Riding out the storm in the basement near the fruit cellar
Mychal Wilmes recalls riding out storms in the basement and the difficult decision of whether to pony up the money for crop insurance in the days before it was a part of the farm bill.
Crop insurance — long before it became a key provision in farm bills — was a coverage decision that Dad wrestled with each year. The cost was considerable, and the fields had not recently suffered hail damage.
There were exceptions. A storm piled hail stones so deep that shoveling was needed before the milk house door could be opened, and corn and soybeans were shredded.
A tornado ripped through the farmstead, sparing the barn and outbuildings but sending hay wagons against the pasture’s electric fence a quarter mile away. Two racks were wrecked, trees were felled, and escaped Holsteins mangled the corn.
Mother — in her role as protector — had alerted us in the night that a tornado warning had been issued. We groaned when her command from downstairs to head to the basement. Older boys got away with saying they were not going to move, but my brother and I had no choice.
Although the basement was dark, it was cooler than our bedroom. The single upstairs fan was in our brothers’ room — we were left with an open window and sweat. Dad lacked patience with complaints and said that we had it so much better than he did in the searing summer of 1936, which was a drought year with record-setting heat. It was best then to sleep outside then because the house was like a furnace. Marsh hay was scarce and corn plants barren. The pigs ate cow pumpkins and cows low-hanging branches cut from willow trees.
The basement brought us closer to the fruit cellar, where peaches and pears in wood crates and wrapped in soft tissue were ripening. Mother allowed us to have one of each while we waited out the storm. We had helped ourselves before, which caused Mother to say that unless we stopped there would not be enough left to can.
Lightning danced across the night sky, thunder rolled, and the wind howled, which inspired Mom to lead us in a few “Our Fathers” for our protection.
Heavy rain fell through the night, which made it easy to track the Holsteins that spent the darkness marauding through the corn. Dad said it was good that it was corn and not clover. Decades before, a neighbor’s cows had escaped to a field of clover. Clover is good feed, but cows that overeat on it can bloat. Dad learned that the cure for bloating involved force feeding warm lard down a suffering bovine’s throat.
The storm and crisis passed, and since it was mid-August the county fair was about to start. For reasons never fully explained, Dad would not allow us to join 4-H, which was a big part of my relatives’ lives. However, he allowed me to spend a day with them at the fair.
Mother pulled $2 from the egg money and cautioned me not to lose it or spend it all on Midway rides. If doled out carefully, the money could be cashed in for a ride, corn dog, and perhaps cotton candy. My nephews did not operate under such strict financial restraints. It was easy to complain, but Mother would not hear of it.
You have a good job to do, she said.
Since it was August, the gooseberries that grew wild in the pasture were ready for picking. Most of the pushes grew across the creek and in the shade where mosquitoes were most rabid. It takes a long time to pick enough gooseberries to make a pie or sauce.
It was a bad job that was good to be done with. There was an awful something else that had to be done. Mother and I would have to go to town to buy new shoes for school after a barefoot summer suddenly passing like an August storm.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.