Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Custom Cutters

Today is gray, overcast, though there is a shallow blue arch over the Rockies that indicates high wind. A cold front is coming in. Yesterday was hot and clear so the custom cutters were working hard to get as much wheat into bins and as much hay into bales as they could. But today is too damp to be cutting, so young men from the south Midwest (Kansas maybe), where they are recruited to spend the late summer going up and down in mammoth cutting machines, are lounging around town cafes and crowding the laundromats. Some of them have found a quiet place to read, often books about the war in Iraq where the military would be delighted to have such a crew.

They aren’t big on drinking -- weren’t raised that way and being missing will get them fired. Hangovers are dangerous with these machines. Grain augers, which move grain from truck to bin, have a huge metal screw inside what looks like an innocent pipe and if it catches on a ragged cuff, the arm of the shirt-wearer will be dragged in and chopped. Combines have huge blades. Even a truck full of slippery grain can pull a person down and “drown” them. Harvest machinery is huge, expensive, and possibly connected to a computer that maps and measures what it harvests.

Cutting hay and bucking bales used to be the high school boy’s preparation for football. No better way to develop muscles and endurance than lifting an eighty-pound rectangle of packed afalfa into the back of a truck. But now the hay is rolled up into a huge round bulk as big as a pickup and covered with net or plastic film. This has to be done with special machinery, which can also jerk the harvester’s arms off, maybe both at once. One brave young man managed to get to his pickup, turn the key (blessedly in the lock) with his toes and drive himself home with his feet before shock set in. His son had to go back for his arms while his wife took over driving and rushed him to the hospital. His arms were not re-attached successfully, but one of the good things about war is that the prosthetic arms are excellent.

Roadside grass was cut more than a month ago but the alfalfa mixed into it has regrown and is blooming purple. Roadside flowers around here tend to be planted by what fell off the truck on the way to the elevator, so we have tender blue flax, bright safflowers, alfalfa, the bright pink French alfalfa whose name I can never spell -- something like “seine foile” -- and lacy wild oats. I’m probably one of the few people around here who likes a bouquet of wild oats. The extension agents beg people like me to burn our bouquets when we’re through with them, so as not to seed the world with pretty weeds. In this small town, my yard is becoming wind-seeded with alfalfa. I dry it and make alfalfa tea -- vitamins in winter.

The kind of concientious and hard-working young men who are generally on custom cutter crews would never allow their lawns to be corrupted by intruders. They are serious and thorough. The small town girls love ‘em. Definitely husband material.

But they are also young, high-energy, and full of high jinks. Once I stayed in a small town hotel (not motel), the kind with the communal bathroom down the hall. I must have been in the bridal suite because I had my own bathroom. I’d been reading and writing all day in this quiet place and was ready for supper out. When I pulled open my door, it was like one of those Bougereaux French paintings of masses of naked girls (theoretically nymphs) except the hall was full of naked young men, fresh from the shower and snapping each other with towels. Though I’m old enough to be their mother, they evaporated, blushing all over.

They’d just quit cutting for the day. Must’ve run out of work, since they usually push on until night. Sometimes at midnight a person can see the combines going back and forth, way out there on the prairie all alone like ships on the sea. Once in a speech I remarked on the modern machines with their glass cabs, often piping in satellite radio from Sirius and often air-conditioned. I said something about them being sissies compared to their grandfathers who walked behind horses or even their fathers on open tractors. Boy, did I get a backlash! I was quickly educated about farmer’s emphysema from dust, shortened lives from heat stress, the ordeal of staying focused and pushing twenty hours out of twenty-four.

The custom cutter crews are almost as far north as they can work without Canadian work permits. Some are due at school right now. Football practice started weeks ago.

But yesterday was summer. Ninety degrees and the air in Valier was stained red by smoke from both forest fires and prairie fires. A huge mountain of those giant round bales was damp enough to have fermented and generated intense heat which set the whole pile on fire. Spectacular and costly. It’s still smouldering, like a pile of tires. Another runaway prairie fire was intense enough to jump a highway and blacken many acres before it was cornered. Water sources are low, both streams and wells.

The cold fronts will become more and more frequent until it is definitely fall and then winter. The light rains will become snow showers and the giant wheat bales will be topped with white. The custom cutters will have gone back south along with the birds.

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jon said...
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