Wheat harvest, cousins, and games on the farm make good memories

Categorized as 08/11/08 Goshen News column

A less common sight in this area is a wheat field. Every time I pass one and see those golden stalks waving in the breeze, I am instantly transported back to the summers of my childhood.

I grew up on the plains of Kansas, the bread basket of the nation, where the wheat fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Our roots there go way back to the days of the covered wagons. When my great-grandfather was a baby, he and his family came to Hutchinson by train. Upon arrival, they loaded their possessions into a wagon and set out on the trail, only to settle a few miles down the road.

They were grain farmers, eking out their living from the soil in a hot, dry land where the wind blows relentlessly. Being new settlers, they were very poor, and, according to a story passed down from my great-great-grandmother, their roof leaked so badly that she would put the baby (great-grandpa) under the table to keep him dry. Years later, in talking about his childhood, he related that there were times when they could not even afford shoes, and they would run to church because the sun-baked ground was too hot to walk on with bare feet.

It is from this hardy stock that my grandfather and his 7 siblings were born, and then my father and his 10 siblings. It was an era where neighbor helped neighbor, and people counted on their strong faith in God, not government handouts, to sustain them. They possessed – and still do – boundless creativity with a rollicking sense of humor and a love of good, clean fun.

Grandpa, too, was a wheat farmer, and summers on the farm included the anticipated wheat harvest under the Kansas sun. We cousins would sit in the big farm truck atop a pile of wheat and wriggle our toes in it. We learned that if you chew it for awhile, it turns into gum, so we would make wheat gum until it was our turn to ride the combine a couple of turns around the field.

Growing up in the seventies and eighties, we had no cell phones, computers, or video games. What we did have was a passel of cousins (19 altogether) and a big farm to play on. Invariably, a summer evening at Grandpas included a game of Kick the Can. With lots of outbuildings, lanes, and trees, there were plenty of places to hide. While the seeker hid his eyes and counted, the rest of us would scatter like mice.

There is nothing that sends a shiver down your spine like hearing the sound of feet coming toward you in the night. Every nerve is tingling. The darkness is full of danger, and your imagination comes alive with colorful images of what may be hiding behind you in the wash house. Or mine did, anyway. I hate to admit it, but I’m no Joan of Arc when the lights go out.

Every so often, shouts would ring out, followed by the sounds of panicked flight as the chaser and the chasee raced for the tin can. If the chasee arrived first, there would be a mighty metallic “whang” as he or she kicked the can for all they were worth before tearing off to hide once more.

As with all children, there was occasional dissension in the ranks when injustice was suspected. An informal trial was usually convened, which generally involved only the slightest hint of law and absolutely no semblance of order. Often, it shook out to be boys against girls with whoever argued the loudest coming out on top.

When Cousin Don began employing his retired K9 dog, Adam, and his nose to sniff us out, there was full-blown mutiny. The court session that was subsequently held made the Nuremberg trials look positively tame. If you think it takes a long time to design and build gallows, then you’ve not seen a batch of indignant little Yoder cousins who’ve just been cheated. We’re pretty darn fast.

Years later at a family Christmas gathering after most of us were married and had children of our own, we had the privilege of introducing our old favorite to the next generation of Yoder cousins. There we were, scattering into the darkness beneath a Kansas moon once again. And there was Cousin Don, cheating again, but this time with a flashlight.

Some things never change. And some things shouldn’t. We may not have had much technology, but we had plenty of cousins to play with, to fight with, and then to make up with. We had fresh air, room to run, and a large extended family who, though imperfect, gave us roots and a legacy that money cannot buy. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty good way to grow up.

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