When the Corn Died: Chapter Four
Can You Imagine
I can’t. I’ve tried. I talked to my relatives who lived during the Great Depression and heard their stories and still, and perhaps it’s because of perspective, I cannot comprehend how they got by.
My father, like Peter Junior in my story, rode the rails in search of work, taking odd jobs hundreds of miles from home, living in shanties, doing anything he could to make enough money to send home to his parents. He was fourteen at the time, and he did this until he was old enough to enlist in the United States Army.
My grandparents owned, worked and lost a farm to foreclosure during the 1930s. I’m not sure they ever recovered from the shame of losing their home.
So this story is for my family, and for all those families who somehow survived one of the worst times in our history…..survived, moved forward, continued to foster families, and did it all with dignity and love.
Letters to Missouri
Peter Harper Junior folded the letter and tucked it inside his coat. He was always pleased to hear from his Ma, but this particular letter carried with it some disturbing news. Ma and Pa were behind on the mortgage and the bank was threatening foreclosure. He could picture Mr. Stapleton, the bank president, in his mind, hear his false words of condolences, smell his cheap cologne as he stood in the kitchen of the old farmhouse and explained the need to pay quickly or else.
It just wasn’t right! Peter’s folks were good people. They worked hard, would give you the shirt off their backs, never took from no one, and this is the result? “Hell no!” Peter thought, then smiled at the sight of him swearing in front of his mother, might as well expect a swat on the butt and a serious reprimand.
God he missed them!
The letter also mentioned a young mother and her son living on the farm. Emma Jameson and her son Timothy. Peter pictured her in his mind. He’d seen her around town from time to time, a small thing, not much more than five feet, delicate features, like she’d break in a strong wind, a pretty thing with long, chestnut hair. She had been married to Eli until a cranky cow kicked and killed him. Now it was just Emma and her son, and Ma and Pa had taken them in and let them live on the farm.
Well wasn’t that just like Ma and Pa? He figured it was Ma’s idea and then she had convinced Pa in that way she had. It was the right thing to do, she would have said, and then Pa would have explained the shortage of money and caring for two extra people, and Ma would have said “hush now” and that would be that.
Peter Jr. smiled. Emma Jameson. What was she, about twenty-two, twenty-three years old? About four years older than him. Pretty damned woman!
Peter Jr. was getting ready to answer the letter with one of his own when his best friend Lucas came running.
Trouble in Southeast Missouri
“Peter! One of the shafts caved in. Two men killed. The boss says we work double-time until that shaft is cleared and we’re able to work that vein again. Come on, grab your gear, let’s get going!”
It had been Lucas’ idea to traipse off to Missouri. He heard there was lead mining work down by Purdy in Barry County, about six months worth of work, and in these times, six months of work meant food on the table and a guy couldn’t pass that up. So there they were, three weeks into the new adventure, and God Almighty it was back-breaking, dirty, dangerous work, not much like farming acreage and watching corn grow by early dawn light. This was sun up to sun down, dust and soot, broken bones and cussing miners, tough men, some fair, some to be watched at all times, all desperate and not to be taken lightly.
So Lucas and Peter Jr. hung close together, had bunks next to each other, spent every down moment together, cuz a man needed someone watching his back in the lead mines, making sure no thievin’ no-good stole what was rightfully yours or knifed you for looking at him from the wrong angle after a night of drinking moonshine.
The foreman finally told them to shut down at nine that night as the summer sun was just a fiery memory and the coolness of dusk washed over them. Peter Jr. and Lucas drank from the nearby creek as mosquitoes drank from their veins, and somewhere nearby a coyote sang a lonesome song to the sliver of moon rising in the east. It had been their job to bury the bodies of the two miners once they were dug out, and that job, and homesickness, weighed heavy on them as they stared at the bunkhouse ceiling. Finally Lucas broke the silence.
“Do you think about home much, Pete?”
“Only every damned hour, Lucas. Ya know, I couldn’t wait to get off that farm when I was growing up, swore I’d never be a farmer, pictured myself some famous writer living in London or Florence, but now that I’m gone from it, I miss it something fierce. Who can figure, right? How about you? You miss home much, Lucas?”
“I reckon I do, Peter. I miss my mother’s fried chicken, and the old coon dog snoring at the foot of my bed at night, and I miss Ellie May sitting in the front pew of church, her blond hair spilling over her shoulders, and I miss my pain-in-the-ass kid brother always bugging me to take him fishing.”
There was silence for a few moments as the boys-turned-men pictured it all in their minds.
“I’m thinking of heading back to Charles City, Peter. Pay day is in two days. Collect what’s owed me and go home, help out as best I can, maybe find some work at the implement company if they’re hiring. Seems a shame, though, with money to be made here and money in short supply, makes me feel like a failure, tucking my tail and running home.”
“There ain’t not shame in it, Lucas. We done our best. I reckon I’ll head back with you and keep you out of trouble on the way. Hopefully Ma hasn’t given away all the spare bedrooms and there will be a place for me to sleep at home.”
The two best friends smiled in the darkness and drifted off to sleep with peaceful minds for the first time in weeks.
Back in Iowa
It’s been a long day on the farm. Young Timothy and I got a fair amount of work done, and that’s a fact, but the more you do the more there is to do, or so it seems.
It’s not the amount of work that has me concerned, however, but what I found along the edges of the southern border of the corn field. Grasshoppers. Not huge numbers yet, but the summer has been a dry one, and where there are a few you can bet there will be many soon.
I remember well the summer of Twenty-Two, grasshoppers so thick you could scoop them off the ground in a cupped hand, so thick they completely covered ears of corn and in two months laid waste to twelve-thousand acres of prime Iowa corn.
When Timothy and I enter the kitchen, Evelyn and Emma are just putting the meal down on the table.
I figure the bad news can wait until after dinner.
And We’ll Join Them Again Next Week
I’ll see you all next week when we join the Harper family once again. Thanks for checking in and reading this latest installment. Let’s hope Peter Junior makes it home safe and sound, and those damned grasshoppers move on soon.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)