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The Grain Elevator

“I’ve got to haul a load of grain into town. Who wants to come?” asked my father. Almost always, the answer was: “Take me!”

In the days of my childhood, we didn’t get off the farm that much and the ride into town was always a welcome diversion. Sitting in the shaking, rattling, and sputtering old 3–ton and feeling the truck getting its full load of grain above its comfortable field speed was almost like being an astronaut. And I would be in awe of Dad’s coordination as he shifted from one gear to the next, and I could imagine that I too will some day be skillful enough to shift gears on a big truck.

Often, there was a bit of lineup at the elevator as trucks were unloading. This gave my hard–working father a chance to chat with other local farmers who did were not part of his regular social circle. Talk centered around weather and tractors and cows and crops. One could learn a lot about farming if one listened in this lineup.

Then it was our turn to unload grain. With a full load to master up a ramp, the underpowered truck could not gain enough momentum to get out of first gear and Dad was forced to keep the engine revs high, which he never considered proper to run a grain truck.

The elevator man guided us to the proper spot on the scale. My dad ordered me out of the truck. “We shouldn’t cheat the Wheat Pool,” he always said. He often had a nasty comment for less–than–totally honest farmers who he thought used their children’s weight to count as extra grain. This lesson in honesty was more effective anything I had learned in church or school.

Standing next to the elevator man, I watched him move the scale weights this way and that way until the scale arm reached that mystical floating point that signified the weighing was complete. The elevator man further verified this task being done by flicking the scale lock with a resounding and confirming clang. I wondered when I would be big and smart enough to run a scale like that.

It was time to unload the truck. The elevator man guided Dad to move the truck to the next right spot. When we had the ’54 Ford, Dad moved the front wheels of the truck to sit atop of the hydraulic hoist that was to lift the front end of the truck so we wouldn’t have to shovel the entire load. Dad always asked if I wanted to sit in the cab of the while the front end was being lifted, thinking that this should be very exciting for a kid. He was right, but it was too exciting for this risk–averse boy — and the truck looked so vulnerable with its front end held high in the jaws of the grain elevator hoist. When Dad bought the ’62 Ford cabover with its own hoist, I never had the opportunity to ride the elevator’s hydraulic hoist again.

With the truck in the proper place and the truck box up, the elevator man pulled wooden levers dangling from the rafters and turned metal wheels with shafts coming from the wall to enact some mysterious machinations in the insides of the elevator. “He must be very smart to understand all this,” I thought. The elevator man then flicked a switch and a chug–chug sound which I never understood came from the bowels of the building.

When the elevator seemed set to take our grain, the chute on the truck box was opened. Grain spilled out and hit the steel grate with an unending hiss and disappeared in a hole beneath the grate. More than a few odd kernels bounced off grate’s bars onto the floor of the elevator and thus escaping the fate of the chug–chug sound below. The elevator man grabbed a sample of grain a small weird–shaped can that one could only find in a grain elevator. He put the grain and can on a small scale, moving the weights this way and that way until the scale arm reached its balance, just like the big scale that weighed the truck. He threw the sample in an electrical machine that separated the chaff from the grain. I liked watching the chaff go one way and the kernels go another and was amazed how the two components knew which way to go. The elevator man weighed the grain and can again and put some of the grain in another electrical device which only moved a needle on a gauge that made no sense to me.

The last little bit of grain always had to be shoveled out of the box of the truck. I was much too small for this job, but I grabbed the broom to sweep those few wayward kernels back into the black hole where the rest of the grain disappeared. The elevator man always gave me an approving eye when I did this job without being told to, and I relished this silent praise.

The elevator man weighed the truck again. Dad, the elevator man, and I went into the elevator office to discuss things that a small boy could not understand. But my patience was rewarded with a few jellybeans which told me I was welcome in this place.

While in town, it made sense to stop for an ice cream or pop. So to the restaurant we went, and usually Dad found someone to talk with. Sometimes it was another farmer to talk farmer talk, and sometimes it was a town resident to talk about the curling rink or firehall or whatever else bounded the farm and town communities together. Sometimes, one of my friends from school would be there too. Hauling grain to town was a necessary job for a farmer, but it was also a social event that you weren’t sure who was going to show up.

The world of a small child is very, very big. What adults often take for granted, children find massive, mysterious, and mind–boggling. To me, the elevator portrayed not just a prairie landmark, it was a building full of ominous and perplexing happenings. Every time I went to the elevator, it seemed like I learned a little bit more about the world around me even though children were not encouraged in those days to ask too many questions about the adult world, which included grain elevators.

But when we grow up, we lose the sense of awe and wonderment of common things. We stop trying to figure them out because they are so common. I never really did figure out how an elevator worked. Maybe it’s best that I didn’t.

Published in The Brooks & County Chronicle 2000

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