After spending three weeks in Minnesota on vacation, I came back to our farm two days ago, our farm in the middle of the oil field that has been waiting patiently for me to come back home to western North Dakota. When I turned my little SUV north onto Highway 85, I was met with the familiar line of scoria-covered oil trucks that I really didn’t miss while I was gone, but it was good to be home for the first time in almost a month.
I’m a teacher, so the summers are a blessed offering of time to get things accomplished, a luxury that doesn’t seem to exist during a school year. When I arrived at the house, I spent the large part of the day paying bills, making phone calls, planning a friend’s baby shower, organizing the fridge, and other tasks that stare a person in the face after an extended leave of absence.
Then, after checking off this great list of things, I finished the novel I had started on vacation. Then, I watched a couple shows I had DVR’d. Then, I sat there. I’m not a person who gets bored easily, but before my vacation I quit my bartending job and finished the curriculum units I had been hired to write for the high school. For the very first time all summer, I felt like I had nothing to do. I like having things to do. I like to feel, well, not worthless.
So when my brother the farmer mentioned to me this morning that if I was looking for some work, I could weed the rock gardens, I racked my brain for something “important” to do instead. (I don’t like weeding much.) But as I couldn’t think of anything and I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in the house another afternoon, I grabbed my orange-and-white gardening gloves, my sunglasses, and an iPod dock and headed out into the glaring heat to pull some stubborn weeds for a few hours.
And you know what? I liked it. It felt good.
While I was sweating in the sun, struggling against the unfriendly little weeds doing their darndest to stay right where they were comfortably rooted among the rocks, I had time to reflect on many similar days growing up. In my family, summers off from school didn’t mean summers off from responsibility. We packed up every June and moved to the farm, and while we spent a lot of time doing fun things like riding horse, driving four-wheelers, and swimming in a nearby nasty little pond, our free time didn’t come free. We had to work for it.
In those days, we were paid by my Grandpa Tim or my dad, whoever was doing the “hiring” that day, our age’s worth in dollar bills for one day of work. So, if I was 11 and I spent a day hoeing tree rows, I was paid 11 dollars that day. It seemed like a heck of a deal, because sometimes, someone delivered ice cream bars while we were working, and plus we got a dollar raise every year.
I didn’t know that I was cheap labor.
But I knew that when I went back to school in the fall, I had more money and a lot more stories than most of my friends.
As we grew older and reached high school, it was time to start saving for college, so our wage situation changed. Some of us were paid hourly. I was paid a lump sum that guaranteed I would be on call all summer for odd jobs and would run a combine during harvest. My brothers and I paid for college that way: Picking rocks, hoeing long rows of evergreen trees, shoveling out grain bins, and my least favorite, “riding the rake” — which meant sitting for hours on a wooden square fastened to an old dump hay rake. This hay rake was usually pulled by my dad or one of my brothers driving a tractor. My job was to guarantee that the lever released the hay when it was supposed to. It was bumpy, it was uncomfortable on the wooden square, it was usually hot and windy, and every so often the rake would start “bucking,” so if I didn’t hang on tight, I might end up lying in a windrow wrapped in hay.
Some of those jobs were just no fun. My favorite, however, was hauling grain in old dusty trucks to the old dusty elevator, because the old dusty elevator men would insist that I sit inside the air-conditioned office and sip a cold root beer from the ancient pop machine — I always tried to bring quarters — while they dumped my truck for me. (I’m thinking they didn’t have many tiny blonde girls as customers.) It was the special treatment, all right, and I liked to tell my brothers about it so they would hopefully be a little jealous.
My other favorite job was running one of the Case International 1480’s during harvest. Compared to the other farm jobs, this job was a luxury that we all fought over. That’s because there was less grain chaff and more air conditioning and music on the AM radio.
We worked all summer this way. Sometimes we complained, but I think we all liked it. We sweated in the sunlight, we itched like the dickens when we shoveled barley, we got covered in dirt hoeing trees – but we bonded, too. I know my dad and Grandpa liked it, because not only were they getting some pretty decent labor, but it was proclaimed to help us by “building character.” If we grumbled, my Grandpa would say, “Enthusiasm makes the difference!” or “You got to have a heart like a lion!” When he pulled up in his blue pickup to hand out the slightly melted ice cream bars, he would shout, “What a good-lookin’ crew!” I think I heard that line a thousand times.
I missed my Grandpa Tim and those good days of work while I was pulling weeds today.
I’m glad there are still weeds to pull, though, because someday I will need a character building program for my own kids, and I bet my brothers will want one for their kids, too. On a farm, there are always weeds. There are always rows of trees to hoe and rocks to pick and machinery to drive. I can’t wait to send my kids to the farm to work for Grandpa Mike and Uncle Danny. They will complain about hoeing long rows of trees and I will say, “Enthusiasm makes the difference!” They will roll their eyes and complain some more, and I will smile a little and bring them ice cream bars if it’s a hot day.
And someday, they will look back and be grateful for that good day’s work.