On a warm summer’s evening, Joe brought Robert along in the 1951 GMC pickup through the barnyard and through the pasture to the edge of the cornfield. Robert opened and closed the gates for his father. Joe then began using a machete to cut cornstalks, which were still green but had well-formed ears. Robert lifted the piles of cornstalks in the back of the pickup, which had the tailgate down. The Holsteins in the pasture could foresee the treat that was coming, and they gathered near the gate that the truck would pass through when it exited the cornfield. With the stalks about three feet deep, Joe climbed back behind the steering wheel, and Robert stood by the gate. Joe drove into the pasture, and the cows strode over to mill about the back of the truck. Robert jumped onto the running board, balanced his knee on the hot metal of the rear fender, steadied himself, and climbed over the short side panel into the truck bed.
“Ready?” Joe asked through the open window.
“Yep,” Robert replied.
The GMC crept forward, and Robert slid three cornstalks over the edge of the tailgate. No sooner had the corn fallen to the ground than the lead Holsteins were standing over it, finding the sweet green ears. Meanwhile, Robert shoved a few more cornstalks onto the ground in front, and cows of lesser status in the pecking order came around to take their turn to feast on the corn. The GMC kept inching along until all the corn had been shoved out. The herd would keep working on the corn until only traces of it remained.
Next, Joe and Robert drove through town to feed the Hereford herd at the Old Barn. Joe’s farm on the east side of Pine Village was really two farms joined catty-corner. The smaller farm bordered State Route 55 and could be accessed from the farm that bordered State Route 26 by driving along dusty farm lanes, through many gates, and across the corner that joined the two farms, but driving through the town meant having to pass through only two gates.
Before Joe was born, the Gady brothers ran a butcher shop just north of the intersection of the two main highways in Pine Village. Elmer Gady bought the stock and Bill Gady prepared the meat, which the Ogborns sold in their grocery. The Gadys had a large barn on their farm just south of town. Elmer always thought “big.” He shipped in western lambs that were fed in the barn, which boasted nearly 6,500 square feet under roof on the first floor alone. To accommodate more and more sheep, Elmer added wing after wing to the barn, making a large barn a huge barn. He and Bill were earning handsome profits.
Elmer decided he could afford to mortgage his farm and speculate on the Board of Trade. Elmer lost his farm and the butcher shop. He became a day laborer. Bill, meanwhile, moved to Chicago to work for a big farm, but Bill fell from a streetcar and broke his back. He returned to Pine Village. He walked stooped over. Frank Ogborn’s department store and grocery hired Bill to take orders and make deliveries.
The Old Barn, as Joe referred to it, was still standing, although it had not seen paint in so long that the boards were silvery gray, the roof rusty red.
Just outside the barn on the east side was a stock tank that once featured a windmill to pump the water. Now the pump was electric. Joe kept a long stick, which he used to push up the curled rod on the side of the switch box that started the motor. The box was affixed high on a pole, so that cattle could not accidentally start the motor by rubbing the box. The pipe that delivered the water to the tank was rusted through in several places. By covering the end of the pipe with his left hand, Robert made a water fountain through a quarter-sized hole in the top of the pipe. He drank the clear water that came from so deep down that it was icy cold.
South of Pine Village stood a large building that housed a rest home for elderly patients. Despite its size, the building was only the small remnant of what earlier generations had known as a vast spa named Mudlavia: nearly all of it long gone by the time that Robert’s family visited. Joe and Robert often stopped by Pig Gady’s room. Ernest Alvin Gady, a 1910 graduate of Pine Village High School, had acquired the nickname “Pig,” and it was just too good not to stick. Everyone knew him as Pig, and many had forgotten that his real name was Ernest. Pig was Elmer Gady’s son and had played in the Old Barn when he was a lad. For a brief time, Pig had taught lower grades, but his father’s downfall prompted him to seek independence. In 1913, when he celebrated his twentieth birthday, he decided upon the life of a transient laborer and lit out for the West.
When Robert and Joe visited him, the 74-year-old Pig wore brown plaid flannel shirts and jeans. Whenever he saw Robert, his eyes lit up.
“Say, what do you know?” Pig asked, grinning and slapping his knee. Then came the best part. Pig would lean forward and begin telling stories of his train-hopping days as an itinerant thresherman. The walls of Pig’s room in Mudlavia faded away, replaced in Robert’s imagination by the broad expanse of Kansas wheat fields and Kansas skies.
Pig was running for his life down an alley in Burlington, Kansas. He clutched a broad-brimmed straw hat in one hand and seemed to be swatting at hornets, he was sprinting so fast! He kept glancing over his shoulder, until he was sure he had lost the Industrial Workers of the World members who were chasing him. Pig slowed to a walk, his sides aching, his heart pounding. The nest that Pig had accidentally run into was not a nest of hornets but a nest of I.W.W. men, otherwise known as Wobblies. They had made vague threats to try to force Pig to join their socialist order. Pig wanted nothing to do with the I.W.W. because he would not hide shrapnel inside wheat bundles to wreck threshing machines and bring work to a halt. “Why would anybody want to bust up a separator?” Pig wondered, shaking his head in consternation. Higher wages for workers was one thing, but sabotage was another—and sabotage was criminal!
“What am I gonna do?” Pig mumbled, sauntering along. A colorful poster for the Barnum & Bailey Circus caught his eye. It was plastered to a tall fence made of rough-cut boards. With his pocketknife, Pig cut a small red rectangle from the poster. He slipped the card into the pocket of his shirt. He smiled and strode confidently along. Heading north on Third Street to find work as a thresherman, he encountered two men he thought might be Wobblies. He flashed the corner of the red rectangle and winked. One of the men produced an I.W.W. red membership card from his pocket and nodded. The Wobblies paid Pig no further notice. He strode past them and began whistling a merry tune.
Pig was fortunate enough to find employment as a spike pitcher for threshing rings in eastern Kansas. “Much of the wheat out in Kansas was winter wheat,” he told Robert. “It was spiky and tough, but it sure did grow well there.” He fondly recalled the steam engines belted to the threshing machines in the barnyards, but, in western Kansas and in states farther north, he came to know threshing on a vast scale with fields of wheat shocks stretching toward the horizon and with half a dozen columns of smoke indicating the locations of various steam engines and crews under the command of custom threshermen. Pig slept beneath the stars. He slept the sleep of a young man who has done hard work, honest work.
Pig’s stories often led back to 1913, and, in his mind, Robert was there, too, jumping down from the boxcar and looking for work. A custom thresherman, scrutinizing the hopeful unemployed men who had gathered near the train station in some Kansas town, chose Pig (and Robert) to pitch bundles. Pig (and Robert) climbed into a wagon and was hauled to where the work was to be done. Pig (and Robert) was doing what he loved best: lifting sheaves high above his head and expertly dropping them for the bundle loader perched atop the wagon.
When Joe and Robert would leave Mudlavia after visiting with Pig, Robert left with his vision expanded. Walking past the goldfish ponds of the once lavish resort, Robert peered at the flashing orange fish beneath the rippling surface that reflected the clouds. He thought of Pig flashing the red card and grinning. To Robert, the past appeared to be separated from the present only by a rippling film.
Robert thought of Pig while helping Joe load the pickup with freshly cut corn stalks for the herd of Herefords that had gathered in the pasture beside the Old Barn. Then Robert repeated the process of scattering the stalks while Joe drove the GMC slowly forward.