Life on the Land
Farm squeezes out last drops of summer
When Bertha Benson stands with her hands in the soapy water of the kitchen sink and looks out through the east window, she can see down across the salad garden and sweet corn patch, across the steel-colored pond and the deep-green alfalfa and cornfields to the next farm home, where her son, David, and his family live.
There's a tree belt around David's house, old cottonwoods mostly, and an aging orange-brick silo behind it. Early in the morning, after her husband, Gus, has gone out to the barn and Bertha is cleaning up the breakfast dishes, she can see the sun climbing over the cottonwoods around David's house.
"In January when the days get longer, I say to Gus when he comes back in, 'Oh, you should see the sun over David's house; already it's over the trees. Spring is coming.'
"You know, in the bottom of winter, the sun is so far down, it seems to stay down forever. Then it jumps. One day it's down, and the next day you can see it's higher. Spring is coming."
In the summer right now, in August the sun is slipping down the sky again, hiding behind the trees and the orange-brick silo as the season slides inexorably into autumn. Bertha Benson, gray-haired, bespectacled, measures it all through the east window over the kitchen sink.
There are six people and two houses on the Benson farm, nine miles out of Worthington on the prairie in southwestern Minnesota. There are Gus and Bertha, the elders, in the main house; their son, David, and his wife, Sally-Anne, in a second house; and David's and Sally-Anne's children, Heather and Anton.
Three generations, split evenly between male and female; two houses, and many windows.
Bertha's kitchen window discloses private places the garden, the pond, the fields. The front room window is sharply different. It faces west, looking over public places, the driveway, at the shop where David runs his Volvo repair service.
"You know what I saw from this window... really, I didn't see it, that was the scary thing," Bertha said with her soft Scandinavian vowels, fingertips poised thoughtfully on her cheek.
"It was when David and Sally had just come back to farm. There was a big storm. A famous storm, so many people were killed. The telephone was out we used to say that you could tell when a storm was coming, because the phone would go out and David was over here for chores. Sally was at their house, with Heather, who was just born.
"The snow was so thick you couldn't see anything. David wanted to walk back to his house because we couldn't call on the phone. He didn't want to leave Sally there alone with the baby. So he walked back, and I ran to my window to see him go.
"I couldn't see him. There was nothing out there. Only snow. We couldn't get out of the house after that. We didn't know for two days that he had made it home...."
This is summer, a good distance yet from the first lashing winter winds. The David outside the west window is another one: the summer David, laughing and talking and pounding on an orange '73 Volvo while a friend lies on the ground and strips a large black number on the side.
"Ninety-nine," said Bertha. "Is that a lucky number?" She peered out the west window and shook her head. "I wish they wouldn't do it; I hope nobody gets hurt. I won't go. If I went, I would sit with my hands over my eyes."
She is talking about an automobile race. That night.
This is a good week at the Benson farm. The field work is light the second cutting of hay is already in, though the family will spend a few hours pulling weeds from the soybean fields. The work that must be done is... fun: freezing corn, canning peaches and tomatoes, squeezing cider from early apples, making applesauce.
Rebuilding the car.
The car is a rusted-out, stripped-down Volvo. The engine isn't too bad, and the transmission works after a fashion, though it has no reverse gear.
"When you throw it in reverse, it's like the shifter fell in a hole," David said.
But it's a machine granted beauty by circumstance. The Nobles County Fair has announced an Enduro Race, 250 laps on a quarter-mile black-dirt track, where speeds approach and sometimes exceed 45 mph. This is the car for it, this broken down Volvo, now dubbed the General Ole (pronounced Oh-Lee) with the Swedish flag on the roof.
The flag is for Volvo and Benson and Rolf Carlson, a Worthington psychotherapist who kicked in $50 to have the tires put on new rims. He gets credit in black paint, on the front fender: Tires by Rolf, Ph.D. David takes credit on the back fender: Benson Volvo. Bob Yeske, an auto body man from the town of Bigelow, provides race-crew experience and mechanical backup.
The driver is a Hollander, the bearded Bigelow building contractor Martin De Vries, who in his younger days drove sprint cars on the local racing circuit. Marv is supposed to get "Marvelous Martin" in script letters under the driver's side window. As it works out, there's never time to do the painting, and Marv settles for the ride and lets the credit go....
That's the week: freezing, canning, the Enduro Race, with a brief timeout for Heather's 12th birthday.
If the spring and first weeks of summer are times for the fields for the plowing, planting, cultivating, walking the beans and corn, hay making the late high summer is the time for the kitchen.
Vegetables are ripening in the gardens, the trees are heavy with big, blushing, tart apples, the groceries advertise unbeatable deals on long-season produce from Georgia and California. It's the time for the pressure cookers, for the freezer bags, for the Ball and Kerr jars whose lids go dink when they seal....
The corn is one thing.
It starts with David and Sally-Anne down in the sweet corn patch behind Gus and Bertha's place, where the tassels are so laden with pollen that walking through the patch is like breathing water. The day is hot, and loud country-western music blares from a battered radio hidden in the middle of the patch at the end of a 150-foot extension cord.
"We've done tests," David said, tongue in cheek, "Country-western keeps the 'coons out of the corn patch better than anything else."
"Even better than Duran Duran?"
"Yeah, even better," he said solemnly. He turned and looked down the patch where his wife was thrashing through the corn. Everybody calls Sally-Anne "Sago" Sag-Oh an acronym of her maiden name, Sally-Anne Greeley.
"I think Sago is going crazy," David said. He raised his voice. "Jeez, Sago, I think we've got enough... Sago, stop...." He dropped his voice again. "When she gets the bit in her teeth, it's hard to stop her. We could be doing this until midnight if we don't get her out of here."
The ears of sweet corn are fat, but the kernels are the pale, pearly yellow-white that almost sing of sugar; nothing with the telltale fullness or the dark-dried silk escaped Sago's grocery sacks.
"Look at it all, we've got to get it before it goes bad," she said with chin-out determination, snatching an ear off another stalk. A line of sweat glistened on her upper lip and her cheeks were dappled with pollen.
"Sago, we've got enough, we've got too much, oh boy," David pleaded. "Sago...."
After a while: "Okay. I'm done."
The corn is shucked on the picnic table behind the house, the pile of clean corn growing quickly. The shuckers Bertha, David, Sago, and the kids calling attention to special prizes: "Oh, look at this one oh, that's a good one. Let's keep that one out...."
Sago and Bertha moved inside before the shucking was done and got the kettles ready. Gus used a whetstone to put a fine edge on a set of paring knives. When the last of the corn was clean, David carried it inside and Sago began feeding it into the kettles of boiling water.
"Five minutes," said Bertha. "If you go longer, I think you get a taste of the cob."
The work was done assembly-line fashion. Sago blanched the corn, David and Gus cut it from the steaming cobs, and Bertha packed it into one-pint freezer bags. The corn sometimes popped off in individual kernels, sometimes in slabs the size of a middle and ring finger held together. Most of the slabs are packed; others are passed around for instant consumption.
"Twenty-five pints," Bertha announced when they finished, a smile like a quarter-moon lighting up the bottom of her face. "Big pints. Sometimes three cups in a sack. That's good."
That's just the corn. Not all of it, but some of it. And there's more: tomatoes, peaches, beans; it's produced all week in the steamy kitchen, Bertha Benson, director.
With the canning done, and the crew gone on to other things, Bertha sat in her front room and talked about the canning and the work of her life and pronounced herself satisfied.
"I enjoy the housework I especially enjoy the baking. Sometimes I'd get so carried away with the baking that I'd forget to do the other things....
"It was not just work in the house that women used to do. We had chickens, and I took care of the chickens and sold the eggs. We used to have hundreds of chickens, 400 one time. The worst was carrying water from the windmill to the chicken house. The girls (her three daughters) used to say they have long arms from carrying water.
"Separating milk was my job, and the older girls would help. I was happy when that ended, but you know, you give up things, too... the milk truck would come and take the milk and drop off some butter, and one time one of the younger girls asked me where butter comes from....
"Sometimes I would help in the fields, but only in a pinch. That was Gus's job, he did the field work, and he took care of the tractor, the machinery. I did the housework, and took care of the children, though Gus is handy around the house and makes a good oatmeal...."
Sally-Anne Greeley Benson also loves the farm life, though she grew up in New England as the daughter of an official of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Bertha made it a lot easier. She wasn't born on a farm, either. Farming isn't something you just do. You have to know an awful lot and she taught me an awful lot," she said.
Sago is not, however, satisfied to divide the life she shares with David Benson into housework and fieldwork, women's work and men's work.
"When David grew up, he was expected to help his father with the farm work. He had older sisters to help his mother with the housework. So, he didn't do housework. He didn't know how to do housework." She smiled: "He's a lot better now than when we first came here."
Sago sat at her table behind a cup of hot cider she had just "nuked" in the microwave. She had made the cider herself, the day before.
"There's a lot of housework that just plain isn't fun. It's drudgery. Most fieldwork is at least a little bit fun. You're outside, you're working hard, you might feel like it's killing you, but you can feel like it's really important. Housework doesn't always feel like that," she said.
Sago works in the fields more than Bertha ever did. She routinely does disking and chisel-plowing, and runs the haybaler. She says matter-of-factly that she can drive anything from motorcycles and cars to trucks and tractors.
Her dislike for some types of housework which she does anyway is not a matter of unhappiness.
"It has to be done," she said. "You can look at David when he comes in and his face is all white and exhausted and he just about falls in bed, and you go ahead and do it (housework). It's really all a matter of adjustments, back and forth. One of the really good things about David is that he adjusts. That's really good."
Bertha's work has impressed her with the routine of the seasons, as she sees them through the kitchen window. Sago has no window in her kitchen. She remembers listening...
"I remember I was pregnant with Heather, it was the first part of August. David had cut across the fields on a moped to do some chores, and I heard this voice. It was, 'Sago, Sago,' really low, and quiet and then I realized it was David, and I knew, I knew, we had some serious business. He'd hit a fence post that was laying down in tall grass and went over and broke his collar bone. He could barely walk back, and he could barely get his breath to call me, and I went running out.... I can remember that, 'Sago, Sago.'"
Race day started clear and cool. Sago and the kids picked apples at a friend's home they have no apple trees of their own while David worked on the Volvo painting, bracing, figuring tactics.
At noon, the family broke off work for Heather's birthday party. Heather smiled shyly as the family gathered around the dining room table, clasped hands, sang a grace song and "Happy Birthday."
Heather opened her gifts she seemed particularly pleased by a calendar featuring American Impressionist paintings. And it was back to work, David on the Volvo, Sago with the apples.
The Bensons are in possession of an ancient hand-powered apple press. The press is a machine two machines, actually of almost sublime simplicity and efficiency. The first part grinds whole apples to a juicy pulp, and the second, a screw press, squeezes the apple juice from the pulp.
The press produces a torrent of cinnamon-colored cider, which Sago caught in an ice cream bucket and transferred to plastic milk jugs. Halfway through the cider run she got cups from the house and took a long draught of cider. She swallowed, caught her breath, her cheeks sucked in. "Wooo, that is... tart. That is good."
In the distance, up near the other house, there was a burst of noise, a popcorn sound, like old thunder or a distant light machine-gun fire.
"That's the car; they're running it," she said.
The county fair. Pole barns and cattle judging, the smell of manure and new-mown grass, gasoline fumes and oil smoke, sandy hot dogs and a thousand gallon jugs of air-aging mustard.
Long rows of clouds rolling in on the grounds as The Car is backed off the transporter. The car is ugly. The doors are chained shut, there is only one seat inside if you don't count the one strapped vertically onto the driver's door as padding, and there is no glass at all. No headlights, tail lights, or windows. In place of the windshield is a wire screen, which supposedly will stop the bigger mud clods thrown off the track.
"What do you think the average value of these cars is?" David was asked, as the Benson crew looked over the competition.
He shrugged. "About $150," he said.
"The thing about an Enduro Race," explained the driver, Marvelous Marvin De Vries," is keeping the car alive. If you can make it through the first hour, you should make it all the way. But in those first few laps, you can go out like this." He snapped his fingers.
The track was a muddy quarter-mile oval with a low bank at the turns. The floodlit infield swarmed with drivers and pit crew, dressed in cowboy shirts and cowboy hats and cowboy boots or running shoes, and billed hats and striped bib overalls and heavy-soled boots, or some combination of those. The exceptions are a half-dozen drivers like Marvin, who wear white drivers' jumpsuits with red piping.
The pre-race ceremonies are quick: a crew meeting, the raising of the colors by a veterans' group color guard the flag has 48 stars, but it's a perfectly good flag and the cars begin rolling onto the track.
Nothing is new. Nothing is clean. The auto bodies look like hammered brass ashtrays. Fifty-eight cars start the race. Three finish. The 55 cars that die do so in a variety of colorful ways some blow engines, some catch fire, some shred tires, some lose drive shafts, some are wrecked, some disappear over the low bank and never return. One is abandoned in midtrack and the remaining cars drive around it for 150 laps or so.
The General Ole lasts about 20 minutes.
"He's running on a flat," David shouts. "The left front is gone." Sago is tense, standing on a stack of tires, turning, turning, as the Volvo goes around.
Under track rules, repairs can only be done only if the race is stopped to clear the track. There is no guarantee it will happen you could only wait and hope. The Bensons turn and turn and finally the tire comes apart and tangles the axle so badly the rim begins to drag. It's the end. Marv sadly bounces the General Ole onto the infield, and a moment later, as he walks away, another car smashes into it, crushing the right front fender and ripping open the radiator.
Later, with the track quiet, the pit crew pushed the mortally wounded Volvo back on the transporter and passed around the Bud Lites.
"You know what," said Marvelous Marv. "We've got to do this again."
"Hey, it was a good time, wasn't it?" asked David.
And Sago is laughing.
During the race, while Marv was running on the rim, Heather and Anton sat in the grandstand with friends. As her younger and more demonstrative brother did everything but handstands, Heather sat tensely quiet, watching intently.
Of all the Bensons, she is the quietest. From the infield, her shy smile flashed out across the track once or twice, alive under her blue Volvo cap. When the crisis came, she stood to watch. That was all.
What about Heather? She would like to live on a farm, she said, like her mother and grandmother. But there are other things, too. She doesn't know.
Earlier on race day, she would briefly put on an inexpensive pair of pearl earrings she had gotten as a gift.
"Oh, Heather, you look so grown up," said Sago, pushing out her bottom lip. And Heather did look grown up, just for an instant.
At the birthday table, the family had linked hands for the grace song:
"The silver rain, the shining sun, the fields where scarlet poppies run," the three women sang, a complex of alto voices from three generations, "and all the ripples of the wheat are in the bread that we do eat....
"So, when we sit to every meal, with thankful hearts we always feel, that we're eating rain and sun, and fields where scarlet poppies run."
Heather has a west-facing window in her bedroom, with a view over the checkerboard prairie toward the horizon with its glorious prairie sunsets. It's a good place, she said, to sit and look out at things.
John Camp, August 25, 1985