Given the crap I’d pulled, losing my job seemed like karmic payback at the least. John had sensed something wasn’t finished and told me he’d absolutely be there for me once I dealt with it, but not completely before. Orders from the man I loved to find what was holding me back, hunt it, and kill it.
So, I had work to do.
That wasn’t so bad. Once I started my research, I found that farmers here in America were having trouble getting labor during COVID. Custom harvesting crews in particular had come to rely on seasonal help from South Africa, Ukraine, New Zealand and Australia, among other places. Due to restrictions in their countries or ours, they couldn’t come anymore, which was leaving the harvest crews in a bind.
Those same crews wanted college-age males when possible, but they weren’t in a position to be picky. After I reread everything on their website a third time, accepted the fact that it was a non-revocable commitment for up to a year, and just generally accepted that this was what was best, I made the call. The woman that answered the phone sounded friendly and was more than reassuring that they would train me with any skills needed to be successful. She assured me that their pay was competitive, that I was needed in Butte, Montana as soon as possible, and that she’d see to it herself that I was always as comfortable as possible.
It seemed simple enough. I promised I’d call back as soon as I had a little better idea of my schedule and got to work.
“Hi, I’m Cathy Logan,” I told the man that answered the door.
I’d expected either a straw hat and suspenders or pudgy and covered in grease with a baseball cap – this guy was neither. Dressed in a polo shirt, khaki shorts and sandals, he looked to be the opposite of everything I’d expected to find in the first of May.
“I’m Fred Newlin.” His smile was far warmer than the weather. “We’re so happy you made it safely. Come in, come in.”
The house wasn’t huge, but it was immaculate.
“Freddy, is she here?” Asked the voice I’d spoken to over the phone originally.
“She’s here,” Fred called with a hint of a smile.
The owner of the voice shot around the corner and had me wrapped in a hug like a long lost sister. It was impossible not to hug her back.
“I’m so happy you’re here. We’ve never had a woman on the crew before. The boys are fine, but we’re going to have a lot of fun together. Can I help you get your bags? I’ve got a room ready for you upstairs.”
Half an hour later, Fred and I were sitting at the kitchen table visiting while Shelly bustled around the kitchen making supper. It felt . . Familial.
It felt good.
“My plan is to put you in a truck. You’ll have your own little world that way. It’s not that I won’t teach you the combines, but I think you need a little world of your own. I know you don’t even know for sure what you’re getting into, but does this sound okay , at least on the surface?”
“Absolutely,” I smiled as a tingle lit in my stomach.
“Truckin’ boot camp starts at 0800,” he smiled.
Fred was a licensed driving instructor, and a good one, at that. On the first day, I learned a bit about walk-around inspections of semis before we went to the driver’s licensing office to get my learner’s permit. The afternoon saw me in. The passenger seat, watching and reading the manual when I could to start learning.
We did some practice driving in the farmyard the next morning. The truck went from intimidating to manageable within the course of about an hour. Fred was patient but firm – from the start he pushed me to do things I never would have considered myself capable of. Once I had the truck under the loading spout, I was back in the observer’s position, but it was with far more understanding of what I was watching.
He got pretty tough with me during the pre-trip inspection on Wednesday morning. According to Fred, the examiner from the Department of Transportation was likely to put more emphasis on the inspection than my driving. In their eyes, I would be expected to learn more about driving once I had my license. The inspection, however, I had to have perfect from the start.
The medical certification I faced over the rest of the morning wasn’t as cursory as I’d have preferred. I knew from my reading that the government had become more invested in the health of commercial vehicle operators. I was a little concerned about my crimes of the recent past coming back to haunt me, but my reading said they were just far enough gone not to be an issue.
So I had read . . .
“You’re ready to solo.” Fred wasn’t asking me as he passed the potatoes – he was telling me what my future was. “I’ve got two loads for you tomorrow. You’re loaded for a short haul into town, and then you’ll transfer a load of malt barley to the terminal South of Idaho Falls.”
“That’s a decent run – I won’t make it home, will I?”
“I’d be surprised if you did,” Shelly said as she set a platter with three steaming steaks in the center of the kitchen table. “We’ve never had a rookie pull it off yet. The idea is to put you into a situation where you have to stay in the truck, but leaves you within easy range for us to come get you if there’s trouble.”
“What did I teach you?” Fred asked.
“Do what you can, when you can. Don’t procrastinate.”
“The truck is loaded, fueled, inspected, and pointed out of the yard. Hop onto I-15 from here and it’s almost a straight shot to Medalo.”
“You’ll make it,” Fred said. “We’ll feed you supper when you get back tomorrow.”
“Fred, it’s her first run. Don’t set expectations like this,” Shelly chastised.
He answered by chewing thoughtfully on a bite of steak. “That’s good.”
Twelve hours and two minutes later, I turned off of the county road and into the farm yard. The front door to the house opened before I even completed the turn, and Fred started walking to the shed, presumably to open the door so I could back my truck in.
I didn’t feel good. I was tired and not just a little itchy.
I’d done something hard.
That felt fantastic.
I was a little hesitant before I pushed the call button next to John’s name – we hadn’t spoken since he’d sent me on my little journey. After two rings, I tried to piece together the message I was about to leave just before I heard his tired voice.
“Hi John. I know it’s early, but . . . I had a good day, and it made me think about you.”
“I’m glad. What happened?”
The past month came out in a flood. I’m not sure if it was coherent. I’m not sure if I even took a breath, but my life had changed a lot, and I wanted to tell him about it and I wanted him to accept me. I wasn’t disappointed, either – he seemed to hang on every word.
“Where will tomorrow take you?”
“The same,” I said. “Fred wants me to have a chance to get a little more comfortable before I start running out to the elevators out in Washington.”
“It seems like a lot to take on.”
“I had a good teacher. He taught me to take things one step at a time, work carefully, and keep my eyes moving.” After too much time, I added, “How are you?”
“It’s a good project. The Chinese people are wonderful to work with, and more gracious than I could have hoped. I’m glad I had the opportunity, but I better get going.”
“I suppose I should get some sleep, too,” I said as I snuggled into the twin bed in the room. “Be careful out there.”
“You do the same, Cathy. I love you.”
His words were the only thing that could have possibly made my day any better. My heart warmed the chilly room. “I love you too.”
“You have to dismiss yourself from the consequences of failure, and do the job, Cathy,” Fred said from the buddy seat next to me. About a million dollars of shiny red combine was idling beneath us, aimed at a trailer that looked way too small to hold it up.”I use the left side. Watch what you’re doing – if all of the left tire is on the line, all of the right one will, too.”
“I guess it’s your money,” I said as I eased the hydrostat handle forward.
“More throttle,” Fred said. I moved the dial two clicks; we were set to three out of ten. “Max it out - you don’t want to stall on the way up the ramp.”
We surged forward with the additional engine speed.
“Ease off on the hydro. This is about torque, not speed.”
Metal squealed as we started climbing up what appeared to be inadequate ramps. I could see the weight of the combine cantilevering the back of the truck up and almost off of the ground. In a misplaced reflex of self-preservation, I pulled the hydrostat back to center.
My breathing quickened as we dangled, I thought, precariously on the edge of doom.
“Cathy, ease the hydrostat forward with your right hand,” Fred said firmly. “We’re all right – she’s got it in her, and so do you.”
“You can, and you have to. This has been done a hundred times. I promise you, it’ll be fine.”
“Gently move your right hand forward. Do not say that you can’t.” Fred said sternly.
It was a little victory when the combine settled into its cradle leaving us all whole and hale, but I went ahead and reveled in it as I wiped the sweat off my forehead with my right hand.
Why wouldn’t I?
It’s not just conventional wisdom that says you go downhill one gear lower than you went up the hill – it’s an iron clad rule, and I knew it was. I had a very expensive, very heavy combine on the trailer directly behind my truck, and an empty grain trailer behind it. It wasn’t a load for a rookie, and I knew better than to risk it for anything.
However, I was on the last of the down side of the pass. There was a grade, but it wasn’t very steep. I would have gone up it in at least fifth gear. I was absolutely crawling in third – I could give it a gear and still be within the safety boundaries.
So, I shifted, or, I at least tried to.
The truck absolutely rocketed forward as soon as I clutched and pulled the transmission out of gear. A shot of panic flowed up my spine as I fought a futile battle to match the engine speed to the quickly increasing ground speed so the gears would mesh and fall back into place.
I danced on the brakes trying to keep things under control, trying to do the mental math and see if things would hold together through six more switchbacks if I didn’t get the truck back in gear.
I set about making my peace with God while I edged the truck around another turn going far faster than I’d ever have thought about attempting it.
There wasn’t a lot of time, but the road was relatively flat. Planting both feet, I instantaneously floored the gas and stood on the brakes with everything I had while I tried one more time to get the transmission in gear.
The truck shuddered violently and the engine screamed, but it all combined to let me know I was going to live another day.
And either go back to drinking or go back to church.
“I can’t do this, John,” I cried into the phone. “I almost got myself killed.
“You can do it, Cathy. The fact that you got yourself out of it proves you can.”
“I just got lucky.”
“What’s wrong with that?” John laughed. “Luck, hate, skill – you run with what the world gives you. There’s nothing wrong with using the materials that come to hand.”
“I’m just not used to feeling so . . . Ungrounded.”
“Okay, I know I’m supposed to be supportive, but you have to see the irony of that, given the decisions you’ve made in the past year or so.”
It took a good minute to get past the sting of his words before I got to the truth of them. Maybe I wasn’t wearing a bikini and a thousand dollar pair of heels, but I was the one that wanted to live an extraordinary life. “It just didn’t feel like what I thought I was looking for.”
"How do we know what we’re supposed to become? Where we’re supposed to be? Who we’re supposed to help?”
“That’s pretty metaphysical for a Thursday night.”
“You ought to see me on a Tuesday morning.” I could see John’s warm smile. “You’ve made a commitment to help these people, and the world put you in the position to help them. Are you really going to walk away from that?”
Warmth rose to my cheeks, which was my embarrassment at how I’d seen things, but it also burned in the pit of my stomach, which was determination to rise to a challenge. “I love you, John.”
“I love you too. Now, go get ‘em.”
“I know this is weird, but would you take a selfie with me?”
Much to her credit, the lady behind the counter in the elevator didn’t even raise an eyebrow, just a friendly smile. “First load of the season?”
“First load of my first season,” I said, just a little giddy. “I’ve never done this for real.”
“Are you making the whole harvest run?”
“End to end and top to bottom,” I said as she moved around the counter. “The start of something like this deserves a real picture. Let me see your camera. Johnny, get over here and take a picture of us!”
She handed me a baseball hat with a bright logo silkscreened on it. “If you come back for fall harvest, I’ll be impressed if you still have this.”
I was out of the little town that surrounded the elevator in the blink of an eye. I’d heard settlements had once sprung up around stops on rail lines, and it looked like grain elevators were the same magnet for settlement once upon a time in the South Texas countryside. The skies had an almost smoky brown look to them. I was pretty sure it was dust from all of the harvest crews hanging in the still air. It was a cross between a scene from a cheap war movie and what I figured the gates of heaven itself must look like.
Everything that was going on around me was almost too distracting – I almost missed my turn into the field. Seconds after I stopped, a big red tractor with four giant tires and an unimaginably large grain cart in tow was lining up on my truck. Noise, dust, and more than a little shaking filled my world as a thousand bushel of wheat was loaded into my hopper.
It felt kind of badass, honestly.
I’d never been chased by a storm. Not like the black clouds swirling over the edge of the Western horizon, anyway. It was getting hot, and windy – there wasn’t any question in my mind that trouble was on the horizon. In theory, there wasn’t anything I needed to do different, but everything felt different.
Rushed . . .
Like the deadline we all knew was coming meant a trip to the executioner.
I knew Fred’s combine was giving him trouble. A malfunctioning sensor caused the cab to be filled with pointless blaring alarms. Under normal circumstances, we’d have either sent someone after repair parts or called for field service from a local dealer, but, today, there was nothing other than pushing ahead. He had an eerie calm over the radio, but I knew it was focus.
The interesting thing about this business was a half an acre out of three thousand still meant an incomplete job – the operation could get held up completely if we didn’t get this last field done before the rains came. We’d be on our way up into Kansas if we made it, and we’d be sitting in the parking lot for who knew how long if we failed.
Sunlight left the day light I’d put on sunglasses. I clicked my truck’s lights on as the grain cart tractor rocketed toward me. Les had the monster wound for sound, as the saying went. I looked past him and tried to count – it looked like the half-mile long field had about twelve passes left. Three combines, that was four passes each. Six miles per hour, they’d make a pass every five minutes.
We needed twenty minutes to finish.
Fifteen might pull it off.
I looked out the window – it was going to be close.
“Back in the old days, a machine would tell you she was hurting by how she ran. Maybe a rattle in the seat or a squeal of a bearing, but she’d tell you she had a problem if you paid attention.” Fred reached inside a compartment slightly deeper than his arm was long, blindly feeling where the sensor he was switching out was mounted. “Now, a rig doesn’t even have to be sick, and it won’t run, if this itty bitty bit of electrical garbage decides to go south.”
“But it’s easier to run, isn’t it?”
Still straining to reach, Fred’s face contorted. “When it runs, I guess. An old mechanical might have had a couple of bad breakdowns a year. You would have lost a couple of days, maybe. These things seem like they go down every couple of weeks. Maybe you can nurse it along, or maybe you can’t, but it costs hours all of the time to hunt down and replace. This electrical crap is like getting nibbled to death by ducks.”
“And it costs more?” I asked.
“My granddaddy bought a machine new for $12,000. This one cost a hundred times that, but crops aren’t worth anything different. Yes, it’s bigger, but it isn’t a hundred times bigger. The world has gone crazy with what it thinks machines should cost.”
“So, if the finances are that far out of line, why do you still do this?”
Fred smiled. “Two reasons. One, I know how to, and two, can you imagine doing anything else?”
I had to admit, right then and there, I could not imagine anything better.
I’d known the end was going to come too soon for a while, but it didn’t really register until we moved into North Dakota. Reaching the top of the country felt like reaching the top of a mountain. There wasn’t anywhere else to climb after that – you just went down the other side.
“So, what do you do when you’re done?” I asked Shelly.
“Try to pick up the pieces from this one, and get ready for the next one,” she told me, as if the answer were self-evident.
“You make it sound like a never-ending cycle.”
Her smile was warm. “Isn’t it?”
“I’ve never thought about it quite like that.”
“Freddy and I fight, scream, cry, love, cajole, kid, belittle and build up each other. We’ve done it all together, every little single thing. We’re never going to be extraordinary, but by sticking through it all together, we’re actually kind of extraordinary.”
“You really are,” I said warmly. “I appreciate what you’ve done for me this year.”
“We appreciate you, Kathy. Fred and I both are going to be sorry to see you go.”
For the thousandth time, I wondered if leaving was really the choice I needed to make. I couldn’t live in their spare bedroom forever, but I could become that someone different I’d wanted when all of this mess had started.
As I helped Kathy clean up the dishes from our very late supper, I realized that I gelt good, and I couldn’t remember the last time that I had.
Drugs, random sex, and alcohol hadn’t done for me what a semi and a sunset over the high plains had.
It was a confusing world.
It would be safe to say that John, standing in front of the shed back in the Logan’s yard, was the last person I expected to see when I rolled back into the yard with the combine and a grain trailer in tow a half an hour later than I really should have been out on the road. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see him – I just assumed he was still in China.
Standing there with his arms crossed against the chill meant that he’d been in contact with the Logans, which meant a lot of different things.
All of them were good, and all of them were unexpected.
He’d engineered the voyage of discovery I completed when I set the air brakes, shut the lights off, and turned off the key that silenced my truck and ended everything I’d been through. I’d found someone new out on the road and in all of those little towns, and I wasn’t sure if she fit into John’s life, or if he fit into hers, for that matter.
I sat in the silence for a minute, processing the day and just winding down. It gave John enough time to walk around the side of the truck and stand next to my door.
“Is it okay that I’m here?” He asked once I opened the door.
I don’t know where the tears came from, but they wouldn’t stop once they started. I fought with the seatbelt and half fell out of the truck and into his arms. I couldn’t manage words right then – the more I tried to define them, the more confused I got about what I wanted to say.
In the end, his embrace did all of the talking.