I remember climbing the imposing, vertical ladder of the combine to reach the cab when I was about eight. The slick, sun-baked green paint, the shallow, dimpled treads where my feet easily slipped out, the wide spacing of the steps, the fear I’d fall and break my neck. I made it to the top and kneeled on the small deck, afraid of heights, as my dad sat waiting in the driver’s seat. Inside, the floor was dusty, the air stale, sweet, and hot. An oversized red water jug sat sweating beside the steering column. Looking out from the cab I imagined myself falling into the head, being torn to pieces, sucked up into the giant machine, then spewed out from the elevator into a grain truck.
I sat on my dad’s lap, or more accurately, stood between his legs in front of him. He reached one hand around me to turn the key and start the combine, which shook and whirred until the seat and glass vibrated like a prop plane. With the other hand he put the combine into gear, grabbed the wheel gently, and moved us away from the parked pickup truck over an expanse of stubble. We bounced along quickly, the head swaying in echo to the cab. When Dad finally lined us up for a first pass of the remaining wheat, he lowered the hydraulic head which began spinning, adding more vibration and pulse. When he nudged us into the wheat a loud hum rushed underneath us as the seed moved up toward the thresher and into the hunchback bin of the combine, the chaff violently shooting out the back.
We seemed to move slower than I thought we would – driving a combine is methodical, hot, organ-jarring work. Even as the air conditioner made things more tolerable, I could smell the sweat and dirt on my dad’s button down work shirt. “Do you want to steer?” he asked me. I wasn’t sure. Could I drive this big monster? Would it let me?
He shifted in his seat, nudging me closer to the wheel set out before me like a carnival game, and I spread out my young arms to grasp both sides. He kept a few fingers on one corner, and sometimes when I let the combine stray a few inches, he’d put a few more fingers on the wheel and straighten us out – this happened a few times each minute until he finally pulled me back toward him, fully grasping the wheel to make a 90 degree turn. “You did pretty well,” he’d encourage me. “Want to try again once I straighten out?”
The cabin filled with the dry dust of harvest that you cannot see, but can taste on your tongue and feel lining your nostrils. It’s cigar sweet and dirt dry, this smell, this sustenance. The reel rolled over and around the wheat with a lunging embrace, then tore it from under pushing it into the cutting bar with a sort of split personality. I knew we were farmers, especially in June, but the rest of the year I was certain we were not. My dad built houses, my mom ran a toy store, I went to school, we lived in a nice house in town along a creek. I was not a farmer, nor would I ever be one. And yet the memory is like a second skin, stuck to the underside of my body but above the muscle. Every move I make in a field or my garden calls upon the echo of this memory in my blood – that when I was a child my dad and I sat in a combine for a little while, made passes over the hot, flat land until the bin was full enough to bring me back to the pickup, and then home.