The Boondock Harvest 1966 by Larry Gibbs
2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Larry Gibbs made the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for The Boondock Harvest 1966.
You can read The Boondock Harvest 1966 below.
This story contains strong language.
I had absolutely no idea!
My name is Larry. Brian, a younger brother and I stayed back in Ottawa for the summer of 1966, when the rest of the family moved to Rivers, Manitoba. Dad had been transferred once again. Since Brian and I had jobs for the summer and places to stay, we did not relocate until late August, when we boarded a Greyhound bus direct to Brandon. Mum met us at the bus with the family Pontiac to take us the 25 miles northwest to our new home on the airbase… or so I thought.
When we arrived at the house, Brian was instructed to get out with his suitcase and go into the house, but I stayed in the car with Mum. She had a special destination for me!
After about two hours, in the late afternoon, we pulled into a scruffy farmyard surrounded by wheat fields and in the immediate supervision of an enormous, vicious black dog. The largest woman I had ever seen — who I am going to call Bertha — came plodding out of the house to greet us and with a quick bark at the dog, had it under control.
What to say about the sky? Big and deep blue are words that I have often heard to describe it, but they fall short.
This was not looking good!
Mum dropped me off with my suitcase, said, "See you in three weeks," and was away home in a cloud of prairie dust. My surprises were just beginning! Bertha, while nattering incessantly, grabbed my suitcase and carried it inside like it weighed nothing. Then the skinniest man I had ever met — who I am going to call Jack — came outside, walked me over to an ancient Fargo dump-bed truck, and said his first word to me, "drive." With a lackadaisical wave of his bony hand he had me drive around the yard to get a feel for the double-clutching monstrosity, then back to the original spot, following which, we entered the ramshackle building that passed as a house. A great slab of a table was laden with food, and Bertha encouraged me to eat up. Being so exhausted from the trip, the minute I was shown to the bed upstairs, I collapsed into the softest mattress on the planet, and was cocooned immediately to sleep in the clothes that I had on.
My next awareness was a thunderous yell from Bertha to get up. This was at what could only loosely be called morning, somewhere around 4:30 a.m. I splashed some water onto my face from a basin on the old wooden chest in the room and stumbled down to a delicious breakfast. At one end of the table there was a cavernous hamper and a large cooler.
These, Jack and I carried to the Fargo. The hamper contained a large portion of the food that had covered the table the night before, and the cooler was full of ice water. As it developed, we would not be returning until after dinner, so we were suitably equipped.
Jack proceeded to get into the passenger side of the truck and Bertha stayed in the house, so I reluctantly climbed into the driver's side, started the engine, and upon a hand gesture from Jack, proceeded to drive onto a lane heading away between the fields. As we drove along, in a gradual lightening of the dusty darkness, Jack pointed over to the side indicating a barely visible small cluster of sheds and spoke his second word, "grenry." I had the impression by now that I had better be paying attention. A few minutes later we arrived at one of his vast fields of ripened wheat, at which a combine was hungrily poised. Jack hopped down from the cab of the truck, sauntered over to the machine, climbed up, started it and proceeded to harvest the wheat. I guessed correctly, that I should turn off the engine and wait for further gestures.
Sure enough, the combine reappeared, having come once around the field and Jack beckoned me over. Again guessing, I drove the truck over to a spot underneath the auger spout that he had swung out. Jack then proceeded to empty the hopper into the back of the truck, pointed back along the lane, spoke his third word, "grenry," and started harvesting again.
This was not looking good!
I drove the cumbersomely laden truck back along the lane to the aforementioned cluster of sheds, which was out of sight of the field, and hoped that something obvious would be apparent. Fortunately there was a grain auger poised at one of the granary sheds. I scampered up the side of the shed in question to determine its capacity to receive more, and then came down to position the truck to dump into the hopper. This, of course, took several back up… jump out… check position… jump in… jockeying moves to get to where I hoped the tilting of the box would dump most of the grain into the hopper. Then I had to get the gas motor to start, figure out how to engage the auger screw, how to activate the dump mechanism on the truck, and stop it — all of which I finally accomplished with a healthy dose of trial and error. I think that I got about 60 per cent of the grain into the shed, the rest found a temporary resting place on the ground beside the auger, but now I was late for the return trip to the field, so I left it and raced back.
Of course, Jack had arrived ready to unload, and was sitting in the cab with his feet up, a stalk of grain hanging out of the side of his mouth, and the biggest ever shit-eating grin on his face! And not a word! I quickly positioned the truck and resolved to be always waiting for him from then on. Now that I had figured out most of the tricky stuff, I was able to do that, also reduce the spillage at the auger, and even rescue most of it. That first day I don't remember much other than the work. We must have eaten and drank, but it does not register. That night, well into darkness, we finally finished, and I sank easily to sleep again ready to start anew the next day.
Things were the same and also different. It was dark when we started, and dark when we finished. Work became a comfortable, although hot and dusty, routine. The difference was that I now got to appreciate the wonder of the prairies. Intense dark silhouettes of the combine, truck, and sheds which appeared in the morning against the stark yellow of the rising sun, and those same images taking form against the softer rosy orange glow created by the grain dusted sun setting in the West, are as fresh now in my memory as they were then.
What to say about the sky? Big and deep blue are words that I have often heard to describe it, but they fall short. When the sun appears lower on a cloudless late afternoon, bouncing it's warm light off the golden grain, you stand and look straight up, feeling unbounded, almost weightless, as if you could soar into that endless depth of blue. Adding white topped, pale grey-bottomed clouds to the same image provides a vivid contrast that only enhances the wondrous unique blue.
And the northern lights! On the second night and most nights thereafter, there was time to lie out on the top of the truck cab and get lost in the bright, cascading, gently waving curtains of light that seemed to fill the sky. Mesmerized, I would gradually have reality reassert itself when the combine approached.
This was looking good!
On the second night and most nights thereafter, there was time to lie out on the top of the truck cab and get lost in the bright, cascading, gently waving curtains of light that seemed to fill the sky.
I have this recollection that the day I arrived at Jack and Bertha's must have been the last Sunday in August, and that means that we were really into our routine by the following weekend, which would have been Labour Day weekend. Harvest does not usually include time off; you work according to the weather. But, Bertha said that as a special concession, I could have a phone call on Sunday. So, I made my one phone call! I called my mother. It was probably good that a week had passed, because my conversation would have been distinctly different on day one. At this point, I was so into the routine that I chose to make everything seem like there had been no issues, no challenges, no lack of communication, and no unrealistic expectations, just a normal job, in a normal place, for normal people. As a result, years later when describing this episode to my sister Sandy, she was completely shocked. Nothing had ever been said about it until then. As far as the family knew, I had a great harvest job at a great place, made extra money, and got the harvest exemption to start school two weeks late. What a lucky guy!
Midway through week two of my three week trial, we had our only break, if it can be correctly called that. Jack had ordered a part for his combine that had to be picked up in Brandon. The Fargo was the only road vehicle that they owned, so I had to drive us into Brandon; Jack to get the part, Bertha for the rare outing, and me because I was the only one with a driver's license!
Driving in a truck that only had farm plates, was not highway safe — in a cab designed for two adults — was not a break at all. Imagine climbing into the truck with Bertha sitting in the centre of the small bench seat, taking up two thirds. I was going to have to reach over one massive fleshy thigh, exposed by pulling up the skirt of her voluminous sack dress, to operate the floor stick shift, and don't forget the double clutching! When I asked Jack if I really had to do this, he replied with word number four, "yup!"
This was not looking good!
Jack got his part, Bertha had her outing, and I had the worst driving experience of my life. The bonus for me was that the hard work of the next week and a half was a dream by comparison. I don't remember how much I was paid, especially since it had been negotiated by my mother, but it was enough to augment my Ottawa summer earnings and purchase my first motorcycle.
Earlier I had discovered the secret of Jack's taciturn nature. Bertha spoke constantly and without a break, never saying much, but keeping herself company. She would talk at the vicious black dog, at any of the miscellaneous farm cats that had successfully avoided the dog, at the chickens, and even at us when we were nearby. She spoke so much and included enough discussion of activities that Jack only had to nod or shake his head to participate. On the day that Mum came to pick me up, Jack said words number five, six and seven to me, "You done good!"
I can credit this experience as a 17-year-old as the reason why, to this day, I am not afraid to take on any type of project. If my Harvest '66 trial didn't break me, nothing would!!
This was good!
Interviews with Larry Gibb
Read the other finalists:
- Slow Violence by Jenny Boychuk
- The Long Driveway by Kathleen May
- To the Uninitiated by Tracey McGillivray
- The Birthday Party by Emily Stillwell
About Larry Gibb
Larry Gibbs is the first of four children in a military family. Before leaving home, he lived in 13 different houses in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Yukon and Germany. He made a career in design and build construction but has sang, danced and acted in over 50 shows in community musical theatre. He is currently living in Guelph at his 47th address.
The winner of the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.