Wheat Harvest

    Lloyd, lying on his back and tucked up under the combine, finished the clutch adjustment and replaced the cover plate. Although it was only 1:45 in the afternoon, he was tired.  He had been changing oil, cleaning, repairing, making adjustments, for over a week--and the 98-degree heat takes it out of you. But with the wheat almost ready to cut (what--three days, five days?), the combines had to be readied.
    Lloyd gave one last turn of the wrench tightening the bolt on the clutch housing. The wrench slipped and flew off the greasy bolt.  Three of Lloyd's knuckles grated across a steel flange, exposing oozing pink flesh, and a mixture of sand and oily dirt showered his face as the wrench glanced off the transmission. "Goddamn! Motherless! Son of a bitch!" he said, and shut his eyes tight against the sting of the sand. Lloyd wiped his sweaty forehead with his wrist, smearing it with grease and grit.
    Presently he opened his bleary eyes to see the old man's legs and feet approaching. Lloyd's gut tightened in a conditioned response. Frank, fresh from his daily nap, cursorily inspected a sprocket and chain, then spoke: "Ain't you done with that yet?" Lloyd gripped the wrench until his fist hurt, noticing that Frank's shins were in range. He slithered out from his cramped space under the machine.
    "Does it look like I'm done?"
    "Well hell, Lloyd, you been at them machines for two weeks now. I done run them things for years, and it never took me that long to get one ready."
    It hasn't been two weeks, Lloyd thought, and maybe if you'd spent a little more time on maintenance they wouldn't be so run down.  But all he said was, "Listen, I'll be done when I'm done."
    "Well, you better get on the ball.  That wheat will be ready anytime--maybe tomorrow.  Is the truck ready?"
   Frank was famous for being jovial, but under stress he became irritable, unreasonable, and impatient. Lloyd knew from eight years' experience that the advent of wheat harvest (and other regular events) brought out the worst in Frank. Although he tried to keep up his front as the easy-going good-ole-boy, Frank was nervous. After eleven months work the crop was almost in hand, but now, in the storm season, a hailstorm could level it, or a flood could take the low lying acreage, or--  Frank could recite all the dire possibilities.
    And then there were the machines. In 1956 and '59 when they were new, the Massey-Harris model 90 self-propelled combines had been state of the art.  But now, 30 years later, they looked like Rube Goldberg with a migraine. The first time Lloyd saw the '56 model run was eight years ago, a week before harvest.  Frank had fired it up and "run the rust out of it" for three or four minutes.  Lloyd had waited anxiously for Frank to shut it off--it looked like it would fly apart at any moment, what with chains and belts running in every direction, parts loosened with age.  The machine had shook and rattled as if possessed.  Frank, with his dimming 68-year-old mind, seemed oblivious to the age of the machines. He was blinded by his familiarity with them over the years--although he had never owned one himself until twelve years ago, always working with neighbors and kin. When they broke down, frequently now, he would fuss, "Damn luck! I never had trouble like this." But the cost of newer machines made the effort of nursing along the antiques, as Lloyd called them, seem prudent. It was Lloyd who acted as mechanic now that Frank was semi-retired.  He had even bought and hauled home two retired machines from which to salvage parts.
    Come harvest time they would each operate a combine.

    It's like being at sea, Lloyd thought, sitting atop the combine as it growled through the ripe wheat on a rolling hillside. The ocean surface was an even plane of ripe golden heads of wheat. When it was quiet, the wind rustled the grain stalks in a pleasing way, but now over the roar of the machine Lloyd satisfied himself with the undulating surface of the grain field in the wind--almost hypnotic, if you could forget the machinefor a moment, and the swirling dust it spewed, the noise and vibration, and the June heat.  Although in the shade of the canvas canopy, the breeze made the air comfortable.  Lloyd steered with his left hand, while his right shifted continually between two control levers, one for travel speed and another for the height of the sickle and reel that cut the grain heads and straw and fed them into the belly of the combine.
    Lloyd felt a certain satisfaction in his familiarity with the Massey combines. From studying the manuals and from endless repairs and maintenance he could see in his mind the various components of the vast machine.  Not only that, but every noise in operation told of efficient separation of grain, orderly movement of straw, rhythmic winnowing of chaff, or else an abrupt squeal of belts, a groan from the motor, or the sudden absence of a certain sound would tell of malfunction--breakdown. Lloyd liked the machines when they were up and running, but repairs were inevitable.
    After they finished cutting at the Kincaid place, Lloyd and Frank guided the machines along the road toward the West 80, about three miles west of home. The plan was to cut there and then move two miles north to the James place. Coming down the hill toward home Lloyd heard a snapping sound, then saw and smelled steam. Sure enough, the temperature gauge climbed immediately.  Lloyd pulled to the side of the road and killed the motor. He would have to get a new fan belt and assorted parts from home.
    Lloyd rode home on Frank's combine, gathered supplies, and arranged for his wife Cathy to drive him back to the machine. As they pulled out of the driveway to the east, Frank headed west with his machine. Lloyd and Cathy marveled at the sight--although their driveway met the road on a blind hill, Frank steered his combine straight up the middle of the road. He was looking back at Lloyd and gesturing in the sign-language equivalent of hieroglyphics. Frank was trying to convey a message, but only a clairvoyant would know what it was. Cathy asked, "What's he going on about?"
    "Lord only knows," Lloyd said, laughing.  He figured, I'll find out later when I catch up with him.
    Replacing the fan belt meant pulling, replacing, and readjusting two other belts and a safety shield.  It was more than two hours, almost six p.m., before Lloyd moved to the West 80. He was surprised to find no Frank and no combine. He could see where Frank had cut some, and soon it was apparent why he was gone. The wheat was "lodged."  The straw had collapsed, fallen over from its own weight, and storm winds and rain had driven it down, so the wheat lay close to the ground. Combining a crop like this is hard, slow, miserable work. Lloyd knew Frank would have gotten disgusted and had probably gone home. Frank's combine would have been parked under the trees at home, where Lloyd would not have seen it when he passed by.
    Lloyd made little progress. He crept the machine along, scooping up gopher mounds and plugging up often.  He spent half the time stopped to rake loose dirt out of the header or back up the cylinder to unplug the mass of dirty straw. He worked until dark, about 9:30, and drove home in the pickup they had parked there earlier.
    He felt refreshed after washing off the dirt, dust, and sweat in the shower. He ate the sandwich Cathy had waiting, poured some bourbon over ice, and turned on the ten o'clock news to catch the weather.   Lightning was flashing in an angry sky immediately to the west. Each flash lit up roiling clouds in ugly combinations of yellow, green, and black.
    Gary England, the weather forecaster, spoke urgently about the storm--"dangerously high winds, heavy rainfall, and numerous lightning strikes."  The TV radar showed the storm only a few miles northwest of Lloyd's house.  Already the wind was beating against the house. Lloyd realized the storm was now peppering his wheat at the James place where they had planned to cut next, but he also knew that worrying wouldn't save any wheat. Warmed and comforted by the bourbon, Lloyd lay in bed for only a moment before the phone rang at 10:15.
    It was his mother-in-law, Shirley. "Where's Frank?" she asked.  Lloyd's warmth and comfort evaporated in an instant.
    "I haven't seen him since this afternoon," Lloyd said, "--I thought he was home."
    "No, he hasn't been here since you all moved the combines this afternoon."
    Lloyd felt sick. His hands trembled as he quickly pulled on pants and boots and threw on a shirt. "Cathy--call Ed Krenka. Tell him to meet me by the West 80."  Lloyd imagined the combine overturned in a canyon alongside the road.  How else could he have missed Frank?
    The wind was howling and rain pelted him, stinging his face, as Lloyd jumped into the pickup. Oh God, he thought, will he be a bloody mess or even alive?  He roared up the driveway to the road. Lightning lit up the area like a burst of noon-time.
    A mile from the house Lloyd slowed the pickup as he approached the first of the canyons he would have to look into.  But there ahead in the road the headlights caught Frank walking.  Lloyd appraised him quickly: soaked and bedraggled, trudging wearily, but otherwise intact. Lloyd pulled up, immensely relieved. "Where have you been?" he asked Frank, who barely had strength left to climb into the pickup.
    Frank, always vociferous, was quiet, drained of animation, "Where have you been?" he said.
    "Well--I've just come from home--but where were you?" Lloyd said, puzzled. "Where's your combine?"
    "It's up at the James place. I told you I'd be going there next."  Lloyd remembered him waving as he maneuvered up the middle of the road earlier.
    "Sure, we discussed moving there next, but after we cut the West 80. That's where I was." Lloyd was amazed (and relieved--still shaky) at Frank; he had never seen him like this.  He was beyond complaining, just matter of fact.
    "Well, Lloyd, I got to the James place at 4:30. I cut for about fifteen minutes and broke down. I waited for you by the machine. I walked to the gate and waited there. I walked down to the house and waited there. I been walking all this time.  I heard wolfs, I heard owls, things movin' in the woods."  Lloyd imagined it: there would have been no traffic on the secluded road, and in several places the road tunneled through overhanging timber and brush.  Frank was afraid of the dark--although he would never admit it.  And then the storm on top of everything.
    Lloyd drove on through diminishing rain, driving out through the other side of the storm, looking for Ed Krenka. Frank sat silently. In all the time Lloyd had known him, he'd never been quiet this long. Although Lloyd would not laugh, his relief--coupled with the picture of Frank plodding four miles alone through the dark, the storm, and the night noises--made him feel almost giddy. Ed Krenka laughed when he heard, even if Lloyd wouldn't.  But Frank never mentioned that night again in all the years Lloyd knew him.

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