Harvest Time At Two Rivers, 1914

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The tractor took its usual stubborn time to start up after lunch, helped along by the men banging on it and cursing. Finally, Mr. Bergerson shouted: “Get going you crazy iron beast!” and it started. It went down the rows harvesting, me and the other kids picking up the sheaves that fell. I was 12 and in charge of the gleaners.

Suddenly, we heard an awful sound. The pulleys squealed; the thresher shook. Mr. Bergerson hadn’t heard it over the roar of the engine, so I ran up to tell him. We saw it when we came back: Bobby, his 7-year old son, stuck in the harvester, his right arm bleeding fierce. He must have climbed up there while we were eating.

Mr. Bergerson called up: “Bobby, you just hold on there. We’re gonna get you out.”

“It hurts, Daddy, it hurts,” he cried.

“I know, son,” Mr. Bergerson said. “You just hold on. We’ll get you down.”

The men and women shouted this way and that about what to do. Some yelled to back up the tractor. Some yelled for an iron bar to take to the threshing arm and free Bobby. Some just yelled. Finally, my father shouted for everyone to be quiet.

“Listen,” he said. “We’ve got to work together. Karl, you climb up and steady your boy, so he doesn’t slip and wrench that arm clean off. Mr. Ciola—you bought this contraption—did the man who sold it to you explain how to take it apart?”

Mr. Ciola looked as if he was hoping that he’d never be asked that question.

“Well let’s try,” Papa said. “We may be able to open it up and free the boy.”

Then papa said to me:

“Graciela, remember how you won the races at the county fair, how you even beat the boys?”

I shook my head up and down, but I didn’t know why he was asking.

“What do you want me to do, Papa?”

“I want you to run as fast as that day, all the way to Doc Richards. You run there, and tell him there was an accident with a tractor, and make him come back. Can you do that?”

“Papa, what if you can’t take the machine apart?”

“Don’t worry about that. You just run like the wind.”

I ran as fast as I could. Doc Richards was dozing behind his desk and I startled him when I started talking. He told me later that I sounded like a machine gun: rapid fire and hot, shouting “Bobby Bergerson got caught in the thresher and his arm is stuck and he’s real pale and I think maybe he’s dying, and you’ve got to come Doctor Richards you got to come right now.”

By the time we got back, they had made a platform under Bobby, so that his whole weight was not hanging on the arm that was caught. His father was holding onto Bobby and was whispering to him. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I could tell it was comfort he was trying to give.

Papa had torn off a piece of his shirt, and made a bandage around Bobby’s arm. He twisted a little stick to keep it tight. Bobby gave a moan of pain, and his father looked at mine.

“Don’t hurt the boy, Francis. Please,” he said.

“He’s lost a lot of blood, and we got to stop the bleeding somehow, Karl.”

The two men—my father and the father of the boy in danger—looked at each other. It was the first time I saw two men look with such tenderness and such sorrow. Papa reached out his arm and took Mr. Bergerson’s in a grip that had no force behind it but love.

Doc Richards climbed up, looked in Bobby’s eyes and listened to his heart. I thought he was brave to stick his hand all the way into the machine; when he brought it back, it was covered in blood. He turned and asked my father and Mr. Ciola if there was a way to take the machine apart. Neither man spoke.

Doc climbed down and motioned for Mr. Bergerson to follow. They talked privately, then Mr. Bergerson climbed back up. Doc got his bag and took out a bottle, some bandages and a little saw. I knew what was coming, and I knew I had been chosen to be a witness, but I did not want to. Many people had turned away.

“Bobby,” his dad said, quietly. “I need you to be a brave boy. We’re going to give you something that will make you sleepy, and then we’ll get you out, OK?”

“Are you mad at me, Daddy?” Bobby asked.

His dad ruffled his straw blond hair and smiled. It was a smile like a mighty dam: keeping all his tenderness and love on the outside, while holding back his own sorrow and anguish.

“Of course not, Bobby,” he said. “I’m proud of you. You’ve been so strong and so brave.”

“Daddy, are they going to cut off my arm?” Bobby asked.

It was only this year that I understood what that question means to a father, when we heard that my brother was missing in action in France. For Mr. Bergerson, it must have been doubly bad, since he was driving the tractor that pulled the thresher that ripped open his boy. It’s the kind of question hard to answer with a word, whether the word is a lie or a truth that will hurt even more. Mr. Bergerson leaned over and kissed Bobby on the forehead.

“Just hold on, son. It will be over soon,” he said.

Doc Richards opened the bottle and gave it to Mr. Bergerson, who poured it on his handkerchief and held it to his son’s face. Bobby shook furiously against his father’s arm, who did not waver. Soon Bobby dropped his head onto his chest. His father pulled the cloth away.

Doc put the saw to Bobby’s arm and began to cut. I had seen contests at the county fair, where men competed to saw logs the fastest, with crowds cheering. This was not that. Those who didn’t have their eye on Bobby had it on heaven, and lips, if they moved at all, moved silently.

I don’t know if the Doc had cut an arm off before, but he looked like he knew what to do. But then, he dropped the saw on the ground. It clanged and lay crimson against the chaff. Bobby’s arm was hanging—not by a thread but a wide flap of skin. The doctor paused and turned the remnant of Bobby’s arm this way and that, as if it were a new toy or tool he was trying out. I tried to yell at him to stop playing around. Instead a prayer came out. I do not know if I said it out loud, but what I heard—and maybe God did as well—was: “God, make him go faster!”

The doctor pulled a long scissors out of his coat pocket and carefully cut the skin that held Bobby to his captor. He folded the skin over the stump, wrapped it with the chloroform cloth and then the three of them—Doc, Bobby and his dad—came down the ladder quicker than angels, and went off in Doc’s wagon.

We did not harvest any more that day, and left the tractor and the thresher right there. Papa and I walked in silence most of the way home. We stopped at the big bend in the river to wash our faces and arms that had been dirtied with chaff and dust and the day’s troubles.

Bobby was in the hospital for a week. We got the harvest in before the snow, but the joy seemed to have blown away with the chaff. When Bobby came home, he said he could still feel his right arm at times, and that he found himself clenching his fist, a fist he no longer had.

Bobby had to learn to write with his left hand. He had to learn to tie his shoes and put on his clothes with just one arm. I heard there were lots of tears in the Bergerson house, for his father and mother refused to let him feel sorry for himself or give up. But I doubt they were as great as the tears on that harvest day, when the Bergersons almost lost and then got back their beautiful and wounded boy.

Papa says that when someone loses part of their body, some of their soul goes too. There’s a hole there, waiting to be filled up, with blessing or with curse. Sometimes we do the filling, and sometimes it’s done for us. Bobby was not a close friend before his loss, and hasn’t become one since. There are too many years between us, I guess. But there is a bonding, a wanting that rises between us. An emptiness waits to be filled in; and some nights, during harvest time, I can feel it coming in on the wind.