When I was a kid everyone assumed I was a tomboy. I played by myself much of the time because I hated playing the girly games. I had the most fun doing my own thing – which often involved finding what appeared to others to be the most “tomboy” activity I could find. If I couldn’t be a boy, at least I could act like one. This was easiest to do when I could be outside and even more so when I got to visit my grandparents’ farm. Sometimes revisiting our past reminds us that who we’ve become may not be all that far from where we began.
My grandparents on my mom’s side of the family lived on and worked a small farm in rural Iowa. From the time I turned 8 or 9 years old, I got to spend a week or two at a time there to help with farm stuff during the summer. It was little boy heaven! You couldn’t turn around without finding cows, pigs, chickens, hay, corn, orchards, and dirt! Farm dirt is the best dirt! My personal goal everyday was to have as much dirt on my jeans and mud caked on my boots as my grandpa and the farm hands. I must say, for such a tiny human, I was quite successful!
Every day on the farm started the same way. Grandma fixed a huge steak, eggs – freshly gathered that morning from the chickens, and hash brown potatoes breakfast with fresh-squeezed orange juice. Breakfast was the biggest meal of the day on the farm and you had to clean your plate. Eating everything in front of me always seemed an impossible task the first day or two of my visits, but I forced it down until I thought my stomach would explode. Then Grandma turned me over to Grandpa and it was time to do the chores and see what “the men” had planned for the day.
After all the livestock was fed I was assigned my own work to do. Every summer I had a different project. Once my project was finished, I got to head into the fields with the rest of the guys after morning chores. One year I might be cleaning the cow barn, moving and stacking hay bales, or painting the fence around the pig sty. Never once was I asked to stay behind to work with grandma in the garden or in the kitchen (although grandma was pretty cool because she had her own tractor). Although we never spoke of it, Grandpa knew I was there to do a man’s job and he made sure that was exactly what I got to do. I understood that my job was important, but I always tackled my project as hard as I could and tried to finish by the end of the first day or two. I wanted to be on the tractor with Grandpa.
Grandpa drove an older Ford tractor for his every day routine on the farm. Grandma had a matching tractor and would help out during the busy season or when Mother Nature threatened to put a stop to the work and an extra hand was needed. Grandma had a rule that if I wanted to ride on the tractor with Grandpa instead of on the wagon with the farm hands, I had to sit on the side of the seat or on my grandpa’s lap. It was the safest way and as she said, she “…didn’t have time for me to get run over. There was too much work to do, damn it.” Not one to pick a fight, my Grandpa would always put me on his lap, nod to Ma – as he called her – and off we bounced down the lane, through the big steel pipe gates, and into the south fields. As soon as we cleared the first hill and lost site of the house, the fun began. Off his lap I went and jumped up onto the big grey fender that separated me from the inevitable tread marks that Grandma feared would interrupt her day of work. I held on tight and got as good at anticipating the bumps and jumps across the rough terrain as I was at riding a horse. It was actually much the same.
We knew to take our grandma-approved positions for the return trips to the house for lunch and at the end of the day. Grandma knew what we were up to, but we all lived as though Grandpa and I had a big secret. It was the summer of my twelfth birthday when Grandpa decided I was old enough to learn to drive the tractor myself. That was also the summer that Grandma knew she was fighting a losing battle. If I was going to work with Grandpa, I had to do the same things he did.
One afternoon after she had fed us and the farm hands our lunch, Grandma announced she had to run into town to pick up a few things and off she went. We saw the dust trail from the pickup truck signal her return late in the afternoon as she made her way up the long lane from the gravel road. We finished our day, the farm hands went home, and Grandpa and I headed in to clean up. After supper when Grandpa and I were sitting in our recliners watching the evening news, as we did every night, he with a pipe hanging on his lip and both of us working on crossword puzzles; Grandma walked by and tossed a folded piece of denim on my lap. Before I held them up, I knew exactly what they were. I had just gotten my first pair of overalls – exactly like Grandpa’s! I wore them daily. I wore them until the knees could no longer be patched. I wore them until I grew taller and the legs were so short that they barely covered the tops of my boots. I’d been wearing jeans for as long as I could remember, but these were real boy clothes!