My son Willie and I recently completed our annual summer wheat harvest in the Helix area, something my family has been doing for roughly 132 years. At least two branches of my family now have members of the sixth generation participating actively in bringing in the crop. My just barely teenaged cousins are helping their fathers in the fields neighboring us and my daughter Annie proved, at 17, to be a perfectly capable machine operator as well. Son Willie began driving combine full-time at 11 and now, at 22, has spent more than half of his summers as a “header-puncher,” one of my favorite vernacular terms that we use in describing the various and sundry particularities related to harvest.
The word “combine” itself is an abbreviated reference to the machine which cuts and cleans our crop. Originally it was called a “combined harvester-thresher” because it consolidated the tasks of harvesting (or gathering) the crop with the job of threshing (or cleaning) it into one machine. Previously, a “pusher-header” with several horses or mules behind a cutterbar hitched in such a manner that they literally “pushed” the machine around the field was employed and attached to a conveyor which “loaded on the go” into a wagon, or “header-box,” which then hauled the crop to a “stationary thresher” to separate the wheat from the chaff.
We still sometimes “load on the go” in modern times, meaning we continue harvesting while a truck or a tractor-pulled grain cart drives parallel to the combine and empties the “bulker,” which is the hopper or tank on the machine that holds the threshed grain. It is an act of coordination that requires dexterity, caution and skill — but pales when compared to the old-timers running a “pusher” and a wagon together all day long. We can unload in a couple of minutes and only need to empty a couple of dozen times or so a day.
The term “bulker” came about when the switch was made from handling wheat in sacks (weighing about 120-140 pounds each) to moving it in bulk; this transition marked a tremendous savings in labor and grain-handling capacity.
“Hillside” machines, which adjust the combine to level on our hilly, undulating and sometimes steep terrain, have been extant for well over a hundred years but were fully automated and vastly improved with the advent of “self-propelled” outfits, which possessed their own means of propulsion and therefore were no longer pulled by a “cat,” the generic name applied to crawler tractors whether they were Caterpillar brand or not.
Amongst our family, we have, over the years, added certain descriptive terms or phrases to the vernacular vocabulary of harvest. For instance, every combine has a stone-trap near the cylinder (a main component of the threshing mechanism) to guard against damage resulting from ingesting a rock. While cleaning his machine decades ago, one of my favorite uncles found an old cowbell in the stone-trap; hence, we have always referred to it as the “cowbell trap.” I have a standing offer of $100 for anyone who could deliver that specific cowbell to me.
When preparing roads in our fields for the trucks to travel safely and avoid (hopefully) starting any fires, we will cut the stubble extremely low to clear hot exhaust pipes as well as spread a nice, thick layer of straw down for the water truck to wet thoroughly. We call this “shaving and paving” the road. If we decide to halt the combine and empty the bulk tank into the truck we are “loading on the stop.”
At night when we blow the day’s chaff and dust off the combine and prepare for “servicing” (greasing, re-fueling, repairing) we sometimes enjoy a slight evening breeze that will waft away the dust – a “service wind.”
Nowadays when we deliver grain to the elevator we are issued a card to swipe at the kiosk that records the amount of grain delivered each load. The first load, therefore, is when the truck driver “applies for a credit card.”
An extremely efficient means of harvesting for us is to cut a path to the center of a field and cut in the exact reverse order of how the parcel was seeded. This is “harvesting inside-out.”
During the course of summer harvesting, the weeds in our summer fallow sometimes reach a point when rod-weeding becomes necessary. If the air conditioner quits on the tractor in the heat of the day, we are “hot-rodding.”
Finally, when we are harvesting and we observe the neighbors moving their equipment past us to their next destination, we are witnessing a “harvest parade.” Whoever is in the lead vehicle with the flashers on, we refer to as the “grand marshal.” I told Willie over the CB radio that I have never had the honor of being grand marshal; for 30 years I’ve been on a big green float with John Deere painted down the side.