"The Rolling Plains"


I didn't understand my dad. For years, he forced me to help him against my will. He never made me do anything he wouldn't do himself, but he knew I didn't want to be there. Dad griped enough to make me think that most of the time, he hated it just as much as I did.

            My dad raised cotton and cattle in west Texas. Out of all the occupations in all the exotic places in the world, he chose to scratch around in the dirty crust on the outer rim of the Dust Bowl. Most of us have memories of grandparents that farmed, but how many folks do you know that still farm today? Growing up, almost everyone I knew farmed cotton, wheat, peanuts, watermelons, cantaloupes, maize, or a combination of these crops. You'd think a kid that lived on a farm would know a bunch of farmers. I knew most all the farmers in the county; there weren't that many to know. When these earthbound men gathered at dawn in the coffee shop, they convinced each other they were a dying breed, the last of the independent patriots, the Jeffersons, Ben Franklins, John Hancocks of the late 20th century. Then they complained about the state of their crops.

            They complained about the wind, lack of wind, the rain, dry spells, boll weevils, the low price of crops, the high price of seed, NAFTA, crop insurance, lousy equipment, things like that. Then an old coot, a "retired" farmer, would go through the shoeless-in-the-snow-uphill-both-ways routine to remind them how it used to be. My father was one of these men, and everything they said was true. If God made an Infertile Crescent, I think the southern tip would start around Abilene and sweep north to about Lubbock, then back down to Midland-Odessa. Dad had great faith and patience. I don't have enough of either to go back and do what my father did.

Daddy went to college. Some farmers fall into the stereotype of being too dumb to go to college and get a normal, relatively risk free job with retirement packages, stock options, dental plans. Not my dad. He went, and not just for a semester. If he would go back for a semester or so, he'd have enough hours for a degree in History. But he stopped going around 1971 because at the time, "there was money to be made" in cotton. I'm sure that his wife's graduation also helped to convince him that if she was done with school, then he'd just be finished, too. I told him once that I wasn't going to finished college, and he said he'd strangle me. I think I believe him. So there was my dad, with no farming experience, whose father died when he was seven, who got his start on his in-law's hundred-year-old patch of worthlessness in the Godforsaken rolling plains of west Texas.

            KVRP 95.5 called them rolling plains. Lots of things rolled out here. Hundreds of tractor tires. Tumbleweeds. Stolen watermelons roll and explode on the highways. Basketballs roll across the football fields toward the losing teams' bleachers after a playoff game. Once, I rolled over in my bed early one Saturday morning when my dad came in to wake me up. He needed me to help him put together a plow. He came back thirty minutes later when I never showed up at the barn. I've only rolled over once.

            I think the optimistic radio host decided one day in the 1980s to identify his station "Your Voice of the Rolling Plains." He wanted to motivate the farmers, inspiring them by giving their land a more attractive label. The slogan was a sort of hope to keep them listening to the same old country songs, supporting the only station for at least fifty miles, the only station most of the old tractor radios can pick up. KVRP lies. The plains don't really roll out here. They roll around you, just never in the spot you are standing. I'd bet if God poured out his God-sized bottle of Aunt Jemima in the middle of west Texas, the syrup would run for miles in all directions, covering the countryside with a uniform two inches of stickiness.

            I was involved in extracurricular activities when I was in junior high and high school. By involved, I mean I was in almost everything my school had to do. I played basically every sport, showed hogs, played the trumpet, acted, debated, competed, presided, and did anything else people asked me to do. I loved high school and enjoyed it all. Outside of school and church, there wasn't much else one could do without getting into trouble. I think, subconsciously, I wanted to be so involved because it kept me away from the farmwork, but I became more and more aware of my motivation as I got older. Now and then I had to help out during the school year, but during the summer, farming became my full-time job.

            If you've been to Texas in the summer, you know the heat is stifling. I'm talking fry your brain hot. People complain about the humidity of Houston and how uncomfortable it is; here, you're lucky even to be able to sweat on an afternoon in late July. As soon as sweat droplets form, forearms become great clam beds, pores filled with a large salty pearl wedged in the holds you need to be open, to release all the heat that builds inside you. The constant sun puts you in a bad mood. You watch the forecast as noon and 10 p.m.; the blue screen filed with a row of triple-digit highs. We'd hear heat indexes and advisories, updates all day long on the radio. That kind of heat can't possibly exist in too many places, at least in places sane people call home.

            The only good thing about farming was the variety. I rarely had to do the same thing for more than three or four days in a row. I might put up electric fence, run the module builder, shred stalks, sew wheat, load the grain trailer, and work cattle all in the course of a few days. So many things need to be done that monotony could find a hiding spot only in the cab of John Deere tractors. I can't tell you how many times I'd fall asleep behind the wheel, drifting left or right, ruining the flawless rows I had just carved in the earth, the straightness of them a life or death matter to my dad.

            "Let's at least pretend like we know what we're doing, son," he'd say every time I'd mess up. I spent most of my time re-plowing entire terraces, hoping my dad won't pass by before I fixed my mistakes.

            I came home for Thanksgiving my freshman year of college, a place I picked mostly because it was far enough away from home that Dad would not ask me to come back and help on the weekends. He was in the beginning of the cotton harvest. Out of all the times to be in the field, this is the best. Dad is always in a good mood during harvest; the year's toil sprung into fuzzy blossoms, marching steadfastly up and down, valiant rows of miniature brown trees donning hats and gloves of brilliant white.

            I remember giving much thanks on this holiday weekend. I thanked God for the many blessings he had given me: loving parents, freedom from the far, decent grades, a Cowboys victory. Dad woke me around nine that Friday morning, gouging me from my tryptophan-induced slumber.

            "Be out there in 45 minutes," he said. "I'll have enough for you to run the module builder by then."

            This time it won't be so bad, I thought. I get to leave in two days.  I drove the mile and a half out to the field in Dad's old red GMC flatbed, laughing at KVRP's recitation of the day's pork belly prices. I still don't know exactly what a pork belly is.

            The white mound peaked its head over the walls of the module builder, so I cranked up the tractor and climbed in the crow's nest to level it out. If you've never seen a module builder, it's basically a large rectangular iron room on wheels with no floor or ceiling. Dad would make two or three rounds before the stripper basket was full, then he dumped the load into the builder. Then I'd use the machine to pack the cotton. When I pulled off from a finished module, what's left is a 10'x 12' x 40' wall of wooly snow. A row of five or six of these modules standing triumphantly in the sunlight, giving relief from the flat landscape, made for a beautiful sight. I imagined Dad feeling how the pharaohs felt about the pyramids but on a much smaller scale; countless hours of work, tangible evidence that all the time dad spent out here amounted to something.

            The stripper was on the far side of the field turning towards me. Dad's voice crackled on the radio. "Thirty to base."

            "Go ahead."

            "They're callin' for a story to hit early in the mornin' instead of tomorrow night. We're gonna have to hurry to finish this field."

            "Ten four," I said.

            "Call momma and tell her we won't be in for dinner, and ask her to bring us some supper this evenin'."

            We stayed out there all day, him stripping and dumping, stripping and dumping, and me packing down the cotton, tarping the finished modules, and spraying "Ed" in black paint on all four sides so the workers would know our cotton when it made it to the gin. Dad started the last forty acres around supper time. The sky was dark, but I could still see the clouds building in the north. Daddy made just one round before dumping this time. He motioned for me to come down. We met between the roar of the two huge machines.

            "We're broke down. I got some bearings out and an oil leak," he said. We gotta fix 'em both before we can start back up." I nodded at him.

            "What do you need me to do?"

            "I called the John Deere house, and they said they would wait on you to get there. They have both the parts we need. I'll start taking things apart while you're gone." I jumped in the pickup and drove the twelve miles to the John Deere house as fast as the old truck would go, which was about sixty-five miles an hour. The clouds in the distance were getting closer. We're never gonna make it, I thought. I was right.

            I made it back in about thirty minutes. Dad replaced the bearings while I replaced the hose. Both parts fit, which usually doesn't happen the first time. As I poured in the last quart of oil, I heard a sound in the distance. Dad stood up and turned around.


            I looked at him, then north. A Jericho-sized wall of dirt swept toward us. It was pushed by one of those winds you hear twenty seconds before it hits you. "Run, boy," he yelled. We dropped our tools and ran. He shimmied up the ladder on the stripper while I bolted for the builder cab. I made it up the ladder and onto the platform when it hit me. The pressure on the door made it very difficult to open, but after having my face sandblasted for a few seconds, I made it inside.

            Daddy gave me a thumb up and headed back into the field. Crazy bastard, I thought. You could be in an office somewhere. Each time he dumped, half the load blew over the opening and onto the ground. I kept packing away, hoping we'd either break down again or God would send lightning to strike us down. If He really wanted us out here, he could have waited until we finished. After an hour and thirty-seven minutes, Dad dumped the last load. I packed it, then Dad climbed off on the tractor to pull off it. The unprotected block of cotton poured millions of puffs off its top. A drop of rain splashed the windshield as we pulled up the pickup to the end of the last module. Dad looked at me.

            "You think we can do this?"

            "Hope so," he said. I took a deep breath, opened the door, and leaned into the mud storm. I latched onto the tarp and climbed up on top of the cab of the pickup. The roof caved a little as a made my leap. As you can imagine, a module tarp is fairly large, and in 80 mile per hour winds, it catches some. Dad held one end of it while I unrolled the rest, crawling on hands and knees twelve feet in the air. I spread out flat to try to keep from parachuting into the next county. A burst of wind hit as I neared the other end, and I became the meat in a blue burrito, dangling off the edge of a small white cliff. I couldn't move. Dad was yelling something, but I couldn't hear him. I assumed it was "Hold on." Dad's hands were the only thing that kept me from falling and us losing the entire last module. I waited for what seemed like eternity to make my move. The wind regressed just long enough for me to roll over, smooth out the tarp to the other end, and swing down off the top. I cinched down the strap that held it on, and we were finished. Dad pulled around and I hopped inside as the rain started coming down in sheets.

            We drove home a little after midnight past a row of eight white rectangles with blue shower caps. My teeth were covered in a film of fine dirt, Dad's beard aglow from the lights on the dash, wisps of cotton streaming from his face that lit in his beard, finding cover in his wrinkled brow. As he squinted through the windshield, peering out into the dusty darkness, I realized I had never seen him so happy. Tumbleweeds raced each other across the road in the brown air, following in the same direction a flock of geese took just this morning. Dad turned up the radio.

            "Looks like the storm has hit, folks," Ken Gentry told us. "I wouldn't go outside tonight if I were you. Look for a high of thirty-five with an overnight low of twenty-two. Wind is out of the north at fifty-five with gusts up to eight miles an hour. Expect three to four inches of precipitation from showers throughout the day. Thank you for listening to KVRP, your voice of the rolling plains." I glanced over at Dad as he turned the knob. He didn't say a word, but his mustache said everything. I smiled with him the rest of the way home.

-- Lane Murphy