The year I started school a back injury forced my father out of the woods. It would be hard to over-estimate the effects of this change on our relationship. Dad was “The Man in the Woods,” a man who knew the forests and the animals in them. He was the provider of wealth and sustenance. His sexuality—and my parents’ denial of it—had provided the mysterious framework on which they draped a whole assortment of “religious” beliefs.
He was the biggest man I knew at more than six feet four inches, and the strongest. He could lift car engines by himself. He was invincible, unassailable, and immortal. And then one day he stepped down off a Caterpillar tractor and twisted his back. They had to carry him out of the woods. He rode the two hours down from the mountains and to the hospital in the back of a pickup truck, laying flat on the metal pickup bed. At the hospital they put him in traction. And a few days later he was home, and lying on the sofa, because the bed he shared with Mom hurt his back too badly.
He seemed like a stranger to me—all the things that had defined him had been twisted away in that single step off the Cat. Who was he? Who would he become? How would we live? The questions were real. Though he had lettered in four sports in high school and had been awarded a full football scholarship to the University of Michigan he had refused the money to stay at home and work in the woods. The woods and a talent for squeezing the most out of any machine were what he knew. But the Man in the Woods was gone, stripped away as if he had never been.
I heard him telling Momma that the doctor had told him he would never work again, that the injury was too severe. I didn’t doubt it, and I was terrified. How would we live? Where would we live? I couldn’t ask these questions out loud; if I had I would have been denounced as selfish and self-centered, to be concerned about my own well-being when Daddy was the one who was hurt. And he was hurt; I saw my father crying from pain as he tried to turn over, and then later, when he could move again, as he did the stretching exercises the doctor suggested. I had not thought tears were possible for him. Every morning he woke too stiff to get out of bed, did the exercises, tears standing in his eyes, groaning as he forced the wrenched and twisted muscles to lengthen, straighten, and ultimately, to let him stand.
The doctor still said Daddy would never work again. But he didn’t know our family story, and how powerful it was not just for us, but for Daddy himself. He had to be invincible, immortal, above such things as bodily injury. And so he fixed himself like he fixed engines, by turning the sparse pieces that remained unbroken over in his hands, fitting them together, and relying heavily on duct tape and wire, forcing himself beyond the point where most give up. His strength and ingenuity was what he had had to offer an employer, but now the strength was gone.
Eventually he found work drilling wells on a ranch fifty miles out in the desert. Our lives settled back into the familiar routine: Daddy drove out of the driveway on Sunday mornings, and drove back into the driveway on Friday afternoons. The first Friday he told us about the rancher‘s wife.
“She’s a water witch,” he said admiringly. “She crossed two welding rods and walked across the field, and when they dipped she said, ‘Drill here.’ And that’s where we’re drilling. She’s pregnant; she says it always works best then.”
Momma tossed her head. “I don’t think we should be associating with that sort of thing. It’s of the devil.”
“But it works,” Daddy insisted. “She witched for all of the wells they’ve drilled, and they’re all good wells. There’s gotta be something to it. Besides, she can‘t be a real witch. She‘s Catholic. It’s just an expression.”
“How does it work?”
“I don’t know, but I watched her do it. So did Father Connor. He was there to bless the well. ”
“You’ve already mentioned that—several times,” snapped Momma, tossing her head again.
Full of news about the water witch, Daddy missed the warning signs. He went on to regale us with detailed accounts of how pretty she was, how clever with a needle, what an excellent cook, how charming, how hard-working, how feminine, how she glowed, how white her laundry was. I thought she sounded magical. I longed to meet her. What would she look like? What must it feel like to wield such power?
“She’s a real nice-looking woman,” Daddy said. “Keeps herself up, even though she never stops working. Smart, too. She was a Rhodes scholar, studied in Germany, speaks German so well even the Germans can’t tell.”
Momma tossed her head angrily and stalked into the kitchen. Daddy looked up in surprise, then got up and followed her. “What‘s wrong, honey?” he asked, slipping his arms around her from behind. Momma just tossed her head and slipped out of his embrace. Daddy stood uncertainly for a moment, then asked again. “What‘s wrong?”
Silence. And then, finally, Daddy‘s voice again, small and uncertain. “Why can‘t you be happy?” More silence. Daddy finally turned and came back into the living room, crossed to his chair, sat down, and shook out his Gleaner, one of his church magazines.
“You girls go help Momma,” he said, as he always did at times like this.
I bumbled into the kitchen after her. Young as I was, I sensed that Daddy admired things about the rancher’s wife that he had forbidden to us, and to Momma. He had set up a standard, and then made it impossible to meet it. Daddy actually had reasonably good taste. The women he described as “nice-looking women” really were “nice-looking women.” He knew what made women attractive—and he forbade it to us while extolling it in others. And the central, deadly message hammered home once again—we were doomed to spend our lives with our noses pressed up against the candy store of life, forbidden beauty not because it was how our parents had chosen to deal with Daddy’s little problem, but because it was God’s will that, as Good Christians, we be ugly.
That summer, instead of going up into the fragrant forests we spent our summer weekdays in the desert. We returned to town each Friday afternoon in time to clean the house, cook for Sabbath, and wash our clothes. Sunday morning we drove back out to the ranch. From then on we would live there summers and weekends. In a real sense, it became our home more than the house in town. It would have been hard to devise a more complete contrast with my early childhood in the forest. The desert was white, tan, and sage green under a brassy blue sky. The sand blistered the soles of our feet until we learned to wear shoes or stay in the shade. Shadows lurked short and black under the wooden awning that ran along one side of our trailer. Sandstorms screamed for days on end, turning the air outside our windows into swirling white blankness, the air inside hot, heavy, still, and dust-laden. It was hot, dry, and arid, while at our last camp water had been everywhere.
The trailer, with its one small bedroom, was too small for the seven of us. I doubt anyone except Dad planned on all of us living there all summer. We swept mouse turds out the door daily. The bedroom‘s tiny closet gaped open. Inside, boxes of dynamite sagged and split. The blasting caps were stored far away in the living room. It was safe enough, Daddy said, as long as the caps and dynamite weren’t together. Momma and Daddy pitched a tent at the bedroom end of the trailer; we kids slept there in summers. In the winters, we slept in the car. In the beginning Momma worried about us sleeping the day away. Her worry was wasted. By nine a.m. the tent had become an oven. We staggered headachy and cranky into the trailer where Momma waited, also headachy and cranky.
Momma and Daddy bought a fan the second week. It could do little to cool us. The sun turned our silver metal trailer into an oven. When the well Daddy was drilling finally yielded water—the water witching had come through again—we ran sprinklers on the trailer’s western side; the windows acquired a mineral coating so thick we could no longer see out of them. When we heard an engine we had to run outside and around the end of the trailer to see who was coming. We also learned to hang damp towels over the screens on the open windows and let the wind, cooled somewhat already by its passage though the sprinklers, blow some of the heat away. We draped wet towels over the front of the swamp cooler. The towels dried in less than half an hour, but they lowered the inside temperature to tolerable, at least in the living room. We gave up on the rest of the house, sprawling on the linoleum and watching game shows in the morning and the Flintstones, the Jetsons, the Beverly Hillbillies, and Gilligan’s Island in the afternoons.
When the first moon landing was televised I was mildly interested for the first twenty minutes, then angry that I was missing the Hillbillies to listen to static-filled transmissions from something that looked too artificial to be believed. When the Watergate scandal broke. I was furious. Now, in addition to being hot, headachy, and cranky, we had to watch grown men telling each other lies at sonorous, convoluted length. Finally we gave up, switched off the TV, and turned instead to the dusty stack of old Reader’s Digests that filled the cubbyholes over the couch. Mice had peed on them. We held the stained, brittle covers delicately pinched between fingers and thumbs and read them anyway.
The biggest difference, though, was that for the first time our father was a constant presence in our lives. At the woods camps he left before we were awake and only returned shortly before bedtime in the summers; in the spring and autumn he was present only on weekends. In the winter he got jobs working on construction and was gone all day. At the ranch, though, he was always around. He knew where we were and what we were doing, and constantly pressured Momma to be stricter, to insist on more work, to not coddle us. He took to taking us to work with him. I spent countless Sundays sitting in a pickup truck, a tractor, or a grader, trying not to breathe in too much dust, or fall asleep. While doing such a thing occasionally might have been fun, doing it week after week turned into mind-numbing boredom. Pam and Marie, who liked it no more than I did, quickly designated me the official “rider-along.” If I objected they applied the guilt—“Don’t you love Daddy? Think how hurt he’ll be if you don’t go along with him”—and threats. I feared their anger when the day was done on the rare occasions I refused to go.
The desert might have been interesting, if it hadn’t been so hot, but the heat made it impossible to walk and explore as we had in the woods, and before the well was finished we had to be careful of the water, since it was trucked in for each week. The first day it merely tasted of minerals, but as the weeks progressed the tank rusted inside, staining and flavoring the water. It became so foul Momma started routinely mixing strong Kool-Aid to disguise the taste enough to make it drinkable.
By far the worst thing about riding along, though, was that I lived in constant fear of making Daddy angry. I weighed my every action, judged every word. I was afraid to look at him, and afraid not to. I had to carry on a conversation, but it seemed that every conversational path quickly led to one of the areas where he found me particularly lacking. And there I would sit, while he sliced me apart in well-modulated tones, all done reasonably, logically, rationally. And I couldn’t say a word. I was alone with him; there was no one to either take my side or draw some of the fire. If I didn’t talk, I was pouting. If I closed my eyes I was “sleeping the day away.”
No matter what I did, the tangle of anger, fear, boredom, and guilt grew and twisted tighter.
Back at the trailer, Daddy would switch on his favorite country-western shows. The melodramatic, sentimental music both defined and exacerbated the guilt. What if Daddy died and I never had a chance to confess my enormous guilt, to win his love and approval, to make myself Right with the Lord and Daddy? And yet, I didn’t even know what I would confess. Tiny offenses acquired vast payloads of guilt. If I looked at someone in anger, spoke unkindly, made a remark that might possibly be construed by someone in a way more favorable than I deserved, the guilt swelled until I could hardly breathe. Confession brought little relief; instead of guilt, it brought its own tangle of emotions. I felt dirty and selfish, as if I were showing off, confessing to curry favor, rather than to acknowledge guilt. And under it all lay anger. Why was I constantly being pushed into impossible positions?
And then one day I got greedy. I don’t remember this, but this is the story Dad told years later. It fits too well with the way our family took simple situations and built them into towering, oppressive behemoths for me to doubt it. “Daddy, what can I do to earn some money?” I supposedly asked one evening. He shaded his eyes and gazed at the nothing that rolled into the distance and up to the horizon. A wheat field had been planted next to our trailer that year. The field alone broke the desert. It stood green and tall, the wheat heads shimmering silver in the cooling evening air. The corner of the field closest to our trailer was blurred by the tall, shedding heads of wild rye—a native grain that infests wheat fields, lowering market prices.
“Pull the rye out of the corner of this field and I’ll give you a quarter,” he said. It was actually pleasant, that first evening. The field smelled of green growing things, rather than dust and mouse turds. The earth was damp from the passage of the sprinkler. The breeze blew cool. The newly installed circle irrigation system was in just the right spot to drift a light mist over me. Pam, Marie, Sally, and Matt saw me.
“What are you doing?”
“Pulling rye. Daddy said he’d give me a quarter if I pulled the rye in this corner.” I had already made a sizable dent in the task.
Wanting quarters, too, they waded into the field and started pulling with me. By evening we had grown bored with the task. The next morning we rose as usual, played outside as long as it was tolerable, and then came in to watch cartoons.
That night after work Daddy asked. “Why didn’t you finish?”
“We did a lot of it,” I protested.
“You have to finish what you start if you expect to get paid.”
I resigned myself to the loss of the quarter.
“Now get out there and finish.”
By then it was evening again, and the air was rapidly cooling. We stalked aggrievedly out to the field. Our parents were making us work after everybody else had finished for the day. Once there, though, it was again not unpleasant. We talked, laughed, and pulled the rye. Actually, it was a relief. By then we were all suffering from heat and cabin fever, snapping and snarling at each other, and trying to avoid Momma’s increasingly touchy temper. The rye gave us something to do. We finished the corner of the field and walked home laughing, our muscles pleasantly sore.
“Are you done?” Daddy asked when we came in.
“Yes,” we said righteously, expecting our quarters.
“Good. Tomorrow you can do the rest of the field.”
“All of it?” The field seemed huge to my nine-year-old eyes, half a mile square.
“I’m giving you a quarter a day,” he said, offended.
“You’re not going to just sit around the house all summer.”
The next morning Momma got us up before sunrise so we could “get it done before the heat of the day.” It was a good thought, but the field was simply too big to be finished in a morning, even if it hadn’t been so thickly infested with rye. Through it ran not only the circle irrigation system, but Sand Creek, a seasonal stream that became a raging torrent when it rained, but was now a dry, sandy wash. The rye stood thick and tall along the dry creek banks—so thick and tall that wheat was almost completely crowded out. We gulped our cereal and hurried out, hoping to finish before noon so we wouldn’t miss our cartoons and the Hillbillies.
At noon we looked up and realized that we were not even off the highland where the trailer stood and into the valley, where the worst of the rye stood. The sun beat down on us. Pam and Marie, tall and fair-skinned, were lobster red. My skin tanned, rather than burned, and the wheat shaded me to well above my waist, so I was more comfortable—yet another thing about me that Marie found acutely annoying. Sally and Matt, five and seven, were small for their age. The wheat, which arched over their heads in places, had largely sheltered them from the worst of the sun’s rays. We were all discouraged, thirsty, tired and hot. The sharp leaf edges had sliced into our hands, and the sweat stung in the cuts.
Pam was being holy and responsible about the whole thing. Marie had been snapping off everybody’s heads since the sun got high. I was alternately whining and trying to emulate Pam’s holy resignation. Sally and Matt were whimpering. Pam stomped down a little cave in the wheat for them. They crawled in and fell asleep while we three big girls kept pulling. Finally, hungry, thirsty, tired and dizzy, we stumbled home.
“Is it finished?” Momma asked.
“No. There’s still a lot left to do.”
“I’ll help you with it this afternoon.”
“But Momma, it’s so hot—”
Momma, fresh from her quiet morning, said briskly, “If we all work at it it’ll get done that much faster.”
“But there’s a lot—”
“Stop complaining and eat your sandwich.”
We dawdled over our sandwiches as long as we could, but eventually the last bite of peanut butter and jelly had been washed down with the last swallow of warm, syrupy, sandy Kool-Aid.
“Come on, kids, we’ll have it finished this afternoon if we get at it.”
“It’ll never be finished,” muttered Marie. Silently I agreed with her. Mom hadn’t seen the field. We had. We trudged back out into the blazing afternoon glare, hot, tired, and angry.
Marie was right. From then on, the work was never finished. When that field was done, Daddy set us to clearing another field, then another, then another. When we had finished the thousands of acres at the Sand Creek ranch, we held out some faint hope of stopping, but then he came home and said, “Tomorrow you can start on the Juniper Canyon place…”
After a few days of pulling rye with us Momma decreed that we would pull no more than six hours a day. Every day, until the wheat ripened in late July, we walked through first green, then golden fields, tiny and alone under the vast blue sky, pulling rye and stuffing it into plastic sacks we carried on our backs or tied to our belts. As the season progressed the wheat released its pollen. Pam, who had hay fever, stood in the fields, eyes streaming and puffed closed, nose red and swollen, and pulled. It was only hay fever, after all. In mid-afternoon Momma drove us back to the trailer, where we showered and fell asleep in the boiling heat of the trailer or the tent—she had decreed the naps again, since we were working so hard. “But we’re missing the Flintstones and the Beverly Hillbillies,” we protested.
“The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you’ll wake up,” she said inexorably. “You don’t need to be watching that trash anyway.” I didn‘t know how to tell her that The Hillbillies were more than trash—they were a tiny fragment of that winter at Grandma and Grandpa‘s house. They were a taste of my true home. The first few days we had pulled in our long, modest shorts and sleeveless shirts. When Momma started going to the fields with us she established a dress code. “Wear long pants,” she said.
“The wheat will cut your legs.”
“But it’s not that bad—it’s like grass.”
“You need to be modest.”
“But our shorts—”
“Put on your long pants now.”
“But it’s hot—”
“Because I said so. They’re not modest out in public.”
“But we’re not in public. We’re miles from anybody.”
“Somebody might drive by and see.”
“They won’t see our legs; the wheat hides them.”
“Put on your long pants now. Don’t argue.”
We put on our long pants. The sleeveless shirts went next.
“I don’t want you wearing those shirts in the fields,” Mom said.
“But why not? They’re cooler.”
“They’re not modest.”
“But there’s nobody around.”
“Somebody might drive by.”
We put on short-sleeved t-shirts, which offered more sun protection, but felt hotter. As the season progressed and the wheat dried and the sharp cutting edges got worse, the long pants, decreed to keep us modest, proved their worth. The shirts probably minimized sunburn on our shoulders in those days before sun block. As the sun rose and the air heated we took to pulling them tight and knotting them above our waists. Momma allowed this, with the proviso that we untied them as soon as a plume of dust showed on the horizon. She even pulled her shirt up, too, sometimes, and stuffed it under her bra like Pam did.
Pam’s hay fever worsened as the season progressed. Hay fever medications were an evolving technology in those days. She spent her time in the fields sneezing, coughing, and weeping, her eyes so swollen, red, and aching they kept sliding shut of their own accord. Mornings she woke with her eyes gummed shut. The medications made her sleepy, but she had to pull rye. Every day, she went to the fields with the rest of us, Every day she fought her body. Every day she lost. Pam was miserable, but so were we all.
When harvest season arrived Pam graduated to driving the water truck. The rye fields felt even lonelier. Pam could be counted on to help us, to laugh sometimes, to be kind. Marie and Momma couldn’t be relied upon in the same way. For a few days I hoped that maybe, now that Pam was gone, Daddy would let us stop. I was wrong.
As the wheat ripened we found reason for hope; the rye heads were loosening. When we pulled the plants the seeds shook loose and fell to the earth. “We’re just making it worse for next year,” we told Momma reasonably. “It would be better to just leave it and let it get cut with the wheat. We’ve got most of it, anyway.”
“I’ll ask your Dad about it tonight.”
“It makes the fields cleaner this year,” he said. “Pull until harvest.” Discouraged, we trudged back out to the fields. Momma, who I suspect wanted to quit as much as we did, became positively vicious as our whining grew louder. Fights, tears, and spankings became daily occurrences. But we couldn’t quit. And no matter what we said, Daddy insisted that he was only allowing us to do this because we wanted to, had asked to do this work, that it was all our idea, that he was not forcing the rye upon us, that he had not taken an afternoon’s whim and fashioned it into a prison.
Only the combines rolling down the roads and into the fields signaled our deliverance. The day they began harvesting the fields in Juniper Canyon—the ones we hadn’t finished yet—we drove home jubilant. There would be no more rye. We could sleep in. We could lie under the fan and watch the Beverly Hillbillies in the afternoon. It was over. We had survived. We were giddy with the joy that fills survivors of a natural disaster.
And for a few wonderful weeks, we did get to sleep in and watch the Hillbillies and read pee-stained Readers’ Digests. We thought it was over, that we would never have to pull rye again. But what had begun as a character-building exercise, something to teach us the value of persistence and industry, turned into something very different late that August.
Daddy came home from work one Friday. Momma had driven us kids home to Paradise the day before so we could clean the house, wash the clothes, and make Sabbath dinner. We had finished the work by late Friday afternoon and, our baths taken, were playing carefully on the lawn, trying not to work up a sweat or lose our curlers. When Daddy drove in he came out onto the lawn. “Kids,” he called. “I got something for ya.”
We ran over. “What is it, Daddy?” Such statements in the past had resulted in anything from ice cream bars to fawns rescued from slash piles. When Daddy said that it was always good.
He reached into his pocket and drew out five checks. “Joe gave me these for you kids today. He said you’d worked so hard, and had done such a good job that he got a better price for his wheat than he expected. I told him I was already paying you, but he said he wanted to, too. Now see, this would never have happened if you’d quit like you wanted to after that first day. Aren’t you glad you finished what you started?”
He fell silent so we could contemplate Joe‘s largesse in giving us this money when he had never even asked us to do the work. And it was generous—something none of us had been expecting. Daddy handed us the checks. We had each gotten seventy-five dollars. I stood, staring at the check in my hands, bewildered by my wealth.
“What are you going to do with all that money?” Daddy asked.
“Buy clothes,” said Marie instantly.
“Put it in the bank?” asked little Matt.
“I was thinking you could put some toward your schooling, after you paid tithe and offering,” Daddy said sadly.
“I will,” said Pam, bravely putting aside a vision of what, knowing her, was probably some special piece of horse tack.
“I will, too,” I said. After all, I was rich. I could pay tithe and offering, put some toward school, put some in the band, and still have money left over to spend. I would never have to work again. Surely seventy-five dollars was enough to live on for a very long time. The interest alone would probably be more than I could spend. Marie glared. Pam and I had made her look bad.
“I will, too,” she snapped.
Nobody pressed Sally and Matt; of course they would be delighted to help pay for church school. They were feeling as rich as I was. Matt was going to be the richest first grader in school. Daddy took us down to the bank, helped us open bank accounts, watched while we cashed our checks, and then waited while we counted bills into his hand. For the first time the money was real to me. As the stack of bills in Daddy’s had grew larger and the stack in mine grew smaller I began to regret my impulsive statement. And then, when the counting was over, Daddy said, “Okay, the rest goes in the bank.”
“All of it?” asked Marie.
“You want some to spend for Christmas presents, don’t you?” Daddy asked reasonably.
“Yeah,” she muttered.
“Cheer up; you look like you’ve lost your last friend,” Daddy told her. Marie turned her face away and glowered.
We pushed our dwindling riches across the counter to a woman who took it and wrote a note in a little book, which she pushed back to us. Daddy took the books and tucked them into the same breast pocket where he had carried our checks. “Can I have my book?” I asked.
“No, you don’t want it to get lost, do you?” he asked.
“No,” I said sadly. The money was gone.
I don’t remember getting the quarters Daddy had promised. I suppose he thought that the contract had been more than fulfilled with the checks. The one saving grace about the whole thing was that it was over. We would never have to pull rye again. Or so we thought.
Those checks, intended as a kindness and a gesture of thanks, turned into something quite different. One look told Momma and Daddy that they had a potential gold mine on their hands. The next June when school let out Momma was already talking about getting an early start, really hitting the rye hard in the first few weeks while it was cool, so we could get a lot done before harvest and earn even more money. Pulling rye had gone from being a character-building exercise to being a way that Momma and Daddy could ease the financial burden of sending us all to church school. It also increased our isolation. Before the rye we had sometimes invited classmates to come to the ranch for a week. We could sell the idea as “camping.” After the rye took over we spent our summers alone; who would want to spend a week trudging through dusty, baking fields?
From then on summer vacation meant getting up at sunrise, choking down a hurried breakfast, pulling on dirty work clothes, and slogging through thousands of acres of wheat with Momma, Pam, Marie, Sally and Matt, pulling the rye, shoving the tall, sticky plants into sacks we tied to our belts or overall straps, and, when the sacks were full, carrying them to the edge of the field and dumping them into a huge pile—which we would later have to go back, pick up, and haul to a dump somewhere.
And every fall, when we got our paychecks, we went through the little ritual. “What are you going to do with all that money?” Daddy asked.
“Pay tithe, save some, and put some toward church school,” we answered dutifully if not happily. There was no real choice.
“I’m so proud of you kids, working hard to put yourselves through church school, wanting to help out like this,” he would say. I found those conversations both infuriating and confusing because they highlighted something none of us had really acknowledged—that Momma wasn’t the only one in our house rewriting our lives, even as we lived them. Daddy was doing it, too. The rye fields had provided inspiration for a new story. It went like this: Once upon a time Daddy had children who were loving, holy, and perfect. And hardworking. They were crazy for work. Show them work, and there was no stopping them. They would rather pull rye than play, have friends, or read a book. And—listen carefully; this is the kicker—they didn’t do it for the money. Every fall, those checks hardly hit their hands before they were down at the bank and getting them cashed and giving the money to him to help pay for their Church School Education. He told this story often. Every spring we tried to set him straight: “We don’t want to pull rye,” we told him hopelessly.
“Yes you do,” he would say. “You told me you did, Bodie. You came to me when you were nine years old and said, “Isn’t there something I can do to earn a little money,” and I said, “Go pull that rye and I’ll give you a quarter a day,” and before I knew it you kids were all out there, and then Joe paid you more and you started earning your way through church school, and I was so proud of you.” Marie glared at me when Daddy first told us this story. The work was my fault. “But I didn’t want to work all the time,” I protested. “Not all the time, every summer.”
“The work’s there and needs to be done. I won’t have my kids laying around all day watching TV.” For Dad, the rye provided a way to keep us isolated and under control in the summers. The idea that we might have remained in Paradise, played with friends, even gotten the more usual sorts of jobs, never even saw the light of day. We were, of course, delighted to spend our summers on the ranch, so we could all be together as a happy family. Pandora’s box had been well and truly opened.
Pulling rye was not an unheard of way for farm and ranch kids to earn a little money in the summer. The local farming co-ops hired teenagers to walk through members’ fields and pull the rye. The difference lay in things other than the actual job.
For one thing, we not teenagers when we started. I was nine. Pam was fourteen. Mat was six. For another, we were all alone. The co-op rye-pullers formed a happy, shouting group. They had regular breaks, where they drank sodas and rested. We did neither of those things. “If we stop to rest we’ll have to be out here longer,” Momma had decreed. We pulled by ourselves, straight through from seven a.m. to noon, stopped for a quick lunch, and then pulled again until two or three p.m. Our classmates saw summers as welcome breaks from school For me, school was the welcome break, even though I was miserable there. Perhaps the biggest, most significant way that rye pulling shaped us, though, was in how we came to see ourselves—and to be seen.
“We’re peasants,” Marie snarled one hot day in the fields when the rancher’s wife drove by carrying lunch to the harvest crews a few fields away. “We’re just peasants.”
And we were, not because that was how anybody else saw us in the beginning, but because that was how Dad saw us, because that was how we came to see ourselves, and ultimately, how others came to see us. It was easy to slip into the role, isolated as we were in our tiny trailer in the sand. Furthermore, our weekly trips back to Paradise to clean the house and go to church kept us from really settling into the ranch life. We lived in a doorway between two worlds, on a ridge between two valleys. Perhaps we would have fit better into one or the other if we had not spent our lives shuttling between the two. Our isolation on the ranch kept us from developing friendhips in town; our Adventism, and Dad’s insistence that we were not entitled to leisure time barred us from doing the same on the ranch.
Every summer we drove out to the ranch on Sunday morning, pulled rye all week, drove home on Thursday afternoon, worked feverishly to get the laundry done, the house cleaned to Mom’s satisfaction, Sabbath dinner cooked, and our baths taken before sundown Friday. On Sabbath we went to church and sat among children who became virtual strangers to us. On Sunday mornings we drove back out to the ranch, to what had become our “real” summer life—except that we were only allowed to participate in the hard, character-building parts of it. We never took another summer vacation again after Dad started working on the ranch; instead, we took vacations in winter, after the mechanic work had mostly been done, but before the spring gear-up for planting began.
He begrudged the afternoon we took off once each summer visit the County Fair, the Saturday night we spent going to the Carnival, evenings we took off before sundown, our annual trip to the dentist. The work became more than just work; it became a huge, ominous entity hanging over us, governing every aspect of our lives. In the woods dad had worked as a man among other men. We stayed at the cabin and Mom looked after us—following Dad’s instructions, but with some degree of autonomy, and generally with the company of other women. On the ranch Dad assumed total control—and the work became his most powerful weapon. And so we, as well as Dad, became different people when we lost The Man In the Woods.
By fourth grade, I hated church school, and church school hated me. In a town where aspirations ran to dragging Main Street on Saturday nights, bowling, and emulating cowboys, I was more interested in reading, drawing, and poetry. Someone who reads a three hundred page biography of Joan of Arc in third grade is not likely to do well at playground politics.
Exacerbating the whole problem was that I was never around in the summers, so I was no more “real” to my classmates than they were to me. The final nail in the coffin of my social success was working on the ranch.
But I had no choice. I not only had to endure school—I had to pay for it myself. Of course word got out. Now not only was I the class freak, I was also the one who made everybody else look shabby by my industry. Other parents began to flirt with the idea of having their children help pay for school. My popularity would have plummeted even further, if such a thing were possible.
But to Daddy, none of that mattered. He had his story, the story that would allow him to send his pre-school son out into a field of wheat higher than his head with the instructions not to come back for six hours—and it really should have been eight hours, but Daddy was taking it easy on us—that would allow him to send his eldest daughter into the fields day after day, year after year, even though she suffered severe hay fever, that in later years would allow him to coerce us into jobs that left every one of us with permanent physical damage.
How could he justify it? I believe he used the old old story, the one he first told himself when we were small, and he was molesting us and knocking us over into creeks for wading where he didn’t want us to. He did it by telling himself, us, and anyone who asked, “It doesn’t hurt them.”
And so I believe work became a substitute for the sexual abuse of the early years—it became an exercise in domination, as well as a financial boon. The last time I can remember the hurting hands between my legs was shortly before we went to work at the ranch. But I was getting older; the risk that I might tell—and actually be believed—was greater. The abuse would quite likely have ended soon anyway.
I believe the ranch work provided a substitute, though. It provided Daddy with a more socially palatable means of inflicting the pain and shame that eased his own, achieving the power and control he craved, and the justifying both his past and his present. “That doesn‘t hurt,” he could comfort himself, and I believe the comfort extended back to include our early days. The rye also provided him with both the means and excuse for keeping us away from anyone with whom we might share an embarrassing conversation—away from anyone who might have helped us.
When Marie was old enough to be trusted behind the wheel of one of the farm trucks Dad set us to stuffing black, moldy straw into the ruts the irrigation systems dug in the sandy hillsides. In the beginning we congratulated ourselves on not having to pull rye every day. I felt like we had been freed from a form of slavery. And then I realized that we hadn’t been freed at all, we had simply switched to a more demanding master. Rye-pulling ended with harvest, and only lasted for six hours a day. We had been able to count on a few weeks at the end of summer for play. “Strawing wheeltracks,” as we called it, was a never-ending job. We were expected to keep at it, ten hours each day, all summer.
The flatbed truck had to be loaded from the crumbling straw stacks. We backed up to the stack, scrambled up the tottering bales to the top level, and threw the bales down to the person who remained on the flatbed to stack. There is an art to throwing straw bales. Dad showed us how on our first day.
“See kids? You hefta throw the bales so they hit flat. If they hit flat, they don’t break. If they hit on an end or corner, they do.” He lifted a straw bale, turned, and with a quick little pop of his heavy, muscular arms, sent the bale shooting straight and flat to slide up and lie neatly against the backboard behind the cab. He turned, hefted another, and popped it next to the first. “See? If the man on the stack does his job right, there isn’t much for the man on the truck to do.” It didn’t occur to any of us that he was describing the job in terms of what men would do, but he was addressing children.
He popped another bale on top of the first. Pam turned, lifted a bale, heaved it onto her thighs, and then tried to pop it onto the truck. It flew a little way, then fell with a thump and split open.
“A little more oomph, Pam, and you’ve got it,” Dad congratulated her. She tried again, did a little better. I turned and found a bale, slid my fingers under the wire and lifted. The wire, rusted through, snapped and cut my finger.
“Here, Bodie, let me get that one,” Dad said. He grasped both ends of the wire, lifted, and heaved the whole mess onto a nearby mound of broken, moldy bales. He held onto the wires. Wire, one of the deadly dangers of ranch life, had to be carefully controlled. Even a tiny piece could kill a cow if it got into the feed, or maim a horse, if it became embedded in a hoof. I was idly watching Dad twist the rusty wires into a tight knot so he could throw them onto yet another pile when I heard cheeping. I looked down where the bale had been.
“Dad, there’s a nest,” I cried, charmed. “Look, baby birds.”
“I know it,” he said. “They’re all through this stuff. So are the mice. They dig into the straw and build their nests there.” I squatted and looked, being careful not to touch lest my scent drive the mother away and leave the babies orphans. The half-fledged babies opened their bright orange mouths and screamed their hunger. I looked around for a bug to feed them.
And then Dad leaned down and scooped up the nest, babies still cheeping, and threw it. It fell apart in the air, the babies falling free, their cries lost in the wind and in the distressed calls of their parents.
“Dad,” I gasped.
“You have to,” he said, picking up another bale. “They’re all through this. We gotta get the straw, and there’s nowhere to move’em. No point, anyway; their parents won’t come back once they’ve been handled.” He unearthed another nest. His hand scooped down, picked up the babies, threw them into the wind. I found myself weeping. Sally began to sing, half under her breath. It was an old song, one we all knew from Sabbath School. “He sees the little sparrow fall/it meets his tender view/If God so loves the little birds/I know he loves me too. He loves me, too, he loves me, too, I know he loves me, too. If God so loves the little birds, I know he loves me too.”
A nest of mice came next. I hated mice, but the sight of the tiny pink babies torn first on the tumbleweeds and then by the circling gulls and crows was more than I could bear. When the next bird’s nest appeared—this one with the babies half-fledged—I begged, “Let me take them home.”
“You can’t,” said Dad. “They’ll die anyway. You can’t raise wild birds. It’s kinder to let’em die quick.”
“Let me try,” I begged again.
“No,” he said, irritated, “we gotta work.” He seized the nest and threw, and the babies went fluttering and cheeping to the gulls.
Later, when we were older, harder, stronger, I sometimes saw the others throwing the babies—but I also saw them sometimes carrying them gently and installing them in safe crannies far from the end where we were working. When we were pulling apart the farthest reaches of the straw stack, we sometimes came upon the nests, filled with tiny skeletons. Dad was right; once we had polluted the nests the parents refused to return.
By then we kids worked alone. I sometimes tried to rescue a nest of fledglings. I took them home and fed them bread soaked in milk, only to find that Dad had been right again. They always died. I wept, something my sisters and brother found a source of amusement for years afterwards. “Do you remember, Bodie, how you were always bringing baby birds home and then they’d die on you and you’d cry? And they’d shake their heads and laugh at my foolishness.
There was no easy answer. We needed the straw. The animals had colonized it. We couldn’t take it without destroying their nests. Moving the nests wasn’t an answer; once we had touched them the parents would not return. We couldn’t take the babies home and raise them. But the sight of my father’s hands—the same hands that years before had reached into burning brush to pull silent fawns from the flames—ripping open the nests and casting the babies to the wind still haunts me. How could both sets of hands belong to the same man? I didn’t know then; I still don’t, but when I think of that terrible sight the music I hear is Sally‘s piping voice, singing about a God who loves birds, and notes the falling of even the smallest.
We eventually graduated to other jobs, but the wheeltracks always lurked in the shadows. If we finished repairing a sprinkler system early, if we finished swathing or baling a field a little ahead of schedule, if we found ourselves unexpectedly at a loose end before sunset, there were always wheeltracks to be strawed.
And every fall the ritual happened. Dad brought home our checks, handed them to us, asked what we were going to do with them. The year I was fourteen I toyed with the idea of simply not offering my money for church school, but sixteen-year-old Marie beat me to the punch. “What are you going to do with your money?” Dad asked that fall.
“I’m going to use it for braces,” she said.
“Isn’t that pretty selfish, to spend it all on yourself like that?” Dad asked.
“No,” said Marie boldly. “I worked for it. I‘ve already paid my tuition for the whole school year. And I need braces. The dentist said so.”
“That’s just vanity,” Dad said. “Your teeth are fine.”
“I need braces,” Marie said stubbornly. “I’m going to use my money for braces.”
“No you’re not,” said Dad. “You’re going to help pay the others’ church school tuition.”
And he took her down to the bank, where she cashed her check, and then he took the money. I don’t know how he coerced her into giving it to him; it couldn’t have been easy. Marie was mean as a snake when she was crossed, and nearly as stubborn as I could be. At any rate, he took the money—all of it, to teach her a lesson—and he used it to help pay for Sally and Matt‘s tuition, even though she had already paid her own.
In those years it was hard to remember the man in the woods who taught us to walk gently on the earth, to respect life, who sang us songs in the evening. I tried not to think at all about the father from those nights. It seemed to me that the father I lived with at the ranch courted pain on our behalf. He turned our summers into forced marches from field to field. He instituted a dress code that guaranteed ridicule at school among the Good Christian children who he insisted should be both be our friends and our persecutors. He maintained a policy of isolation that prevented us forming close friendships—and in some cases, any friendships at all. In the context of our lives, throwing the baby birds off the strawstacks was perfectly believable. No one except me seemed to be bothered by the sight of the man who claimed to stand in the place of God destroying the helpless, just because they were in the way. He took the money we earned and used it for his own purposes, buying himself credibility in the church for his dedication in keeping all his kids in church school. He implied that it was at great personal sacrifice, but the sacrifice was ours, not his.
This is not to say that he didn’t work hard: He demanded as much of himself as much and more as he demanded of us. If he had no boundaries when it came to our well-being, neither did he have any in regard to his own.
And so the story developed. Our father, the guardian of forest life, had become the destroyer, and the controller of wealth. By then I had given up trying to reconcile the man I lived with and the God he said with increasing frequency that he represented.
And therein lay the central conflict of our home. Dad claimed to stand in the place of God to his children; he said so often. The God he claimed to represent was Jesus, who felt pain at the suffering of even the littlest things, and watched over even the sparrows. Dad himself frequently sang a song: “His eye is on the sparrow…and I know he watches me.” But it was impossible for me to see him as the representative of the loving, tolerant, one-dimensional Jesus. Dad was far more complex, evoking a far more ancient, complex myth. He was the Man in the Woods, the Lord of the Animals who protected and the Hunter who destroyed, the Harvest Lord. Dad was many things. But he wasn’t Jesus, and he kept insisting he was.