THRESHING: THE PERFECT WAY TO SPEND A HOT SUMMER DAY
Threshing was one of the highlights of the year when I was growing up in the early 1950s on a dairy farm in southwestern Wisconsin, right up there with Christmas, my birthday, and the last day of school. Looking back and realizing how hard the job was, I have to wonder about my sanity during my youth, but I always looked forward to the annual event. And not because of the huge community meals, the table loaded with meats and potatoes and pies and cakes, and not the camaraderie among neighbors—those things about threshing that appealed to the grown-ups.
What I liked so much were three aspects of threshing, one of which occurred before threshing day, one during it, and one afterward. In short, I really looked forward to shocking, shoveling oats, and sliding down the straw pile. Let me tell you what appealed to me about each.
For those of you not familiar with the various stages of threshing, which in essence is the process of separating grain from straw, in our case oats from straw, a few words about this business may be in order. First, someone had to cut the oats with a binder, which not only cut the oats but also gathered it (still on the stems, or straw) into bundles and dropped the bundles onto the field of stubble. A tractor pulled the binder, and a common pattern consisted of my sister driving the tractor with my dad on the binder seat. Then people had to stack up those bundles into shocks, which looked like golden tents, for drying. This was where I came in.
My brothers and I shocked, that is, we constructed the shocks, usually eight bundles to a shock, although that may have been just a regional variation on a theme. Four bundles faced one way, and four faced them, all leaning inward to support each other, so a small tent-like opening led into the shock. It was hot, often steamy work, necessitating durable work gloves and a hat to block the sun. There was a real sense of artistry to it, though, yielding a beautiful field of shocks at the end of the day.
By the way, those bundles of oats are sometimes called sheaves, but the famous hymn notwithstanding, I never once heard anyone in my family or any of our neighbors call them that.
Within a few days came the threshing itself. Neighbors arrived in the morning after milking, as the neighborhood migrated from farm to farm, following the threshing machine that one of our entrepreneurial neighbors owned. The shocks had to be forked up onto wagons and hauled to the field where the threshing machine had been set up to accept the bundles. Bundles went onto a conveyor belt to be pulled inside the bowels of the machine where oats and straw were separated, the oats collected while the straw was blown out through a long high pipe. The straw gradually formed a hill known lovingly as the straw pile.
Here is when my second favorite part of threshing began. The oats were released through a chute into the box of a truck and hauled into the barn. I would grab the wide grain shovel (in other settings it might be called a coal shovel—if there is a difference I'm not sure what it might be) and crawl into the back of the truck. My sneaker-clad feet would sink into the golden grain, oats finding their way not only inside my shoes but even inside my socks, the oats more tickling than annoying.
It was not so much the shoveling that I enjoyed, that hard and heavy throwing of grain into the oats bin, the oats landing on the rising hill within the bin, some sliding back down, the rest adding to the hill's height, but the grasshoppers that kept leaping about. They shot off my legs like mini-rockets at a Fourth of July fireworks display. How those grasshoppers fascinated me! When I finished unloading and looked into the bin, the oats seemed completely alive with the bursting energy of those little creatures. That energy, of course, would soon die out, the grasshoppers' brief lifespan ended, and when I opened the door to the bin a day or two later, the oats lay strangely inert. Even the gold was hidden within the shadows of the bin. Only when I dipped out a handful of the grain and stepped to the barn door, holding the grain out into the sunlight, did I see the richness of the harvest filtering through my fingers.
After the threshing came the final reward for me. Despite my mother's warnings about children falling through and suffocating amid the straw, I delighted in climbing the straw pile, seldom an easy task. I would lose traction and slide backward, landing on a soft cushion of straw ringing the pile. Often, though, I managed to claw my way to the top. There I would sit, gazing about at the farm, the meadows and cornfields stretching out around me, and resting in the welcoming depression my body made. Finally I would step to the edge, sit down, and slide groundward. It was not, I must admit, a particularly fast slide, nothing like sledding on an ice-slicked hill, but it was fun. From my subjective point of view, that straw pile was, following the cutting and binding and shocking and hauling and separating and shoveling, what the whole process was there for. It was why threshing had been invented, not to provide the oats to feed cows or the straw to make life softer for them on a winter's night. I slid down, I now know, looking back these many years, with great joy but toward a future called adulthood.
That's not a bad future. It has lots of joys and some sorrows. But it does not have any golden shocks, millions of grasshoppers exploding at my feet, or tall, soft mountains of straw for a boy to climb and slide down and climb again. It would be nice if it did, but it does not.
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