WOSTER: Hello again, droughtFor those of a certain age, no re-introduction necessary.
I was poking gentle fun at a reporter doing a live shot near a field of corn turned yellow-brown by drought when it hit me: South Dakota probably has a huge number of people who have never experienced a drought-burned corn field.
The state has changed enormously since I was a farm kid. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, most of the people I knew were farmers, farm kids or children of men and women who had grown up on farms. Even the kids who lived in town were close enough to farming to understand what a rainy spring and summer meant and what a dry spell like the one this year could do to any and every crop.
I was talking the other day with my friend Mike. He’s a state senator these days, but he grew up in Lyman and Brule counties, and he worked for his dad, Ab, at Shanard’s Elevator in Reliance when he was a young boy. I had written something a while back about trucking wheat to that elevator as a farm kid and running into Mike. He was a few years younger than me, but he already knew how to make a heavy scoop shovel direct golden rivers of wheat from the truck box to the grate in the floor of the elevator. There were few kids in those days who didn’t know the value of the wheat harvest. A good many of them hired out to farmers, combiners or elevator operators when the race was to get the crop into the bins before the next hail or wind storm took the year’s profits.
In that recent column, I referred to Mike as a city kid or something like that. (We have a deal. As a state employee, I call him Senator on first reference, as a show of respect for the office. He lets me do that, as long as I revert to Mike for the rest of the conversation. It works.) The reference to city kid tickled him, but for a kid who grew up eight miles from town as one of seven people in a four-room house (not counting the indoor bathroom, and I emphasize indoor), anyone who lived in Reliance, or Kennebec or Presho, for that matter, was a city kid.
City kids grew up in places where some of the streets were bordered by sidewalks. Not many small-town streets had curb and gutter yet, not in those days. Still, a real sidewalk that stretched all the way around a block was an impressive sight for a farm boy. I grew up thinking of Mike as a city kid.
City kid he may have been, but I guarantee he remembers probably as well as I do what it looks like and smells like to stand in the middle of a field of corn that hasn’t had a drop of rain since mid-May, what it sounds like when the harsh breeze pushes the brittle, curling leaves around and what it feels like to catch the heel of a work boot in a crack in the dry soil and have the earth open enough so the whole boot drops three or four inches below the surface. It’s unforgettable.
I used to lie in front of the radio console in the evening and read Jules Verne. Sometimes in the dead corn fields of a drought-year August, I’d step in one of those cracks in the ground and have a vision of a fissure that led, well, to the center of the earth. I had a vivid imagination as a kid, but Lyman County had vivid droughts.
I don’t need a live shot from the edge of a field to tell me what the drought is doing to farm country this summer. Others, many others these days, I suspect, didn’t grow up on the farm or in a small town that existed because of the farms around it.
For those folks, the images from the live shots probably are necessary if they are to begin to understand what’s happening out there. And this is a drought that farm country needs city folks to understand.