Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Along Green Fields

Dad and my little brother Bill who was about 5 here. Dad always tilted his cap like that, just a little to the side. I guess he
liked the way it looked.

From one July to the next, life can change or it can be changed for you. Forget about running and hiding, climbing over golden bales of straw. I blame it on the bra.

Summers in the Midwest are hot, heavy, and humid--humid enough to coat skin with a fine invisible mist, and then cling, soaking. Wind was still, not a single whistle. Sweat ran down backs--rivers of sweat. By 10 in the morning we all were roasted, toasted, and dowsed in sweat.

Canning marathon started up just about that time. The kitchen's linoleum floor was slippery with sweat and splatters of vegetable carnage. Air was so saturated with steam that it could not absorb one more drop. It hung like clouds at the ceiling beneath which we labored canning tomatoes, canning beans, canning corn. Misery, thy name is canning.
When my father, Louis “Bud” Peck said, “Come on, Sis.  Let’s head out for a drive.”  I all but flew into the truck. He backed out the driveway and then we were on our way.
Did I want to leave the kitchen with canning jars lined up like little soldiers? You betcha. 
Driving up roads, rolling down windows, feeling a breeze wafting through the truck would be just fine. This drive would hold more visual stimulation than running a vacuum.
Sometime within a mile or two I realized just where and what we were going.  

Dad was driving about 20 mph, looking side to side at fields of corn and beans, his fields or anybody else’s fields. Inwardly, I groaned. A field check. I should have known. This is a field check drive, at a speed I could do on a bicycle.

“Well, I tell you what, Sis…” always meant a story was about to flow out in his stop-and-go style, raised eyebrows, and big pauses.  

Big pauses were the essence of Dad's storytelling, that with minute facial expressions. He was subtle in his words with just a dab of expression. Raising an eyebrow spoke volumes. Clearing his throat could mean just about anything; it depended on how long and how deep. A sigh brought weight into his story. He was brilliant.  

I leaned back against red vinyl torn seat, resting my eyes and waiting. There was no need for me to look out at cornfields, as I already knew what they looked like.
“Well, now.  Peck men from way back always found a way to stick money in their pockets. They done good. Got a bit puffy with themselves." Dad sneezed mightily. No essence there, but his sneezes were loud and violent. I always jumped when he sneezed.

“My grandpa, they called him “LB”, Louis Benjamin, come back from being Union 100st Illinois Regiment soldier in Civil War.  His own pa had bought up businesses and farm land, ‘cause some men didn’t come marchin’ home from places like….”

There was one long pause and he turned his head to check out Smithy’s field.  “He planted too early.  Look at those dried tassels…skinny cobs. Won’t get much there…”
"Wellll, LB just about owned the whole dang town.  Bank, grocers, dry goods…ole man strutted in a white suit, with a black bow-tie, lived in a big house." Dad sniffed, raised an eyebrow.

"LB got just about everything when his ole pa died. LB married good, a young woman with a big family, smart people. Annnnnd. That’s when my pa was born.”
 Ma Amy Peck and Grandma Laura Peck sitting.  Ol' LB Peck standing 
Dad slowed down, stopped, at Burns’ bean field, and nodded. “Good crop, there.”  He sniffed, then cleared his throat. But, his eyes were teary and silence grew.

Dad had gone to a place he had kept dark for over nearly 40 years: Pa. His father had died when Dad wasn't yet ten and weight of responsibility fell like a heavy brick on his boy shoulders. 

Buddy, you are the man of our family, his ma told him as funeral plans were being made. We'll depend on you. That is what he was told and then reminded, frequently.

He seldom told stories about that time. Pain and loss always gripped and tied him up in tight knots. When Dad released a bit of memory, it was like opening a locked door.

The invoice for the shiny black car; I found it in the folder Grandma Peck had made then.  Now it is nearly 80 some years ago.  It was just waiting for someone to find it.
A heavy sigh.  “My pa made money, and LB died.  Left a heck of a lot of money and land to his three boys.  But"…eye brow raising and pushing his hat back. 

"Pa had tooooo much pride.  Went out and bought himself a new Chevy, $675 dollars, plus some more. Don't know how much more."

"Mighty big money then. Big money even now. But Pa was feeling like puffing out his chest a bit, showing what he and LB had done."
My dad stopped and opened a rusty truck door and walked through tall grass.  This was his field, his corn, and his concern.  Dad had long legs, was a big boned farmer, and his stride was almost three of my own.  He disappeared into the corn. 

 Emerging from itchy green stalks, he had that smile of his, not quite a smile but more of a lifted corner of his mouth. Corn was just fine, ears full, silk cascading down. More silk, more kernels, more kernels, better crop. 
Driver's license

"…where’d I leave off…anyway Pa drove home with that shiny new car and Ma flew out the door at him, like a hen with claws ready to dig in and peck to death .  Words, man oh man, she clawed him up one side and down the other. I hid behind the porch railing, listening."

Dad cleared up a bit of phlegm, spit out the side of truck. Birds flew off. Speed did not pick up, not one little bit. He wiped his face with a red kerchief and blew his nose. He was sweating. I was sweating. Teenagers sweat more than any other person on the planet, or at least in the Midwest.

"Well, my pa, he withered under her pepper. Smaller he got, louder Ma yelled." An almost smirk shaped his face. An amused smirk was not far behind.

"WHAT did you THINK you were doing?!!" and "YOU are TAKING that back right this minute! WHAT will farmers LOOK at this and THINK?? Well, I'll TELL you what they will think, what'll they say..."

Chuckling: a rare addition to his stories.

"I will TELL you what... they will SAY: Oh those Pecks...they live in castles on a hill...then we borrow money from them...That Dorus Peck, nose up in the air, black car shining at us...well, those PECKS!...

Your ma, oh your ma, she will SKIN YOU ALIVE! Drag you to church and SLAM you down at that altar. YOU will NOT escape what she'll say!..."

Pa said, "Buddy, let's go for a ride."

"Well, now, that sounded just fine.  Jumped onto the shiny black leather
seats, fine white stitching, and we took off.  Ma watched us leave, and I tell you, steam was still comin’ off top of her head.”

"Pa and me drove over to Pittsfield and stopped at the courthouse. He opened that shiny black door, and smiled. This'll be good. Wait 'til those men see this. He stepped out the car, and Pa stretched like he just needed to take a rest for just a minute, like he'd been driving for a hundred miles. I peered over the steering wheel, watching as a whole bunch of his friends hurried, surrounded his car.”

This your car, Peck?...When’d you get it?...Man oh man, it’s a mighty fine…” Pa brushed his hand along shiny black metal, walked around it, pointing out features...shiny everything...pride beamed off him like a new dime. Yep, it's my car. Just got it...Chevy place a couple a' blocks over there...Yep, good deal... Pa leaned in, ducked his head, and whispered a price...yep, we bounced numbers back and forth, but my number won...yep..."
 "Then we headed to a whole bunch of places.  Places I never seen, heard of or been to.  Every single town, Pa did the same…” Dad stopped the truck, and his remembrance, climbed out to check his field of beans.

Damn! My brain was boiling in its own juices, under hot summer fire. How much longer can this last? Doesn't a truck need gas?

My shorts were riding up my butt, with the back of my thighs were sweat-glued to vinyl. Glued, cemented, pasted, stuck, adhered to, whatever. When we eventually would arrive home and doors opened, I knew I would peel my legs from vinyl, like a band aide ripping off a hairy leg.

Oh, please. Can't you drive any faster? Step on the pedal just a little more?
"…Let’s see…We drove to Winchester, Griggsville, Florence, Hamburg…everywhere Pa knew someone.  I was asleep when the sun was setting, and Ma came busting out the door and cut into him again.”

"About two years later, or was it three?  Anyways, the whole world fell apart. Pa lost everything. Never seen a grown man with tears running down his face. He and Ma sat so close together on the sofa they looked like one person, side by side, with her hand on his shoulder. We'll be fine, just fine. This will be over soon enough, and life will be like normal." 

"Pa's head hung low, then he leaned over, wrapped long fingers over his face. Now, Sis. Pa was a tall man but didn't have much muscle to him. It didn't take him long to fall. Pa folded up like a lawn chair, crumbling down on his fancy rug. He and Ma started praying, whispering together."

"Every single family in town and farms lost everything. Bank went bust, stores shut down, and all farm loans dried up.  Pa couldn’t bring himself to call their loans, take their farms. Ol' LB would have, but Pa forgave them all their debts.”
And then, Dad slowed down, turned down a dusty road, road of perpetual pot holes and stray big rocks.  “Pa lost his car. Ma and Pa drove it up to Springfield, turned it back over to Chevy, and took the train home.”

Oh, dear Lord! Not the Bluff Road! Not that!

"Ma, she was still mad.  It was one silent ride back home.  Before Pa died…” Dad’s voice got husky. “Before Pa died, all he had was a farm, the one Ol' LB gave 'im. Pa worked on his farm, just like all farmers. See that, Ol' Dorus Peck? In coveralls? Where's your black car, Peck?"

"He was never strong...wasn't a farmer, didn't have much farming sense.  Ma always said it was being sick with a quiet disease, that black car,a mighty big pride, being a plain farmer. When he knew he'd never wear a white suit with a black bow tie...that was just too much."

"Maybe it was.  Just know his heart broke that day.”

Dad turned around, after one more field check. The beans were looking good, and he had his half-smile. That was his happy face.
Finally, oh blessed finally, we turned into our driveway.  

Dad strode off, head down, hands in his pockets.  I heard Mom calling me.  “Susie, come peel the potatoes.  Oh, go pick some green onions…” and a list of other chores.

With great hesitancy, I climbed out. Rip, rip. I twisted around for a view of my butt and vinyl. Vinyl glistened with sweat droplets in a horse-shoe indent in the seat. Shorts were soaked, like I'd wet my pants. Thighs were bright red, like tomatoes which waited for me in the kitchen  

My brothers would have a field day about this one. Sweat has its way of finding opportunities to torture, as did my brothers.

But, the trip was worth peeking into Dad's life, no matter how hot, how sweaty. I watched Dad disappear into our old red barn.  I knew he’d be there a while.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Dark Clouds

Dark CloudsMarie felt her chest grow tight when dark clouds lingered out over the wheat fields. 

Oh, the sky was clear, with a brisk wind from the north, white billowing clouds perched and passing overhead.  Her three girls danced on porch planks, hopping from one to another, laughing and shrieking.  Even the baby, Irma, crawled giggling across side to side, followed by Minerva, or else. 

She watched Lewis carefully on those days.  Watched for heaviness in his step. Watched for his eyes to wander up over the tree lines, out through the woods. 
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Watched for dark clouds sneak in to hang over Marie's house, creep in to grab her precious man.
Dark clouds came and went throughout the years since the Great War, when Lewis had slugged through blood streaked mud in the trenches, climbing over bloated bodies.  Unrecognizable but they once were someone's son, waving from a train at mothers gathered en mass. Come home.  Be sure to write!  Take care...be careful.  

Lewis wandered through and over trenches, passed by tilted white crosses. Names of friends were painted on those mud splattered crosses, but their faces were a blur in his mind. 

How could slaughter suddenly end?  How could guns grow quiet, cannons be silenced, hissing gas grenades abruptly stop? How could his hands, calloused and burned, put aside his rifle?  No more killing--taking aim and killing a stranger. Will his mother ever know?  

Walk, he kept walking.  Then on a ship to England.  Then home. Blessed home.

Lewis returned to broad flat fields of his home.  Wheat waved at him, green fat grains soon to be combined and harvested. Where scents of cow dung and tractor oil threaded and blended together.  No smell like this anywhere...  

No dark clouds yet.  They hung away, tiptoeing in when a twinge of memory popped up, triggered by sounds, smells.  

Oh, dear God...the smells won't fade...rotting corpses, rotting men... my friends...heads shot clean off...

In mid-darkness, Marie awoke with Lewis rolling to his edge of the bed and sitting up. 

He stared out the window into a starless sky, his back ramrod straight and muscles bunched tight.  Ready.  He was ready. 

Kneeling up, Marie wrapped her arms around him, hugging him to her breasts. Shhhh now, let me help you, comfort you.  Lewis leaned his head back onto her arm, sobbing softly.

"So many...I killed so many..." 

Marie rocked him in her arms until Lewis relaxed and lay down to a restless sleep. Marie curled up to his side as his arm moved to cushion her hair.  When Lewis breathed evenly, Marie allowed her tears to course down her cheeks, soaking feather pillows.