Being the oldest kid in a family, as my big brother is in ours, has its advantages, but it carries responsibilities.
Like the time we (Brother Jim, Cousin Leo and I) were finishing up a field – oats, I think it was – while the adults (Dad and Uncle Frank) moved on to the next chore. I’m guessing Jim was 14. He could have been 13, because in farm families in the 1950s, the oldest child moved to the field more quickly than did younger siblings and took on heavier duties like running a combine sooner.
I was probably 10 at the time, which would make Leo 11. The three of us did a lot of the farm labor back then. We three kids, along with our two dads, were just the right number of workers for most chores on a farm in the days of small tractors, three-bottom plows and seven-foot sickle mowers. Dad and Uncle Frank brought us along pretty carefully, giving us additional chores and tasks as we showed we could handle the previous assignments in a generally mature way.
“Generally’’ is the operative word in that last sentence. By age 14, Jim was about as good as most of the hired hands we’d ever had around the place. Leo and I? Well, we weren’t quite at that level, but each of us could be counted on to get a fair amount of work done, as long as we were separated. Together, we got a little, I don’t know, squirrely; I guess you’d call it. And every so often, when Leo and I were acting up, we’d draw Jim into our mischief making.
That kind of happened out in the oats field. It seems like Jim was on the combine. Leo and I were waiting for the last load to be dumped into the truck. As we waited, we were supposed to be greasing some piece of machinery or other. We started to do that, but that squirrelly thing took over and we began to shoot grease at each other, as well as the truck and the grain in the truck box. Jim pulled up and climbed down looking like he was all set to reprimand us. One of us – I’m saying Leo; he’d probably say me – nailed Jim in the chest with a big SPLAT of grease. He got his hands on another grease gun, and a three-way shooting match ensued.
I don’t know when I’ve had as much fun doing field work. The only time that comes close was when Leo and I stopped mowing alfalfa for most of an afternoon to dig for a badger we’d seen going down a hole. Our dads weren’t happy about the wasted afternoon that day, and wouldn’t you know, they showed up together in the oats field that grease-fight day, none too happy about the way we were behaving.
Jim took the brunt of the scolding. He was oldest. He should have been more responsible. He should have set an example. That kind of scolding. He stood there and took it. I felt bad for him. He got in on the fun just in time to shoulder the blame.
I also felt bad I’d had a hand in getting him in trouble. He was my hero. He could do anything that needed doing on the farm. I was a klutz. He was fearless, walking down to the barn or through the trees near the stock tank in the dark. I shook with fear a few steps from the house. And he was cool. At 14, he knew the words to the songs on the radio. In high school, he slicked his dark hair into ducktails, wore his jeans low on his hips, popped the collar on his shirt and swaggered down the halls with his pals. He was as close to James Dean as it got at Chamberlain High. I used to watch him leave the house for an evening of dragging Main, and images of the movie “Rebel Without a Cause’’ would come to mind.
He’s always been a bit of a rebel. The thing is, though, he’s never been without a cause. Whether speaking at 4-H gatherings or livestock banquets, pitching in on a fund-raiser for some project at South Dakota State, doing radio spots for some organization or hustling through the corridors at Avera visiting 35 sick people in as many minutes, he’s always had a cause.
He turns 80 today, still hustling along, still my hero.