- 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
As hands on the farm at that time were Roy Moler and Lowell Thomas. I slept with them in the south room upstairs, as well as worked side by side with them each day, with the result that I knew them pretty well. Moler was a professional hand, who had spent some four or five summers in Illinois. His home was Ohio. He had grown up in a timber country and had known little else than hard labor since a boy, plowing or harvesting in the growing seasons and cutting timber through the winters. He had come out to Vermilion County in the belief that farm wages were higher there. He had spent one summer near Rankin, and two or three more in the vicinity of Hope, at Aunt Lizzie Tillotson’s and elsewhere. He was twenty-nine years old, and consequently a registrant for the draft. He was neither tall nor broad, yet his figure had a staunch, firmly settled cast, denoting dogged strength. His face, very red in the lower half, shaded into a veritable white at his forehead, which ran well back before it found his black hair. He had a quiet countenance, though it was far from being composed. He was self-conscious and sensitive in almost a painful degree, with all the reserves yet all the claims of a hired man. It was always a nice point with him what constituted an insult sufficient to render his employer insufferable. I don’t know how many times he was offended to no one’s knowledge, but I remember that he worked out a number of delicate cases in conversations with me. Dad, who came out often, did not understand this, and on several occasions brought Moler to a point of rebellion by a hasty or perhaps a contemptuous command. Bowen had no judgment in such matters and succeeded in keeping constantly sore a spirit which he had not the inclination to analyze. Moler told me towards the end of the summer that he had stayed only on my account. I have no idea that he meant all of that, yet we were excellent friends, and we exchanged many confidences in the south room upstairs at night, after we had blown out the lamp and were lying flat, without covers, on the warm sheets of our beds. He had a few naughty stories, had had a few naughty passages with the other sex, and had often been in love in the futile way of farmhands. He owned a horse and buggy, of course, and had driven many a girl to church, or to “socials,” or simply about the country on a Sunday evening. He had stolen many a kiss, and felt occasionally a plump breast. More than that I am convinced he will never do, and even that was hard to envisage, in view of his soberness and want of countenance in critical moments. I think he took those liberties with girls because he understood that they were traditional, and I have no doubt he pursued such solace as they afforded him in a very methodical manner. He had a good memory for characters as well as for events, and he entertained me for many an hour with accounts of Jim S—, for instance, and his five buxom daughters. Jim was a renter who lived north of Hope. He was pure animal, I suppose, for he lived only to sit at good meals and lie by rosy females. Among these last were to be numbered, according to Moler, his wife, all his daughters, and as many of the girls in the neighborhood as he could “get around,” as the saying was. He performed his rites anywhere—at home in bed, out on plowed ground, in the barn, at the foot of a straw stack, or on any convenient spot of ground. He spoke of and to his daughters in precisely the same language, said Moler, that one uses of mares and ewes. He was a German by parentage, if not by birth. Moler, like most farm hands, and indeed like countless young men over the country, treasured a sheaf of dirty songs which he had taken down from various lips, and which he read to me one night.
I have perhaps done Moler an injustice—at least I should be unfair to him if I stopped here. Along with this pornographic vein in him, which possibly was inevitable in view of a conviction he entertained that he would never have enough money to marry, went a really various and humane interest in affairs, so far as he knew them, in habits of life other than he had ever known, and in certain matters of speculation. He liked to hear from me of New York, and it was always pleasant to exchange platitudes with him on such subjects as love and religion and labor and wealth and travel and right and wrong and death and burial.
Lowell Thomas was the adopted son of Aunt Mollie and Fred Thomas, who kept a store at Royal. He was a slim and rather complicated youth of 14, with greenish-grey eyes that were strangely shallow, and denoted, I thought, some deficiency behind. He was an impulsive little fellow, and he too hated Bowen. He was fond of both Moler and me because we seemed to recognize such qualities as he had. I was truly sorry for him, since even his foster parents were too short with him, and he seemed never to be received anywhere with perfect consideration. He made the most of Moler’s and my own confidence, communicating little secrets to us and begging us to keep them, or perhaps stealing candy or cookies from the store at Royal and bringing them to us on Sunday evening or Monday morning. He had a furious temper, and could not quite be trusted with nervous horses. He plowed corn with a team of old, gaunt mules who had tough mouths and not much concern for Lowell. More than once I observed him sawing in rage upon their reins in an endeavor to hurry them along or return them to the furrow, and, that failing, run around in front of them and traduce them with shouts and curses and tears and fists and clubs and clods—they lazily blinking all the while or at most only drawing back in disdain. Dad discharged him a few weeks after I arrived, as soon as the corn was laid by.