It took two or three plodding strides to catch my balance after catching my work-shoe’s toe on the rock barely protruding from the barnyard. The long-gone voice of my father made a small chuckle emit from my lips, his sarcastic tone saying, “pick up your goddamned feet, old man.”
His echoing words were good advice, of course, and made me hear him during his last years cursing at his own inability to pick up his feet, so he wouldn’t trip on a rug or a field stone.
Whether a soul of my autumn years should remember to pick up my feet so as to not stumble on a somewhat hidden field stone that day was important, but inconsequential. While taking a moment to catch my breath and bearings in the barnyard, I considered how field stones have been tripping me in bad ways and in good ways since the youngest of my years.
The first memories I have of tripping on those rocks are among the earliest held in my rural being. They take me to the rock pile at our family farm over at Veefkind, the first of those rocks diligently picked from the land’s heavy loam to make more room for the crops on the farm built by my great-great grandfather Henry Veefkind.
There, I rested my young bones on those rocks during a spring day, them sharing with me the warmth they’d absorbed from the May morning’s sun. Our Farmall Super M buzzed in a nearby field with spring tillage under way, and our small Ford tractor hummed under my older brother’s guidance as it pulled our old green Oliver oats drill on another nearby field. Daydreams of me someday being grown enough to drive that farm equipment ahead of the dust-puffs they left hanging in their wakes were interrupted only by my curiosity about what treasures might lie within the rocks on my comfortable rock-pile place of rest.
My muscles responded to my curiosity by pushing my tiny hands to move one stone, and then another and then another. The stones pierced the air around me with razor-sharp clacks as I moved them from place to place on the pile. My senses worked to make note of the variety in sizes, though most had a similar weather-worn smoothness born of countless centuries of being moved in the farm’s soil and in being washed by so many years of rain.
And the colors.
Some of them had bright colors streaked within, and some had speckles of reds; some were fully muted red and some were tan and other shades to offset those of the dull gray I’d noted in the cloudy sky on a previous fall day.
I dropped one of the stones, and it firecracker-clacked hard against another, shattering a piece from its potato-shaped end. That required me to pick up the same stone and smack it against the others to see whether more might be prompted to break. I enjoyed the prehistoric stone-against-stone clattered hammering – an excitement that ceased when one of my forefingers found its way between my stone hammer and its anvil.
The stone pile’s deceit throbbed in my forefinger as I headed toward the farm-buildings to see what mischief I could find among chickens, hogs or Holsteins while older family-folks’ collective attention was directed toward the fields.
I’d return to the stone pile many times during that next year or two, often with the same treasure-seeking-broken-stone-hammering-finger-smashing results.
A couple more years passed until I was a ripe old 5-or-6-year-old. Early on a spring day at that age, I heard the directive that had seemed to never come soon enough: My father told me to climb aboard the spring-supported seat of our Farmall Super M and drive the tractor while the rest of the family picked rocks from the field and tossed them onto the wagon being pulled by the tractor.
The job was to hang onto the tractor’s steering wheel to assure that it didn’t veer much to the left or to the right. The machine was creeping along at the very slowest it could move, it in low gear with the throttle fully closed down. I could have reached the throttle, but had been admonished to not touch that lever lest my ass be warmed by Dad’s wide leather belt; there would be no stopping the tractor until my father re-boarded it with me because I couldn’t reach the clutch.
I drove while the others sweat, bent, straightened, bent, straightened and sweat in a process ad nauseam. I tired of trying to turn and watch the process behind me as I’d seen the older family members turn on the tractor’s seat to watch the equipment being pulled during other field-work, it all quickly becoming too boring.
The spring sun’s warmth eventually caressed my eyelids to a drooping slumber; I was jolted awake as Dad jumped onto the tractor to stop it because we’d reached the field’s end.
“Just go back to the house,” he said with a cock of the seed cap sitting crooked on his head pointing me on my quarter-mile walk back to the farm buildings where I worked to find more of my daily mischief among the chickens, hogs and Holsteins.
The seasons of being on the other end of the rock-picking process came soon enough and, while driving the tractor seemed boring, at least it wasn’t sweat, bend, straighten, bend, straighten and sweat in a process ad nauseam.
We managed to add a couple more generations’ worth of field stones and our own treasures onto the Veefkind farm’s rock pile during my years there, like so many farmers of that era wondering why the rocks seemed to be the best crops grown on the fields. And, while tedious, we realized the importance of that chore when we’d hear a rock clatter through the forage chopper’s blades, rendering the blades dulled and ineffective.
I’ve occasionally thought over the years about the rocks on that pile – about all the mysteries they held within themselves and within the pile. What had they experienced during the ages, and how had they formed; how did they find the surface of our farms’ fields and allow us to gather them to our barnyard pile?
I’ve occasionally thought about the stones’ individual beauty and how they could have been transformed into a beautiful wall or fireplace.
I’ve occasionally thought about how I should remember to stop at the Veefkind farm while I can, to gather one or two of the rocks to hold as a family heirloom in honor of my family’s toils on that land.
The Veefkind farm’s rock pile disappeared sometime during the last 40 years or so, bulldozed back into the soil and covered in the barnyard’s duff. Perhaps someday, though, some fellow in the autumn of life will be walking across that soil and catch his foot on one of those rocks again risen – the echo of an old man’s voice saying, “pick up your goddamned feet, old man.”
— Scott Schultz