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By Staff | Sep 23, 2011

Autumn galloped in upon a shrill north wind last week, shrieking like a horseman of the apocalypse.

Frost suddenly appeared one morning and the next day the entire world smelled of freshly chopped corn silage.

The lonesome moan of a silage chopper grinding its way through the autumnal twilight is a sorrowful song that mourns the passing of summer.

When I was a kid, fall was a four-lettered word. This is because fall inevitably came with the three most hated words in the English language – back to school.

School! That awful place where I was forced to learn such useless things as the multiplication tables and the principles of the Dewey Decimal System.

Information regarding gerunds – are they some sort of rodent? – was pounded into my brain.

Most of this knowledge never served any useful purpose and was forgotten as soon as the school doors swung shut behind me.

In all fairness, I did absorb a few facts that were marginally useful and/or cool. For example, it was explained that the earth is skewed on its rotational axis, which causes the seasons to change as the planet plows its unending elliptical furrow around our nearby star.

This is also why the autumnal equinox marks our descent into the vale of shorter days and longer nights, a valley we won’t climb out of until after the ides of March.

Despite this and a few other mildly redeeming distractions – the main one being recess – I loathed school. I would much rather have been at home doing chores, even if it meant cleaning the gutter.

The arrival of colder weather meant keeping our herd of 26 Holsteins tied up in their stanchions at night.

This resulted in a gutter that needed to be cleaned every day, by hand, using a shovel, wheelbarrow and loader.

By the time I was 12 I was cleaning the gutter by myself. This task took 20 minutes if I did it alone, half an hour if Dad helped.

This is because Dad was fussy. He had to make certain that every last molecule of manure got shoveled into the wheelbarrow and plunked into the loader.

I often argued that it mattered not a whit if we got it all; within hours, the cows would return to their stanchions and commence to messing things back up.

Pointing out this truth did nothing to hasten Dad. In fact, I think it actually made him go even slower. I think he liked to torture me.

Once, while performing our gutter-cleaning duties, I broached the topic of pay. I told Dad that a person should be compensated in direct proportion to the odiousness of any particular task.

He thought about it a second, then said it was worth perhaps a nickel a day. I protested that this paltry sum didn’t even come close to compensating me for all I had to endure.

“No,” he said, “I mean you should pay me. It’s worth at least that much for you to learn everything I’m teaching you by letting you clean the gutter!”

As I said, I think Dad liked to torture me.

I recall one particular fall that descended uneventfully into winter. The days grew short and sunlight became a precious commodity, not at all like the daylight we had squandered so blithely in the summertime.

We were doing noontime chores when the sun began to dim noticeably. This was not unexpected; a partial solar eclipse had been predicted for that day and was arriving precisely on time.

The sky and the prairie snowscape became eerily penumbral; everything took on a lemony hue. It was as if we were on another planet, beneath a sky that held an alien sun.

Dad paused from chores to remark on the bizarreness of the light, wishing for a better understanding of that day’s celestial event.

I surmised that the eighth-grade education he received back in the ’30s and ’40s featured scant tutelage regarding astronomy. And even if it did, this was information he probably discarded as useless.

I trotted to the shop to retrieve the welding helmet.

We took turns holding the helmet up to the sky so we could peer through the dark glass and see the bite that the moon had taken from the shimmering cookie of the sun.

I explained to Dad that the moon has an inclined orbit and how this occasionally causes the moon’s shadow to sweep across select portions of the planet.

We stood and took turns gazing skyward through the welding helmet until the partial eclipse was all but over.

And when we cleaned the gutter later that afternoon, Dad made no mention of me owing him a nickel.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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