Growing up in a big family can be tough. I feel that I can say this with a bit of authority because I am one of seven children, and I feel that this numerical resume entry grants license to call myself a somewhat qualified commentator for the Large Family Channel. And, while growing up in a large family can be difficult, providing for a large family can be a near impossibility. Even in the good times, just getting by can be tough. Survival skills are tested to the max especially in the summertime by the additional challenge of keeping all those idle, wiggly youngsters occupied and out of trouble. The solution? Find some sort of work for those young ones to do.

Since my family met the above criteria, and since we were an especially wiggly lot, work for us started at an early age. My laboring career began at the age of 11 and throughout my wonder years consisted of a wide array of different jobs and tasks, and almost all of them were outdoor manual labor. I worked for multiple employers, on an as-needed basis, and most often, on or around farms. Some jobs were not fun, some of them were…for at least the first 20 minutes. Jobs such as baling hay or straw, repairing fences, cutting, splitting and stacking firewood, mowing lots of yards, raking leaves, cleaning barns, filling the clean barn with stacked hay, emptying the barn of hay to feed to cattle, and “walking beans”.

For those of you that have not had the privilege of walking beans, I can briefly explain. “Walking beans” is basically weeding a really big garden. Of course, nobody actually likes weeds, but a farmer despises weeds. The pesky plants grow in their crops and steal nutrients, compete for sunlight and water and they just plain look ugly in a nice pretty field of row after row of neatly planted crops. After the growing season they don’t stop being a nuisance; they get tangled in the desirable plants and jam harvesting equipment, adding debris to the harvested grain and lowering the sale price. All of these features of weeds make them particularly loathsome in soybean fields. They are a pain in multiple ways and the farmer wants them out, so somehow he has to weed this huge garden.

These days there are all kinds of chemicals and treatments that can be put on the field that will kill almost all the weeds for an entire season. They are dispatched with a quick spray or two from one of those monster machines you may have found yourself stuck behind on the country back roads. But, back in my day (am I old enough to say that yet?!), most of the chemicals were just becoming popularized and they were still expensive enough to consider other, cheaper alternatives. For a time, I was that cheaper alternative.

The process of walking beans is quite simple. Start at one side of the field; count out 2, 3, or 4 rows; and start walking down that row armed with your weed killing implement of choice. My personal favorite weed slaying companion was a corn knife, an 18 inch, super-sharp machete. While walking through the field with your dangerous weapon, the idea is to cut, kill or pull all of the weeds in your set number of rows on either side (without killing any bean plants) as you walk all the way to the opposite end of the field. Count out 2, 3, or 4 rows past the ones just cleared, and walk back down the field again killing more of the dastardly weeds.


Soybeans Ready for Harvest

Soybeans Ready for Harvest

Over the years, my brothers and I walked beans in fields all over the county, racking up literally thousands of acres of soybeans cleared of weeds and miles and miles of uneven ground trodden beneath our dusty boots. All of this travel had to start with a first step, and that first step was taken in a bean field alongside a couple of my brothers and sisters when I was 11 years old.

It was an already hot morning in late June and we were trying to get to the field before it turned into an unbearable summer day. We rode in the farmer’s van up to the edge of the field and tumbled out, ready to attack the weeds. But this was the first day, so we needed some guidance from the owner of the field and provider of the work.

We gathered around while he gave us some brief words of instruction. Hank was a rather quiet but upbeat man in his late-fifties, with a slower and more deliberate demeanor, but with plenty of life left in the tank. He had thinning silvery hair and walked with a bit of a hitch in his gait. I never knew what caused his limp, but to hear him tell it, I am certain it was quite the story! And quite a storyteller he was! I always liked watching him spin a yarn, embellishing and polishing until it was perfect. He lost himself in the telling, and it never mattered if you heard the story before. Hank seemed like he was spinning a yarn now, he had a big smile on his face as he told us what fun we’d be having today. However, his words were laden with sarcasm, as we were about to find out.

Hank prepared to ration out the weed dispatching weapons to each member of my familial squad while he gave the last bits of instructions. He opened the back door of the van and there were the tools. Stacked in the back of the van were freshly sharpened corn knives, brand new weed hooks, and an awesome looking weed sickle (which was actually nothing more than a tooth from a sickle bar mower bolted to a rough cut shaft of cottonwood…you may not be able to picture that, but trust me, it looked wicked). I watched as all of the coolest, or to be more accurate, the more dangerous tools were handed out to everyone but me. No corn knife for me, no weed hook, and no weed sickle, I was handed a garden hoe. Looking back, I know this was a very smart move by Hank, but at the time I was bummed and a bit jealous.

Hank counted out rows of young bean plants for the placement of each walker and after I was ushered to my assigned spot, we started down our first wave of attack. I confidently strode out into the field seeing my first weedy victim, a pigweed, a hundred feet down the row I was walking. I hacked at the plant in front of me and it tumbled down as the hoe kicked up small clods of dirt.
This was kinda fun!
On to the next one!
It did not take long to find the next target a row over, I ran up to it and hacked at it wildly. The weed fell over and a few bean plants fell with it. I couldn’t exactly paste them back together, so I ignored the mangled bean plants and just moved on to the next intended victim.

It wasn’t long before the fun of hacking in the dirt with a garden hoe started to turn dull and quite tiresome. The glee of finding the new weeds was replaced by annoyance that there were just so many of them. If it was possible, I was getting a little more careless. I had been knocking over more than a few bean plants and was sharply critiqued by my sister at the end of one round.
“You can’t go killing all the beans like that, slow down! Weren’t you paying attention to what Hank said?”
Apparently I was not. And, it wasn’t the only thing I had missed.
I replied that I would be more careful, and I did try. But as the day wore on, I started getting preoccupied by something else entirely – finishing my row first!

There must not have been enough thrill anymore in walking back and forth on a hot, humid day whacking at some plants but not others. I had to create a game that apparently only I was playing. The rules were simple. Whoever got to the end of the field first on that round did the best job, and therefore was the winner. I wanted to do the best and I kept getting to the end of my row first, but no one seemed to celebrate my bean walking domination. I was also missing something slightly important. That’s right, weeds. My sister stopped me and scolded me…again.
“What are you doing? Hank is having clean up behind you and get all the weeds you are missing!”

At first I didn’t believe her. I was doing great, I was finishing first! But on the next round when I was ahead again, just to check, I took a look back behind me. There was Hank, leaning over and cutting down a weed fairly close to my row…was that mine? I walked on some more…another look back. This time, there was no doubt, about 100 yards back, Hank was leaning down into the very row I was walking in and cutting down a weed that I should have practically tripped over. It hit me quickly; here I was playing a game with a job I was assigned while I made this man five times my age do double the work. I was embarrassed.

To be fair, I was only 11, and I don’t believe that Hank really expected that much out of me. But that was kind of the point to my embarrassment; he did not expect much and I was living up to that low expectation. Wasn’t I taught to do the best job I could? Is it fair to play a game out of something I’m getting paid for? Am I going to hell for making an “old man” do my work for me? Ok, I didn’t really think that last one at the time, but I was feeling bad, especially when he was finishing last because of my missed weeds. I resolved to do better.

Rather than run, I slowed down. I tried not to indiscriminately demolish all plants around each weed. My goal changed from getting to the end of the row first, to getting all of my own weeds. My goal was to keep Hank from cleaning up after me. By the end of the job, I had improved markedly, and even got a compliment on how well I had done. It was a lot of work, but I really felt like I had accomplished something. Rather than be off in my own world, achieving accomplishments that existed only in my own head, I had lived up to and surpassed expectations of my ability. It felt great, and really made an impression on me.

Many years have passed since then, but I do like to think that the experience helped me grow a little, and helped shape my attitude in approaching my work. Although I don’t keep this specific memory in the front of my mind at all times, every now and then I feel myself metaphorically looking back over my shoulder…just to make sure that no one is having to get my weeds.