Monday, March 14, 2016


Do you ever have an unbidden thought flash through your mind and give you an unpleasant moment? I just had one that should have passed sixty years ago, never to be remembered again, but there it was. Vivid. Shudder.

The migration from the Nebraska farms to California is a topic covered here and many times, but I have usually characterized it as just the farmers who went broke. There was another reason, though, for Frank and Anne Waters.

Frank referred to his move from Missouri to Nebraska as "coming over," like it was from the Old Country, a reference that amused my dad. They settled as sharecroppers on the Kent & Burke Ranch owned by the banker and a prominent merchant in Genoa, and no one was ever to explain why a plain old farm was called a "ranch."

In the days when manpower exceeded machine power on the farm and when crews were needed for certain seasonal tasks, common practice was to join up with neighbors to form those crews. Late August/early September as the corn ripened but had not yet "turned" (when the leaves died), the crews would move from farm to farm cutting the whole corn stalk and ear, chopping into a salad that was then stored in silos where it fermented and provided a rich diet for cattle throughout the winter.

The crews were long ago replaced by more powerful, integrated machines and today, that part of the world has no need for silage--there are very few farms that have livestock of any kind.

Silage cutters were machines powered by the tractors that pulled them that chopped the stalk off near the ground, fed it into a chamber where knives sliced it into pieces approximately 1" long. There were a couple of principle designs, but a company named Gehl (say it like "gale") made one where the knives were integral to the blower that spit the finished product up, through a chute and into a wagon pulled behind. Frank had a Gehl. It was pulled and powered through a PTO from an International model M.

The time frame was defined as about the fall of 1953, I would have been eight, since it was before we had a TV (they had one, we visited from time to time to watch theirs).

The crew had assembled to "fill silo" at the Kent & Burke Ranch, things were underway by noon as Frank pulled the Gehl and the M into the yard to work on it during the lunch break (called "dinner" at that time...supper was in the evening). He opened the hatch on the housing of the blower/knives combo, reached in to clear some of the debris...when the M backfired.

Sliced most of his right hand off, leaving only the thumb.

That event, although I was not a witness, has played in my head for more than 60 years. Why didn't he wait? Why didn't he take the PTO out of gear? Why didn't they have a Super M (I think it had "live PTO" that was geared differently). Why didn't he do it after dinner?

Before the days of a lot of things--OSHA, even primitive safety equipment. A rougher time. I vaguely remember the prosthetic hand, but it wasn't long and it became evident that Frank could not perform farm work. They moved to California, I saw them once many years later when they came back.

They were gone, but the event has played in my head. Ever had that happen?

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