Going to my Aunt and Uncle’s farm in Assumption wasn’t just holiday time, it was summer employment. They not only provided room and board and all the homemade chocolate chip cookies I could eat, but they paid us to walk the beans.
The first morning of work started early. I’ve always been a ‘morning person’ so when the call to get up came, I was quick to get out of bed and head for the washroom. I asked my cousin Phil for a towel and washcloth on my way in.
“For what?” he asked.
“For my shower.” I said with ‘duh’ in my voice.
“We usually wait ‘til we’ve gotten dirty before we take a shower.” He said with, I noticed, a very superior tone to his voice. “You city boys…” he finished, walking away and pointing to the stack of towels at the same time.
After my 10 minute shower I also had to explain to my Aunt and Uncle over breakfast why I needed a shower before we went to work in the field.
“You understand we’re going to walk the beans, right?” my Uncle asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, around mouthfuls of my breakfast, “but I haven’t had a shower since yesterday.”
“So you’ll go to bed dirty?” my cousin asked.
“Oh, you’re not going to go to bed tonight without a shower,” my Aunt cut in, “You’ll just have to get a shower when you come in from the field, you don’t want to get your sheets all dirty and sleep in filthy sheets.” And with that, the discussion was over and I went from city boy to farm boy, at least with my approach to showering.
You had to start walking the soy beans early, early in the morning before the sun got up very high and the plants grew taller and young city boys started wilting. Uncle Keith was in the shed sharpening the hooks we’d use to cut the weeds out of the beans. I was feeling very cool about carrying something that had been sharpened on a grindstone and could do bodily harm to someone. We walked out with the iced Igloo water jug that Aunt Norma had fixed for us and four Styrofoam cups, one each, for a drink of water at break time. We went out to the truck, loaded up the pitcher, cups, hooks and a few other odds and ends and headed out to the bean field.
Walking the beans was like a good, protestant, mid-western boy’s bar-mitzvah. “Those hooks could cut a person’s toe off”, my Aunt reminded us every morning. If you were old enough to walk the beans and potentially lose a toe I figured you were old enough for, well, just about anything. It consisted of walking down a single row of soy beans looking for weeds along the row as you walked. You couldn’t do it too early in the growing season or you’d miss the weeds that would spring up later and devalue the crop. You couldn’t do it too late or the weeds‘d take over and you’d never get them out. So we walked them when they were waist high (to me) and you marched down the row and as you found a weed you would cut it out, right at the bottom, making sure you didn’t cut the soy bean plant at the same time. And then you moved on and you got the next one, and the next one, and the next one and the next one after that.
There were all kinds of weeds and they were easy to tell apart from the soybeans, as long as you paid attention. Herein was my problem. The worst thing that could happen was to get the end of your row and have Uncle Keith spot the tops of a couple weeds you missed. Not because he’d yell or come after you with the pitchfork, but just because you’d have to do the same row over again. And after a couple hours of walking beans, you did NOT want to start a row over again. Being out in the bean field was like being out in the sea with no land in sight. Sometimes you couldn’t even see the end of the field you were walking. The truck was there, somewhere, but I couldn’t drive it or hide in it and I didn’t even know which way led home. Even if I did, even when I had thoughts of mutiny after row 40, I had visions of setting off under the hot sun for the farm only to get my tennis shoes stuck in the bubbling tar coming up through the gravel on the oiled roads. Trapped like a dinosaur in a tar pit.
Just as I trying to remember if it was dinosaurs or mammals that got stuck in the tar pits (it was mammals), my uncle yelled over to me that I’d missed a couple and I headed back to start my row over again.
The thing that made walking the beans hard was this. When you started early in the morning to beat the heat you also encountered a field of leafy plants soaked in the morning dew. Drenched. As the day wore on you ended up soaked from the waist down and baked from the waste up. Even as the plants dried out under the hot sun, their shade kept your shoes, socks, underwear and jeans soaking wet. Whatever I sweat off up top I felt like I was gaining times 2 as my legs got heavy in my dewlogged Oshkosh. While my nose and the top of my ears burned and started to peel, my toes would bet pruney. We’d take a break at the end of a row back on the road side of the field and walk to the truck for some icy water. Squish, squish, squish I walked along the road, avoiding the bubbles of tar and certain doom while I thought about the shower I’d get at the end of my day in the beans. On the first few days I’d pass on the water when I found a hair stuck to my styro cup or a tiny black speck in my icy water. After the second day I stoppped caring and just removed them. After the third day I stopped looking.
That afternoon I had my shower and later that night after my first day of beans I would have less time for Tom Swift and his adventures and I’d sleep harder and sounder than any other night I was on the farm.