Following the Harvest

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Once in a lifetime, everyone should have a great adventure ... an episode that lives in your memory the rest of your life. My college roommate Eli Fritz and I shared such an event in the 1953 summer break between our junior and senior years at Maryland.

Eli got the idea somehow of following the wheat harvest from Oklahoma to North Dakota. The plan was to travel from town to town and get jobs as hired hands on farms when the wheat was ready for harvesting. In the spring, we wrote to farm bureaus in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas to get as much information as possible.

By June, when the school year ended, we were set to go. Our first stop was Keosauqua, Iowa. My Mom wanted to visit some of her relatives so we agreed to give her a lift as far as my Uncle Raymond and Aunt Grace's home. Then it was on to Kansas ... checking with farm labor offices as we went to see if it was harvest time yet. In Wellington, Kansas, the farmers were calling for helpers and that's where we went to work. The family we worked for needed dump truck drivers. We had never driven dump trucks a day in our lives, so naturally we told the hiring agent that "Yes, we've had lots of experience driving dump trucks!" That was a pretty big fib but it got us the jobs. And driving the trucks turned out to be easy to learn. From then on, we had it made ... we were truck drivers!

Farm work at harvest time is not a job for lazy people. The day begins before dawn and ends after dark. And the farmers work seven days a week til their crops are safely gathered and delivered to granaries for sale. The sale of that grain is the culmination of a year's work for them. In the middle of the day, all the farm hands would pause for lunch prepared by the farmer's wife and daughters. Nothing fancy ... but wholesome, filling food and plenty of it.

At the time we were doing this --- in 1953 --- Eli and I were each paid $10 a day plus room and board. At a time when the entire year's college tuition was only $345, the pay was fine. The money piled up. There was nothing to buy ... and no time to buy it! We stayed in Wellington 3 weeks. After the grain was harvested, the farmer needed plowhands to turn the wheat stubble underground and begin preparing his land for another year in the cycle of cultivation. I knew how to drive a tractor and Eli learned quickly.

Finally the work there was over. We collected our pay, bought cashier's checks at the Wellington Bank and sent the money home. It began our nest-eggs for the school year. Eli and I also kept a small amount of cash to pay our expenses as we drove north in search of another family who would need our help. That cycle repeated itself in Colby, Kansas, and on farms in western Nebraska and North Dakota. While the money in our accounts piled up, our muscles hardened as we "city boys" put in a summer of physical work.

We did take one short break after the Nebraska job to visit Mt. Rushmore to see the magnificent sculpture of Gutzon Borglum. In gleaming white stone, Borglum and his workers used drills and dynamite to carve the heads of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. I hope each of you will someday have the chance to visit the Black Hills of South Dakota and see this wonderful creation with your own eyes.

After that interlude, we landed the last job of the summer with a family near Fargo, North Dakota. Another 3 weeks of truck driving and plowing. By now, summer was ending ... and the school year wasn't far off. Time to head home.

We drove through Canada and then to Chicago by way of International Falls, Minnesota. Eli has family in Chicago so we spent a day there.

Then it was on the road again to Michigan, back into Canada, east to Niagara Falls, down the Hudson River Valley past West Point, through New York and finally back home in Maryland. The odyssey was over.

In three months, we had earned money, eaten well, and briefly shared the lives of four mid-West farm families. They are good people, those farmers. And they were good to us. Eli and I were treated with respect and friendship. We were just farmhands, of course, but no one ever treated us as anything less than hardworking college kids who were helping them bring in the grain.

Fifty years have passed. Half a century. Most of a lifetime.

And what happened to Eli? Well, he's married and retired in White Plains, New York. We exchange notes, e-mail and occasional phone calls. In the course of his work, he got to Los Angeles a few times and we would meet for lunch or dinner. He and his wife, Carol, visited Carolyn and me about three years ago. We talked some about old times. I think he regards our "summer of the wheat harvest" much as I do --- a memory to cherish as long as he lives.