Non-FictionSpring 2018

A Science and an Art

My father farms dryland wheat in the desert middle of Washington state. Each summer, when the wheat is waist-high and golden, he hires a harvest crew. It’s a small crew of trusted men, and, most recently, me, his 26-year-old daughter. It’s the six of us versus a horizon of work. It’s work that took my homesteading great-grandfather three times the daylight to accomplish. The place was smaller then, but the combines were open-cab titans with rickety sunshades, not the sleek air-conditioned giants my uncle drives now. Little else has changed. We still use the large wheat trucks my grandfather purchased in a deal following the Cold War; we still line up to face the heat of the place. We spend hours coaxing machines, squinting at the sun and coughing dust. We wipe silt-like chaff from our foreheads long after we’ve run out of sweat. We collapse in our beds after sundown.

Last summer I lived away from my family in Spokane, and I felt cut off from the isolated land I’d grown up in. I realized I was missing something I couldn’t quite name. Suddenly, my father spoke of retiring. In a panic, I asked if I could drive a wheat truck that harvest. It was a task I wanted to learn to better understand the place I’d left behind. I set out, for the first time, to do what my family had done for years before me.

When I arrived at my uncle’s grain bins in late July, I had elementary knowledge of how to drive a manual. The men were more experienced than me—my father said that Greg, a ten-year wheat truck driving veteran, was a “Salty Dog,” the top tier after “greenie” and “apprentice.” In my father’s imagined hierarchy, I was green, and I felt like it. I asked, more than once, when it was okay to take my foot off the clutch.

Though I could coax the wheat truck gears into place when I needed, I felt adrift in the span of glossy wheat I’d grown up in. I tried, most days, to simply keep up. I got used to the roar of the trucks and the combines, the coyote pup that crossed the road each morning, the feeling of sweat covering my body before nine. When Greg told me there was both a science and an art to driving a wheat truck, it fell on deaf ears. I focused desperately on the mechanics of the job; it was all I could do to shift to third without grinding the gears. When he spoke of the art, I simply nodded, taking in the information as if he’d told me the forecast for the day. Art was not something I had ever associated with harvesting wheat.

Perhaps because he could tell I was stressed—perhaps because he could see how majorly I was missing the art—Greg brought me a tattered set of notes he’d taken his first summer of driving. I studied the page as if cramming for a physics exam. There were guidelines for each of a wheat truck driver’s tasks, small tips to keep things running smoothly: Never drive above second gear in field stubble. Check the grate of the truck bed to make sure it’s shut after each trip back from the grain bin. Kick all six truck tires to check for flats. Duck to check the muffler for lodged straw, an instant fire hazard. I had witnessed enough brush fires in our matchstick-dry land to understand that I did not want to be the greenie responsible for a fire that would burn acres in a matter of minutes.

The tips from Greg’s notes were the hard-set rules. I glanced desperately over his cheat sheet, but after flipping through them once he re-folded and tucked them into his lunchbox. My first few evenings following work in the field, I mentally rehearsed basic steps over and over in the shower, as I might have tried to memorize information from a flashcard. Check gear, check muffler, check tires, check grate. A standard wheat harvest is roughly three weeks long. I could think only of how many days it would take me to use the clutch whenever I braked.

As I assembled each morning at my uncle’s grain bins with the harvest crew—a scene of washing windows, gassing trucks, applying sunscreen and swigging coffee—I noticed there were also rules that were intangible. The intangible rules, which I might also call field etiquette, fell under a farmer’s over-cited umbrella of common sense. It was common sense to park a truck with a 30-foot buffer from a row of wheat, since our combine’s header was 30 feet wide. It was common sense to maintain radio silence when a combine driver was dumping wheat, so he could focus. It was common sense to transfer your lunchbox, water jug, and hand-held radio to each truck you moved to in the 100-degree heat of a central Washington summer because trucks were shuffled often, and you could end up without food or water for hours.

All this was sense I did not find common. As a dryland wheat farmer’s daughter, I had spent a childhood in observation, but was unfamiliar with the practice. I had grown up cradling small horned toads in my palm when my father snagged them from the wheat, but I did not know what the bright-red PTO knob on the dash of a wheat truck was. Greg did. My father informally assigned Greg as my field mentor. It was a job Greg took seriously.

“One of the first things you need to develop is situational awareness,” Greg told me. A bright-eyed, chatty ex-Marine officer in his 50s, Greg was big on using military metaphors in the field. As a truck spotter, I should know where each member of our crew is at all times, he told me. I should know if our other driver, Bean, was overdue to arrive in the field with an empty truck, because it would be the first sign of truck trouble, something I’d need to tell the combine drivers so they could form alternate plans to pick up slack. My father might jump off a combine and drive a truck to the grain bin, for example, but if I sat around and didn’t notice Bean was late, there’d be less opportunity to keep the pattern.

Situational awareness also meant staying aware of physical surroundings—a dark blue thunderhead cloud was a warning sign to shut down early; tiger-striped clouds meant we’d be getting wind, which would blow dust and make it hard for the drivers to see. Situational awareness meant paying attention to my crewmates—Greg thought it best to adopt the buddy system (another practice he’d picked up in the Marines, he told me). When he and Bean came into the field to switch trucks with me, I should ask them two questions: “How are you doing,” which required a sincere reply, and, “Have you been drinking your water?” Greg’s analogy to training in the Mojave Desert in full military gear wasn’t too much of a stretch—temperatures in our Washington wheat fields were compounded by constant sun exposure. Dehydration was a real concern.

I took situational awareness more seriously when I realized it wasn’t something extraneous Greg was teaching me. We had methods and intangible rules for a reason. When my uncle asked me directly when Bean was due back to the field, I was the sorry sop without an answer. I learned I should listen to every word crossing my hand-held radio, even when the instructions were not for me. We worked better as a team when each person stayed informed and took care of one another.

Even when I thought I’d achieved ultimate situational awareness, I slipped up. I failed to always buddy with Greg and ask him back if he was drinking water when he asked me. I sometimes missed an obvious truck line arrangement, so my uncle had to maneuver his combine auger into position to fill a truck. I knew the gas cap on truck Number 9 leaked, but I still placed my water jug in the shade behind the passenger door. A few moments later, the grooves in the top of the lid (including the lift-up drinking straw) were brimming with gasoline. I went without water for the rest of that July morning.

It was part of a learning curve. I would never again place my water jug near Number 9 truck. I would listen to each command on the radio. I would ask Greg and Bean if they were drinking water. But there were still things I didn’t get.

Aside from the hard-set (“common sense”) rules of the field, described with Greg’s military twist, some tasks appeared arbitrary, bordering—from my greenie perspective—on unnecessary. When we lined up trucks in the field, it was common sense to make the line straight: the sharp corner of a crooked truck bed could easily catch and break the combine’s header. But it seemed unnecessary to walk behind each other’s truck lines and “grade” them. A 10 out of 10 meant the rails of the truck beds disappeared in a neat vanishing point. We rarely gave each other 10s. Greg told me he would often align trucks six or eight times to work toward a 10 when there was time for it, his first summer. Why, when there were no other humans for miles, I wondered, did we work to line the rails in a perfect 10, when an 8 or 7.5 would get the job done? Why did we care about creating order in a sagebrush-snarled land, with only the coyotes and mule deer to witness?

I studied other acts that seemed unnecessary, to puzzle it out. Each morning we washed truck windows and wiped grime from dashboards when we intended to drive straight back into dirt and chaff. We split the wheat truck roads in the stubble (we avoided driving in the same tire tracks twice, that is) to keep a field looking nice. Greg gave nicknames to the trucks: Number 7 was Sweet Pea because she was so sweet to drive, and Number 2 was Queen Mary since she sounded like a ship rubbing a wooden dock whenever she unloaded her grain. My father referred to Number 1 truck as Old Blue with the same tone of affection he might refer to a grandfather.

I began to see it was about more than the basics; I began to see a glimmer of art.

When I first started driving, I hated Sweet Pea. She had a stiff key. It was the truck I was most encouraged to drive, when given a choice, because it was the one truck that had a PTO lever, and I was not quite strong enough to pull the PTO knobs in all the other trucks to lift the back bed to dump wheat. I hated Sweet Pea, because it was the one truck I could not always start. I would turn Sweet Pea’s stiff key until my finger was grooved and red, and whether I needed to move her two feet or two miles, she still would not start. When I showed my red-grooved finger to Greg, he mentioned I should lighten up so I wouldn’t break the key. I was horrified; it had not occurred to me that the key could snap off. Breaking a key was surely something that would be inexcusable by the common-sense rule. It was in moments like this my grasp of the basics was thrown in sharp relief—I could function in the field, but I was far from expert.

The infuriating thing—the thing that made me think of the nickname Sweet Pea as more of an ironic insult—was that Greg and Bean had no problem starting the truck. They each developed a special method to work the stiff key, one that required wiggling it up and down in the ignition, in a miniature handshake movement, before going for the turn. Sweet Pea did not like my handshakes. I had assured my father with some over-measured ounce of confidence that I could handle the job of truck spotter; I was desperate to at least hold my own.

Near the end of a frustrating day—when I missed several time-pressing moves because Sweet Pea would not start, when my uncle shut down the combine, climbed down its ladder, and crossed a few rows of field to start my truck—I discovered I’d been doing it all wrong. I had been doing a handshake wiggle, then pausing, and then turning the key over. When I finally hit upon the magic Greg and Bean had known all along, I was triumphant. Sweet Pea required an up-down-up-down-TURN wiggle. When I finally got her to start, I patted the dusty console and said, “Good girl,” like I might have addressed a trained pet. I felt, strangely, like I’d made a friend. Or at least like I’d lost an enemy. In any case, the field hands’ nicknames for trucks suddenly didn’t seem so odd. Part of the art came with intimacy, with making a task your own by giving nicknames, line grades, or a ritual window washing.

Paying attention to the art made me realize it wasn’t just about the rules and regulations of driving a wheat truck, or understanding the trail from wheat stalk to grain bin. It was about listening to Greg talk of the saga of de-feathering his first turkey as we stood near a truck line and re-applied sunscreen, or learning Bean was going to have his first grandchild that summer. It was about trying more than once to make a perfect truck line in that messy land, not for the 10, but for the camaraderie that came from the appraisal from your crewmates.

On one of my last days of harvest, I drove Greg across a wheat truck road to move fields. I expertly split the stubble in the road. I seamlessly shifted from first gear to second, and then to third.

“Whoa, nothing higher than second gear in the field, remember,” Greg chided. I looked over at him.

“Unless you’re going for the art, that is,” he said, a smile crinkling his salt-and-pepper beard. By then I had ridden with my father across fields in Old Blue. While the standard field rule was to go no faster than second-and-high, I had watched him shift coolly to third-and-low so he could, as he put it, “just cruise.”

“I’ll go for the art,” I said to Greg, and stayed in third.

It’s a moment I’m tempted to embellish—to wax cinematic and recall the sun going low and glossy over rows and rows of wheat—because the feeling behind the moment is this: I finally got it. As I drove low in third, I grinned. I had not grinned for days in the heat and sage monotony, in the not-starting-truck struggle of learning. I understood, finally, there were rules we had to learn so we could learn when and how to break them. I learned in agriculture we respected the science, but lived for the art.

The hardest thing I learned about the art of spotting trucks was that it was a job that wasn’t necessary. A driver can simply park his empty truck at the back of the line, walk up to a full truck, and drive out of the field, instead of relying on the spotter to set things up ahead of time. The even harder truth is that the trucks and drivers could also be replaced. It would be most profitable for my father to sell Old Blue—and Sweet Pea, and Queen Mary, and the rest of the fleet—and replace his 40-year-old trucks with a single semi-trailer. He would make the most money if he fired his crew, myself included, and harvested his fields using only three people—my uncle on combine, my father driving semi, and Greg as a back-up relief driver.

My father crunches these numbers aloud, in theory, but I can tell he’s also weighing what he’d lose in the exchange. He’s thinking of our grain pit manager, Lewis, who’s written, in pen, the date of each year he’s worked the harvest under the rim of his cowboy hat. He’s thinking about selling the truck with the radio his own father held. He’s wondering if there can be art in automation.

Maybe what gives him pause—what makes him shrug and say it would make more sense, but—is thinking of all that open field without the people. Perhaps he cannot imagine starting a day of harvest without Bean filling each truck with gas, Greg whistling as he washes each window, Lewis setting his chair under the grain bin shade at his just-so angle. I can see it now for myself—how moving on like that would seem a betrayal of all the ways made before us.



Author Bio: Lisa Laughlin received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The MFA at EWU. Her essay “Body and Field” was recently published in High Desert Journal. She has a chapbook of flash essays, titled “Kindling,” forthcoming from Sweet Publications in 2018.

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