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The Great Combine Races
It is October, and harvest is pretty much completed. All the fields are barren, the winter fallow marking the graves of the crop’s growth like poppies marking a battlefield across seas. In my hometown, not all the fields are ready for a long winter. If you scan the horizon, you can see that there are a handful of fields still bearing crop, still awaiting the chopping block. For an outsider, it might seem like the farmers were behind in harvest, or they had forgotten these fruitful crops, but that assumption would be wrong.
Every year, around this time, our town hosts “The Great Combine Race”. The whole community takes a break on this day- school is vacant, the stores shut down, and the streets are dormant of human activity because we all head out to the fields.
Out in farmer territory, we sit in the ditches near the untouched fields. Most of us bring lawn chairs and blankets; others sit in their vehicles and chat. The races are about to begin.
The Great Combine Race is Nascar to our community- there is no point other than being able to take the day off work and sit around aimlessly. Each of the community’s farmers is pooled by the mayor into several elimination-style races. By the end of the day we will behold the farmer lucky enough to hold the “Fastest Combine” title for the rest of the year.
The first race always begins early- before 7:00 am at least. Two farmers drive their combines to either end of a field and wait, engines started, for the mark over the radio. Some people in the audience hold portable radios, and they turn them on to the private station. Everyone waits. Finally, Mr. Johnson’s voice breaks through the static. “Ladies and Gentlemen, looks like a fine day for The Great Combine Race, does it not?” his nasally voice is answered with a cheer. “The first string looks ready to go, their machines cleaned and their game faces on. Good luck to you both, gentlemen. Let’s get ready to race!” Applause follows this declaration. We wait tensely for his voice to start the race. “On your marks, gentlemen. Get set… GO!” And with this, the first of many races begins.
The races always last a while, as each combine must harvest half the field before being declared a winner. The town folks always bring something to do- the various clubs bake treats to sell for 25 cents, the school organizes activities, and the women cook food for the contestants. The older boys from school are off by themselves- they will drive the grain trucks.
The entire day consists of hanging around in ditches, but we never bore. When the races begin, we applaud and watch for a while and the younger children bet candy on who will be the winner. For the rest of the race, we amuse ourselves by pretending that wheat stalks are swords, or by catching a ride with the bigger boys in the grain trucks. Sometimes if we are lucky, the women let us eat some of the supper being prepared for the men in the Penterson’s house, which is close to most of the fields being raced on.
When a race ends, we all relocate to the next field and watch the next race begin. We jump into the backs of the farm trucks, or run along side the combines on the way. Each new field has a new play area- some have mountains of grass for us to play in, others have mud puddles. Sometimes we would get adventurous and sneak into the fields when the combines weren’t combining there, only to be hauled back by a parent when your friends squealed.
Sometimes the races continued on into the night. When they did, I would curl up with a blanket on my mother's lap and watch the combine's lights sweep back and forth across the field. There was always a radio tuned into the racing action, and we could all hear the combiner's bantering at one another.
Eventually the winner would be announced. We would all cheer loudly and applaud. The winner would receive a rusty trophy, to be returned to the town the next year of course. Each family would load up into their vehicles and truck home- only the young adults and teenagers heading out to the nearest party spot.
I always sleep well that night, exhausted from a full day and dreaming about next year's race. One day, when I was old enough, I would get to drive the grain trucks and participate in the races in that way. One day, I too hoped to among The Great Combine Race winners.