“Farmer Boys,” Original and Uncut Short Story
Rolling Rock Register
Thursday, June 23, 1960
“Local Boy Scout troop plants trees at park”
ROLLING ROCK, Iowa—The Rolling Rock Boy Scout Troop 584 planted 25 new trees at the Christopher Thompson Park Saturday.
The group of 12-year-olds partnered with the local Arbor Society to earn their Citizenship in the Community badge and ready the park before the ribbon cutting and grand opening of the new swimming pool, which is set to open July 4.
“We couldn’t have picked a hotter day, but those boys worked harder than I’ve seen most men pick rock,” said Murphy Dalton, Troop 584 leader and local farmer.
Arbor Society president Henry Smith guided the boys in choosing the trees to be planted and helped them understand how the Society gets their funding.
Dalton’s seventh-grade son, Philip Dalton, initially brought the idea to the troop back in December.
“Last summer I helped my dad fell a bunch of trees in our grove and a big oak in the middle of our field, and I thought maybe we could replace them somehow,” Philip said. “Do some good for the community.”
Murphy said he’s incredibly proud of the whole gang, but his chest swells with pride when it comes to his son.
“He’s a great kid,” Murphy said.
Photo caption of group: “Rolling Rock Boy Scout Troop 584 planted 25 new trees at the Christopher Thompson Park. From left to right: Danny Swingen, Dennis Maynard, Chuckie Thompson, Ed Firms, Nelson Spencer, Louis Kingland, Tommy Bradshaw, Harold Worth, Danny Kirkson, Philip Dalton and Murphy Dalton, troop leader and Philip’s father.”
Philip – 1982
Philip flipped on the kitchen light, dumped his lunch pail by the sink, and caught the phone on the last ring.
“Where’ve you been? I thought you’d be home by now,” his mom said, worry stretching through the cord. “Your father wanted me to tell you,” her voice broke. “We’re losing it—”
“What?” he said.
She almost shrieked, her voice cracking. “The farm. Everything.”
Philip’s knees went weak. Too far away from a chair, he sat down on the linoleum. “Whaddya mean?”
“Already tried everything. He didn’t want to tell you. He’s not taking it well,” she said. “They’re coming tomorrow.”
Faintly, through the earpiece, Philip heard a gunshot. And then a clattering of his mother’s receiver and the front storm door banging open—the pneumatic closer hissing and slowly shutting out Lucky’s barks in the far-off distance.
All the protests on the Capitol steps, pleas for help, and picketing were getting farmers nowhere. Debts were owed, interest rates were high, and the market for grain had virtually crashed since the embargo against the Soviet Union. Philip himself felt especially helpless, not being an official landowner and partner with his dad. All the land was in his dad’s name.
“But we’re partners,” Philip had said. “Or I want to be.”
“It’ll all be yours one day,” his dad had said. “When the time’s right and I’m with my maker, it’ll be yours to continue the legacy.”
That day would never come.
Swerving on the gravel roads, the little rocks collecting in his drivetrain, chipping the rusty paint and blowing a nuclear bomb-like plomb as Philip crossed perfectly square miles to his parents’ farm, he couldn’t believe his dad would do such a thing.
It was a tragedy for his little sister to die of pneumonia just after her third birthday in a frigid Iowa blizzard—the old farmhouse single pane windows rattling and howling into the night, long after she had passed and lay motionless and lifeless under thick quilts, but that was an accident. Philip missed her every day. He thought of his mother. How would she cope now, he wondered.
Pulling into their long lane, Philip saw his mother run from the barn. Arms flailing. Philip braked hard, the squeal of the brakes only briefly drowning out the sobs and wails from his mother. He threw the truck into park. Didn’t bother cutting the engine.
Philip planted his work boots on the driveway of his youth, the home place his grandfather built from a house kit he ordered from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue. The place where his own father was born and raised and where Philip learned to change the oil on the lawn mower, milk cows, patch a tire, raise hogs, and shear sheep. The place he longed to be when he was away at college learning everything he already knew about the business of farming. The place he thought about when he built RVs on the factory line at The Great RV Corporation, biding his time until the day he could take over the farm. Take up the reins and grow the business like he knew he could. Philip smelled the neighbor spreading chicken manure he bought from the Great White Eggs plant north of town, but the sting of the stink in his nose did not register. His head felt fuzzy. His ears rang.
“He’s dead!” Philip’s mother crumpled onto his chest. She beat her fists over and over again, pounding his heart as if he didn’t feel the hurt enough. Hurt as much as her. Feel her grief and know his father was now a statistic that would be quoted in the years to come.
Philip hugged his mom, keeping her arms pinned between their bodies, and cried.
Danny – 1982
Danny weaved in and out of traffic on I-35, shifting his ‘67 Chevelle hard each time. A semi honked as he raced by, not letting the big rig get over to allow a merge.
“Jerk,” he said, reaching into his shirt pocket and fishing out a pack of Marlboro reds. He rolled the window down.
“She’s sleeping,” Connie whispered, turning in the passenger seat to look back at their baby girl.
Danny gave his wife a stern look but rolled the window up. Stuck the pack under his thigh. He gripped the steering wheel, the wind whistling against the windshield.
“You’re sure about this?” he asked.
“That’s what I’m asking you,” she said, digging in her purse at her feet. She handed Danny a stick of Doublemint gum. He took it and held out his hand for another.
“All gone,” she took his wrapper and stuffed it back in her purse for later when he wanted to spit it back out.
“I just,” he looked out the window. “Didn’t think he’d kick the bucket so soon.” A hitchhiker stood on the side of an on-ramp. “What’s that idiot hippie doing?”
“You were made for this,” Connie reassured him. “And we knew it was coming. He taught you everything you know. Everything you need to know. We’ll be fine.” Connie looked back at their daughter. “And it’ll be a life we can give her. Something to be proud of. We’ll tell her all about her farmer grandpa and who he was, and you’ll teach her how to drive a tractor, and she’ll be proud to call her daddy a farmer, too.”
“Can you believe Bill turned it down?” he asked.
Connie nodded her head. “Yeah, I can. Oldest gets first dibs, and even though you offered it to him, he’s probably been living with the assumption you’re the oldest, so he didn’t have a chance. I’m sure accounting pays way better, too.”
“Yeah, but we could split it. He could’ve gone in,” Danny accelerated and passed a Winnebago. “Think dad wanted it that way.”
Connie rubbed Danny’s thigh and looked out her window at the vast oil fields of Texas. The home they were leaving after seven years. Seven years of finishing college and figuring out what they wanted to do. Teaching kids and working construction and living in campgrounds and renting an apartment next to men who dressed up as women on the weekends. After seven years, they were headed home to Rolling Rock where they would take over the small family farm.
Philip – 1982
The auction took all day. Every last bit was sold off to people Philip had known all his life. Nobody smiled. Philip’s mother stayed inside the house.
“It was an embarrassment is what it was,” Philip said to his pregnant wife, Mary. She had stayed back at their place to start packing for their move to Des Moines. Philip knew since he didn’t have a home anymore, he needed to go where the action was to make a name for himself.
Mary unfolded a stack of newspapers, preparing them to wrap breakables. “But, honey, we should think of this as a blessing. Can you imagine if you were responsible for this? It would break us. Your dad was smart. He protected us,” she paused and placed her hands on her belly and then reached for Philip’s hand.
He felt a kick and wrapped his arms around Mary. He pressed his own belly up against the baby. He sobbed into Mary’s neck, feeling the life they created knocking and reminding him that he was not alone.
Danny – 1984
Danny was up bright and early with the sun—how he started every morning. A cup of black coffee at his kitchen table, looking out at the vast farmland as the sun rose before anyone else got up. Later that morning after Connie had dropped Jennifer at daycare and then started in on teaching 4th graders their first social studies lesson of the morning, Danny opened his bags of seed corn.
He loaded the planter, being careful not to touch the weathered fiberglass lids too much. Standing back as far as he could while he gently let the lid settle, wearing work gloves, of course. And by the time he had planted ten rows, working diagonally—most people thought farmers planted in straight rows—he felt the tractor slump to one side. Danny put it in neutral and got out into the spring wind. There in one of his big, expensive wheels was a deer antler, piercing the rubber.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said, yanking it out.
“A man can’t win,” he told Connie as he forked a canned green bean. “One thing goes right and then four more things go wrong. And then you see on the news all them stories about the high cost of milk and why is meat getting so expensive and why is it that every time I turn on the news I can’t see straight. They don’t know how the hell their food is grown. No one understands anything!” His voice got louder after each sentence. He raised his arm and pointed his fork out the window. “Kids think corn comes from a can. Can you believe it? It’s all nonsense.”
Danny huffed and let his fork rattle back to his plate. He stood up and retreated to the basement where Connie knew he was lighting up a cigarette. And while he lit up and took hard puffs, standing in the unfinished basement of their old farmhouse, Danny started to itch. Careful as he was loading the seed earlier, the fiberglass from the lids had gotten under his sweatshirt, up his sleeves and down his neck. He stripped off his clothes and threw them on the dirty laundry table that was pushed up against the foundation, right by the clothes dryer. He then took a steaming hot shower.
“Be sure you’re using the no-chemical laundry sauce, ya know,” he told Connie as he ascended from the basement.
“I do,” she said.
Philip – 1984
Philip sat down at his new desk with a filing cabinet standing next to the door. Fluorescent lights. The whole shebang. There was a space on the wall where he planned to hang a picture of the farm, but it was his first day. He’d bring it tomorrow. It was the last picture he ever took of the homeplace two weeks after the foreclosure. He had stood in the field, surrounded by corn that came up to his shoulders. The old house off in the distance where orange daylilies bloomed in the sunny corners and hostas preferred the shadows. The apple tree and clothesline where his mom hung their work pants and shirts. The window to his bedroom that before him was the guest room where his grandfather would stay. A traveling painter who “didn’t have a pot to piss in,” according to his dad.
“Welcome to the Doe family. How’s it feel?” Mr. Sampson rapped his knuckles on the door.
“Fits like a glove,” Philip stood to shake hands.
“Good, good. Hey,” Mr. Sampson clapped Philip on the shoulder. “Lemme show you around. Copier, pisser. Then lunch. Just a simple sales meeting. You’ll never make an easier first sale than this poor bastard.”
Philip closed the door behind him.
For the second Christmas in a row, Philip sat in the Bethany Lutheran Church with his mother, wife Mary, and daughter Emily, watching the children’s choir sing “Silent Night.” After what seemed like thousands of pleas, his mother still refused to move to a bigger city with him—let alone a metropolis like Des Moines.
Philip had promised his mother he would visit often, but he hated her apartment. The one-bedroom was barely big enough for four people, and he thought it smelled like smoke.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” she’d say.
“You’re not a beggar,” he’d say.
But since it was the only one-story apartment complex in Rolling Rock—population 650 at its peak in the 1960s—Philip had no choice but to keep paying the meager rent. It made his mother happy.
Danny – 1987
Connie washed and dried an empty container of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and handed it to Danny.
“Here,” she said.
Danny crossed the yard with Jennifer at his heels.
“What’d you say you need it for?” he asked.
Jennifer shrugged. “I don’t know. My teacher just asked if I could bring some to class for show and tell.”
“I’ll be sending a bill,” he said as he opened the door to his one and only steel grain bin. He picked Jennifer up and set her on the metal step so she could peer in and see the sea of soybeans at the bottom, the stale air catching in her throat, creating a lump she couldn’t swallow. He had already taken most of the soybeans to the grain elevator, but there were still some at the bottom.
“Can I jump in?” she asked, her voice echoing in the metal vortex. Flecks of dust hung in the air.
“No,” Danny said. “There’s rats in there and could get your foot caught on the drier underneath. Men die in these all the time.”
And with that, he scooped up the beans and filled the butter container. “Like that?” he held out the full tub.
The next morning, Jennifer stood in front of her class and said, “My dad even let me swim in the beans.”
The whole class said “Oooooh,” and one little boy said “He did not!”
“Thank you for sharing, Jennifer,” Mrs. Johanssen said. “These will come in handy as we talk about the crops we raise and why it’s so important to the state that we live in, which is what?”
“Iowa,” the class said together.
As Jennifer headed back to her seat, her face beaming, heart full of pride, and a skip in her step, she said over her shoulder, “Dad’s sending a bill.”
Philip – 1988
“Boys and girls,” Mrs. Tweedy stood at the front of the kindergarten class. “Emily volunteered to bring in some soybeans as we continue our lesson on crops. Emily, please join me.”
From her desk, Emily pulled out a plastic bag of unroasted, shelled, raw soybeans that her mother had gotten at Walmart when Emily begged her to buy some.
“The whole class is counting on me,” she told her mom. “Mrs. Tweedy asked for someone whose dad is a farmer to bring in some soybeans. So I told her I could.”
“Your dad works for John Doe, but he’s not a farmer,” her mom said but bought them anyway. Mary had just suffered her third miscarriage and was not in the mood to argue with her kindergartener.
Mrs. Tweedy took the bag from Emily and held them up. “Oh, this is a great lesson.”
“These are soybeans, but they’ve been processed and cleaned. These are the kind you eat. We’ll send these back home with Emily to enjoy, but we need someone who can get soybeans straight from the field. The kind we grow here that’s used to make gasoline, oils, and plastics.”
Emily sat down at her desk and hid the bag away under her workbook and cried.
Danny – 1991
Danny tapped the cab’s air conditioning vent in his tractor. The dial was turned all the way to the end of the blue “Cool,” but nothing was coming out. He undid the locks and opened both windows to get fresh air into the cab. He looked behind him to the plowing discs. The few crops that did grow—riddled with holey leaves and rotted roots—would never make it to market. In the heat of the summer, he couldn’t believe he was plowing under his crop.
“She needs them for the concert,” Connie said that winter, stirring a pot of soup on the stove. She walked over to the table and started cutting a carrot, using a small paring knife they got for free from the local grain elevator and a porcelain dinner plate as a cutting board.
“Hmpf,” Danny scooped some grape jelly from the jar and plopped it on his plate. “New shoes, huh?” He could barely afford a gallon of milk from the gas station.
Jennifer walked in the kitchen.
He said, “New shoes, huh?” with a mouthful of jelly.
Jennifer looked at her mom and then back at her dad. “Yeah,” she shrugged and grabbed an apple.
“Not before supper,” Connie gave Jennifer the eye. She put the apple back and said, “I don’t have any black shoes that’ll go with my outfit.”
“How much would these shoes cost?” Danny asked.
Jennifer looked at Connie who looked at Danny and then back at her daughter.
“Twenty bucks? Maybe?” Jennifer shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t found ‘em yet.”
“Haven’t found ‘em yet?” Danny asked. “What about your mom’s shoes? She’s got black ones.”
Jennifer scoffed. “We’re not the same size, and I’m not wearing teacher shoes.”
“She’s right,” Connie gathered the carrots in a measuring cup and dumped them in the pot.
Danny looked down at his plate, not knowing what else to say.
After dinner, he went to the basement for a smoke and then layered on his overalls, stocking hat, and boots. He grabbed leather gloves and a flashlight and trudged to the barn.
“Hey, girl,” he shined the light on his horse, Ring My Bell. Bell neighed and stuck her head over the fence. Danny gave her a coffee can of oats, two sections of hay, and filled her bucket with fresh water from the hose. While the snow fell, he leaned over the fence watching her eat and lit another cigarette.
“You don’t need new shoes, do ya?”
Bell looked up and then went back to tearing off bites of hay, moving the alfalfa around with her soft lips.
“The Old Lady says we need to sell you and bring back the pigs, but we won’t do that. I won’t let her. Pigs smell and they’re work. Jesus, when I was a kid, you wouldn’t believe the stuff we had to do to take care of ‘em.” Danny took a puff and blew out the smoke in little circles. Bell kept eating.
Philip – 2004
Philip threw a stack of dress shirts on their king-sized bed.
“Where are you going?” asked their second daughter Lisa, their miracle baby after five miscarriages. They had almost given up all hope of having another child.
Philip unzipped his suitcase and laid it flat.
“China,” he said.
“Aren’t we going, too?” Lisa threw a sock-ball into the suitcase.
“Not for another two months,” Philip said.
“Because you’re still in school, and we wanted you to finish out the year,” he said.
Lisa shook her head and furiously threw all the sock balls at once into the bottom of the suitcase—fists of them.
“It means I’m going to miss you like crazy. And then,” he sat down beside her on the bed. Mary crawled up on the bed and hugged them both. “Before you know it, we’ll be together and away from friends for two years, and then we can come back, and I won’t ever leave you again.”
Philip jumped up. “Almost forgot.” He grabbed a box from the dresser and threw it to Lisa.
“Check this out,” he said.
“What is it?” she asked, turning the small computer screen over.
“GPS for the car. Mommy needs one because we all know how good her sense of direction is. Just sent them out to all our customers.”
“Big spenders,” Mary said, picking up the empty box and looking at the back.
“It’s all about the technology now,” Philip said.
Philip sipped his usual afternoon cup of coffee and listened to the John Doe China Investments Chief Financial Officer. Philip thought the bags under the CFO’s eyes seemed purple and perhaps his shirt more wrinkled than usual. Philip didn’t have the heart to tell him that his secretary already broke the bad news, just seconds before. So when Mr. Chao stopped talking and repeated, “Mr. Dalton, do you hear me?” Philip nodded.
“You’re saying there’s a spy in our most recent acquisition, LabTronics, which could cost us between 40 and 50 percent once word gets out,” Philip said.
“Correct,” said the CFO.
Philip set his coffee down. Black squiggles flicked across his desk. He blinked several times to clear the floaters, but they only increased. Philip then fainted.
He came to lying in a hospital bed behind a white sheet. There was an oxygen tube in his nose. According to his wristwatch, it was half past seven.
He let his head fall back on the pillow. Emily’s big piano concert was long over. His job was potentially on the line. Maybe this is how dad felt, he wondered.
Danny – 2013
It was true their first daughter received a Pell Grant from the State of Iowa for college. And it was true farm inputs were climbing at unprecedented rates, draining the small farmer.
Corn kernels had turned from yellow to aqua blue or grass green—colors that would never be found on a cob that grew from the field. Genetics was private, intellectual property now, and seed companies were in the big leagues. No longer could a farmer take a dried-up cob that he stuck on an old nail in the attic to dry and plant the next season. The seed now was ordered, delivered, tracked, and observed.
But if Danny was going to stay in the industry and pass the farm to his son, and after the record bean and corn prices in 2012, Danny needed to stay in the game. He went into debt to the tune of $380,000 to buy a new combine, equipped with GPS and precision computing.
The next year, when the receiver on the John Doe combine wouldn’t measure the moisture, he called the local implement dealer.
“That model ain’t supported anymore. New upgrade,” they said. “Simple fix, but you gotta bring it in.”
“If it’s a simple part, can’t you just replace it here?” Danny asked. He felt his heart rate quicken.
“Our computers are in the shop. It’s all digital now and proprietary information. Since it’s digital, you need to come here,” they said.
He had the implement semi come to the farm and load his combine that had the outdated GPS receiver.
The bill came a week later. Danny stood next to his truck and opened the envelope, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The total equaled $2,300. $1,000 to get it to the dealer. $150 for the part. $150 for labor. $1,000 to haul it back.
Danny gripped the receipt and felt his heart skip a beat. He kicked the truck tailgate, leaving a dent the size of his steel-toed work boot.
Philip – 2013
Rolling Rock Register
Thursday, Nov. 3, 2013
Philip Dalton retires from John Doe Corp.
ROLLING ROCK, Iowa—Rolling Rock High School graduate Philip Dalton (‘66) retired from the John Doe Corp. in October with plans to return to Iowa.
Dalton started as a combine head salesman during the Farm Crisis of the 80s at Doe and rose through the ranks to become the global director of China John Doe Investments.
“It’s surreal to think of myself back in Rolling Rock,” Dalton said. “It’s been my goal since we left for China, and to think that we’re back in Iowa. I’m just thrilled.”
Dalton said what turned into an estimated two year stay in China extended into a larger commitment once the market soured almost immediately after he arrived.
“‘Course I can’t talk specifics, but I was needed, and we succeeded,” he said. “And it’s been since mom died that we’ve been back here. So Mary and I are happy to reunite with old friends.”
When asked who his role model is, he said that he thought that person was his dad, the late Murphy Dalton of rural Rolling Rock.
“Even though he left all of us too soon, he had a big heart and never stopped believing in us kids, and that’s not something everyone is blessed with—a caring parent like that,” Dalton said.
Dalton is currently building on Lake Okoboji where he’ll reside with his wife, Mary. Their two grown daughters, Emily (Lucas) Bergen of Des Moines, Iowa, and Lisa of Chicago, Ill., plan to visit Rolling Rock often and get to know where their dad grew up.
Danny – 2013
Danny threw the Register on the passenger seat, covering up the red leather rips where yellowed foam had browned, and fired up his old truck. He lit a Marlboro red and looked over at the front cover.
“Arrogant son of a,” he said and rolled down the window to let the smoke escape. He watched kids stand in a line waiting to load the bus.
Thomas hopped in, moving the paper and pushing his backpack to the floor. Silently, Danny put the truck in gear.
“Hey, gramps,” Thomas said.
“I ever teach you how to tell when the beans are ready?” Danny asked.
“You bite ‘em, and you can tell their moisture level. When you can pick ‘em, ” Danny said. “Shouldn’t be too hard you can’t bite ‘em, but just chewy enough they snap clean in half.”
“Cool,” Thomas said and looked out the window at the houses moving past as they made their way toward the edge of town.
“Thought I’d head out there now,” Danny said.
“Okay,” Thomas shrugged.
Without lifting his whole hand off the steering wheel, Danny farmer-waved with one finger to Norm who stood surveying his lawn, the last house on the edge of town. “That Farmall. Thought we could get that out, too. Tinker with it,” he said.
Thomas glanced at his grandpa. Wisps of grey hair that curled from under his hat. A starburst of deep worry wrinkles at the corner of his eye. Dirt under thick nails.
“Yeah,” Thomas said.
Philip – 2013
Philip unlocked the padlock and stepped inside the enclosed porch. The smell of oil, exhaust, soil, and his mom’s cooking still hung in the thick air. He turned the dull brass knob on the heavy wooden door of his youth, where his initials were etched at the bottom, and took in the cracking plaster and worn red carpet.
Herb said once he bought it from the bank, he only ever checked the basement and attic for safety and a leaky roof but didn’t pay attention to the rest of the house.
“Just couldn’t bring myself to demolish it, ya know,” Herb told Philip when he handed over the keys. “Took out the barn, though.”
It had taken years, but Herb couldn’t say no to Philip’s final offer—just for the house. Philip allowed Herb to keep his tractors and equipment in the machine shed and go about their daily farming operations. He just wanted the house on that hill.
Mice droppings could be seen on the kitchen floorboards and thick spiderwebs greyed the dark ceiling corners. Philip had already taken the plywood off the windows, but the large mulberry bushes and overgrowth obstructed the sunlight from streaming in as brightly as he remembered. The beige corded phone was still attached to the wall, right next to where the refrigerator sat.
“So this is it, huh?” Lisa asked, crossing her arms and moving into the living room.
“Yup,” Philip said. He walked into the bathroom next to the kitchen and saw the water-stained wooden built-in drawers. How his mother hated them. She always wished for money to fall from the sky so she could update the finishings and redo the kitchen.
“It’s so …” Emily started.
“Tiny,” Lisa finished.
“Yeah,” Emily said.
Philip turned and looked at himself in the mirror. Bald. Sagging neck. Behind him, he could almost see his dad lathered in shaving cream and tilting a safety razor on his cheek to shave. Whistling while he groomed.
As he heard his grown girls clomp up the creaky stairs and say “Whoa, check this out,” with a lump in his throat and his wife’s arms wrapped around him, he whispered, “I’m home.”