Feeling one’s oats
Motoring around the countryside, it appears to me that oats are making a comeback. I say this despite the fact that I find it difficult to decide if the proper usage is “oats are” or “oats is.” I have a similar problem regarding the word “grits.”
For many, “oats” evokes words like Mother’s or Quaker or memories of shatterproof granola bars that could have been used as construction materials. For me, oats means itchiness and dustiness and blazing a trail into the world of adulthood.
When I was growing up on our dairy farm, Dad always sowed a few fields of oats. Oats were a part of our crop rotation. But more importantly, they were a hedge against the gamble of raising corn.
Dad was a child of the Dirty Thirties. He knew what it was like to endure years when rain fell in quantities that could have been measured with an eyedropper. Farmers coped by growing crops that required less moisture than what might be secreted by a startled toad. Crops such as oats.
Each spring, if luck was on our side, our farm would receive some showers soon after we had finished planting. Dad would watch as the raindrops pattered down upon the emerald fuzz of the oat field and say, “At least we might get some oats.”
And so we did. Even if Mother Nature shut off the spigot, the oats would somehow manage to make a crop. Meanwhile, the corn would suck moisture from the soil until it formed cracks that were large enough to swallow a Shetland pony.
Dad rented a quarter of land a few miles from our farm. As was his wont, he seeded about half of the leased land into oats. If the rains didn’t come and the corn crop shriveled, he would at least have some oats to keep the landlord happy.
The summer when I was 10, I was certain that I was ready to move into the world of adulthood. I was eager to take on responsibilities that would prove me worthy of driving a car.
My theory was that the shortest path to becoming a car driver could be found on the seat of one of our tractors. And not just operating a tractor out in the field, where speeds were measured against snails and the only traffic was the occasional startled jackrabbit. I wanted to prove myself by driving a tractor on the highway.
My chance came during the midsummer oat harvest. Dad had begun to harvest the field of oats on the rented land with our ancient Case A-6 combine. The landlord’s share had to be delivered to a local elevator, so I quickly volunteered for the job. Dad wasn’t sure I was up to the task, but I argued that I hadn’t gotten a tractor stuck in the mud for nearly a month. Never mind that the scorching summer sun had baked all of our mud holes into colossal adobe pancakes.
In an effort to prove my trustworthiness, I climbed into the wagon as the combine’s auger filled it with itchy, dusty oats. I shoved grain into every corner of the wagon until it couldn’t hold one more kernel.
It wasn’t all oats. The grain also contained a smattering of grasshoppers, many of whom were dismembered or deceased. The survivors wore expressions that seemed to say, “Whoa, man! Bad trip!”
After we hitched the wagon onto our John Deere “A,” I asked (begged) Dad to let me drive the load to town. He agreed, but only after I promised to go in fifth gear.
I felt like a total adult as I pulled onto the highway. What could be more manly than hauling a wagonload of oats to the grain elevator?
At 8 mph, fifth gear proved less manly than I’d imagined. I had ample time to count cracks in the highway and to wave at farmers’ wives hanging clothes on their clotheslines. A cat could have outrun me. This would have dealt a serious blow to my burgeoning manliness.
Arriving at the grain elevator, I joined the long line of tractors and wagons that were waiting to unload their oats. I perceived that it would be a while, so I walked into the elevator’s office and spent a dime for a bottle of pop. As I sipped the soda, I eavesdropped on group of farmers who were passing the time while they waited.
As I stood there and listened to the men, I was overcome by a sense of energetic adultness. You might even say that I was feeling my oats.
Or maybe it was just all that grain that had gotten into my shoes.