Column by Terry Berkson
Bumped into Buster Whipple several summers ago at Joe’s Pizzeria downtown. He was up from Florida to attend his grandchild’s graduation. We hashed over old times, among them, days I used to work with him on his family’s farm. We were doing hay the year I was eighteen and headed for Brooklyn College in the fall. “You’re a good worker now,” Buster had said as I threw a bale onto the wagon. “But college is going to ruin you. You won’t want to bust your gut any more. You won’t come back.”
Buster had been wrong because the next summer I was once again on the Whipple farm tying bags of oats on the back of a combine driven by rotund and jovial neighbor Steve Spitko. We were in a large field across Route 20 from the new house where Buster lived with his wife and four kids. One of the guys working with me was an old man named Obie Marriot who wore bib overalls without any underwear. In spite of his age he was a good hand, big and powerful, and it was hard to keep up with him when on- and off-loading the heavy burlap bags of oats. Tying bags was a dusty job and working under a baking sun, it didn’t take long before I was as dark as a migrant worker.
Obie showed me how to make a miller’s knot so that the bags could be easily untied and emptied when we drove back to the granary, but I kept forgetting how to do it and had to resort to a knot that he patiently had to unravel before dumping a bag. I guess I was too macho to make a bow so he kept showing me over and over how to tie a knot that could be undone with just one pull.
Yes, Buster had been wrong about me not working for him any more. I looked downfield and across Route 20 to his new ranch house. Maybe the reason I was here was down there—-in the form of a pretty brown-eyed girl babysitting Buster’s kids. She and I had telephoned and exchanged letters over the winter while I was in the city. She had initiated the correspondence after I had left Richfield for college. We had gone out a few times during the summer and now at the tender age of nineteen I wanted our relationship to be going somewhere.
As I rode the combine hoping to get a glimpse of her out in the yard with the kids, I noticed a familiar car pull into the drive. I knew whose car it was and thought ‘Some friend. He knows I’m crazy about her. What’s he butten in for?’ My friend left his Chevy and strolled up to the house. What could I say to her later? We weren’t going steady. I hadn’t given her a class ring or anything like that. The way things were she could see anyone she wanted. What was confusing was that she had always been the aggressor calling me on the telephone, inviting me to parties and asking me to take her to the prom. But after all of that, she was now dating several guys who were probably as close to her as I was.
The crew in the field broke for lunch and we sat on a stone fence next to a hedgerow in the shade of a broad black cherry tree. Obie, not minding the sun, sat on a nearby wagon quietly eating his wife’s bologna sandwich and washing it down with lemonade. Steve Spitko’s wife had brought him his lunch. She had their two little five-year-old girls with her. They were twins with platinum blond hair. It was a handsome family. Steve talked of a time back in the Navy when he did a different kind of cutting — with a pair of scissors! “The guys paid me fifty cents a haircut. They said I clipped hair better than the regular barber. It was a big ship, a battleship, lot of men. Hair keeps growen. I had coins stuffed into my locker, under my bunk, everywhere!”
I laughed and took another bite out of Aunt Ruta’s fatty pot roast sandwich. How would I earn money to support a wife and family? I knew this kind of farm work wouldn’t pay enough. Some situations are better to be put on ice until we’re ready for them. At the time I didn’t know that. The Chevy was still parked down across Route 20 next to the house. It was painful to see it sitting there. This wouldn’t do. Either she and I were tied together or we weren’t. A strong breeze swept across the field lifting some straw that spun like a top down towards the road. I looked up and saw a large crow lumbering across the cloudless sky with something in its beak. A much smaller bird was repeatedly attacking it by drop diving from above. Obie finished eating and walked over to where I was sitting. He held a piece of twine and the brown paper bag that had carried his lunch. “Let me show you how to make the knot again,” Obie said.
That night I confronted her in my moonlit Ford that was parked in her driveway. “Am I the one?” I asked for the third time. Again, she laughed and looked away. We were both silent just sitting there as Clide McPhatter sang “A Lover’s Question” on my car’s static-riddled radio. It took a long time for her to say, “No.”
I expected to be crushed by that word.
Instead, a surprisingly light feeling washed over me. When she left I suddenly felt free as I backed the Ford out onto the road. I took a slow drive around Canadarago Lake and then headed back to my second floor room in Aunt Ruta’s house. In the small hours before falling asleep, I went over in my mind Obie’s moves with the twine: “around and under but don’t cross ‘cause then it’s difficult to undo!”
‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘I think I finally got it.’
Years later I realized that tying a tight knot at the tender age of nineteen would have prevented life from pouring out all that it held in store.