- Historic Sites
A Summer’s Wait
A young poet’s memories of the old rural America in whose fields he worked for two sunny months while awaiting the call to service in the First World War
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
The surrounding country was handsome, I thought. Prom the north 40 the prairie sloped gradually but uninterruptedly off to the southwest, where I could see Ogden through the haze of a summer’s day. To the northeast the country was still higher, so that I could not see what I was always conscious of—the shaded road that ran straight north from Hope a mile and then turned east on the way to Potomac. I was truly in love with all that land. I am homesick for it now, so that it is difficult for me to write. It seems to be the truest land on earth; it is all impregnated, I like to believe, with my father, my mother, and myself—my mind, my eye, my conscience, my soul seem most at home there. I have been thinking, these past unhappy weeks in New York, that I should do best by dropping my pretensions to literature and returning to that farm, as Frank returned to Villa Grove. It is surely an illusion I have; I would do wretchedly there; yet the desire I have is very great, and it hurts me very deeply.
The man in charge of the farm that year was Oscar Bowen, who had never lived more than 10 miles away, but who considered that he had come pretty far from home to work, his home being Fithian, 8 miles to the south. He was a big, ignorant, red-headed boy. He ate far too fast and too much. He worked very hard by fits, but thought little, and often did not work when work would have counted most. He thought it incumbent upon him as father of a family to be short with his wife and two baby girls; but he was never, so far as I could observe, positively unkind. He had no other idea of how to “manage” his older baby, a girl of four, named Lavonne (why, I never could guess), than that, though it could scarcely be called an idea, of yelling to her across the barnyard some senseless prohibition, and then forgetting what he had prohibited. He was headlong and heedless. The horses were a little distrustful of him, though he never abused them. He had no iniquitous habit other than eating too much, and perhaps spending too much for candy. His loftiest ambition was to own an automobile. At first he drove one of the horses to Royal, four miles away, or to Fithian. Becoming irked by the spectacle of so many automobiles on the road, and so few horses, he put all his money into an old Ford, and rattled proudly to town in that. He had very faulty teeth, which he was always picking. He had a wild good-nature in his eye. He was always merry with me, and as speculative as he knew how to be. He had a few ideas which he repeated with profane emphasis day after day. He was as strong as an ox one day, and the next, on account of some gorge of the evening before, would be as weak as a cat. He repelled most men, being the last thing from diplomatic and being overproud of a little vein of sarcasm which he happened to possess. The exercise of this, with the accompaniment of a red-whiskered, unreflecting leer, soon drove a sensitive farmhand from the place. As most farmhands are sensitive, Dad was beginning to be alarmed for the progress of the crops. For this reason, perhaps, he was glad to have me there. He knew I would not leave. I should make it plain, however, that Bowen and I were always on excellent terms. Whether this was because I was the son of his employer, or because he did not happen to dislike me, I cannot say; nor am I anxious to know.
His wife was of about the same age as he—perhaps 26. She was tall, thin, and pale, with a goitre that worried her and made her miserable. In spite of that, she was as kindly as she had time to be. She was scarcely more prudent than he, though she was less oblivious to certain amenities of living. She worked hard, and was frequently tired, but she did not forget to be proud of her family, or to be considerate of the hands. She was an excellent cook, but had neither the strength nor the imagination to make her table a delight. She seemed hardly to know the meaning of variety; we often ate fried eggs at all the three meals of the day; and the gravy which she offered us in place of butter was an unvarying deathly white in color. I never minded this, and would have gone without eating rather than tell her. She cooked certain things in season like a master. I remember the perfect cherry pies which she brought out to us in the oats field; still warm, and the flaky crust just beginning to be saturated with the juice of the fresh cherries. She had inherited a kind of whine from her mother, perhaps; for the older generation of country wives all whined. She was always kindly towards me—not from policy, I am convinced, but because I offered her a kind of courtesy she had not known in her husband, perhaps in any other man. I do not mean to imply that I lavished knightly attentions upon her; I simply treated her with respect, and never deviated from a certain mean of deference, or ceased to show a certain modicum of concern for her own self-respect and comfort.