August in the Midwest can be a relatively gentle time on the farm despite the ripening of much of the produce. Kitchens are busy with canning tomatoes as quick as they drop from the vine and between the sounds of back porch corn shucking and the screen door slamming, batches of apple butter and fruit preserves are being put up to carry the family through until next season. Mason jars still warm from the pressure cooker and rich with the colors and the labors of the season are taken down the road and exchanged with neighbors and relatives amid bushels of tomatoes and apples and that oft repeated “just won’t be able to get to all this” during gravel driveway conversations of catching up that last just long enough to stay on top of the latest and are always cut short because, “you know how it is. Got to get back to it.”
Waking past sunrise only happens in the houses of other people and you’re never not tired enough to fall asleep when night comes. The animals need tending and on many homesteads they’re often the first voices an agrarian hears in the morning and the last to bid them goodnight. All that breathe and grow on the farm need daily cultivating to thrive.
Chores are the standard and a routine ripe for breaking, yet a notion seldom invited. The list of unpredictability can bring a farmer to his knees with worry. That list changes from day to day, week to week, and month to month when you are at the mercy of outside forces. By the time late summer is close enough to shake your hand, one wouldn’t have to search far to witness the early morning kitchen ritual of coffee in one hand and the other parting window curtains to turn a hopeful face toward the blue and yellow sky to consider if the promise in the current cloud cover matches what the weatherman predicted on last night’s six o’clock report. Weather can be your best partner or your worst enemy when you live within a grid of gravel paths.
By the eighth calendar month rural Iowans will have endured planting season, growing season, a birthing season or two, and even tornado season – yes, it is a real thing. By August they are diving boots first into the beginning of harvest season. And while they collect their crops they also make time for fair season. Fair season is more than hauling freshly bathed livestock to the county or state events. While it does look a lot like those scenes in Lifetime movies; it goes beyond the pageants and tractor pulls. It’s more than over indulging in food served in grease soaked paper, reaching for that blue ribbon with the best of your best secret recipes, or even stepping into the coolest temps of the day to gawk in awe at the giant artist-carved butter cow – it’s an Iowa thing. When it appears there’s no break in sight, August delivers an unwritten invitation – a reminder – to make time for self-care and splays the energy behind a firm handshake into back yards and driveways to friends and families across the state.
Weather permitting, of course…picnic tables are hosed off, lawn chairs unfolded, and the webbed seating checked for stability in anticipation of the oft wanted but seldom held family gathering. Cans of beer and pop are bedded in tubs of ice. A pile of sliced home grown tomatoes waits while rows of fresh-picked corn on the cob and homemade bratwurst are lined up on sizzling metal grates. And the most heated argument of the day is the never-to-be-solved annual mustard or mayo potato salad debate – just serve both and you’ll be fine. And then there’s the music. I don’t know about your family but in ours there was always the music.
We weren’t able to have many days like this because my dad was usually working in the city and a seven day work week was necessary to support our family of eight. But when he did get a weekend afternoon off it meant he would be pulling his Gibson out of the case before the night was over. In the even rarer event where pre-planning was involved, Grandpa Ken and Grandma Dot with her famous macaroni salad in tow would show. Uncle Roger’s family was never far behind and he never walked across the yard with empty hands – his guitar case in one, a case of Hamm’s in the other; and the grin on his face told you he was ready to get to it!
These days, two-lane highways and barely paved back roads fill much of my drive time and as I travel I often listen to the same songs we used to play. While we were far from being the next Carter Family we did well holding our own. I started playing guitar in 1974. I didn’t have my own guitar, but my dad let me use his Gibson. He taught me three chords: G, D, and C and turned me loose to master changing from chord to chord. By the end of that afternoon my fingertips were raw, but I was playing. When it was clear I intended to keep playing dad and mom dug deep to buy me my first guitar. It was nothing fancy, but it was mine. It wasn’t Christmas or my birthday, so it was a pretty big deal since there wasn’t often money for extras. But what was an even bigger deal to me was that it meant that I could play with my dad and uncle.
One Saturday in August of 1977 I had my first chance. Oh, my dad and I had played together a number of times, but this was different. It was one of those summer days when the weather was jigsaw puzzle picture perfect – you know the kind, a jeans and t-shirt drink from the garden hose day. I’d spent the day before running the push mower over the huge back yard because that’s where we would all be hanging out. At Mom’s instructions any wash that was hung on the line was taken down and things were set up while even more went on in the kitchen to prepare all of the food. We weren’t into fancy and aside from maybe a cake or one of those Jell-O salads with fruit or carrot shavings floating in it, we served the same foods we usually ate. Things just tasted different – better on those days, you know?
But the minute it was clear that forks and spoons had slowed their plate to mouth motion, the table was cleared. Guitars were pulled from their cases and tuned while the kids fought over who was going to dig into the ice for beers for Dad and Uncle Roger. Tops were popped and the beers passed from mouth to mouth of each of us kids so we could all have “just a sip” before they were handed half empty only to the adults only to be drained in anticipation of a second beer already open and ready to be received. Hey, don’t judge…there were 10 kids there and maybe our idea of “sip” wasn’t that same as our parents.
Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, and Aunt Susie were also given their adult drinks, the kids messily filled their cups with Kool-Aid or grabbed a pop and were told to settle down. And then song after song after song was played. Verses were turned, choruses shared and harmonized, and occasionally some picnic table percussion was added to support the guitars and vocals. Dad would throw in some harmonica now and again and Uncle Roger demonstrated good use of his empty aluminum beer can as a makeshift guitar slide – repurposing ahead of its time! And we played and played some more – country music at its back yard finest. We played until fingers were tired, voices were hoarse, and the lightning bugs had finished their flying dance.
A few months ago, I sent my dad a copy of the book I’d written about my transition. He read the book. There was very little in the account of my experience that he’d known about before paging through those words. He told me that in reading it he realized that he didn’t know any of what I’d experienced as a kid. He felt like maybe by working so much he hadn’t been there enough for me or for any of us six kids. I couldn’t speak for my two brothers and three sisters; but I told him that I never felt like he wasn’t around. I’m not sure he really believed me.
Would I have changed some things back then if I could? Oh sure, of course I would, but here’s the thing: I can count on one hand the number of people who when I was growing up didn’t push me into being their version of me. They are the people that didn’t waste money buying dresses that would never be worn or try to talk me into growing out my hair “just to see.” They are folks who let me play with Lincoln Logs instead of Barbies, who didn’t care if I had holes in the knees of my jeans that were only two weeks old, and they let me use their tools as long as I remembered to put them away where they belonged.
They are people who show by doing that working hard isn’t always easy but sometimes necessary, that things aren’t just handed to you. They are the ones who believe that learning never stops and understand the value in teaching; that accountability is growth and responsibility holds value. They believe that if you were to leave the world today you should want to do it as a better version of who you were yesterday; and they are the living expression that what you do does make a difference – even if you can’t always be there in person. And they reason you do all of this as the best possible version of yourself.
They are my dad.