• Claire Benjamin

A sacred fire


I’m a farmer’s daughter, but I can’t navigate the grain elevator, grease the combine or repair fence lines. I have never mucked a hog pen or delivered a stillborn lamb. My children will not build hay forts on my family farm or dams in the creek down the road. They will not tame herds of kittens or rescue baby birds from fallen nests. No more rotten apple wars. No more evenings of catching lightning bugs to feed to pet toads — their bellies flickering.

I’m the end of the line, the end of an era. After my dad retires, our land will be rented out until one day it is gobbled up by Bloomington’s urban sprawl.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”

It hurts that this flame has been snuffed out in me, that I cannot count myself as one of these chosen people. As a senior at the University of Illinois, I’ve picked a different life. A life in an office, working — I hope — as a journalist. A life far removed from back-breaking work days, devastating droughts and broken machinery. A life with a husband who is concerned about Internet connectivity rather than grain futures.

Yet I always enjoy returning to the family farm for harvest. Each year, I come home to ride a few rounds with my dad in the combine. My excitement at being again among fields the color of spun-honey grows as I drive away from Champaign-Urbana and my pile of chapters that should be read. Eventually, I spot the neon Love’s sign off Interstate 74 in LeRoy, a signal I’m almost home. The sun dances along the bean stubble, and I think of the Grinch’s small heart growing three sizes and imagine that mine must be growing as well.

I turn down 1300 N toward Bentown — a town that was founded in 1853 under its former name, Benjaminville, after my great-great-great-grandfather John R. Benjamin. Today it’s almost a ghost town. All that remains are a few houses and an abandoned Friends Meeting House.

I pass by the O’Neall farmstead. I don’t recognize the car in Rusty Benjamin’s drive. I try to spot members of Carmen’s animal menagerie as I pass her patchwork of pens. I drive by my mom’s house, a quarter mile east of my dad’s farm, but I can’t tell if she’s home. Before they divorced six years ago, she helped my dad farm full time for 13 years, cultivating ground in the spring and hauling grain in the fall. That’s how I know I could do it, too. If only there was enough land to take over. If only our machinery wasn’t old. If only I wanted to.

“Hi, dad, I’m home!” I trill when I walk into the kitchen. My dad walks out of his office holding a small stack of papers and running his fingers through his thick, salt-and-pepper hair. His wide, sunburned face breaks into a smile.

“We have to get gas for the truck this morning,” he says.

“That’s fine,” I reply as I mix a glass of Ovaltine.

“This bid is below the other local elevators, so I’m going to confront him about it,” he says of an elevator manager to whom he usually sells a portion of his corn and beans.

“Hi, this is George Benjamin,” my dad says into the phone. “I wanted to confirm we got the percentages correct. I was looking at your bid online and wondered why your bid was 7 cents less. LeRoy is 15.93.” He pauses to listen. “I’m going to sell the beans then at 15.93. And Mildred Benjamin-Smiddy, I’m going to sell hers the same way. Thank you.”

He hangs up.

“I’m very tickled with that,” he says, smiling, as we pull on our work boots.

It bothers me that my Redwings look shiny and new beside his pair with their scratched, worn leather. But that’s part of the life I’ve chosen. We make a quick run to Bloomington to fill up the truck and get to work preparing the machinery for the day at the original Benjamin farmstead, a quarter-mile down the road, where we store our machinery and my brother’s European fallow deer herd.

I watch as my dad tries to connect a shaft onto the feeder house on the bean head. He shoves the part into position with his thigh and bangs on it with a hammer. After a few more minutes of shoving, readjusting and hammering, the piece finally falls into place.

Hours later, the beans have finally dried out enough to begin harvest. I barely adjust myself in the combine’s buddy seat beside my dad when my brother Neal calls to see if I can help him tranquilize and move one of his deer to a neighbor’s. He is a first-year UI student in veterinary medicine, his chosen career ever since I can remember.

George Benjamin, Claire and Neal Benjamin on the family land.

Neal picks me up at the southwest field entrance, and a minute later we pull up at the farm, studied by five pairs of black eyes. For 9 years, Rocky had been his herd’s stag, but a younger buck has begun to challenge his dominance due to Rocky’s age and his tumorous growth. The deer are skittish. They prance in circles around Neal as he pivots in the center of the 7-foot pen. The dart hits Rocky low on his left hind leg.

“Adrenaline can override the drugs, so you don’t want to excite him,” Neal cautions as I enter the pen. I have never really been in the deer pen before. As a child, I was warned that the deer can be dangerous, even deadly. But on his belly, legs folded beneath him, Rocky is purring like a cat. He struggles to stand, and his head sways back and forth like a drunkard.

“I don’t think he is going to go all the way under,” Neal says. “We will have to walk him out.”

He latches onto Rocky’s antlers and pulls. Rocky strains against him, his knees lock and his legs bow. But with the tranquilizer, Rocky is not strong enough to resist. The drug appears to be wearing off by the time we arrive at our neighbor’s house where Rocky will stay. I cringe as his body slams into the side of the truck on the way to his pen. After Neal guides him through the gate, Rocky backs away and lies down, again succumbing to the drugs.

On the drive home, my pulse slows, and I feel proud. I had helped manhandle a full-grown buck. I felt a match strike somewhere deep inside me. That sacred fire Thomas Jefferson says burns in those who toil in the earth had been rekindled inside me.

But I know the truth: On the farm, I am out of place, a book housed in the wrong genre. Neal drops me back at the southwest field entrance, and I climb up into the combine cab beside my dad.

As we ease into yet another conversation about bean production, a high beeping sound fills the cab telling us the combine has broken down.

It has just gotten dark when I return more than an hour later after “gophering” parts from Clinton to repair the combine. My dad and our hired man, Curt Harrison, are clanging on the combine. My dad hands me a flashlight and picks up a long pry crowbar.

George Benjamin, left, and Curt Harrison work on a combine on the Benjamin family farm.

With all his weight, he pulls against the lock collar holding the broken bearing onto the combine shaft. Curt pulls on the crowbar that is under the opposite edge of the lock collar. They grimace with effort.

After a minute or two, they switch approaches. Curt places a hole punch in a screw hole on the lock collar and hits it with a 2-pound hammer. The lock collar slowly revolves around the bearing with each hit. But it doesn’t budge. Soon my dad breaks out a blow torch. A blue flame heats the metal.

An hour later, after countless attempts using the torch, punch and crowbars, the lock collar loosens and they wrench it off.

I’m proud of my dad’s tenacity, his calm and persistent demeanor. He hardly pauses even to celebrate before turning his attention to the bearing. We spend another unproductive hour trying to loosen the bearing without success. Finally, without a hint of discouragement, my dad announces that we should call it a night.

On the drive home, I feel helpless and frustrated. I hate giving up. I hate not knowing if we would break that bearing if we worked on it for five more minutes or five more days. I hate knowing that I couldn’t have wrangled Rocky or broken that lock collar myself. I hate being at Mother Nature’s mercy. I hate knowing that this year, with the drought, our yields won’t add up to my dad’s long hours and strenuous work.

“I would just like to say I’m tired,” my dad says when we walk through the front door. We kick off our boots, and I am pleased to see my Redwings looking a little less new.

Later that evening, my dad and I talk about the farm. We talk about how it was when he was a kid. We talk about how he wouldn’t want me to take over the farm because no one knows when the good years will run out. We talk about how he’s the last of six generations to farm the original Benjaminville land.

I try not to cry, but a few tears slide down my cheeks. I forget about the broken bearing and drought-devastated yields. I can only picture the sun-dappled fields and that feeling of sitting in the humming combine surrounded by illuminated dust and a love for the land and the season and my dad. Pride for our farm, the generations before me and this little place called Bentown burns inside me.

Even if I cannot stay, it will stay within me.

This article appeared in the News Gazette on February 3, 2013.

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