One fine summer day as I rode the tractor in a field about three miles from the home place, a car gleaming with a fresh wax job swept past, its driver honking and several of its passengers waving.
The car belonged to my uncle, who headed for Pierre with most of his family. President John F. Kennedy was scheduled to dedicate the Oahe Dam, just completed across the Missouri River about six miles north of the capital city. The dam was ready to start churning out electrical power, and the president was going to kick things off. The day was Aug. 17, 1962.
I’m not sure why I the image of that carload of relatives speeding merrily toward Pierre remains so clear. Perhaps it was how happily they waved as they passed me by. Perhaps it was envy at the idea of them seeing an actual president of the United States in person, even if they probably got stuck well back in the crowd at the dam. Perhaps it was simply that they were on their way to somewhere and I was stuck in nowhere.
While I clearly remember that moment, I don’t have a clue why I was out in that particular field. It was a nondescript little piece of land. It lay a fair piece from most of the other fields and pastures owned by the Woster Brothers farm partnership, a mile from Hamiels to the west and the same distance from Ericksons to the south. The farthest corner of the field was pretty close to the bordering road, and in my memory, I was right up next to the fence, close enough to the passing car to see the excited faces of some of my cousins.
I’m guessing I was running a drag or disc over the land, killing any stray weeds that may have popped up since the last time my dad sent me over to work that field. We were big into fallowing in those days. Every few years after we’d grown some crops on a piece of land, we’d plow the weeds and stubble under and let the ground lie unplanted for a summer. The idea was that the land would refresh itself and come back ready to produce good crops.
Part of the business of fallowing out where we lived was ripping out by the roots every single weed that had the temerity to grow in that otherwise empty field. The way I understood it (which could have been incorrectly, because I didn’t pay much attention to the why part of farming), if a person kept weeds out of the field, the moisture would stay in the ground. My dad was a fanatic about keeping weeds out of our fallow fields, so I was out there knocking them down and turning that soil a lot of the time later in summer.
All of that soil-turning may sound messed up today, but I guess it made sense back in the 1960s. After all, I’ve read in South Dakota history books about how “the rain follows the plow,’’ which meant to some early settlers that if they broke up the sod on the prairies, rain would turn that earth into productive crop land.
Getting back to the original story: I was most likely fallowing that day in the field while my relatives were heading off to see an actual president. A lot of folks were in Pierre that day, dignitaries, school kids, farm families, Army Corps of Engineers officers, marching bands and honored speakers. In the days after the event, I heard some fascinating stories about the moment. People shook hands with Archie Gubbrud and George McGovern and all sorts of other big names. I even heard that one kid from over west got to shake hands with JFK himself, but I never knew whether to believe that one or not. Seems far-fetched, doesn’t it?
What I do know is that, sitting on the tractor, I decided that going to see a president made a lot more sense than working in a farm field. Maybe that’s when my career as a government news reporter got its start.