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Setting the Water

When I go back now I sleep alone in the bunkhouse, a low, dark room over the cellar.  It's not much like a bunkhouse in the movies, but that's what it's been called for generations, going back to the day when hired men came on horseback, staying until the haying was done.

When I was growing up here, the high school boys who were our hired men drove up in fabulous old cars. I remember a big black Buick with doors that had to be wired shut; I remember a red and white Chevy with a smooth spool of greenish glass installed on the steering wheel.  The guys called this a suicide knob, and joked about it in ways that were over my head. I did understand that the knob allowed you to drive with one arm around your girl, but I never worked out how suicide came into it.

Let me see in a document I don’t care about if I can find out what is happening. 

Is it possible that there is something wrong with that document?  

The troubles don’t seem to be happening here..  

I am writing just fine with none of the probs   What could that mean? I will continue writing in this document, that I don’t really care about spoiling.  Why am I able to write here but not in the other one.  

But they drove home at night and so there was nobody to sleep in the bunkhouse.  It had been neglected for years, filled with a jumble of bundles and boxes, hot and dense with the smell of rotting paper and mouse droppings.  Still I used to go up to secretly to look at my mother’s things, her old sorority magazines, her diaries. She had been a beauty from the South and though she was present throughout my childhood, she remained a mystery to me. I didn't learn much from her diaries, however.  They contained nothing but the events of farm life. A typical entry would say only: "Colder. Did two loads of wash. Two bummer lambs died.”


Now, grown, returning from my life in the city and sleeping alone in the bunkhouse, I have trouble waking up, drugged, even on a July morning, by the pungent darkness. When I finally come to, I hurry to dress because I had meant to have breakfast with my dad. But when I climb down the ladder, he has already eaten, and is sitting on the back porch pulling on his knee-high rubber boots to go irrigate.  

We are up in the hills here, the high desert of Eastern Oregon.  Before the whites arrived, nothing but sagebrush and tumbleweed would grow. In fact, those travelling the Oregon Trail passed quite near here but never stopped.  Even though they were exhausted by the time they got this far, one look at the arid hills was enough to tell them they had to push on.

But later on people did come into this country after it was opened up by gold mining. One such person was my great grandfather who'd ridden west from Kentucky, then got a job driving a freight wagon to one of the mines.  Once out here, he and some others got the idea of digging two irrigation ditches, climbing them up out of the valley to the icy waters of Eagle Creek that drains the high snow-covered mountains.

Ever since then and all summer long, somebody on our place—now it’s my dad—has had to go out several times a day to direct the water that whooshes through the ditches, turning it onto this field, turning it off that, creating a green oasis amid the dry hills. 


  “Ride down with me,” my dad says now.

When he was a young man and I was a toddler, he didn't drive but walked out to irrigate, swinging along with his shovel over his shoulder, bronzed and muscled in the tight white T-shirt he had learned to wear in the Air Force. I thought him the most beautiful sight in the world. 

Sometimes he would take me along, lifting me to his shoulders, where I would ride high in the sky, clinging to his blond curls.  When he got to the ditch, he would set me down on the bank. While he took his shovel and did whatever irrigating was, we would talk about this and that.  When we talked he would usually try to slip in some far-fetched story to see if I would fall for it. It was his pride that I never did. 


Now he drives his beat-up old pickup to irrigate, but still proceeds at a walking pace, his boot barely touching the gas.  He drives so slow we can hear the yellow road-side weeds pop in the heat. We can hear the tires crunching on the gravel; we barely raise a dust.  We creep along the valley floor, the fields shining around us. As one always does, we raise our eyes to the tan foothills that lie like sleeping lions all around us, and behind them the  snow-capped mountains.

“Look,” he says. “There go the Indians.”

He points to a jagged line of mountain tops.  It was his mother, one of the first white children in the Valley, who said that the line across the horizon was Indians marching. By my time, it was a well-worn family saying.  But when my grandmother was a child it was a perception born of fear; this valley had been part of Chief Joseph’s domain and thoughts of the Nez Perce still frightened children.


Everything here is timeless.  Yet we are changed. For one thing, it's the first time I’ve been back since my own mother has been gone.  After she left, my dad, a daredevil pilot in World War II, kept wrecking his pickup, sailing too fast around mountain curves. When I heard of these wrecks, I imagined him flying the old pickup out over Powder River, young and fearless again, that old crazy grin lit up by the green dash light.

Recently I’ve had a breakup too, and have myself started driving too fast, late at night through the city streets.  But I never had his nerve. I never wrecked anything. I never even got a ticket.

Now we go as slow as you can without killing the engine, crunching a quarter of a mile down the gravel county road.  I remember my dad as always being a rush, hustling to make a go of the little piece of land he had inherited. I don't know if he's slowed down now, what with everything, or if he's just giving me the chance to take it all in:  the mountains, the fields, the immense blue dome of sky that I seldom glimpse amid the prison walls—as he can’t help but see it--of the city.


Finally we turn into the lane that goes between our field and Baxter’s. We’re going south now, guarded by tall corn on either side. 

Baxter is somebody new to the Valley, one of the type that sometimes comes from California; they’ve retired from a job and have money to buy a farm. Everyone understands it's the best way to farm these days, not needing to make a living off of it. 

But I know from my dad that Baxter is more serious as a farmer than most such arrivals.  Now my dad points out for me to admire the concrete irrigation ditch on Baxter’s side of the lane.  On our side there's still the mud ditch, close to a hundred years old and so welcoming to mint and quack grass that every spring my dad has to hire a high school boy to help him dig it out.

“Is Baxter a good farmer?” I ask.

“You bet he is.”

“I guess it helps to have the money.”

“I don’t care,” my dad declares. “He’s a hard-working son-of-a-gun.

“His corn isn’t better than yours is it?”

My dad studies Baxter’s corn with a look I’ve often seen.  On Sunday afternoons we used to go for a drive around the Valley, my dad critiquing other farmers’ corn. In the end it had to be acknowledged: his was the best.

“No,” he says now.  “Baxter’s corn is no better than mine.”

We creep down the lane.  We smell the corn; it’s a hard, dry smell like broken rocks, not like anything that could ever be eaten.  But when the corn is chopped and put in the pit silo for the winter, it changes, begins to ooze juice and give off hot steam.  When I was little, I would go with him to feed the cattle, playing around while he pitched the silage into his wagon. He'd put me on the tractor seat to "drive" while he went back and pitched the feed out to the cattle.  He was proud of this especially nutritious, scientifically produced silage, and would always offer me a piece of fermented corn to chew like chewing gum. He would never fail to warn me not to chew too much or I might get drunk.  I would always put it in my mouth though I already knew I couldn't stand the pungent sour taste for more than a couple of seconds.

Now he comes to a stop in the middle of the lane, climbs out and walks over to his cornfield.  I stay in the pickup, looking out the open door. He reaches up to the top of a corn stalk with his shovel.  It is about a foot higher than the shovel can reach.  

“See,” he says.  “This is how tall they should be.”

He measures a few more stalks to make sure they are tall enough.

As he stands measuring with his shovel, I see, as if for the first time, how small he is, not much bigger that I am.  Otherwise he looks like I remember him, his skin red and hard over his face bones. His grin, as always, is a little sideways. He was embarrassed about his teeth, my mother once told me, because they weren't straight. I was astonished to hear it; I thought his strong, shiny teeth were beautiful. 


If you really want to check up on your corn, though, you can’t stay on the edge of the field; you have to go inside to see how it grows there.  So he pushes the leaves aside and steps in, calling back, “Come on.” I get out of the pickup and follow him, though I don’t really want to. I know that inside it will be a dark jungle where the sun can’t reach.  The big sticky leaves snatch at your head and shoulders; they make a fierce clatter in your ears as you try to walk.

Though cutting across the cornfield was a shortcut home from our "bottom," I used to be afraid I would get lost in there and, maddened by the noise, never get out.  Afraid that I would just crouch down frozen because I couldn’t stand the leaves grabbing me any more, couldn’t bear the derisive racket. 

 My dad, though, thought you had to face fear, going it one better if you could.  When he was teaching me to drive, for example, he instructed me to take the twisting mountain roads ten miles per hour faster than the speed limit on the sign that announced each curve.   That way, as his logic seemed to go, you saw the road's threat and raised it. You showed you weren't afraid, showed it to the road and to yourself too. Then you could be calm. So when I said I was afraid of going into the cornfield, he told me to use the field against itself.  "Just stop for a minute and wait until you can think. Then go on following the furrows. You’ll come out one end or the other.”

Obviously.  You can't live your life avoiding cornfields.

Now I push through the leaves, holding my arms around my ears, as I once taught myself to do.  I try to stay close but I can’t see him anymore and I can’t hear him over the clatter. I stop and listen, and soon hear him moving up ahead. Then he stops and it’s quiet again.

“There’s lots of deer in here now,” he says, his voice surprisingly close.  “When we cut corn we’ll see a dozen trying to hide. They’ll keep pulling back into the last rows. But pretty soon we have to cut those too.”

“Where do they go then?”

“Oh back up in the hills.”


We swim back out to the sunlight, get in the pickup and drive on.  We leave the cornfield and drive past the small feedlot where he has his cattle in the winter.  It’s empty now except for the gently rising odor of manure and trampled feed.  

We drive past a tumble-down old barn, abandoned for decades. We were barely moving before; now we stop altogether.  Inside are four deer, their heads up, silhouetted against the sky where the back wall is missing. They stare at us as if fascinated, as if seeing, though without particular interest, everything we are both keeping inside our own skins.  We watch them for a long time and they watch back. Finally my dad touches the gas and we creep on. 

“I never heard of deer coming to live in a barn,” I say.

“We had a bad winter last year. They were starving up in the hills and they all came down to the valley.”

“But there must be food up there, now that it’s summer.”

“I guess they like living in a barn having somebody throw them hay.”

“You throw them hay?”

He shrugs. 

“Oh. Once in a while.”

“Be easy for somebody to get them. Living in here, they get used to people.”

“Yeah. But I don’t let anybody come to hunt. Some guys were out from Baker but I said sorry, go someplace else.”

Of course he has brought down from the hills plenty of warm deer carcasses, still dripping blood when he hung them up from a tree in the glare of the headlights.  He got his deer each autumn. It was just something a man did. 

None of us really liked the strong gamey taste and we had our own good beef.  But you had to get your deer and then you were obliged to use the meat. So he took the skinned carcass up to the butcher and had it packaged and put in cold storage.   We ate it all, quietly glad when--sometime in early spring--the last blood-stained package was gone.

“Oh well,” he says, as if acknowledging this history. “These are more like pets.”


We get to where he has to change the water, so he stops the pickup and we walk along the edge of the cornfield to a homemade wooden box in the irrigation ditch.  He gets down on his knees to pull out the lids, as he calls them; really they are just two old boards that slide down into a notch in the box. When the lids are in, they dam up water so he can divert it to his fields.  Or if it isn’t at this time “his” water, he takes the lid out and lets the water flow undisturbed.

 Somehow the farmers along the ditch know when to put in the lids and when to take them out so that they all get their proper share.  These shares are based on rights that were assigned when the land was taken up. We have pretty high rights since my great grandfather was one of the first in the Valley.

For a long time I didn’t understand about these “lids.”  I took them to build forts if I happened to be playing by the ditch and I didn’t understand why I got in trouble. It seemed he had enough old boards lying around that he could spare me a few.  

Now, my dad reaches into the box and the first lid comes out easily but the second one sticks. He yanks and twists but he can’t get it out.  He has to take off his hat and lean way down into the box, one rubber boot in the air. He pulls and pulls. Still it won’t come.

I turn away to pick mint. I wander a ways down the ditch bank with the mint to my nose. If he were to glance up he would see that I have not noticed him on his belly struggling.

Finally I hear the water pour through and he comes walking along the ditch drying his hands on his pants. We go along to where he has to build a few tiny mud dams to change the course of the water that's already in the field.  He shows me a piece of red metal, a part off some old machine. He’s planted it in the mud to use for a marker. When he has a full head of water, as they say, that metal piece is covered. He digs in the mud, building his little dams, redirecting the muddy flow, but the red metal piece is still sticking out so he digs some more until he gets the water running over it.

We start walking back. But now he’s flooded the way we came and I stand on a clump of sod, trying to decide whether I want to get my shoes and socks wet or take them off and go barefoot through the rough grass.  He looks back, hands me the shovel, then bends over, his back to me, and says, "Climb on.”  

He is not a big man.  He never was I suppose. But I climb on and he carries me out to the road.

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