by Rick Beck
In the novel, The Farm Hand, Robert's desire to leave the family farm falls prey to hard times. After his father is crippled in a farm accident, Robert, the eldest son, is expected to run the farm.
With a cast of unlikely characters, the harvest succeeds and the farm is safe from the bankers for another year.
Once he's in charge, leaving is no longer an option, but Robert can see a good life with his lover Sven as farmers.
In the novella, Silent Fields, the difficulty communicating between fathers and sons is never more apparent. It certainly isn't anything new.
And so Robert and Robert Jr. embark on a journey of understanding, after taking a twenty-five year time out. It could be the last thing Robert ever does.
Being reunited with his long ago lost love, Sven, is the farthest thing from Robert's mind, but when all their cards are on the table, anything can happen, including things we'd ordinarily consider impossible, but this father and son have come a long way.
Taking that last step creates magic.
Is Home Still Home?
We sat on the tarmac with the engines roaring, waiting for the promised hole in the fog. When it was time, the pilot launched us down the runway and up through the breach.
It took a long time to reach Portland, Oregon and I was going home.
At first the plane's climb seemed too steep. The superstructure responded with rattles and shivers as we began our climb through the turbulent air. Once the turn east was executed, we leveled off and the smoothness of gliding on air set my mind and stomach at ease.
The flight attendants happily hawked nuts and drinks for passengers with cast iron stomachs.
I had no fear of flying. The same couldn't be said about going home. There hadn't been enough time to plan a quiet entrance and quick exit. There wasn't going to be a lot to say to my father after twenty-five years.
The flight into Chicago was uneventful. There was a summer thunderstorm that kept us from landing for fifteen minutes. I'd have two hours before a flight took me into Des Moines. I'd taken enough commuter flights to know it would leave late and arrive later. Having a few more minutes to circle O'Hare wasn't important. The time I liked to fly assured a quiet terminal.
I stopped for a sandwich in the airport and blew ten bucks when I added a soda to my order. They didn't have the nerve to charge these prices in many places, but fliers were accustomed to bad food at top flight prices.
I had supper with friends before they took me to the airport. The sandwich assured I'd not be starving once we landed in Des Moines. Once in the rental car, I'd find a restaurant on the way out of town.
One thing for sure, you didn't need to worry about getting a good meal at a fair price in Iowa. Food was the state's business and Iowa was the corn capital of the world.
I felt the clouds closing in on me even with the relatively clear morning sky. We'd flown low enough to pick corn on our final approach into Des Moines.
The only corn I'd eaten in years came from a can or a pouch. This was by careful design, but I'd returned to corn country, 'Ho, ho, ho.'
There had been a shower and the runway asphalt shined as the morning sun started to peek above the horizon as we taxied over to the terminal.
The car rental place was about a hundred feet from where I deplaned. I carried my only luggage, a small overnight bag. I hoped not to open it before I started my journey back.
I signed my name and showed them my wallet full of credit cards, deciding on American Express. I'd write it off as a business expense. It was little consolation for the expense of leaving work to fly halfway across the country, but this would be enough like work to qualify as business.
When I left the counter, my car was heading for the door as I stepped outside. The temperature was already on the rise.
The radio blared music I didn't know as the driver tested the cars brakes, making the tires chirp. A freckle-faced Iowa boy sprang from the car, smiling a warm Iowa smile. He held the door open for me, closing it firmly once I was behind the wheel. Taking a second look, he didn't look old enough to drive. He was a reminder of a dozen boys I grew up with in rural Iowa.
"Thank you, son," I said, appreciating his enthusiasm.
"Yes, sir," he said, delighted to be alive. "You have a safe trip."
I handed him a five dollar bill from my good service tip pocket. It probably doubled his wages for the day. I wanted to ask him why he wasn't in school, but I didn't ask to see his driver's license either. why ruin a perfectly good mood?
"Thank you, sir!" he exclaimed, all but clicking his heels.
I rewarded promptness and people who expedited the mundane things I abhorred each day. It left an impression and no one holding a five dollar tip forgot what it took to get it. My oversized tips wouldn't suddenly persuade service workers to be polite and efficient, but it might make a few give it some thought.
From plane stairs to car seat in fifteen minutes wasn't bad. It was hopefully a harbinger of things to come. I was an optimist but not to the point of delusion.
Turning off the radio, I looked both ways before leaving the parking lot. It was a middle size sedan, an upgrade for using Amex.
I pulled over before turning onto the highway and I took off my jacket and put on my sunglasses. The sun was getting brighter as it got higher in the sky.
I opened the map of Iowa I took off the counter at the car rental place and I located the route that took me home, which was no more than two inches from the spot marked, 'You are here.'
I sure was here.
Two right turns and I was pointed in the right direction.
The route out of Des Moines was busy but before long traffic thinned and my car was the only one east bound.
I rolled down my window to get fresh air. This section of Iowa was level and the roads were straight. In no time at all I turned off the state road and onto the county road that would take me through Nodaway.
The fields surrounded me and the corn got closer and closer to the road. This was the heart of corn country. With the window down the sweet smell of corn was pungent.
The smelled hadn't changed in all these years.
How was a smell so familiar when I hadn't smelled it in so long? The aroma of corn mingled subtly with the musky smell of rich Iowa soil.
These smell whisked me back to a time as a boy when I stood at the fence on my father's farm, watching him in the field. I cringed. I had to go back there. It was a place I couldn't wait to leave.
The sign NODAWAY told me I was closing in on home and going in the right direction. That's when I first recognized something from when I was a boy.
I made a right turn onto the road that would carry me through the middle of town and out to my father's lane.
It was like stepping back in time. Little had changed. The full fields of corn towered above the road, blocking the view of everything beyond. Even the sun hadn't gotten high enough to cut into the shaded road.
In no time at all the town appeared, approaching fast in the windshield. Little had changed here either. This was the town of my youth. Slowing to a crawl, I recognized what were once places I knew. It was deserted. My car was the only one on the main street of town. Most of the stores were boarded up. Some were the same as I remembered them.
There was Crosby's Feed and Grain. It had become Crosby's Feed & Implements and on its side of the street it covered most of a block. The glass and brick showroom was new. The grain silos that sat behind the old building were gone.
I eased across the railroad tracks and let the car creep past the buildings I knew. No one had painted in ages. As many places were boarded up as weren't.
My journalistic reflex recalled the destitution in stories about tiny towns everywhere in the U.S.A. It was the age of multiplexes and mega-malls. Small towns were drying up and blowing away, and thus it is so in Nodaway.
Stories about small failing towns were one thing, seeing my town gave them new meaning. I felt sadness over discovering they were about home.
It furnished another reason to dislike the return home. It was a surreal glance into how things are compared to how I remembered them. The town seemed smaller, almost deserted. I was in front of the General Store & Mercantile before I realized it.
I came to town with my father all the time back then. The single gas pump, where my father pumped gas into his pickup trucks, was faded to a rusty red. There was no hose where the gas flowed. The meter inside the cracked orange glass was forever frozen at 9.99. Gas here was forever 39.9 cents for a gallon. The good old days.
The screen door hung on one hinge, moving forward a foot and then back in the soft breeze. The chairs where the men sat Saturday mornings to chat were gone. There was no one there to tell me what had happened in Nodaway. The town had failed, dried up, not yet blown away.
I passed nothing in the way of businesses on the way into town. Where did people shop? Where were the people? Maybe I had entered the Twilight Zone and Rod Serling would appear in the middle of the street in a moment to explain our situation.
I hesitated there, unable to move past the general store. I was seeing the huge jars of candy on the counter inside, my hand poised over a particular jar with the candy I wanted, waiting for my father to nod that he'd allow it.
It was the only game in Nodaway. All the farmers kept accounts there. They charged everything between growing seasons, paying the entire bill after the harvest.
Everyone was known by a single name. I was Junior when I wasn't Bobby. My father was Robert. No one called him Bob.
Now the store at the center of town had gone mute, having lost its memory and looking its age. The only thing missing was tumbleweed and gusts of wind to blow it down Main Street.
I didn't plan to stop or even slow down, but here I was, my past haunting me.
What had happened? The fields were full of corn, but I saw no houses or driveways that might go to houses I couldn't see from the road. There were no farm houses and no need for driveways that went to them.
I turned on the only street that crossed Main Street, I drove to the school I graduated from the day I left Nodaway behind.
It was no longer the largest building I knew. It was old and abandoned. Each pane of glass was broken out. The final swing, held by one rusted chain, moved back and forth, disregarding the fact that no one was left to swing.
The monkey bars, where we sat waiting for the first bell each morning, were partially collapsed and had fallen over to rest on one of its sides.
I almost passed the lane that took me to my father's house. Backing up, I didn't look both ways. There had been no sign of life since I turned off the highway.
Most of the fields along the highway had been planted and were well on the way to harvest time, but not my father's fields. The gray soil looked spent. There was no corn. His fields stood fallow; not an ear of corn anywhere.
The sweet smell of corn filled the air anyway. For fifty miles in every direction there were cornfields full of corn.
Turning onto the lane that would carry me to the driveway that went to the house. I parked across the street without turning into it. I looked at the house where I'd been born.
It hadn't changed a bit. I wasn't ready to face my father yet. What did we have to say to each other? I wanted to keep it brief, but I was afraid my father had other ideas. For the first time I thought about what to say.
I usually worked from a script and I knew what I was going to say. He said he wanted me to come to get my mother's things. I was nine when she died. I didn't remember much about her.
Sitting there with memories surging through me, I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how sick he was. I wanted to be polite. I refused to be hostile or angry.
I'd gotten over my anger years ago.
If we got too far from my reason for coming home, I'd steer us back on track. I wanted to stay close to my easy in quick exit strategy.
I waited for the past to settle back where it came from. I was a journalist who reported on events with calm cool objectivity.
This homecoming wasn't an event I could approach with coolness. In some ways it was disappointing that I couldn't come home, do what I'd come to do, and leave without it becoming a sentimental journey or blame game.
I wasn't sentimental but I never came home before either.
The last time I saw my father was at my graduation from the school that no longer existed. There were eleven of us who graduated that day. The bleachers were filled with mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters of the graduates. It was one of the events the entire town turned out for. Graduating high school was something most parents hadn't done, although mine did. It was an event.
My father did not sit for the ceremony. He stood in his overalls and the gray hat with the black hatband that shielded his eyes from the ever-present June Iowa sun.
He couldn't sit down like other parents. As I walked across the stage, ten tables from the cafeteria covered in black crape, I saw him standing away and above everyone else as my name, Robert Sven Sorenson, was called.
I was greeted by the other graduates who'd come before me. By the time I got back to looking around, the man in the gray hat was no longer there.
Remembering my graduation for the first time since I left home didn't bode well for my easy in quick out plan.
It wasn't a good memory. Ours was not a good relationship. My father said, the night before I graduated, 'I can't afford to hire help this year, Bobby. I'll need to get back in the fields afterward. You don't want me embarrassing you in front of your friends, but I'll be there to see you graduate. Your mama would be proud.'
I'd packed the night before graduation. My room was at the end of the hall and my father's room was at the head of the stairs. There was a room between mine and his. We could go a week and never run across each other in the spring.
He came to my door the night before. I kept my back turned, but I knew he was there. There was a board that creaked in the hallway, no matter how delicately you stepped. He knew the board. He knew the sound. He knew I knew he was there, but he didn't speak to me.
Like at graduation and like most of my life, he wasn't there when I was ready to face him. I hadn't told him I was leaving, but since I was packing my suitcase, he may have figured it out by then. It was our last chance to talk and we both passed on it.
Once I reached the bus station in Des Moines the next afternoon, I went through the pockets of the suitcase in search of my ink pen. There in an envelope marked RSS were five crisp hundred dollar bills. Inside the envelope he had slipped a note written on a piece of paper torn from a notebook. It simply said, "Good Luck, son."
Now I'd come home.
I couldn't control my mind, and I could not go to the house with memories flashing back on me. I breathed deep, pretending I could control my hearts rapid discord.
Maybe having a heart attack wasn't such a bad idea. 'Sorry, Dad, I couldn't make it all the way home.'
I laughed at what for a second seemed like a good plan.
"Great!' I said. "What's wrong with me? Get it over with."
This place is going to kill me just like it killed my mother. They'd find my body in front of my father's mailbox. The mailman would stamp me, 'dead on arrival.'
My father had never done anything to make me feel useful on his farm. My mother died when I was nine and after the day of her death, when Dad and I cried together, he went back to work like every other day in his life.
I told him I didn't want to be a farmer. I blamed my father for my mother's death. I blamed his farm. I told him I hated the farm and I may have mentioned him in that tantrum. I didn't hate him but I hated he couldn't take away my pain.
I heard people say that the farm killed Mama. I was angry and I wanted to get off that place as quick as I could, and I did.
I was home.
There was little communication between my father and me, once Mama died. I blamed him and he was probably hurt that I didn't want to follow in his footsteps.
I think I wanted to be like my father once.
Grandma Sorenson came to live on the farm and take care of me. She'd moved into town after Mama married my father. So there was a woman in the house. My father left my raising to Grandma. He seemed to purposely put distance between me and his farm.
Maybe it was punishment for what I said to him. There was no chance to take it back. I was stuck with my anger then.
The farm was a living thing to my father. I watched him walk the fields, smelling the soil he held in his hand. He spent hours out there, even after the harvest was in.
He'd walk the furrows like he might find something he'd lost.
It was dirt and my father loved it.
The farm was very much like the town, in disrepair with empty silent fields. He hadn't planted. At a time when most farmers were getting ready for the harvest, my father's machinery sat idly beside the barn. They'd been left to rust in the harsh Iowa weather. The farm had rusted.
I remember how he pampered his machinery. He kept a rag in his back pocket to wipe each machine after he let it cool before shutting it down.
This didn't resemble my father's farm. It was old and ready to fall down around him. Hatred for the place still seethed deep inside me. It was always this farm I hated.
The fence that started at the head of the driveway leaned partially into the empty field. Grandma and I painted the posts each spring, because my father refused to replace the eyesore. It was obvious that hadn't changed.
We could ill afford to buy fence posts. As much as he loved the farm, there were things he did that made no sense to his son. It's where our split began. He didn't try to understand me. My father had work to do.
Why would the same fence that was there when I was a boy, still be here, rotten and falling down? Why hadn't he sold the farm? Why stay and let it die with him? That wasn't love.
It no longer mattered. It was still difficult to conceive of him allowing the farm that was his pride and joy get in such a state. I could see it. Understanding was another thing. What I knew about my father said he wouldn't do this.
As if an omen of what was coming, clouds covered the sun as I eased into the driveway, stopping beside the house.
I felt more like the nine year old boy than a man returning home at his father's request. I was certain I left the past behind me, but it had been waiting here for my return.
The day before I got to the TV station before three to start reading the updates on stories that were of interest to me.
I hadn't even made it to the newsroom when Colette, the receptionist, turned my day upside down.
"Bob, there's an important message for you," she said, proving it by waving the pink message slip frantically at me.
"I've got to get my nose powdered, sweety, not to mention develop a script for the show. I'll get back to you on that."
"Yeah, well, it sounds important and I don't want to get yelled at later for having waited to give you the message. Besides, just think of it as my job, Bob."
Colette could be annoying.
I expected a news tip, a breaking story, or a crank yanking my chain. What I got startled me out of my routine.
"Call father. Important!!!"
"Did you talk to him?" I asked.
"Sure did, honey. That's my job too."
"What did he say?"
"Asked for Robert Sorenson Jr. I says, cause you ain't here, 'he ain't here.' He says to have you call him and he gave his name as 'Robert Sorenson Sr.' It's all there. Did I mention he said it was important, Bob?"
"You did, Colette. Now get me this number," I said, wishing there were a way to keep ignoring my father.
He'd never called before. How'd he even know where I was?
"The lighted button. It's ringing right now," she said, always being one step ahead of me.
I reached for the receiver and hit the button and I listened to it ringing.
"Hold for Mr. Sorenson please," she said, looking at me. "I've done all I can. You'll have to do the rest, hon."
I'd been at the station for five years and I mostly did features, news bulletins, and newscasts, when the regular anchors took vacation or were sick. It was work I enjoyed.
I frequently traveled on national stories, since being at an airport where a plane crashed a few years before. Being a newsman on location meant exclusive coverage for my station and me.
It was the break that launched my broadcast career. While covering the crash, CBS, NBC, and ABC did live coverage from the scene, before and after my live report, they identified me and my station; advertising money can't buy.
It wasn't a high-powered journalistic post, but I had become a popular fixture and when most of the news staff came and went, I was the senior man in the newsroom.
At forty-three I was where I wanted to be. It was a medium sized television market with a local newspaper that bought the first publication rights to my human interest stories.
I looked into the message with the news man's dedication I'd reserve for an ancient artifact that I expected to offer me a clue to its origins.
Gone was my carefree posture, replaced by a growing apprehension. I was paid to know what to say and I didn't know what to say.
"Thanks," I said, leaning against her desk so I didn't fall down when I heard my father's voice.
"Mr. Sorenson. How may I help you," I said, waiting for him to speak.
I wasn't prepared for the curt reply.
"I wanted you to know I'm leaving the farm to Uncle Junior. Your mother's things are here, in the attic. Junior won't know what they are. You should come home as soon as is convenient, Bobby. She'd want you to have her things."
"Dad!" I said, unable to respond intelligently.
I started it. I knew who Colette got on the phone for me.
"Sorry I bothered you at work. It couldn't be helped. I can't bear the thought your mother's things will…. You need to come home, son. See if there's anything you'd like to keep of your mothers. There isn't much but she'd want you to have them."
The voice was softer, less in charge, but easily recognizable. It sent a chill through me to hear it. Was it the nature of the call or the picture of my father I had in my head?
"They say so."
"Is it serious, Dad?"
"I'm old, Bobby. Everything is serious."
"I'll be home tomorrow."
"I'll be all right for a spell. If it isn't convenient right away, you have a few weeks if you can believe the doctors. I just don't want your mother's things thrown away when they knock down this house. It's not much but it's yours now."
"Yes, sir," I said, losing my train of thought. "I'll see you tomorrow."
I fumbled when I tried to hang up the phone. Colette took my arm and the phone.
"You OK, Bob? Bad news?"
"I've got the transportation department on the phone. Red eye tonight into O'Hare, Chicago. Where are you going from there?"
"How'd you know O'Hare?" I asked, thinking she was psychic.
"I dialed the number. Area code? Where to from O'Hare?"
"Des Moines," I said.
She repeated it in the phone.
"A bit of a wait between O'Hare and Des Moines? Book it?"
"Book it," I said.
"Book it," she said, hanging up the phone. "Two hour wait at O'Hare for a commuter flight into Des Moines."
"Fine," I said. "Thank you."
"I'll have a rental car waiting for you in Des Moines."
"Thanks, Colette," I said. "I'm going to need Jan to cover for me for a few days. Better call upstairs in case they have another idea. They owe me three years of vacation. I'll draw from that."
"You don't ever take time, Bob."
"You take time off and you come back and find someone else doing your job. I like it here."
"Alan needs to put his official seal on this. Better you explain it," she said, handing me the phone with the boss on the other end.
"Alan, Bob. I've got to fly home. My father's ill. I'll need a couple of days. No, I don't need a week. Thanks. I will."
"Jan's on the way. I told her to clear her schedule for the rest of the week. No telling what might come up."
"I won't be gone long. If I'm in Chicago tonight, I'll be home before noon. I shouldn't be more than a day or two."
"Yep, minus the two hours you lose, you'll be in Des Moines at first light. It's less than two hours once you leave O'Hare. It'll be quiet that time of night."
It was a brisk night in Portland. A gentle rain had moved in off the Pacific; it made everyone hurry to shorten the time they spent outdoors.
I was having dinner with friends. I'd ask one to drop me at the airport in time to catch my flight.
The restaurant was jammed.
"My friends are already seated, thank you." I said, passing the waiting patrons.
"Hi, Bobby." David said, noticing my approach.
"Hey, Charlie. I need a ride to the airport after dinner and drinks."
"You're leaving the City and don't have a limo poised to take you to your awaiting jet?" Fran observed. "That reminds me, I missed you on the news tonight. What's up."
"I love you too, dear," I said, kissing my former wife's cheek.
We'd been married two years and divorced for three. We made far better friends than we did lovers. We were both career oriented and we slowed each other down. Marriage took more time than we had. Divorcing saved our friendship.
"You don't want me to drive you, sweet pea?" Fran asked.
"I've seen you drive. No!" I said.
"Your absence on the news has something to do with your departure from Portland?" Fran asked.
"You aren't married to him any more," Nora said.
"My father's… sick. It's only for a couple of days," I interrupted.
"I thought you never left the city except for work?" David said.
"Yeah, best laid plans of mice and only children," I said. "I'm taking a few days. It won't take long."
"So, you're finally going home? Why?" Charlie wanted to know. "I thought you and your father don't get along?"
"He called. He says he's sick. He is my father. He's concerned about things that belonged to me. I can't imagine it taking long. I'll get my things and get out of his way."
"He's your father, Bob. Cut the man some slack. You aren't a kid now but he's still your father. You want to make peace with him while you can. You don't and one day you'll regret it," Fran said with concern.
"Right! Right! Can the lecture. I'm going home and I'll be back in a few days. That's all I'll ever say on the matter."
The conversation turned to other subjects. I had spaghetti with marinara sauce and I drank Chianti. The garlic bread made it all better, after dipping it in the olive oil.
As my friends carried on their rapid fire conversation, I thought about my mother, picnics with the three of us in a spot Dad called the meadows. There was a pond I wasn't allowed to go near, while my mother was alive.
My Grandma Sorenson took me on picnics beside that pond, and she told me stories of her sons cutting down trees and swimming in the pond to cool off. Grandma taught me to swim to keep me safe. Mama never cared for water.
As the conversation heated up, I remembered my father's lonely walks in the field, before and after Mama died. I knew my father wasn't happy, but he was my father. My grandmother knew something she wouldn't tell me. She didn't try to explain why I didn't work on the farm.
All farmer's kids worked on the family farm. It's how they survived from year to year. Why didn't I? My father did it alone. Grandma told me that my father had not been a lucky man and the farm was the only thing he had that he could trust. I didn't ask her what that meant?
It was the question that was never answered and a sore on my memory that didn't heal. I was sorry my father was dying, but if his life had been so hard, maybe it was time for him to die.
The sound of his voice carried me back home in an instant.
I wouldn't stay long.
"Right, Bob," Charlie said, bringing me back to Portland.
Everyone laughed at my absent mind.
Before the laughter died away, I was alone in the terminal, receiving royal treatment by the airlines we used extensively for station business. I sat in the VIP lounge and drank from the silver urn filled with premium coffee.
I wouldn't sleep on the plane. That was a good way for me to end up airsick. I'd take a room at the airport for a couple of hours, once I was at O'Hare if I needed it. I was accustomed to sleeping for two or three hours and jumping up to cover the story of the hour.
My plan was solid. There was no room to become sidetracked. I had to be back at work and that was that. Nothing personal.
'Hi, bye, got to go.'
"Mr. Sorenson," the flight attended smiled, recognizing the special envelope the woman at the counter put my ticket in before calling to have me escorted to the VIP lounge.
"We have some seats in first class," the flight attendant revealed. "Please follow me, Mr. Sorenson. I watch you all the time, when I'm home. I'll be with you all the way to O'Hare. If you need anything, let me know."
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