I’d guess nearly everyone has known siblings who were competitive with each other, but maybe not everyone has had to work for a couple of such guys.
My dad and my Uncle Frank were best of brothers. They were partners in the family farm from the time they were adults until my dad died. They worked together, but they often had subtle competitions while they worked. They wouldn’t have admitted it, I’m sure. But I worked around both of them from the time I grew old enough to drive lunch out to the harvest crew until I left college for newspaper work. I saw it, and I remember.
Now, make no mistake. These guys were great guys. They were tight. They defended each other ferociously against outside criticism, from any sort of attack, real or perceived. You know how that works in families, right? We can get all over each other, but let some outsider just try to say a bad word about our brother or sister, and the whole family comes together. Once the outside threat has been eliminated, we go back to hammering on each other.
It’s like the time – I think I’ve probably mentioned this one – when we bought the new (used and battered but new to us) disc plow and I had the honor of pulling it around the first field with a putt-putting John Deere 720. Manual levers allowed a person to raise or lower each end of the plow to assure the most level work. Dad set the original depths. He watched me haul it for a pass around the field, and then he left. Uncle Frank showed up a couple of passes later, watched a minute, flagged me down and lowered one end a notch. Dad came by a while after that and lowered the other end a notch. Then Frank, then Dad, then, well, you get the picture. I probably should have said something, but I was kind of enjoying it.
Or the time we were moving the herd from the north pasture to the place over west and the two men had a collision with their pickups. Seriously. In the middle of a half-section of well-grazed prairie grass, they wound up at the exact same spot at the exact same moment. From where I walked, trailing the herd, they were going after the same stray and were too stubborn to back off. After they checked the damage (minor, and with our pickups, who could tell which dent was new?) they had a long, loud exchange about who always turned which way when a calf zigged or zagged. I just kept plodding along behind the herd.
That was an odd competition, all right, but it wasn’t the worst. The worst I ever witnessed came during a late-season marathon stacking day. It was a rare year when we got a good cutting of alfalfa late in the summer, and we were rushing to get it stacked. I don’t recall where Jim and Leo were, but Dad and Uncle Frank were on red, roaring Farmall M tractors whizzing around the field scooping up buck piles. I was alone on the stack, furiously tossing hay around to keep up with two tractors.
Dad and Uncle Frank had a sibling rivalry sometimes in the field. This day, all day long, they played dueling Farmalls, each trying to beat the other to the stack with their buck loads of hay. I was managing, barely, up there by myself, until they came rushing at me from opposite sides of the stack. I could see they were going to arrive at the same time. I began to shout at them. Apparently neither of them could hear, and those big steel teeth carrying the hay were getting terribly close.
Remembering to toss my pitchfork the other way, I leaped from the stack. As I hit the ground and rolled, I heard the clang of the steel teeth colliding. Boy, did those two guys look surprised. They shut down their tractors and hopped to the ground. Both of them looked at me. “What? Like it’s my fault,’’ I thought to myself. Then they had a serious conversation about which of them should have backed off.
After that, they inspected the bent teeth on their farmhands. Meanwhile, I retrieved my pitchfork from where it had landed and waited patiently to be lifted back up on the stack to finish the job.
Dad said next time I should yell louder. Next time?
Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Fort Pierre, S.D.