The family farm in Iowa where I grew up, the buildings and land now owned and cared for by my brother Mark, has become more front and center in his and my mind. That's because he has an opportunity to sell the buildings. Because of that, and because those buildings are still quite full of reminders of our parents, I made a trip down there recently and brought back what was left of dad's and grandpa's and maybe grand-grandpa's horse harness.
Since I had this snarl of leather straps, buckles, and thing-a-ma-bobs, I looked this stuff up on the internet so I could refer to some of it by name. There are tugs and buckles and hames and lots of other stuff besides. Once I got focused on all this, I emailed dad's sister, Aunt Ruth, and asked about dad's and grandpa's horses' names. She told me there was Buck and Ned and Bill and Maude and Lady.
The name "Bill" seems like it could have been the horse that dad harnessed to the walk-around corn grinder, just south of the barn. I remember that because I think I can remember dad setting me on Bill's back, which felt like sitting on a kitchen table. Then, while he ground batches of corn, I at four years of age or so rode around and around, and I'll bet I thought I was pretty important, steering that horse in a circle he couldn't leave had he wanted to.
I was at the Amish neighbor's farm here a couple of days later, after getting back with that load of harness. I arrived just as he was leading a beautiful team of work mares out of his barn. All of this Amish farming seems so natural to me, because it is exactly the environment I was born into. Milking by hand, shocking corn and oats in the field, gardens twice the size of city lots—I wasn't old enough to help much, but I'm old enough to remember it.
I well remember the teepees of corn shocks out in the field, even after the horses had been replaced by tractors. I especially remember those, because each of those teepees of corn held a rooster pheasant, which I hunted with a single-shot .410 shotgun. You'd walk up to a teepee, kick it, and wait for a pheasant to explode out of it.
I remember another spring day, helping dad extract a beef cow from the rear beaters of a manure spreader, in which he had placed bundles of that corn for them to eat. The cow had turned her head to squeeze it between the upper and lower rear manure beaters. (As those beaters turned, they threw manure out and back.) Once the stupid cow was in there, she of course wasn't smart enough to turn her head sideways to get back out. And after an hour of trying, we weren't strong enough to turn it for her.
I don't remember how this all turned out. I think dad had to disassemble the spreaders to get her out. He wasn't happy about all this, as I remember. Stupid cow.
That spreader was parked in the field just north of the building site, where a large boulder was working its way up out of the ground, a few years before the cow got stuck. I was about six or so, when dad and grandpa used wet clay to top-pack three sticks of dynamite onto the part of that boulder that protruded from the ground. Those were the days when you could go to town and purchase dynamite, even if you didn't know what you were doing. As it turned out, three sticks was likely two sticks too many. It was a huge explosion, and I seem to remember it cracking a window in the kitchen of the house, and knocking some of ma's flowers off the sill, which made her real happy.
We picked up shards and small pieces of that stupid rock all day. It was spread in little pieces a hundred yards in all directions,.
I'm back at the Amish neighbors, and, newly smug in my knowledge about horse harness parts, said to the Amish man, after remarking what a beautiful team he had, and after noting how docilely they stood there, they apparently not having a care in the world: "Boy, that's a beautiful set of hames you've got there." I pointed at them. He agreed. He had nice manners, that's for sure. There, I thought to myself , I'll bet there's not one in a hundred of us English who can talk horse harness to an Amish farmer. Smug.
When I got home, I looked up the parts on the internet again, and realized that instead of pointing at a hame, I was instead pointing at the back-saddle, to which the tugs and hames are attached.
Smug English me. Courteous Amish man. Great old memories.