National Geographic : 1972 Aug
battered straw and chaff are spat from the rear in a yellow cloud. Max's annual trek begins in early May, when his four combine-laden trucks, two pickups, and two house trailers for family and crew pull away from the Louder home, 11 miles from the Nebraska line, near Mankato, Kansas. Similar caravans from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma rendezvous on the plains of northwest Texas to follow the march of ripening wheat. Growl ing into golden fields, the army of iron locusts blitzes its way toward Canada at the rate of some 15 miles a day (map, preceding page). "In 1946, fresh out of the service, I bought a combine and came down here with my uncle, who had three machines," says Max, as we drive past the stucco city hall of Mun day, Texas, his annual starting point. "I haven't missed a harvest since." As I join his crew at selected points along the 1,750-mile odyssey, I see Max plot a course and deploy his equipment with Na poleonic precision. I watch his young crew men, bone tired and dust grimed, clomp into their trailer as late as 1:30 a.m. to grab a shower and a few hours' precious rest. Tem pers are rubbed raw by the hectic pace. But fatigue can be a balm as well. One day I circle a field in a truck with Viet Nam veteran Denny Mallard as he relieves brimful combines of their loads of grain. As the morning wears on, talk drifts to friends he lost in the war, and to months spent in a hospital for wounds that do not show. Shells shatter nerves as well as bodies. "I'm a lot better now, working out here," he says quietly. "It's good to be so busy." There are less busy moments too, with time to sit alone in a truck after night folds over a brilliant prairie sunset. Then harvest shows its tranquil side, in fields large enough to sweep the cobwebs from a crowded mind, under stars that dazzle in an ink-black sky. Tarantula Hints of Desert's Nearness Strange harbinger of harvest, a dark brown tarantula picks its way across the road, its legs arching and falling like the disembodied fingers of a piano player. "They start to crawl around this time of year, just before the combines come," says Floyd Bowman, a wheat farmer near Mun day. "Must be their mating season." I had always thought of tarantulas as desert, not farmland, creatures. In fact, how ever, the wheat country of northwest Texas 198 lies along the fringes of the arid Southwest. And in 1970-71, as happens with disturbing frequency, the desert seemingly has spilled into the neighboring prairies in a crushing drought. "This is going to be a lazy harvest down here this year," says Max, on a day when air borne Knox County dust dims the sun at mid day. "A lot of cutters didn't even come. But I figure it's worth it to keep my regular custo mers and break in a new crew." Rigid Rules Govern the Harvest Training begins immediately. The combines and trucks must synchronize their movements carefully to assure fast and efficient harvest ing in fields that range from five to nearly a thousand acres. Cutting in diminishing rec tangles (pages 210-11), the combines can run all day and into the night without stopping, if no breakdowns occur. Even the machine's 115-bushel bin is unloaded on the go, as truck and combine run side by side while a stream of wheat pours from harvester to hauler. When filled, each truck often must travel miles to town storage bins, wait in line to unload, then speed back to the field. Two-way radios in Max's vehicles crackle with instructions coordinating the entire operation. There are rules to be learned. "Don't park one vehicle behind another in the field," he lectures his crew of seven young men. "Some one may back into it. "Always leave the keys in the combines at night. I've heard of lightning starting a fire in a field, and when neighbors tried to drive the combines out, they couldn't start them. The machines burned up." Ramrod for the crew in Max's absence is his 22-year-old son-in-law, Mike Grout, a col lege senior and one of three veterans of last year's harvest. The two others are Charles (Matt) Dillon, also 22, of Superior, Nebraska, a redhead as rawboned as his television name sake, and Dick Wiggans, a quiet, capable 23 year-old from Chanute, Kansas. Of the other four crewmen, three are Mid western farm boys. The fourth, another red head, is known to his crewmates only as Brick. He is a long-haired young man from North Carolina whose last job, he says, was "helping organize Mayday peace demon strations in Washington." Brick's fire-red ponytail draws sidelong glances from crew members, longer looks from Texas townsfolk. But success in the wheat field follows a physi cal rather than a philosophical route.