Beginning the summer that I was twelve years old and until the summer before I left for college I worked in the cornfields of rural Nebraska. It was the place where I grew up, surrounded on every side by a seemingly endless grid of emerald green fields and dirt roads.
Every year, for three weeks in July, my younger brother and I would wake up before sunrise. We’d pack our lunch boxes and drive to the school parking lot where an old rented school bus would take us to the field of the day. I remember those early mornings as a haze: 30-or-so tired kids sitting silently on a bus, praying that the drive would be just a little longer and watching as the sun lifted over the horizon like a boiling egg yolk.
Our fieldwork was a rite of passage. Every kid in our area of Nebraska did it for at least one summer, many of us for more. Before us, our parents and grandparents had done the same work, and someday, we knew our kids would, too. Seven days a week we would walk the long rows, pulling the tops of each cornstalk off and tossing them on the ground where they would shrivel and die in the heat. The same thing would happen to us.
Those fields were our enemy and nothing about them could be trusted to comfort. The sharp leaves would cut like paper, making you bleed until your entire arm scabbed over a darkened red. Our cheap, Wal-Mart shoes were destroyed by the mud and rocks, taking our feet with them in the process; and after a long day my brother and I would soak them in a bathtub full of Epsom salt. The sun was perhaps the most unforgiving, beating down on us until our skin reddened, peeled away, and then came back a few shades darker. Every summer, we were reborn in those fields.
The land would suffocate us, first with humidity and then with space. No matter where you were standing, every direction seemed to stretch forever. At times you would stop, stand on your tip toes and look around, becoming manic with the idea that you would never escape. Before iPods were around I would bring my old CD player and wrap it in plastic, playing the same album over and over again so I would know how long it took me to get from one side of the field to the other, based on what song I was listening to. This is the way I learned the lyrics to every song on Weezer’s Blue Album, and later The White Stripes’ Elephant.
At the end of the day, around 3:00 PM, we would run out of the fields one last time, fall to the ground, and look up to the sky. The dirt would crumble in our hands and we would know that we had conquered the field. It had snapped beneath our hands.
I never understood why my elders remembered their summers in the fields so fondly. For me, it was hard work that never seemed to justify the paycheck I’d bring home.
It has been three summers since I’ve been home. I’ve traded my dirty shoes and ripped shirts for suits and a nice big desk with my name on a silver tag. Sometimes though, when I wake up before dawn, I miss my old summer job. When I tell my coworkers what I used to do, they never understand why. They never understand that back then, when we were kids growing up in a cornfield, we were the Gods of our earth.