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Pink slip

In Northern Virginia and in our own Eastern Panhandle, November usually marks the arrival of the wind that will persist virtually unabated until April. Most of the corn is in, but a few fields remain standing. For those of us who are unable to quiet our imagination, it’s nearly impossible to do complex work on a machine in a brisk November breeze with a field of dry corn behind you. Go ahead — give it a try. You’ll soon find that no two breezes rustle the stalks in exactly the same manner, which can be very distracting.

Just as you’re getting used to what sounds like porcupines playing washboards the wind direction changes and brings the sound of a startled murder of crows taking off. What startled them? Thoughts of Van Gogh’s suicide and his painting Wheatfield With Crows depicting startled crows fleeing the sound of his planned fatal shot combine with Kinsella’s deceased baseball players who share space with Bradbury’s people turned into Jacks in the Boxes.

The wind changes again; spiders in tap shoes and chefs sawing watermelons — relaxing sounds.

This spell is soon broken as a fitful gust corkscrews through the field with the sound of a pouncing Bengal tiger pursued by Messerschmitts. The wind calms a little and foxes bark from deep in the field. The rustling of the stalks settles back into the steady sound of field mice fencing with tennis rackets.

Fortunately, the old Farmall C that I’m working on is anything but complex. The faded red tractor had sat in a barn unused for some years and had recently been delivered here by a rollback truck and left about six feet from this hundred-acre field of dry corn.

The tractor is a beautiful example of farm antiquity — old grease in the right places, a rusty sickle bar mower and faded original McCormick/Farmall decals. I would love to snoop around the barn from whence it came but am thankful to be working on it in this lonely, quiet setting. Quiet, that is, except for the corn.

The wind picked up again and I imagined Gypsies pirouetting through the field, tambourines held high while Union General McClellan checks out his pink slip. The backs of gray uniforms fade into the West toward Upperville. (This is, after all, site of the battle that got him canned.) This image is replaced by a childhood memory of the sound of a twister tearing through a Hunterdon County, N.J., cornfield. The low growl of the wind and the sound of stalks snapping off startles me enough that I stand and turn expecting to see corn leaves and tassels sailing a quarter mile into the sky.

Instead, I’m met with the sight of a green monster approaching me in the form of Tranco Farm’s huge John Deere combine. During the summer and fall, the tall corn had served to isolate my job site from the road and that lovely middle-aged female painter who would set up her easel at the far edge of the field.

Alone together on 300 acres before the corn grew tall — me with my tractors, she with her paints, within sight of each other, I sometimes felt as though we were in that iconic avant-garde ballet scene performed by Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Apparently an artist of some note, she had temporarily rented a nearby farmhouse for the express purpose of painting this particular farm scene. The painting was on display there for a short while until she returned to the city.

In the next few days, the shelled corn will leave in huge gondola trailers. The stalks will be baled and hauled away. The wind will then move silently over the bare fields in the low sunlight and long shadows. It’s time to start making peace with the cold and to remember a Union General, who, near this same field many years ago, was having a very bad week.

George McClellan would eventually seek the presidency only to be defeated. Meanwhile, his comrade-in-arms, Col. Lew Wallace, would make his mark in history by writing Ben Hur. This work would eventually culminate in the 1959 motion picture epic starring Charlton Heston with an incredible 50,000 extras. I found this movie to be tragic, endless and boring, MGM’s only redemption being that “Some Like it Hot” was being produced at the same time. With the corn and its myriad sounds now gone, old movies and Civil War history help one’s thoughts expand to fill this vast, lonely and quiet place.

If this were a movie, I would like to be played by James Stuart or Walter Brennan — Cagney’s too short.


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