When Tom arrived at the meeting pad to prepare for the day's harvest he saw the owner of the rice field Jerry yelling at another harvester worker. "Manuel how many times do I have to tell?", Jerry screaming and pointing at Manuel the other worker. "When something breaks down immediately tell me. Machinery breaks, it's a part of this life but I have to know immediately."
"I'm sorry sir," Manuel quietly says with his head pointed towards the ground like a scalded dog. "It won't happen again."
"Okay then," Jerry says more calmly since seeing he hurt Manuel's feelings. "Good luck today. I'll be back around noon with everyone's lunches."
Jerry nods at Tom while turning away from Manuel and gets into his Ford pickup. Jerry farms 500 acres of rice and 500 acres of walnuts. He's busy with the walnuts right now trying to prepare the orchards for harvest by mowing the grass between the trees. Jerry a very gracious employee always brings Manuel, the bank-out drivers, and myself lunch each day around Noon while we're harvesting the rice. It's usually just a sandwich but the thought is appreciated.
"Everything alright Manuel?" I ask the Mexican man with the short body, chubby midsection, and wrinkled face.
"Si," Manuel says. "The stripper header stopped properly working last night and I forgot to tell Jerry before I went home."
"Is it fixed?"
"Si, but after Jerry expected the equipment this morning he noticed the belt was broken. Thankfully it was a quick fix."
Jerry is using a stripper-header instead of the conventional header also known as a grain platform. The stripper-header strips the rice off the stock instead of cutting the stock and sending the plant through the thresher to sort out the stock and the grain. With the rice not blown over by the wind and with the price of rice hay doubling since last year Jerry figures he can make money on two crops. The actual rice and the plants left over for hay.
"Have a good day Manuel," Tom said as he climbed into his John Deere CTS combine. It was going to be a long day. Tom would be harvesting for 12 hours with only a short little break for lunch.
Like a lot of kids born in small farming towns, Tom was unable to escape the clutches of the small town he grew up in. Not even attending college six hours away and receiving a degree in physiology could keep him from coming back.
Tom had to come back though after college. His father had become ill with cancer and needed Tom to provide for his mother and younger sister who was still in high school and hoping to attend the same college as Tom. Tom had many conversations with his sister about leaving this town and never looking back when she was old enough. Her plans to go to his college reassured him and drove him to provide for her, his mother, and sick father.
Tom went to work for Jerry who employed Tom's father as the walnut foreman. Tom's duties were to irrigate the walnuts and the rice. Rice irrigation is the trickiest form of crop irrigation because rice not only has be in water until the last few weeks till harvest but the water must be at certain levels when the rice is growing and when the rice must be sprayed. The walnuts were much easier since you only irrigated them once every other week and there was only a switch to flip to turn on the sprinklers.
Tom had always dreamed of working with people with mental health problems but now he was working under the sweltering heat making sure the water levels were correct in the rice checks and that crawdads weren't washing out the irrigation boxes.
All summer Tom did nothing but work and divulge stories of college life to his sister who was about to be a senior in college. Tom didn't care that he was exaggerating some of his stories, he wanted to drive home the point to his sister that there was nothing for her in this small town. He also made sure to tell her that she shouldn't involve herself with none of the town boys because that would pretty much guarantee a life sentence in this town if she married one of them.
Around 10 in the morning Tom made his way to the north field of Jerry's ranch and began harvesting the rice. The north field bordered a wildlife refuge. During the summer when Tom was checking the water in this field he would see a huge blacktail female deer. He had never seen a doe that large before. She was larger than most bucks he seen.
When Tom reached the north field and made his way to the part of the field that bordered the refuge he noticed she was on his side of the ditch drinking water. She was magnificent looking with her broad shoulders and long legs. He noticed that this was definitely an older deer because she was graying around her mouth and there were never any fawns following her around.
What struck Tom has he sat there with the harvester stopped was that she wasn't even a little bit afraid of him. No fear at all. He decided to grab the pieces of bread to his sandwich and see if she would eat out of his hand. He very slowly got out of the harvester and moved towards her. She just starred at him the entire time. Almost defiantly like, "you're not frightening me."
Tom moved closer and held out the pieces of bread. "Here", he said but felt stupid for saying because the deer wouldn't understand what he's saying. The doe moved closer to him and smelt his hand the bread and began eating. With his other hand Tom very slowly placed on her back and began petting her. He couldn't believe that there wasn't once ounce of fear in her.
After finishing up with the bread the doe swam across the ditch and into the refuge. Tom just watched her disappear into the brush thinking that despite the miserable conditions and feeling of being trapped, he did love this part of the country.
Tom's sister Maggie loved when he would come home. Tom was really her parent since both their mother and father worked so much. Maggie needed to ask a question about her homework? Tom was there. Maggie was hungry? Tom would cook. Maggie looked up to Tom as a father and a brother and Tom looked at Maggie like a daughter.
So when Tom would come home he would talk with Maggie about college and what she would want to do with her life. Tom remembered those days when both parents would come home late at night, beat from a long day's work for meager wages. He didn't want that for Maggie or himself. That's why he promised himself to make sure Maggie attends college and once she's settled he can finally move on himself.
Jerry returned at Noon with lunch for Tom, Manuel, and the two bank-out drivers Chris and Rex. Chris was a gangling red-headed man who Tom's father called "the only read headed white trash you'll see around here" and Rex was a big fat man who lived in a barn on another farmer's ranch.
Jerry brought out turkey sandwiches on sourdough bread along with Cool Ranch Frito Lays and Gatorade's for the crew. One big reason why so many people wanted to work for Jerry was because of the small stuff like this. He knew how to take care of his employees and made sure everyone was happy.
"How's the stripper-header working now, Manuel?" Jerry asked.
"It's working good Jerry," Manuel said. "Once again I'm sorry for not telling you sooner that it was broken."
"Water under the bridge or over the bridge or whatever expression you like. Forget about it."
We sat and ate our sandwiches and took a quick break. Working on a combine all day is long tedious work. Because rice is so thick it's hard to move fast while harvesting then say wheat. That's why it can take a couple of 12 hour days just to harvest a 80 acre field. Tom estimated that they probably had another week and a half worth of work still left in rice. And then they would move straight to the walnuts.
"When everything is harvested, we'll have a big party at my house," Jerry said talking about the traditional harvest party most farmers host for their employees in the fall. Jerry, when my father worked for him, always hired a professional Mexican chef to cook carnitas a favorite among the men.
After the quick break we went straight back to work. Jerry left to work on the walnut shakers and Rex followed me out to the check we were cutting. Tom noticed a hen pheasant and her two babies had come out of the refuge and was foraging on spilled rice at the edge of the field. Once again Tom was impressed how wild animals could maintain their cool while humans were around.
"I worry about mom and day," Maggie said to Tom a couple of days ago. "What's going to happen to them while we're gone?"
This was a worry Tom had as well. Their father wasn't getting better and who would take care of their mom if their dad did pass away?
"I don't think they would want you to worry about that," Tom said. "They would want you to live your own life, fulfill your own goals." Tom could see though this wasn't enough to convince Maggie that everything would be fine. And now he was beginning to worry that she would stick around town and just attend college at the local community college.
But was it his place to steer her in a different direction? Maybe she wanted to stay close to home? Maybe she would be happy staying closer to home? Just because he hated this place didn't mean she felt the same way. It wasn't up to him to shove his sister in a different direction if she didn't want to go that way.
With the sun setting Tom had finished almost three checks in the north field bordering the refuge. Tom noticed a rabbit was running away from the stripper-head and combine so he decided to stop and let the rabbit run away. Only that it didn't run away it just stopped. Tom sat there just starring at the rabbit before deciding to get out of the combine.
"Are you alright little fella," Tom asked while picking up the rabbit. He noticed it was a jackrabbit because of it's long pointy ears. Tom also noticed the rabbit had a broken back left leg.
Tom picked up the rabbit and brought it into the cab of the combine and placed the rabbit in an empty motor oil box that was in the cab. He would take the animal to the vet after he was done.
Sometimes a rabbit needs to be nurtured. And sometimes a rabbit needed to be set free.