor. We spread manure over the land and laughed at its splatter. I guess it was funny, when I volunteered to clean it off. To me, it was happiness seeing my family get along.

I remember the radio alongside the milk tank that I climbed. There must have been work to do, but to me it was just fun. It was a ride watching machines work, holding a lever just right. I don’t know if I helped anything but being a part of it was magical. I walked through the barn like a labyrinth, with trap doors and forts made of hay. I could hide and imagine adventures every day. The sounds and the daydreams in the hay were safe inside myself. It was a castle of straw, a world that hummed with the buzz of making something. I had my first adventures there as my Granddad tugged me down. We watched the milk fill the tank and he would tell me stories and jokes while we sat. As I sat on his lap, there was a calendar and a radio. Thirty years later, the calendar and the phone still sit like it was 1981. The barn is a hard room to go into for inside I see my past.

There was a sense of purpose, of prosper and happiness. Maybe it was just contentment and a grasp onto the past. The radio sang morning and another day with the cows. I guess it must be hard, getting kicked at all the time. It must have been harder to let go, hoping the future will be more fine. I miss my Dad, milking cows and swearing strong. I miss my Granddad, laughing as he went along. Granddad always had a big perspective. What is broken could be fixed. To this day I miss his smile and his magic of fixing a problem just by poking at its innards. If he ever got mad, he never showed it to me. Granddad gave me the wonder of farming while my Dad busted his ass.

My Dad and Granddad worked well together, a yin to a yang. They could always solve a problem, one way or another. I remember when I was nineteen years old, helping Granddad fix tractors in the shed and he was so proud of me. He gave me the rope and I ran with it. We bought repair parts and I saw him turn on his charm. It was so fun to be there, inside his warmth. A few years later I was helping him work on a tractor and he told me in sadness that he didn’t have the strength anymore. That admission did not stop him from trying and make me love him all the more for admitting it. He didn’t quit. My father won’t either. When I start one of our tractors, I feel them both inside me.

I am alone on the John Deere 4020 tractor as my Dad combines. I feel the air around me and I feel Granddad. He’s talking baseball or girls to me with a gold-toothed grin. No matter the weather, he always knows it works out in the end. I always look to the side of my tractor and see him there. He’s there keeping me company while I wait and guiding me while I unload my wagon. My Grandma makes the same sandwiches, with the same love and care. In the open air of the field, I feel it all within me. Despite how hard it can be and the animosity that comes with the field, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

There’s always an argument between fathers and sons. A simultaneous need to teach and to love. To criticize and approve. I don’t think this philosophy has been any different for generations. We want our children to learn from us and improve on our mistakes. We also don’t want them to fail. Maybe that’s why fathers have that loud voice. I used to hear my Dad and Grandpa yell at each other. Usually it was a disagreement of how something should be fixed or how best to go about what they agreed previously about fixing. Sometimes, one would walk away, angry and confident in their belief. It never lasted long, a day at the most to cool heads and realize that nobody was really wrong. Emotions can get to you sometimes, more so if they build up. It takes an eruption to calm a volcano. After the dust is settled, there are still two guys working together. I saw that with my Dad. I think my Granddad is still there with us when we get mad. A child of the depression has seen far worse than auger placement and branch cutting. He could just say our names: “Michael! Adam!” and it would be enough to check ourselves and get straight. Granddad spoke to both of us a night ago. I’m pretty damn sure my Dad and I both saw his deep blue eyes and arms holding his crutches firmly. He didn’t need to say anything, the thought of him brought us back together. His words were what my Dad and I heard inside. There is no giving up, not now, not ever.

Granddad is with my Dad and I when we drive around the county looking at crops. Sometimes Dad tells the stories out of his mouth, about the land and who owns it. We drive and look at the hills and valleys slowly. I feel Granddad in the truck with us, wondering what he would point out or what joke he would tell. But I also know that he sees a new time, when there is a grandson who is a now a father, a father who is now a Granddad and a little boy and girl who would love to be taken on that long ride. I hope he sees his great grandchildren rolling down the hills, playing in the dirt and climbing the tractors he drove for many years. Even today, my son asks about who he was and it makes me think of the times my Granddad, my father and I had harvesting together. Although the road is not easy, I hope my kids see the paths paved by their ancestors. To take a steep breath at the top of a hill overlooking a lake, sled down a hill into a snow bank, make a baseball field out of abandoned buildings, climb a hayloft looking for trap doors, fish by the lake at five in the morning, listen to a Twins baseball game beneath the trees as the sun sets, dig a cave into a snowdrift with your dog or cat, explore all the silos with mice and spiders, put the tractor in one gear faster than needed, screw up a few times but have it forgiven and sit at the end of the day on Granddad’s old step stool.

The barn has no cows. The hay loft is thirty years old. The spirit is still there as long as there’s someone to hold onto it. Things break – we fix it. If we break - we should fix it. The machinery gets older but the manual stays the same. The radio still plays in the morning. It plays the same song that was heard thirty years ago. It’s the song my Granddad heard as he smoked his pipe milking cows. It is in the shed as my kids pick up the air compressor and make art out of dirt as their father did thirty years ago. When my father and I close the shed doors for the night, it is not an end, but a beginning. Locking the doors is not for yesterday, but for tomorrow. As I leave the shed, I always look up at the sign my Dad put up after my Grandpa died. In handwritten black paint, an autograph of Earl Koeppe. My Granddad. My Dad’s father. It isn’t a remembrance but an inspiration: Never give up! Laugh along the way! Life may be hard but it is short. Enjoy the harvest and reap the knowledge and dreams past from generation to generation. Pass your ancestors’ stories to your own descendants, so their legacy fills the land and air we breathe. They are the best crop you will ever sow, the kind that lasts forever.

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