When the phone rang later, one long and one short, Margaret picked up the earpiece and answered with a normal “Hello.”
“Oh, hi, Hank, how are you getting along? I’ll get Ott for you.”
“Hello!” he shouted. “Hank, we had a hell of a hailstorm this morning. A real gullywasher. Lightling and rain and then hail big as golf balls! Took out most of our wheat. Can you come next week and help me get the combine ready?”
Bob noticed the “lightling.” For some reason his stepfather could not say “lightning” and instead always said the “l” for the “n”. Maybe it was some pronunciation he got when he lived in Arkansas. “Arkansas” was a funny word too. The state was “arkansaw” but the river was “ark-kansus” – spelled the same but pronounced different. “English is a funny language,” he thought. He remembered what his English teacher, Mrs. Diss, had told him. She had said that an English writer, named George Bernard Shaw, had put up some money to anyone who could come up with an improvement to English spelling that would eliminate the confusion. As an example of the confusion in English pronunciation Shaw had suggested that we should spell “fish” ghoti — the gh from “cough,” the o from “women” and the ti from ”nation”. “I’ll bet the money is still waiting,” he thought.
“See you on Sunday then. Yeah.”
Most people ended a phone call with “goodbye” but Ott always said “yeah.”
“They can come up on Sunday,” he said, putting the earpiece back in its cradle and giving the instrument one last look of contempt.
“Oh, that’s nice, honey. It will be good to see Peg and our grandson. I’ll bet he has grown. Hank will be a big help in getting the machinery ready. What all do you have to do?”
“We’ll have to put pick-up teeth on so we can lift the straw off the goddamned ground and save some of the wheat. What a mess. It was lookin’ so good, too. Probably thirty bushel to the acre wheat for once, and then this. We could have cut in a few days too. Damn, damn, damn.”
On Sunday after church, Peg and Hank and Dick arrived at the farm. They had been coming up for harvest anyway, and the hail just brought them a week early. Dick had grown. At three he was talking, running about and mimicking his dad. That meant he used swear words in every sentence, and though he had trouble with ordinary words sometimes, he never mispronounced a profanity. He used a made-up word “boppy” as a kind of placeholder for any word he could not say. Within a short time he came running into the house after being down by the shop with the men to report to his grandma.
“Granddad’s goddamned boppy broke down!”
“Granddad’s goddamned boppy broke down!”
Mom looked at Peg, and they both laughed.
Granddad’s boppy was the old pull type combine that they were trying to get ready for the harvest. During the winter Ott had replaced all the drive gears that ran the separator and the fans with V-belts. This had meant a much quieter machine and eliminated the need for a lubricating oil drip system that had distributed oil to the chains. They were giving the combine a shake down cruise when one of the belts had come loose.
“She’s running good,” said Hank. “The V-belts make a hell of a difference.”
They had to adjust all of the belts for the correct tension. Together they tested them all and tuned up the machine, which was much quieter because of the rubber belts.
After his report Dick ran back out of the house and down to the corral to check on the cows and horses. Bob and Ott had put a single wire electric fence around the cane stacks to keep the animals away from the cane. Bob’s old horse, Babe, particularly had to be stopped. She would unhook the barn door and go to eat her fill. Dick wandered around the corral and up to the fence. Then he could be seen running up to the house again. As he ran into the kitchen he was crying.
“Grandma, grandma, I have to tell you somepin.”
“What is it this time, Dick?”
“Grandma, don’t ever pee on a ‘lectric fence!”
His fly was still open and the tears were falling down his cheeks.
Later that evening everyone sat down at the table for some supper.
As his Mom said grace, “Lord, we thank you for this day’s food,” Bob looked up at his stepfather’s face.
“But we sure as hell don’t thank You for this hailstorm.”
During supper Ott told a story that he had heard that morning after church while talking with the other farmers on the lawn outside the church.
“Old man Jones was a painter by trade and he used to always thin his paint with water so he could make a bit more on each job. Well, he was painting the Lutheran church last year, and, as usual, he had added some water to the paint. As he was about to finish the job a big ole rain cloud opened up and he watched as the rain washed off the paint. Suddenly a bolt of lightling hit in the churchyard pretty close to Jones and he was sure that God was angry with him for cheating on the paint job on a house of God. “Please forgive me, Lord”, he cried, “give me another chance.”
Jones heard the voice again, thundering from the clouds, “Repaint, repaint, and thin no more.”
Everyone had a good laugh.
After supper Bob sat at the kitchen table sharpening his pocket knife while his mom and sisters did up the dishes. Beth had gone to the matinee in town that afternoon with friends and was relating the entire plot while drying the dishes.
When the kitchen was all cleaned up, Mom got down the copy of Moby Dick and began to read a chapter to the kids. Every night, or almost every night, they had a chapter of a book read to them. They had gone through two Charles Dickens novels and a Jack London, and now they had joined Melville and Captain Ahab on the high seas in search of the White Whale. “Call me Ishmael.” That has to be the greatest beginning of any novel I know,” thought Bob. “And the description of the church with the pastor giving a sermon from the quarter deck is like you are right there in the pew.” After a while Mom stopped reading and the three talked about the chapter for a little while.
“Why did they kill whales, Mom?” asked Beth.
“It was their job. They hunted them for the oil which was used in all sorts of ways.”
Beth asked, “Why didn’t they just get their oil at the Co-op like we do?”
“There were no Co-op stores then, Honey.”
“Is Captain Ahab a good man?” asked Bob.
“Well, let’s finish the book before we try to answer that question. OK?”
“OK. It is a good book. Long though.”
“Off to bed everyone. Five o’clock comes early.”
Bob dreamed that night that he was a sailing ship captain. He was standing next to the helmsman looking out over the sea. But it looked like the sea changed slowly, ever more slowly, into a vast expanse of wheat. The color shifted from blue green to gold and the waves rolled on and on toward the horizon. The ship slipped through the waves silently. He looked at the helmsman. It was his stepfather steering the ship through the waving wheat. The sky darkened and the clouds stretched out to cover the sun. He looked over to see the wheel come off in the hands of his stepfather, who dropped it to the deck with a clang and looked up at the sky.