When we had dinner, which was the noon meal on the farm, the radio was always on. We might be sitting there talking, or listening to Mom tell some story she’d heard on the phone that morning, but when the noon farm report came on, particularly the grain prices from the Chicago Board of Trade, everything stopped. Dad tuned out. He looked to be gazing out the window above the sink, as if by not looking at anything in particular he could hear better. When he got that look we knew to stop talking so he could hear the grain prices; up a half from yesterday’s close, down three quarters, whatever. It meant little to Mom and I but everything, it seemed, to Dad. If we kept talking he would raise his hand, and if we persisted he would give us a sharp hiss. It meant money to my Dad, but it mattered not at all to me as I never thought about money nor did I hear it discussed. It was Dad’s business. But when he made a decision to sell, and called the Danvers Elevator to close the deal, it meant that real soon we would be shelling corn from the crib.
They don’t shell corn anymore. It is picked and shelled all at once in the field by huge expensive combines with corn heads and then stored in metal bins where it is stirred and dried with propane gas burners. My Dad would live to see three different methods of harvest. Picking and shelling ear corn from the crib was the one used when I was growing up.
Attached to the old house was Dad’s machine shop. There were countless items hanging on the wall. If you stood and looked long enough, you could find new and mysterious things every time. By doing that I once spotted a leather contraption hanging on a nail that strapped to your hand and had a metal palm with a hook in the middle. I liked being with Dad when he tinkered in the shop. I was never interested in whatever he was doing mechanically, rather I liked to find old things, and ask Dad about them. He had a story about every one.
“What do you do with this thing?”
“It’s a corn shucker” he told me.
“You shucked corn by hand?”
“Sure did. The fields were smaller then, and we used horses.”
“But the horses didn’t pull a picker?”
“No. One man was the picker and the shucker.”
He strapped the appliance to his hand, fastening the buckles so the hook was in his palm. “The horse followed you pulling a wagon with a buckboard on one side. You grabbed the corn stalk, ripped open the shuck with this hook” he demonstrated a quick jerk with his right hand “snapped the ear off the stalk, and flipped it into the wagon, bouncing it off the buckboard so it dropped in the wagon. You walked down each row, shucking and picking every ear, and the horse knew to follow you slowly, staying beside you, pulling the wagon without a driver. When your wagon was full you pulled it to the crib.”
“That must have taken forever.”
“Well, it took a long time. But the fields were small. You didn’t have to do it all at once. You could go out in the field and shuck as much as you needed for feed and such. Or you could slowly fill your crib. But you didn’t want the stalks to break down in the winter and get down on the ground and wet. And you certainly had to have it gone by spring. It had to be done, at one time or an other, and it had to be done by hand.”
“You must have been so glad to finally get a picker.” I thought they had always had pickers. Ours was a New Idea pull type. We pulled it with the Minneapolis “U” and it picked two rows at a time. There were three big sheet metal snouts that the rows passed between, the stalks pulled in by gathering chains. Then the stalks went between the snapping rollers that separated the ear from the stalk. Two cylinders of steel that could pull your hand in, then your arm, crushing it like Larry Rapp’s dad. His suit coat sleeve hung empty on Sunday morning in church. The ears passed through husking rollers where the shucks were torn off, and clean yellow ears passed up a little conveyor in the back into a wagon trailed behind. It was like a small train going through the field. The tractor, pulling the picker, with a wagon trailing catching the clean ears of corn as they came out the back. Usually there was another tractor waiting somewhere in the field with an empty wagon ready exchange it for a full one which would be hauled to the crib. Dad always drove the picker, and Henry Dunlap hauled the corn to our crib. And when Henry shucked corn they switched jobs. Henry may have been my Dad’s closest friend.
“Pickers changed things” Dad told me that morning as a kid “but they were expensive and dangerous. It meant one man could farm more. But not everyone could afford it.” I guess compared to a wagon, a horse, and a piece of leather with a hook that strapped to your hand anything would be expensive, dangerous and, I figured, an improvement.
“How did you fill the crib back then?” I asked. We pulled the wagon up to a lift that ran off a speed jack. You parked the front wheels of the wagon on the lift, engaged the speed jack, which took power from the power take off and through a system of tumbling rod and knuckles, belts and pulleys, raised the wagon up so the corn slid out the back gate into the dump. The dump also ran off the power take off of our littlest tractor, the Minneapolis “Z”. The dump was an elevated, open metal chute with paddles that traveled on a continuous chain and carried ears of corn up a steep incline where they were “dumped” into the corn crib. At the top was a movable chute at the end of the dump so we could guide the ears to different parts of the crib and fill it evenly. The crib had two parts, with a driveway in the middle. Two buildings really, joined by a roof that tied them together.
“You know that part of the crib that sticks out to the North?” Dad stepped out of the shop and I followed so we could look across the road to the crib. It was a nice fall day and there I was, doing nothing in particular except talking with my Dad. “There was a system of pulleys and a rope, like the hay rope. We hooked two horses up to the rope, ran it through the crib the other end to hook to the wagon. There was a ramp at the South end. The horses went forward, there to the North of the crib, and pulled the wagon up the ramp into the top of the crib from the South where we scooped off the corn down into the two crib sides.”
“I can’t believe you got a wagon up there” I said gazing at the top of the crib that was maybe thirty feet high.
“They were smaller wagons than what we have now.” Dad said. “I mean, you couldn’t very well throw scoop shovels of corn up to the top of the crib to fill it now could you?”
“I guess not.”
“You could raise your whole family on 80 acres. Everything was smaller then, and slower, and cheaper.”
“And harder” I said.
“Yeah, but we didn’t know it.”
“So how did you shell corn back then?” I asked.
“We didn’t much. We fed a lot of corn by hand. In fact, when I first came down here, Grandpa was feeding ear corn to the dairy cows because there were such big cracks in the manger the ground feed fell through. And we had a hand sheller, still have it over in the crib. You’ve seen it.” I could picture a little machine with a big crank stuck in the corner that couldn’t have shelled much. “But if you really needed corn ground you took it to the elevator, like we still do now for the cow feed. But you sold ear corn and used ear corn as much as you could. Less work. But then they came out with shellers people could afford, and there was someone in each town that bought one to start a business, and that changed everything.”
When I was little, Mom wouldn’t let me go by the crib alone when they were shelling. She was afraid I would get caught up in the machines. When she took food to the men, hot rolls usually in the morning, she would stay and let me play on the cob pile for a while. But I couldn’t get close to the sheller. So when I was asked to help shell corn it was a pretty big deal.
The sheller always came early in the morning, and honked as he turned in the crib lot. When it came Dad left the milking to Mom and went to help set up. Earl Maurer owned the sheller, which was a 1927 Pierce Arrow. It was a big complicated machine with its own engine mounted on the Pierce Arrow truck chassis. And it had been rebuilt so many times, they said, that you couldn’t really call it a 1927. Earl made most of his own parts when it broke down. Everyone had a sort of affection for that old sheller. It was a pretty important machine to all the farmers in our area. I’m still amazed that they incorporated the function of Earl’s huge sheller into a combine and marketed the picker sheller to each farmer in the area. But in truth they didn’t, only half of the farmers could afford it when it burst on the scene. Dad never bought one.
Earl came with some helpers, and lined up the trucks and drivers that would carry the shelled corn back into town to be offloaded into the huge concrete silos known as the Danvers Farmers Elevator. We kept sheep in our crib lot and the night before Dad and I would have driven the sheep into the pasture, closed them off from the crib, and opened the crib lot so the trucks could pass in and out. Dad called in the neighbors, just as they called him when they shelled. They traded labor, our neighboring farmers, and no money changed hands. So Bait Correll was there, with Paul Mehl, and Smitty, and Henry Dunlap. It felt so cool to be part of the group, me being young and all. It was a big deal, the day we shelled corn.
To be honest, anything that happened that was out of the ordinary qualified as a big deal to me. Too many days it was just us-my Mom, my Dad, and me. Although I was shy, I was always anxious to be around other people to see what they were like, to hear what they talked about, and to figure out how they felt about each other. Dad didn’t talk about the men he worked with. I knew quite a bit about the women in the area because Mom shared everything she knew and heard it seemed. But Dad stayed pretty quiet about other people.
Earl Maurer, I think, cared quite a bit more for the sheller than he did the guys working. He always smoked a cigar, or at least had one clamped between his teeth whether lit or not. He unloaded the scoops and rakes, got out a worn set of various wooden blocks, and tended to the setup of the sheller. Depending on the wind he staked out a canvas shoot that would blow the shucks into a wispy pile. He aimed the cob chute where Dad wanted to make the cob piles, and then turned over the conveyor set up to Henry Dunlap, who helped him often.
Earl spent his time during the shelling looking and listening to his sheller. Often he had a grease gun in his hand or an oil can, listening and watching for a bind, a squeak, a labored bit of work on the part of the sheller, and then easing its work with lubrication. While we concentrated on the corn, Earl concentrated on his machine, as if it were his child.
Henry’s job was to make sure the narrow conveyor chutes that ran alongside the crib were level and at the right height. We would do this set up twice, once for each side of the crib. I followed Henry around and handed him the wood blocks he asked for. I liked Henry because he had a nice quiet voice and never got mad or in a hurry. If I gave him the wrong block of wood he would tell me nicely to get him another. Henry was quiet, and steady, and dependable. His life and my Dad’s, taking place in farmhouses a half mile apart, were linked together. They had moments like this to share, a moment that Dad told me about only when I was older.
Dad was picking corn in the morning in the twenty acres just South of the barn and the going was tough. It had been a wet fall and the stalks were gumming up the picker. He kept getting stalks jammed up in the snapping rollers and would have to stop to unplug the works. It was cold and grey. Dad was working with yellow cotton farmer gloves like he always did, and this morning he had on an old worn pair he had used that summer baling hay. Hay chaff used to work its way into your gloves down the fingers and fill up the ends. If your own finger didn’t fill up the space the chaff would, especially the little fingers, which were too long for most people’s fingers anyway. You could take your glove off, and roll that plug of chaff around in the glove’s finger, and shake it and empty it out, but most times we didn’t bother. Dad was wearing those kind of gloves that morning.
Henry saw that Dad’s wagon was near full and had pulled near to change it with an empty one. Dad stopped the picker because it was clogged and had walked back to the picker to dig out the stalks. The drill was this. Our Minneapolis tractors had hand clutches, a lever beside the steering wheel. Pull the hand clutch, take the tractor out of gear, engage the clutch to run the power take off (PTO) which powered the operation of the picker while the picker remained still to work the corn through without more entering the rollers. If the corn was still clogged it was pull the clutch, dig out the corn by hand, engage the clutch, see if the rollers could work through the clog. Try not to shear a pin. Dad did that. And seeing that the snapping rollers were again clear, and rolling, he turned to help Henry with the wagon exchange. As Dad turned he saw a little ear of corn, a nubbin, jammed in the housing of the picker near the rollers that could have been causing snags. Without pulling the clutch to stop the rollers, and without thinking, Dad reached with his gloved right hand to pick the nubbin away from the rollers, and the rollers caught the chaff stuffed little finger of his yellow work glove, pulling his hand into the rollers.
Dad yelled “Henry!”
And Henry, judging by the fear in Dad’s voice, instinctively and amazingly, took two leaping steps to the tractor, pulled the clutch, and disengaged the picker, stopping the snapping rollers.
“My God Henry my hand.”
Henry walked to the front of the picker and looked into the rollers. All that could be seen of Dad’s hand was the cuff of the yellow work glove. The rollers covered his hand above his thumb.
“Just try to relax Dean and I’m going to turn those rollers back by hand.” He turned off the engines of both tractors.
Dad said it was real quiet in the field and neither he nor Henry said anything. Henry methodically got a wrench out of the tool box on the tractor and knowing right where to apply it, turned the rollers back and Dad’s hand slowly was freed.
“How does it feel?” Henry asked.
“It hurts so bad I can’t tell. I don’t want to take my glove off” Dad answered.
And so they stood there a while, as Dad told it, and finally Henry said. “Can you move your fingers?”
Dad very slowly made his fingers in the shape of a C. And then he straightened them out again. Each finger moved.
“You have to take that glove off Dean. I don’t see it bleeding through.”
And so Dad took his glove off. His hand, though white and flat, looked OK. They watched the color slowly return to the skin around his knuckles. His fingernails were blue and would all turn black later. Both of them knew, standing in the quiet of our cornfield on a cold November morning, that Henry had saved at least Dad’s arm, if not his life, by knowing him so well and acting quickly.
“I don’t want to tell anyone about this for a long time Henry.”
“Let’s call it a day.”
And so together they finished picking that field another day and neither of them told a soul about that awful moment they shared for over twenty years. Sometimes good friends share things quietly. Dad told my Mom he had slammed his hand with a wrench. Outside of the fact he could not milk a cow by hand for over two weeks; he managed to withstand the pain and the bruising and suffered no permanent damage. I would guess he never once thought of going to a doctor.
The steel conveyer chutes that ran past the crib and carried the corn to the sheller were pure silver in color, worn shiny and smooth from the millions of bushels of corn that passed through them over the years. They simply ran along the outside, or in some cribs the inside, of the building to catch the ears of corn that first fell out, then were scooped out, of the crib. Cribs weren’t built to be tight, in fact calling your house or someone else’s an old corn crib was a way of saying it was drafty. They had slats to let air in so the corn could dry. Our old crib qualified quite well on the “not built tight” scale. It was amazing it still stood. It was long past paint. It was built when they still used peg joints. The builders used timbers, cut locally, hewn and shaped by hand with a broad axe that also hung on my Dad’s machine shop wall. To make joints they would form a tongue to fit in a notched groove where two timbers met, drill a hole with a brace and bit through both, and drive a stout round wooden peg in the hole to bind the structural timbers together. It was the oldest crib around except for Simon Sharp’s.
Dad used to farm Simon’s place on a crop share basis for extra money. He filled Simon’s crib and then had to shell it out too each season. While shelling there when I was little Dad had to get to the top of the crib for some reason. While up there he stepped on an old board that wouldn’t support him. It broke, sending him on a fall from the top of the crib to the frozen ground twenty feet below where he landed right on his ass. Dad was in bed for a long time after that, and had trouble for years from that fall, though he never talked about it.
Every crib was different. As I got older farmers hired me to shell corn often, so I scooped corn in most of the cribs around Danvers. The best cribs had few braces on the inside, so the corn fell and sloped naturally to the openings. Our crib had “x” braces throughout, which held the corn up. My first job was to “kick corn” or get up on top of the corn and knock it down when it was hung up. I loved doing that. I imagined it as starting avalanches in the mountains. Amid all the noise, and dust, I would be up in the crib helping, getting the corn down to the opening where it could be raked into the conveyor.
At first when the crib was full there was a lot of standing around, talking, and letting the corn slowly feed into the conveyor. This was one of my favorite times. I found ways to hang around close enough to hear, but not so close as to be noticed, so that the men would talk about whatever they wanted and not worry about having a kid around. They talked about going into Bloomington, which my folks rarely did, and about cars and town jobs and if I was lucky, places far away. Though truth be told the farm men that shelled corn around Danvers were too polite to say anything all that racy. But all of their talk seemed to be of a life different from mine, and I was eager to learn any part of it.
The biggest concern when they first opened up the crib was to not overfill the conveyor, spilling corn over the side or making the sheller work too hard. If you gave the sheller too much corn Earl would get mad, so you tried to get a nice even flow of ears streaming to the machinery that mysteriously stripped the kernels from the cob and spat both out. But at the same time everyone wanted to get done just as fast as they could. So it was a back and forth deal. Keep the conveyor full but not too full. After the corn fed out naturally you could stand in the opening and reach in with a rake to get a sufficient number of ears to the conveyor. But after gravity did all it could, and the rakes wouldn’t reach the rest of the ears, the real work started. Scooping.
Since there was only room for so many scoopers in a crib, if you hung back you could avoid that task. I considered it a point of pride to be the first one in. If I was hired by the hour to help, I figured scooping was the job the farmer was paying me. On our own place I tried to be first in, as soon as there was room. Bait Correll seemed to do the same thing. The first time I scooped with Bait, I noticed that before he went into the crib he took twine from his overalls pocket and tied his pant legs tight at the bottom just over his boots.
“Why you doing that Bait?”
“Didn’t your Dad never tell you about shelling at the Schertz place with Frank?”
Frank was my Aunt Carrie Shertz’s retarded son. No one told me about Frank and one day after church, when her husband was ill, Mom sent me into Aunt Carrie’s house with a pie. A fifty year old giant of a man came to the door, looked at me with a strange look, and began making talking sounds, rather than words, in a high voice and pointing excitedly at me. I was back at the car door in seconds, pie in hand, trying to get in. Mom laughed and said it was just Frank. She went with me, Aunt Carrie came to the door, and the pie was delivered. That was one of the few times I had ever seen Frank Schertz, and I was anxious to know more.
“What about Frank Schertz?” I asked Bait. Why we called Bait by that name I never knew, just as I never knew his real name.
“We were shelling at the Schertz place, before you were born, and Frank was a young man. We got into quite a few rats, and Frank was in the crib with us. We were whacking rats once in a while with our shovels but when we got into a corner we uncovered a big mess of them. I always figure rats will find a way out before they let you corner them but these rats stayed till the end. When we scooped into that last pile of corn the rats came jumping and running everywhere. I was after a rat with my shovel when I heard this odd whoop from Frank. I turned to look at Frank just in time to see a rat tail disappear up his pant leg. The poor bastard.”
“So what did you do?”
“I dropped my shovel and clamped that rat in my hand, through Frank’s overalls just as the rat passed above his knee, and squeezed just as hard as I could. Frank’s Dad heard him yell and came to help. He took down his overalls as I held the rat and by the time we got that done I had squeezed him to death.”
“What about Frank?”
“Well, the good thing was Frank didn’t seem to know quite what happened. He ended up laughing to tell you the truth, with his pants down and a dead rat in his bib overalls. The rat never bit him or nothing. I was sweating bullets and Frank was laughing. Damnedest thing I ever seen.”
“And that’s why I tie my pants legs shut when I scoop corn.” Bait added. And with that he stood up, twine around his legs, and started for the crib.
“Got any more twine there Bait?” I asked.
The neatest experience I ever had with rats was at Marion Otto’s place. I would have shelled corn at Marion’s for free because of his wife Rinalda’s pecan rolls. Mid morning she would come from the house out to the crib with a big pot of coffee, and sticky, hot from the oven, homemade pecan rolls. Earl Maurer, who never seemed to pay attention, would stop the sheller immediately when Rinalda came with the food. God they were good. There we were, a bunch of dirty farm hands, standing in a crib lot, surrounding plates of rolls and devouring them.
Marion and Rinalda weren’t known for having the neatest, most orderly farm operation in the community. Most farmers took real pride in putting equipment away, mowing fence rows, and generally keeping their farm in good repair. Not so Marion. I was stacking on a rack wagon while baling hay with Marion once and we followed a wind row that oddly enough had been raked to swerve around a patch of unmown alfalfa. As we got closer I could see from the rack wagon that in the middle of that patch of alfalfa was a dead Guernsey cow. Marion, driving the baler, simply swerved around it and acted as if he didn’t notice. Taking his cue, I said nothing in return. Most farmers would have buried the cow immediately, or failing that at least moved it so they could mow and bale the hay where it died. Marion, on the other hand, seemed content to simply let nature take its course.
However Marion did have, at that time, a rat terrier that was very much alive. I’d seen a few rat terriers before and assumed they were so named because they were small, and smooth haired, and ugly. Shelling corn at Marion’s with that rat terrier at work taught me quickly how rat terriers got their name. As soon as we approached the crib, the terrier was behind us, ever alert. As we got into the crib and began to scoop, the dog followed us in and began to sniff. And when we uncovered the first rat, that dog went into action. Rat terriers, it turns out, live to kill rats. Lightning quick and fearless, that little dog would pounce on each rat, snarl and give it a shake in its teeth, toss it aside, dead with a broken neck, and be immediately ready for the next one. No need to spend time slamming your shovel on those rats. The dog started working right beside us, quivering as he waited for a rat to appear. As we uncovered more rats, he would have them in an instant. And while he was killing one rat, he was looking for the next one. It was one of the most vivid displays of intensity and focus I’d ever seen from person or beast. Seeing a creature living out its purpose is wonderful thing. Maybe Marion was living out his purpose too. With Marion though, it was harder to determine what that purpose was.
The cliché “back breaking work” was made for scooping corn. Because you have to slide your scoop along the crib floor at a flat angle to get under the ears of corn you have to get your chest pretty much parallel to the floor. And if you stand up between each scoop to toss your shovel full of corn into the conveyor you are constantly up and down. So you stoop over, fill your scoop, empty it, and do it again without standing up straight. Over and over and over. Then when you can’t go any longer you straighten up, and your back muscles ache like never before. And then you bend over and do it again, and you work that way until the crib is empty. There are not many things harder on your back than scooping corn.
But boy can you think when you work like that. I would get into a rhythm scooping. Slide the shovel in, shoot the corn to the door, slide the shovel in, shoot the corn to the door. Sometimes I would run a tune through my head, or count off a cadence. And after you got going, you could concentrate on a person, a problem, a question, for the longest time. I got some of my best thinking done when I was working the hardest. As long as you didn’t need your mind to do the work, you could have your thoughts all to yourself. I miss that.
Somehow, corn shelling never seemed to happen on nice days. It was either cold and windy, or hot and still. The corn market determined when the corn was shelled, not the weather. So how was it that the corn market turned just perfectly for Roger Risser on a day in July of 1967 when it was over 100 degrees? Just lucky I guess. Mom answered the phone always then and accepted every job making hay or shelling corn that came my way. We had just baled hay for Smitty in 90 degree weather and when I came in from the hay mow she told me that Roger wanted me early in the morning to shell corn. They were shelling early to “beat the heat.”
“Beat the heat? There’s no beating this heat.” I had been sleeping upstairs with no sheets and a fan blowing straight on me for two nights. A hot spell with no air conditioning was like a siege. The farm work went on, we worked through the heat, and we got more tired as the days went by, with no way to escape our condition. There was nothing to do but pray for cooler weather. I was trying to decide if the mosquitoes would eat me up if I slept in the hammock in the yard, and Roger Risser wanted to shell corn?
Larry Rapp and I were hired as helpers at Roger’s crib the next morning at six o’clock. It was already plenty hot, having never cooled down from the night before. Larry and I were the first ones in the crib scooping and sort of raced each other to see how quick we could get done and get the hell out of there. When we were finished, about noon, Roger came over and said “You boys worked pretty hard today, I’m going to pay you for an extra hour.” He wrote us each a check for fourteen dollars. Not only had he added an hour, which was unheard of, he had paid us two dollars an hour, a rate of pay unknown at the time. I thought it was a pretty damn good deal.
Corn shelling stories can go on forever, given the amount of corn cribs that once held corn across the Midwest, and the number of men who scooped corn. It was the men of course and the things that happened to them that interested me, unlike the machine that interested Earl Maurer. Here’s something true about men back then. It didn’t matter what they did exactly, it was who they were. When I was growing up in Danvers, everybody was involved in farming in one way or another. I knew where everyone lived, in farm houses scattered across the countryside, but I didn’t know if they rented their farm or owned it, if they were hired on to work on jobs or trading labor. We were together working, and we were equals. It mattered how you worked, and what you said, and how you treated each other. But I certainly never felt either judged or valued because of my occupation, my title, or my past accomplishments. I was equal to everyone else on the job.
Your identity in Danvers, in fact, was often blurred. I was much less Dave McClure as I was Dean’s youngest boy, one of a string of people, my siblings, rather than an individual. We knew far too much about each other. We knew each other’s parents and grandparents and more. We knew stories about each other, real and exaggerated, never to be either forgotten or lived down. We knew each other intimately, yet strangely, we often didn’t know each other’s real names.
There were two Kaufman boys, cousins of some kind, with nicknames Squeak and Buzz. How does one get a nickname based on sound? Neither had peculiar voices that I could tell. In order to write this story I had to ask my brother, who has lived his whole life in Danvers, their real names and he in turn had to ask his wife. One of them is Carl and the other is Harvey, but we don’t yet know as of this writing which is which. But if my brother saw either Squeak or Buzz right now he would know them immediately. Here’s a story about Squeak that actually relates to corn shelling.
Squeak came to our farm to shell corn on a hot day in June. He came with Earl Maurer. I’m not sure what Squeak was doing at the time, whether farming, working at the elevator or just waiting, like I was when I was older, to be hired to shell corn or what have you. Squeak was in the crib early, scooping, when he ran into a rare and dangerous problem. Rats and mice are common in corn cribs and usually ignored. To consider rats and mice as a problem in corn cribs you underestimate the sheer volume of the amount of corn farmers deal with. What better place to be if you are a rat or a mouse than in a huge mountain of corn? Heaven for a rodent. Surrounded and kept warm by an unlimited supply of food. I once asked my Dad if he thought we had rats in our corn crib.
“Sure we do” was his reply.
“Shouldn’t we do something to get rid of them?” I asked, thinking the answer was obvious.
“There is plenty of corn in that crib for every living thing within twenty miles and more” he said. “We’re not going to worry about a few rats.”
And so we didn’t, and neither did anyone else. Rats and mice went with corn shelling like bread and butter. You expected them, anticipated them, tried to kill them but didn’t worry if they got away. What Squeak Kaufman found that June day in our corn crib was a different matter altogether.
Squeak was the first in our crib to scoop. I was still too young, Dad thought, to scoop, so I had been kicking corn earlier and now was just standing around. As soon as there was a place to stand, and bare floor to slide his scoop on, Squeak was in there starting to move ears of corn to the conveyor. Much like my Dad’s cry when his hand went into the picker, the whole crew recognized something different when they heard Squeak began to holler inside the crib. Squeak was coming out, screaming, past the moving conveyor, over the ears of corn, heading for the open space of our sheep pasture. Squeak continued to scream, which puzzled those of us watching him, until we saw small insects following him. He had his ball cap in his hand and was swinging mightily at the air. And then he began a type of dance that confounded us all. He was grabbing his shirt, tearing it off, kicking his legs, and screaming all at once. Squeak had run his scoop into a nest of yellow jackets, a small and vicious type of bumblebee, and after stinging him on the face and arms they had found their way under his shirt. Squeak was normally a pretty quiet guy. I had never seen him so animated. It was like a surreal cartoon, Squeak dancing and screaming through our crib lot in that fashion. He found his way to our sheep tank, and, after ripping his shirt off, plopped himself into the water. The bees lost interest. Squeak came out of the tank still fighting mad. I’m not sure who he was mad at, but he was pretty pissed off and beginning to swell, with welts on his face, neck, back, and arms.
Earl Maurer came over, rolled his cigar from one side of this mouth to the other, and said “Squeak, I think its best if you go home” and he did. I can still see him driving away in his Chevy, trying not to touch his back to the upholstery. And so one of the life stories of Squeak Kaufman of Danvers was created, never to be forgotten by any of us corn shellers present on that day.
Those days are all over. Earl Maurer is gone and the 1927 Pierce Arrow sheller, which was bought by the twin Irwin brothers, Lyman and Lyle, and used for a while in the eighties, is god knows where*. Most of the cribs have been torn down. If not now they soon will be. Farming has made another change, affected by the technology of new machines and the global economy, and those days are gone. But the memories of all those men, and those days working together, will last a little longer.
* God no doubt knows where the sheller is, but also as it turns out so did Bob Kaufmann. The Pierce Arrow sheller, which was actually a Cook sheller made in Washington, Illinois and mounted on the back of a Pierce Arrow hearse, was donated to the Midwest Threshermans Society of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. It can be seen working at exhibitions there.