Hank

Bob woke suddenly to the sound of his Mom knocking on the door. “Time to get up, Honey.”

Most mornings were the same. Every morning the cows had to be brought into the barn, fed some grain, sprayed for flies, and milked. Get up, get the cows, milk the cows, feed the cows, slop the pigs, let the chickens out, eat breakfast, work in the fields.

As he pulled on his boots Bob was thinking about the camping trip they had taken to the mountains. Hank had built a trailer that held all of their camping gear. And he knew all the roads in the mountains. The trip to Hanging Lakes had convinced Bob that he would return to the mountains again as soon as he could. The Aspen forest was almost as large as the wheat fields in his corner of Colorado.

As Ott and Bob got to the barn they heard an awful racket coming from the manger at the back of the barn.

“Hurry up, Bob, sounds like a cat fight.”

In the manger were two cats fighting and screaming.

“It’s the Tom,” said Ott, “he’s killin’ the kittens!”

The mother cat was doing her best to defend her kits, but the tomcat outweighed her by twice and had done most of the damage already. When Bob shouted he jumped out of the manger and ran to the ladder to the hayloft, scampered up it and disappeared.

“Look, the kittens are all ripped up.”

“Why would the dad kill them?”

“Don’t know. Just happens sometimes. Before you know it that Tom will be back making more kittens. Maybe he thought they weren’t his.”

They cleaned up the mess and called the cows in for grain.

After chores and breakfast Ott, Hank, and Bob went down to the shop to get the combine ready.

“Here, Bob, you take every fourth tooth off the cutterbar; it’s probably a half inch wrench. Use the socket and the ratchet. Hank, can you solder that damn leaking gas tank on the tractor? I’ll get the pick-up teeth ready to install in the empty spots on the bar.”

Bob found the socket wrench, got down on the ground, and reached under the platform on the combine to loosen the nuts. As he started to remove the teeth from the cutting bar, he saw Hank get some soap from his toolbox and rub it along the bottom of the gas tank on the tractor where the slow leaks were. The soap stopped the drips in a couple of minutes. Hank fired up the gasoline torch to heat the soldering iron.

“Aren’t you going to drain the gas out of the tank?” Bob shouted.

“No. Shouldn’t have to.”

“But won’t it explode when you start to put hot solder on the tank?”

“No, I don’t think so. It’s cool gasoline down here. But, if it does explode you better get the hell out of here!”

Hank picked the hot soldering iron up out of the cradle on the torch. He spread some flux on the area of the tank that had been leaking and applied the iron to the tank and to the long strand of solder which he had unwound from its circular roll.

Bob got up and walked around so that the combine was between him and Hank.

The solder melted and was sucked up into the holes where the flux had been. Some smoke rose from the tank.

“There we go,” said Hank as he put the soldering iron down and spit on the hot solder. The spit jumped around a bit and then disappeared. “That should do it.”

Bob came back toward the tractor. “Why didn’t it explode, Hank? I thought gasoline was very dangerous.”

“It is. But in this case there were no gas fumes. It’s the fumes that explode, as long as it’s liquid you’re OK.”

No one said anything about Bob’s having hidden behind the combine, and he returned to the job of removing the teeth from the cutterbar.

Hank hooked the tractor to the tow bar and they headed off to the field of wheat west of the house. The sixteen-foot platform on the combine was heavier now with the addition of the thirty-two pick-up teeth. Ott was on the combine running the wheel that controlled the height of the platform. He turned a wheel that let the platform down to the level for cutting. “He looks like Captain Ahab at the helm of the Pequod,” Bob thought. The combine engine was throbbing, the V-belts were singing, and the cutting bar was sliding back and forth rhythmically. Hank drove close to the fence to open the field of wheat up to the combine. After the first round they would drive on the stubble of the previously cut wheat. Only the first round would require driving on the wheat. “I hope we can get a newer, self-propelled combine soon; then we would not have to lose grain to the heavy wheels of the tractor and the combine.”

Hank was watching the fence line closely to stay as close as possible without running into the fence posts. Ott dropped the platform by spinning the helm. The pick-up teeth reached under the fallen wheat, picked it up and fed it to the wooden paddles of the reel that pushed the straw against the cutting bar. Because of the need to cut so much straw the combine engine was laboring to handle all of the material that was brought up to the separator on the conveyor belt. Ott dropped the platform some more.

Suddenly the pick-up teeth at the end of the platform rammed into the ground. The teeth bit into the ground, stopping the forward movement of the platform. Ott yelled from the helm, “Hank! Stop! Stop!” Before Hank could stop the tractor the platform snapped off from the main body of the combine, its broken parts dangling like intestines from a butchered hog.

Once everything stopped Ott climbed down from the combine to survey the damage.

Hank joined him by the hanging platform. “I just didn’t get her stopped in time. I was watching the fence line.”

“It’s not your fault, Hank. Goddamn it to hell. Look at that mess!”

A dark cloud passed over Ott’s face. Bob saw his stepfather take off his hat and hurl it on the ground.

Ott jumped up and down on his hat, swearing loud and frantic swear words Bob had never heard.

“They say only cowards commit suicide. That’s a goddamned lie. It takes courage to leave this rotten place. Why me? What else can go wrong?” Ott shouted. He jumped on his hat and waved his arms above his head. Looking up at the sky, where all of the hail had come from, he challenged his God, “Why are You doing this to me? What have I ever done to You? I should never have been born. Why? Why? What do You want from me?”

Bob looked up, halfway expecting an answer. There was no answer. Only silence. A small white cloud drifted in the blue sky. A sundog was visible. In the summer fallow across the road a small wind funnel twisted lazily toward the south.

Bob walked over to his stepfather. “It’s OK, Dad. We can fix it. I know we can.”

Hank got up from under the platform. “She’s not too bad, Ott. A bit of welding; some new bolts. We’ll have her going again before sundown.”

Ott picked up his hat. He knocked the crown out with his fist and put it on. “Let’s get started.”

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