My greatest memories of harvest involve heat. For most of the 25 years I went on harvest with my dad and older brothers, I was hot.
Harvesting wheat on a custom combining crew means traveling through the Great American Desert, aka Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, during the summer months. Wheat has to be dry in order for the straw to thresh properly and the grain not to spoil. This translates to a need for heat. Days with 100-plus-degree temperatures and 20- to 30-mile-per-hour wind are ideal to dry the crop.
In the 1960s and ’70s, we couldn’t chase away the heat with air-conditioned cabs. The combine I was trained on was a 1966 Gleaner Baldwin CII. No cab. My dad did install an umbrella called a buggy top on each of our combines to provide shade during the blast furnace days. That may not seem like much today, but to the guys who didn’t have them it was the lap of luxury.
Another thing about Gleaner combines is that they are silver — galvanized metal. As you’re driving the machine over the fields, it’s busy reflecting sun and heat onto your body. It really wasn’t that big of a deal until we got to the newer rotary combines, and when the cylinder got clogged, the only way to fix it was to climb into the grain bin and open some doors that gave you access to the plugged cylinder. Climbing into that bin was like climbing into a reflector in a massive light and on a 100-degree day it was hell on earth.
I noticed after a few years that I subconsciously did things to beat the heat. Whenever the combine broke down I would park it so that the broken side was in the shade. Then when I got the pickup to bring the tools over I found that the toolbox and tools were too hot to handle, so I usually grabbed the tool box and put it in the shade so the tools would cool off.
Once my older brother Ron took a truck load of wheat into the Plains, Kansas, elevator. On the way he blew a tire so he jacked up the truck, took the tire off and went into town to get a new one. By the time he got back and started to put the tire on, the jack had sunk into the hot asphalt, and the truck slipped off the jack. The good news is the new tire caught the load and kept it from crushing my brother. The bad news is that his foot was under the tire. He was eventually rescued and still has 10 toes.
Harvest time is also fire time. Conditions that are prime for ripening wheat are also prime for catching a field on fire. From the time I was in grade school I was taught about hot exhaust pipes and wheat stubble. Combine bearings sometimes melted and fell into the straw, starting fires. Dad always stressed to get the machinery away from the fire and on plowed ground. We were lucky that no one on our crew ever got hurt during a wheat field fire. I have seen the corpses of combines where the operator tried to put the fire out with the machine. Most of the time the operator got away.
The hot days of summer also made traveling from location to location tougher. One year, as we moved from Kanorado, Kansas, to Hayes, South Dakota, we blew every spare combine trailer tire we had. And that was before we got out of Kansas. I remember stopping in McCook, Nebraska, and buying eight spares. We had to mount the tires on the wheels on the side of the road when we ran out of mounted spares. It made for some creative stops in the sandhills of Nebraska between North Platte and Valentine.
Some crews stayed in motels during wheat harvest. Some stayed in air-conditioned camper trailers and got to sleep in relatively coolness at night. We had a camper. No air conditioning. We parked our camper out in the bright sunshine all day so that it stored up the heat. Why not crack a window during the day? Because dust, chaff and sometimes freak rainstorms could fill the camper and especially your bed while you were out. I’d wait until I got back to the camper about midnight and then crack open the little 5-inch-by-10-inch window and press my face to the screen to catch any wayward breeze blowing by. Luckily we were so tired we still slept well.
There finally came a time when we bought combines with air-conditioned cabs. Heaven! Theoretically the operators were better off. Then you found out what real hell was if the air conditioner quit. My dad was a stoic guy, never really asking for a favor or a hand up. My brother Jon and I would realize that his air conditioner had quit when we saw him go by with the door to his cab open. So we would move him to my combine with proper air conditioning and take turns running his machine. Jon would say, “Just pretend you are in a sauna!” I didn’t have to pretend much.
It wasn’t so bad when you were cutting into the wind. But ultimately you had to cut with the wind, and then all the straw and chaff that came out the back of the combine would blow into the cab and get in your eyes and clothes. To avoid that we had to close the door. That meant that for a half mile going 2 to 3 miles an hour, you were in a cab that got up to 120 degrees. I remember getting to the corner and turning so the dust blew away from the combine and finally opening the door. When that 105-degree air came into the cab and I’d get goosebumps.
I learned at an early age that heat, like everything else, is relative.
Monte Moser is a crop insurance adjuster and retired high school journalism teacher who lives in Garden City. He grew up in Oakley, where he and his father and brothers for many years had a custom-cutting business, Moser & Sons.