Trampolines and Walking Beans: A Treatise on Meaningful Work

I would have preferred to jump on the neighbor’s trampoline than walk beans.

This story is part of my family’s lore. The kind of story that gets told time and again until it has a life of its own and practically becomes a member of the family. Like Cousin Melba, who showed up at family gatherings with the carrot-salad sandwiches on store-bought white bread and told endless stories about people we barely knew, much less cared about. She laughed and sucked her teeth through ill-fitting dentures about jokes that weren’t really funny. Melba had a habit of showing up at our house, unannounced, and she stayed well past her welcome, which was usually about ten minutes.

For me, it’s that kind of story. The story that won’t go away. I’m reclaiming it as my own.

When I was about ten, my dad thought it would be a stellar idea if he contracted with a local farmer to have my sisters and I “walk” his bean field.

“You’ll make some extra money!” my dad exclaimed enthusiastically.

“Thanks, Dad,” we replied, with less enthusiasm.

Curiously, my mother was conscripted into bean-walking detail, too. I still don’t know why she agreed. As a stay-at-home mom that summer, maybe she felt solidarity with her kids. Perhaps she had reread The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, a novel about a rags-to-riches Chinese farm family. Did she fancy herself a non-Chinese O-lan, the dutiful first wife of Wang Lung, who combed vermin out of the bedding and went back to work in the fields after bearing her children? Given that Wang Lung’s other wives were initially his concubines, I suppose field work was the preferable option with which to curry favor with her husband.

For the uninitiated, “walking beans” was a peculiar yet popular job for Iowa kids in the 1970s and 80s. We scrapped for cash in Afterlick, Iowa, despite our apparent wealth and abundance. Walking beans did not involve putting soybeans on a leash and taking them for a leisurely stroll. No, walking beans meant walking up and down the rows of soybeans with a machete, a hoe, or a bean hook (a long-handled tool with a sharpened hook at the end), and cutting out all the weeds in the rows. Cockleburs, jimson weed, sunflowers, and nightshade, among others. I never understood the purpose of it, really, but from what I knew, having weeds in the beans at harvest time meant a lower price at the market. Whatever. As my sister Julie said, astutely: “Do the cows really care?”

The season for walking beans was mid- to late-July, i.e. the hottest and most humid fucking time in Iowa summer. Imagine 25 or 30 football fields covered with soybean rows, and you have to walk up and down the rows, hacking weeds down to the roots. Some of the weeds had already flowered. Once, I grabbed a flowering weed by the blooms, ready to deal it a fatal blow, when I suddenly became aware that I had in my clutch a nice little gathering of bees. They stung the shit out of my hand, and it was hot, swollen, and itchy for days after. These were the days of milk and honey. The pastoral dream. The bucolic life of blissful, rural Iowa. Ahhhhh….

The convenient thing was that the field was right across the street from our house. The bitch of it was that the field was right across the street from our house. Whenever we walked out the front door, there it was — the field, ready and waiting to be plucked clean of its weeds.

“Fuck you, field,” we said meekly under our breaths, even though we weren’t allowed to use such words.

I don’t remember on which day I surrendered (maybe it was the second or the third), but at some point, I gave in. To the heat. To the humidity. To the drudgery. To the thirst. At the end of my row, in a performance worthy of any antebellum Southern belle stacked high with lace, crinoline, and petticoats, I threw the back of my hand against my forehead and wept.

“I can’t take it anymore! I have a headache!”

Midwesterners don’t have an equivalent of crinoline and petticoats. We weren’t that dramatic nor stylish. Well, most of us weren’t. We only had gingham and sackcloth and humble short pants crafted out of burlap. Simple people.

While my sisters rolled their eyes, my mother sighed, took a deep breath, and sent me home.

“Okayyyyyy. Go home. Drink some water. Lie down. We will finish this.”

I trudged home (the short distance between the field and our house). I felt triumphant that I had escaped more hard labor, but I still pondered the question:

“Why are we doing this at all?”

I had a drink of water when I got home. I had two big glasses full, with ice. I did lie down. For awhile.

…until I heard the rhythmic squeak and toing of my neighbor’s trampoline.

I got up out of bed and looked out the window.

Robbie, Trey, Carole, Chrissy, Karalee, and Laurie, the babysitter, were there. Laurie was standing by the trampoline while the other kids were jumping and falling into each other.

I always liked it when Laurie babysat. She let me jump on the trampoline alone. She even made Robbie and Trey sit on the side, even though it was their trampoline. I could do tricks. I’m sure the other kids didn’t like it, but they gave me grudging respect. I could do things they couldn’t do. Their envy was my pleasure.

I went back and reclined on the bed. I felt a little better. The cool drink of water, the air conditioning, and the rest on the bed had rejuvenated me. My headache had subsided. Maybe I could take a turn on the trampoline for a little bit before my sisters and my mom returned home…

After I’d caught a breath and changed into my matching ensemble of a teal tank top and shorts with red and white piping, with my white leather gymnastics slippers, I was at the chain link fence separating my yard from theirs, asking:

“May I come over?”

Laurie exclaimed, “Tony! Yes! C’mon over!”

Carole and Chrissy looked disgusted, while Robbie, Trey, and Karalee all clapped their hands.

I was the neighborhood star. I had arrived.

Even though Afterlick, Iowa wasn’t that big — a little more than a thousand people — there were privileges accorded to those who were able to do special things.

While I was a celebrity, getting to the trampoline — my stage — was not without risk.

Robbie and Trey had a huge Doberman named Affy. Though no children had been reported mauled or killed by Affy, we all lived in fear that we might be the first. At the slightest jingle of the chain link fence, Affy would come charging across the yard at full sprint. Any interloper would have approximately six seconds to run the twenty yards from the fence to the trampoline and dive headlong onto the trampoline before Affy arrived, snarling and growling.

We found out later that Robbie and Trey’s dad was involved in shady business deals. That’s why their house mysteriously blew up. That’s why they had a mean dog.

I still liked having a neighbor that had a trampoline.

As expected, Laurie cleared the trampoline and invited me to perform. I obliged. I always obliged.

I did a few flips before Carole harrumphed.

Carole was my nemesis. She was in my class. Long and gangly, she had blond hair, Carol Brady style, with the ends flipped up. She was kind of pigeon-toed, and she had the grace of a newborn colt on an ice rink. She always bragged that was taking “gym-a-nastics”, even though it was at a dance studio, and I never saw the point in spending all that money if you never really learned to do anything impressive or with good form. I took real gymnastics classes, and I took them seriously.

Chrissy was Carole’s younger sister. Genetics work in mysterious ways. Whereas Carole was long and leggy, Chrissy was short and plump. She had squinty little eyes and buck teeth, like a blond-haired beaver. Their mother looked like Dolly Parton and was known as a floozy, so maybe they came from different stock. I chose not to mention it. Midwesterners know that it isn’t nice to say such things out loud.

“Fine,” I said, deigning to include Carole and the rest. “Let’s play Add-On.”

Add-On was a game we played where everyone was included, but I always won. One person would perform a trick. The next person would perform that trick and then “add on” one of their own. The next person would perform the two previous tricks and then add another. And so on…

After the first round, Karalee was out because she was the littlest, and she couldn’t do many tricks. Trey was out after the second, and Robbie was out after the third. If you couldn’t do the tricks, or if you forgot the sequence, you were out. One bounce between tricks. Chrissy should have been out after the third round, too, because she really didn’t do “swivel hips” correctly, but Laurie allowed it after Chrissy pouted and began to cry. She finally admitted defeat after landing her front flip on her ass, even though we gave her three tries.

Chrissy was mad and called me a “mother fucker” for calling her out. Laurie reprimanded her for her language. Chrissy protested and said that she called me a “mother bucker.” We all knew that made no sense. Buck-toothed beavers tend to lie, and Chrissy was no exception. There is no such thing as a “mother bucker.”

It was down to Carole and me. Her form was abominable. I was embarrassed for her. Still, I wanted a worthy competitor. It’s just not fun, otherwise.

For her next trick, she threw a Barani. Kind of like an aerial cartwheel. I was kind of impressed because it’s a hard trick to do. Still, she looked like a duck that had just been shot.

Flailing. Uncoordinated. Reeling.

“Anthonnnnnyyyyyy! You need to cooooommmmme home. Nowwwwwww!”

Shit. It was my mother.

She never called me “Anthony” unless I was in trouble. There she was, at the sliding glass door of our house. I hadn’t noticed that she and my sisters had come back home from walking beans.

“Okaaaaayyyyyyyy!” I called back.

Before I rushed home, I had work to do.

Tuck jump — straddle jump — full turn — Herky jump — back drop — knee drop — stag jump — seat drop — handstand — pike jump — stomach drop — swivel hips — front flip — back flip — Barani —

…and a whip-back and a full-twisting back flip.

I knew Carole couldn’t do it.

“I gotta go,” I said, as I landed cleanly on my feet and then bounded off the trampoline. I bid goodbye to Robbie, Trey, Chrissy, Karalee, and even Carole, as I executed a perfect straddle vault over the chain link fence right before Affy the Doberman was ready to tear at my ten-year-old ass with its teeth.

I knew I had explaining to do. I was satisfied, though.

I had done my work. The work I was meant to do.

Soybean field (image credit The Scientist Magazine)