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By Staff | Apr 22, 2016

Somewhere in a dusty family photo album is a snapshot of a 9-year-old me working on our disc harrow. I’m wearing a tattered pullover that I loved so much, my parents eventually had to have it surgically removed.

It was an early-spring morning when that photo was taken. Even though it was too soon in the season to even think about field work, I was readying our tillage equipment. This consisted of a disc harrow that was so ancient its previous owner may have been Fred Flintstone.

I couldn’t wait for that particular spring to arrive because Dad had said that he would let me drive the tractor all by myself. I saw this as a mark of manhood, on par with strolling into a bar, ordering a shot of redeye, tossing it back and exclaiming, “That’ll put hair on your chest!”

And I would know this to be true because driving a tractor would have given me enough chest hair to scare off a sasquatch.

As with many transformative experiences, several obstacles first had to be overcome. Chief among these was fanning oats.

If you don’t know anything about farming, the term “fanning oats” might not sound so bad. One might envision a pile of grain reclining on a fainting couch while an attentive friend fretfully flaps a towel.

Fanning oats is a process wherein the grain is cleaned to make it suitable for planting. It’s true: we had to clean the oats before we could put it into the dirt.

We cleaned our oats with a fanning mill, a boxy contraption that was about the size of a Yugo, only more complicated. The fanning mill contained an intricate system of shakers and screens with – surprise! – a large fan at its core.

Our Norwegian bachelor farmer neighbor Martin came over one hot spring day to fan oats with me. Martin was considered – mostly by himself – to be an expert in operating complex devices such as fanning mills.

He was also unsurpassed in the field of muttering imprecations under his breath, an essential skill for all farmers.

We muscled the wooden fanning mill next to a bin of oats in our wooden granary. Martin bolted an electric motor onto the top of the mill and tried to thread the wrong V-belt onto its pulleys.

The ensuing struggle caused Martin to grumble something that sounded like “cheese and cats.”

But he quickly solved the problem and we began fanning operations. Martin stood in a bin of oats and doled grain into the top of the mill. Clean grain drooled out of the bottom of the mill at the rate of roughly one shovelful per minute. I feared that the small grain planting season might be over by the time I had scooped the required 80 bushels of cleaned seed into the waiting wagon.

The granary was cleverly designed to stifle all airflow. Itchy oat dust filled the air and found its way into every sweaty crack and crevice.

Forget water boarding; if the CIA wants to extract information from a suspected terrorist, they should threaten him with a handful of oat dust.

Every few minutes, Martin would clamber out of the bin to check on the fanning mill. He would stand behind the mill, where the choking dust was the thickest, and peer into the belly of the machine.

Taking a deep drag from his unfiltered Lucky Strike, he would mutter something like, “clod ram it!” or “iced all nightly!”

I played it cool while secretly striving to absorb every nuance regarding the things that Martin said and did.

By the time we finished fanning oats, Martin and I had coughed up enough grain dust to grow a bushel of carrots.

Dad finally decreed our fields ready for tillage. I sat astride our John Deere A alone for the first time, the well-lubricated old disc hitched to its drawbar.

I slipped the tractor into gear, engaged its clutch and began jostling across the field. The disc bounced along behind me, slicing dead corn stalks like brown salamis and tossing up coils of moist earth.

In all of my nine years, I had never felt so manly.

Dad had warned me about the swamp at the far end of the field. But I reckoned that a real man would steal as much land as possible from the ducks.

I edged the tractor closer and closer to the bog. Suddenly, one of the A’s back wheels plummeted into the mire. The tractor was stuck tighter than a cork in a champagne bottle.

But I knew exactly what to do. I dismounted the A, stood back and, hands on my hips, muttered, “Got all muddy.”

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

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