It was on a hot July day in 1973 when I decided I was going to go to college. I was in the middle of a cornfield in 90-degree heat wearing a long-sleeve shirt and jeans. I knew I did not want to detassel corn for the rest of my life.
Grandpa Swaim grew seed corn for Funks, and he expected his grandchildren to show up every summer and work the fields. Of the 14 grandchildren I think there was only one who never tried it; although, a few of my cousins only made it one day.
Another cousin, however, found love in the corn rows and after high school, married the boyfriend she met while detasseling and they still live on the farm.
I was there every year from the time I was 11 years old until I was 16 and got a job driving a team and wagon at Billie Creek Village in Rockville, Ind. Most kids didn’t start detasseling until they were 13 years old, but I was tall for my age and since they were Grandpa’s fields, rules went by the wayside.
Now I think back on it and wonder how anyone talked all of us kids into a job that required you to wear long sleeves and long pants while wearing a big hat to walk in corn in 80- and 90-degree heat. But, every summer Grandpa had more than enough teenagers to get the job done.
When I look back on it, I think the person detasseling most affected would have been my mom. She had to get up super early and drive us across the county to Grandpa’s house so we could be there by 6:30 a.m., and then come back and get me in the afternoon.
Dad assured me this job would build character. And I certainly couldn’t complain about the job, as Dad’s life growing up on this same farm had been much more difficult.
I probably wouldn’t have survived my first year in the cornfield if it hadn’t been for Aunt Alice. She was only 10 years older than I was and she looked out for me. I remember getting far behind everyone else in a field and panicking, wondering if I was lost, and she came back and found me.
This was obviously before cell phones, and I don’t think porta-potties had been invented yet. You brought your own jug of water and a sack lunch – well, except for me and my cousins. We ate lunch every day in the house with Grandma and Grandpa.
Grandma’s lunches were famous. It was a true farmer’s meal with lots of meat and vegetables. But what did I long for? I wanted one of those sack lunches. The kids would have things like Hostess fruit pies and Hostess Ding-Dongs. These were things we never got.
Some of the kids had Kool-Aid in their thermoses. I had brewed iced tea and lemonade. I longed for the Kool-Aid.
The kids would be lounging around, having fun in the shade trees in my grandparents’ backyard. We had to sit there and say “please pass the corn.” I feel certain many of those kids would have traded places with me in a heartbeat; the grass really is always greener on the other side of the fence.
How in the world we went back into the fields after that big lunch I do not know. But, we did.
In the middle of the afternoon Grandma would drive the farm truck out and everyone would gather around for a drink of the world’s best and coldest water. Grandma would have a cooler with a huge chunk of ice in it and she would make sure everyone was getting a break and water.
Later, there were detasseling machines and I remember the first time Grandpa Swaim picked me to ride in one. I also remember him yelling at me for how many tassels I was missing.
In my last year or so I was a crew boss, which I know at the time seemed like an honor, but for the life of me I can’t really remember what all that entailed. I know I had to make sure everyone came out of the fields and I had to spot-check rows to ensure tassels weren’t being missed.
I do remember the money. It was awesome money for a kid on a farm in the early and mid-1970s. My first year I bought a $70 guitar. I had always wanted a guitar and while I never learned to really play very well, the guitar stayed with me all the way through college.
Most of the money I made detasseling went into my college fund. And here I sit today in the air-conditioned job I dreamed of when I was sweating through those cornfields in the 1970s. Whenever I go home and look at those fields, I am amazed at how long some of them were.
I also remember we had fun; there were tassel fights; water fights and lots of laughter.
I even have pieces of a detasseling machine in my garden as accent pieces. No one but me would know what they are, but I look at them from time to time and say a silent thank-you to my parents and grandparents for making me do it, even if I did complain a few times. It really did build character.