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Sweet, Hot Work Among the Beets

Shortly after Grandma died, we moved into her big white house down the road. There was an orchard, garden, and artesian well, and a lot more farm ground than at the old place. While people were struggling during the Depression, we were fortunate to rest secure in the wealth of fertile farmland and many children for the labor needed. It would have been perfect, if not for the sugar beets. Every farm in the valley grew them. And every child in the valley hated them. They meant three things: work, work, work.

You started when you were six years old as a thinner. The big people were blockers. They led the way and chopped out spaces to leave little bunches of plants about half a foot apart. The thinners crawled along behind and pulled out all the little beets, except the best, in each bunch.

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Your back hurt, your knees hurt, your hands hurt, your fingers hurt, and your nose ran. And whenever you looked up, the row seemed to stretch endlessly ahead of you with another one waiting beyond it.

As we got older we each did the whole job - blocking out with a short hoe in one hand and thinning with the other, which was even harder on the back. So I was dumfounded when Casey and Martha showed up and actually begged to do this work.

A good year for sugar had come along, and an agent from the sugar company persuaded Dad to plant 20 acres instead of 10. He knew he'd have to contract out one 10-acre field, and when word reached Casey and Martha, they rushed out to take the job. They were both 17 and had been married for a month.

"Who will you be working with?" Dad asked them.

"Nobody. Just us two."

"That's nonsense. It'll take at least five people to get them done on time."

"Please, mister. We need money real bad. Neither of us can find work."

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"I admire you kids, but it's just too much."

They wouldn't give up, and Dad finally made a bargain. If they didn't finish the field in two weeks, he'd hire a crew to finish and pay the extra workers out of the couple's contract. They cheerfully agreed.

Just about daylight on Monday morning, Casey and Martha appeared in the field. After chores, the six of us started on our 10 acres. We were resting on the lawn after lunch when Casey and Martha stopped and sat down near the well. I went over to get a drink and noticed that all they had to eat was bread and cheese.

When I told Dad, he went into the house. Soon Mother came out with a pan of hot food. We'd eaten one of her wonderful baked dinners: spare ribs, potatoes, carrots, onions, and biscuits. She offered the pan to Casey and Martha.

"Thank you, but we don't take handouts." Casey's fingers sunk into the bread in his hand.

"Too bad," Mother said. "The dogs won't half appreciate these things."

Casey and Martha eyed that food the way my dog watches me eat chicken, but they still refused.

"Tell you what," Mother said. "I'll make a little extra food each day. You take it, and sometime after the thinning's done, come and help me in the house and garden for a day. That'll pay for it."

The food disappeared in a hurry.

Casey and Martha were in the field every day from daylight to dark. While we knew better than to complain about our work within Dad's hearing, our silence clearly conveyed how we felt. But sometimes the wind would carry Casey and Martha's voices to us in snatches - laughter and words as musical as the calls of the whippoorwills. They were happy.

One day at lunchtime, when I went to the well for a drink, they were stretched out on the grass for a quick nap. Their arms were extended toward each other; their grubby, beet-stained fingers intertwined.

We finished our field on Thursday and finally felt some happiness of our own. For us, it was over, and we'd each earned a dollar for the Fourth of July holiday.

At noon on Friday, Casey and Martha came to Dad and said, "We're really very sorry, but you were right. We won't have the beets done tomorrow."

Dad said, "Don't be too sure. You still have one more day."

"But we can't finish by tomorrow night," they repeated.

"Let's just wait and see."

They went back to work very puzzled. Dad called us together and asked us to give a day's work to Casey and Martha.

The thought of another day in the fields left us speechless. We had done our share. We'd already started celebrating our liberation.

Martha's voice carried to us across the field. It wasn't as musical as it had been. Casey tried to encourage her, and they both lifted their hoes again to the work.

Dad looked at us. "I'll only take volunteers."

Next morning, all six of us showed up bright and early at the field. We started at the side and worked toward Casey and Martha. By the middle of the afternoon, the field was done.

The couple beamed as Dad counted out the 25 silver dollars into their hands. They were rich.

As we walked from the field, Martha said to me, "Ain't sugar beets wonderful?"

Looking at her face, I couldn't argue. And she wouldn't have heard me if I'd tried.

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