Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sometimes Boys Look and Notice

One of the better money making opportunities for young kids in rural Iowa was walking beans. Beaning, as it was called, was actually weeding (of the beans). For a few weeks in the summer the opportunity to make much more than minimum wage was one which my younger sisters and I embraced, even though the work was dirty and difficult.

One year, by a stroke of luck, we managed to get hired on with a very tough, but well paying crew near Randolph, Iowa. We labored with a couple dozen or more young people, but at 12, 13 and 15, we were the babies of the group. Most days we divided up into two groups with the farmer’s wife taking one group and his son, who was about 19, taking another. My sisters and I were assigned to the younger group with the farmer’s wife. And the son would take the stronger, older kids. But we’d usually meet up with them around mid morning for our break and again at the end of the day. In beaning country, the end of the day, thankfully, was always 12 noon.

After meeting at the farm house promptly at 5:45 AM, we would climb in the back of an assigned pick-up truck. Then we were taken on what my dad would consider a scenic drive through farm fields and dirt roads before we eventually ended up at that day’s designated bean field.

During the drive, my sisters and I missed all the scenery as we would curl up together bracing ourselves against the wind. Even with our heads buried under our arms, our arms buried in our t-shirts, and our bodies pressed up against our legs, our teeth chattered the entire way. Our once combed hair in a neat ponytail would soon be a mangled mess as well. Hitting ruts in the dirt roads was inevitable so the ride did nothing for our tailbone comfort either.

Some mornings I marveled at how the dreaded windy ride felt so icy and miserable in the morning and yet was a cool welcome relief a few short hours later. I fruitlessly wished I could store up the cold air and dispense it throughout the morning as the sun would start to bake the farmland.

Once at the field, we grabbed our bean hooks and in a very organized fashion briskly walked the endless bean rows. We kept a keen eye for sunflowers, ragweeds, milkweeds, or the hard-to-spot button weed. When we came upon an unwelcome brier, we would quickly and expertly use the 5 foot long bean hook to slice the weed at the base, without slowing our forward moving pace. And so the weeds quickly fell leaving only beautiful round bean plants with small white blossoms standing in perfect rows.

The summer job had more hazards than the uncomfortable truck ride. At our parents' insistence, we wore long jeans to do the work, and the early morning dew from the maturing bean plants would soak into our jeans. Our pants would hang and stretch long, cold and heavy on our legs, making walking difficult. Inevitably mud would cake not only on our shoes, but the bottoms of our jeans as well. And since we were speed walking, the brisk pace in the wet, mud-caked jeans was even more of chore.

Our cold, wet, heavy legs were only temporary. As the morning heated up we quickly dried out and warmed up. We always warmed up much more than anyone would hope for.

Usually we wore gloves to mitigate the heavy calluses that developed on our otherwise tender palms. But the gloves became unbearably hot after a few hours, so sometimes (against Dad’s strict orders before we left home) we’d take them off and stick them in our back pockets. But as we sped through the thigh-high beans, the plant leaves would slice up our bean hook toting hands if we did not hold them high enough above our waist.

Once in a while we would come across a larger than normal weed and after a few tugs with the bean hook, we’d finally take it down. However the additional exertion sometimes caused us to continue slicing through the weed, through our jeans and into our leg. A little blood was part of the gig, so we kept walking; trying to make sure we were never the last one in our group to reach the end of a row.

While the work was anything but easy, by far our biggest obstacle was the sun and the heat. Most crews we had worked with in years past stopped for a water and graham cracker break once an hour. This crew stopped once every three hours.

The only thing that made it all worth while was getting a big paycheck. It was always handwritten by the farmer’s wife, while we waited in the shade of an old tree in the front yard of the farm house. After our Saturday shift waiting for our checks we'd often get our fill of lemonade and oatmeal cookies too.

But the job had other perks. Speed walking six hours a day, six days a week, made my thighs as lean as pretzel sticks. Since I spent many of my afternoons at the community pool, in the early eighties when dark coconut oil trumped sunscreen, I was quite tanned as well.

I maximized the look by wearing short shorts every summer afternoon. One day toward the end of beaning season I came home from another day of drudgery, and as usual showered and curled my hair. I put on a bit of lip gloss for a finishing touch. With all signs of dirty farm work erased, I dressed in tan cotton short shorts and a teal green knit polo top.

At my mom’s request, I then rode my bike up town to run an errand. After setting the used Schwinn against the white washed store front, I walked in. The old wooden door had a Christmas bell, holly included, hanging on it which jingled with each opening and closing. In the nearly empty, dimly lit mom and pop store I grabbed what I needed and got in line to pay for my purchase. Somewhere from the back room appeared the farmer’s son in a John Deere yellow and green baseball cap.

He took one look at me and then took a longer drink.

“Debbie,” he asked, as if he was not sure he recognized me, “Is that you?”

I was immediately offended. “How could he see me virtually everyday for a month and still not recognize me?” I wondered. But I was also terrified to have been spoken to directly by a nineteen year-old boy.

So I nodded in the affirmative.

“Boy, you look a shade different than you do in the bean field,” he commented still eyeing me from glossed lips to tanned ankle.

I was so embarrassed and confused I did not know what to say. All I could think of was that I hoped I looked different than I did as a the mangled hair, muddy mess that I was in the bean field. After a few moments of my dumb-stricken silence, he shrugged his muscular shoulders slightly, smiled, met up with his girlfriend, and walked out of the store.

The next Monday morning in the bean field I was suddenly bumped up to the older crew. This promotion meant I received a 50 cents an hour raise for the rest of the season. My younger sisters, on the other hand, remained with the farmer’s wife for the next couple weeks.

While my dad was proud, assuming his daughter’s hard work had caught the farmer’s eye, I realized it probably had a lot more to do with the eye of farmer’s son and my short shorts.


  1. Your sister MichelleMarch 31, 2008 at 10:06 AM

    Oh Debbie, I always suspected your life was more exciting than you let on. You can hardly blame me for wanting to read your diary as a child. Such a charmed life I only dreamed of.

  2. Michelle,

    That's exciting? Well, I guess for Sidney, Iowa, you are right. In fact, it was down right thrilling!


  3. ha! i imagine you didn't let on to your dad what had triggered the pay raise!:)

  4. Michal,

    Absolutely not! I was naive, but not dumb.


  5. As you tell the story, I can remember the feel of the muddy soaked jeans, that turned into dry muddy jeans by 11:30- your memory is as amazing as your story telling. I wonder if I could ship my kids off to Iowa to be on a bean crew when they get older. That was definitely a good way to learn how to work. I wasn't very good. I remember the farmer sometimes stopping his tractor to go back and get some weed I missed. It was a bit embarrasing. I was usually the last one to finish the row also. I was trying VERY hard- but still a pretty bad beaner.


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