The Nebraska Panhandle, 1988
First water, we called it—the first water of the summer irrigation season—first water was coming. On the Fourth of July, 1988, the summer before I entered seventh grade, my father had my whole family at the end of a field of Great Northerns laying ten-inch irrigation pipe over new corrugations. It was 111 degrees in the shade and all I wanted was to be at the lake with the guys, riding in a motorboat, waterskiing, maybe sneaking a can of beer from a cooler to pass around. But beans don’t irrigate themselves.
My father was talking about Cincinnatus, the hero that saved Rome and then refused to be dictator, returning instead to his fields.
“This country could use a Cincinnatus or two,” he said.
My grandparents, resolute Catholics, had deemed it their duty to apportion a son to the Church. My father had been shipped off to seminary at age thirteen, joining the last wave of men to receive a pre-Vatican II education. Just shy of ordination, he decided celibacy was too heavy a cross to bear. He bolted for co-ed college and Vietnam and this farm, toting along his classical education like sharp jeweled shards. It has always seemed to me that these shards jab his brain even when he is about the grittiest of farm labor. Perhaps more so then.
Cincinnatus was a favorite theme. We heard the story many times. I think about him still in moments of reverie, dreaming of accomplishing heroic deeds myself in the camera’s unblinking eye, refusing all offers of position and prestige, returning to my farm with a final wave to the hushed TV masses.
We had to unload the pipes from a trailer hitched to an old open-cab Oliver tractor, my ten-year-old brother Travis at the wheel. The pipes were hot and I had forgotten my gloves at the house. My father shook his head and gave me his.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Just don’t forget.”
As the trailer jounced over the corrugations, we rolled pipes onto the dirt, my father on one end and my eight-year-old brother Nate and I on the other. Dust whorled around our ankles. My mother dandled my little sister Michaela under the elm trees in the shade. Michaela was just three and, left on her own, might go chasing a moth under the wheels of the tractor.
After the line was deposited, the pipes had to be joined. Everyone had a job. Nate went along slamming shut the four-inch square surge gates that controlled the flow of water down the corrugations. Travis checked the gaskets. I lined up the pipes so the male end would penetrate the female. The old pipes were dented and warped. They didn’t fit together so well. My father butted a slab of creosote-stained railroad tie against the pipe-end to thump with a sledge hammer. He wielded the sledge with the precision some men swing golf clubs. He used to lay these lines of pipe by himself.
If my end didn’t pop in after a couple swings, I’d sit on it to add a little weight. I was very judicious about this. If I sat wrong, my particulars got stung good.
“Move it, boys,” my father roared after popping a joint in, grinning, swinging the sledge up on his shoulder. “You’re slowing me down!”
We raced down the field, whooping in the heat. I grabbed a dirt clod, winged it at Travis. I missed by a mile but my mother saw.
“Quit that,” she called. “You’re going to put an eye out. And fix your bandana.”
“Ah, Mom,” I said.
“Don’t you look at your mother with that tone of voice,” my father said.
My mother made us wear bandanas under our ball caps to shield our neck and ears from the sun. We each had different colors: yellow, purple, red, a little tribe of bedouins on the western Nebraska prairie.
Lunch was in the shade trees by the tumbledown beet labor shack, built during the premechanized days when gangs of migrant workers roamed the country seeking fieldwork. We ate baloney sandwiches soggy from the heat and guzzled fizzy Squirts chased by water out of a frozen milk jug so cold it hurt my teeth. The breeze was hot sandpaper on our faces.
My father talked about how the conquering Mongols lived on meat cured between a saddle and a horse’s back. He admired true grit above all else, and the first book I can remember being proud enough to show him I had read on my own was called Genghis Khan.
“Back to it,” my father said. “Christmas is coming.”
We made good progress. I started to get hopeful about the lake and meeting the guys. I wouldn’t tell them why I was late. Town kids didn’t understand pipes or first water or Cincinnatus.
Storm clouds mounted in the east, giant black thunderboomers that mushroomed a mile into the sky, crackling with sheet lightning. We worked until thunder rolled overhead and cool gusts knifed through our sweaty shirts.
“Jim,” said my mother, coming from the trees, toting Michaela.
“All right, all right,” said my father. “Let’s mount up.”
As we retreated the world went electric with lightning like flashbulbs pressed to my eyeballs. The sky spit hail, and we took cover in the beet labor shack, standing together in the front room watching pea-sized hailstones shimmy like popcorn through the empty window frames. Then the hail stopped, and a last squall pelted the splitting wood shingles with crooked rain. Not a bad storm, though electricity continued to strobe the sky. The beans would make it, but all my friends would have fled the lake.
The shack consisted of three tiny rooms, no indoor plumbing, no electricity. Slats showed through jagged cracks in the walls. Chunks of plaster were scattered pebbly on the warped floorboards. My father picked a chunk up, thumbed powder from the edges.
“Luxury,” he said. “Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica in a stone monk’s cell with a quill pen and a candle. Men like that have about gone the way of the gooney bird.”
No way would I have told my friends, but around then I wanted to be a priest, thinking sainted thoughts, clacking beads over penitents. Times had grown permissive, though, and, at a much earlier age than my father, I realized I couldn’t hack celibacy. Nevertheless I have come to mimic St. Thomas, hunched in close rooms alone, writing. The saint would not own me, I wager.
Michaela started crying. “Let’s get them back up to the house,” said my mother. “Who knows how long the lightning will last.”
We loaded up in the back of the pickup and headed home. My father dispatched a couple oatmeal cookies with us then returned to finish out the line. First water was coming.