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"Measuring Cornfields, Part 1"

OK, so I get this summer job for the Agricultural Stabilization Commission Service. The federal agency that administers the Farm Program. To some that will sound like a show you'd find at 5 a.m. on the education channel. In fact, it's a subsidy system dreamed up in Washington to cut down the grain surplus and prop up prices. Basically, it pays farmers to grow less crops.

And so there's an army of people, most of them at desks, occupying the land from the Potomac to every little county seat within shouting distance of a farm. The grunts of this army walk the fields where crops are planted, measuring the length and breadth of them with 50- foot tapes. To make sure no farmer has planted more than his share. I'm a member of that infantry.

Bet you thought you'd heard it all. Well, it works like this. The local ASCS office assigns me to a quadrant of 16 square miles somewhere in the county. They give me giant aerial photographs of the area. (Taken by old spy planes is my theory. I was an impressionable age when the Russians brought down Gary Powers and the U-2.)

My job is to measure cornfields, plot them on the photos, and make hand-drawn maps of each field with its measurements. I have to contact about 25 farmers in the area, set up a day and time to meet each one, and have them take me out to their fields. With one end of the tape they walk ahead of me along the side and end of each field, stopping every 50 feet. I keep track of how often we stop and then take down the numbers. It's a no-brainer.

For reasons of their own, the local office assigns me a part of the county I don't know at all. It's in one far corner, where the wandering sandy channels of the Platte River (a mile wide and an inch deep, as they like to say here) bisect, traverse, and otherwise fuck up the nice grid of perfectly square miles and perfectly rectangular fields you find everywhere else I get this assignment, I figure, because I have a better than average grasp of geometry -- and I can draw neatly.

But I'm getting the idea there's another reason. It's not just their limited grasp of geometry that makes the other boys unwilling to work this territory. Two of them, the Farquhar (pronounced "Forker") brothers, giggle and look gleeful when we bump into each other in town.

Bob or Beaner (I forget which) leans out of his pickup cab at the Dairy Queen and says, "Been out to the Old Kramer Place yet?"

"No," I say.

"Shit, you're in for a treat" he says, looks over at his brother, who's sucking on a chili dog, and the two bust up laughing.

I don't even know what the Old Kramer Place is. There's no Kramer on the call list. So I actually don't put all this together until much later. Not until I have an appointment one afternoon with a farmer I've never met before named Mike.

Mike is chatting me up on the way out to the fields. I'm driving a dusty, mud-spattered, gravel-pitted Camaro, with a Playboy decal in the back window I'm not of that persuasion, but the car belongs to a buddy who's gone into the Peace Corps, and I feel obliged to keep it for him as is.

Mike wants to know where I've been going to college. I tell him. He tells me he's been in the Air Force; thinks sometimes he might like college but can't see himself in a classroom again. "Besides," he says. "I like this too much." He waves an arm at the passing fields.

To be honest, I'm not paying all that much attention to him. Farmers are OK. They have their own idea of humor, a sixth sense about the weather, and a fearless -- I would say obsessive -- attachment to hard work. A few have skills that have survived since the Middle Ages -- like cutting a forked branch from a willow and using it to find where to drill a well. But for a lot of them, as the saying goes, the world stops at the end of the driveway -- and somewhat short of the daily newspaper. They couldn't tell you where Hanoi is or why it matters.

Not that I'm an expert on world affairs. At twenty-one, I'm still pretty full of myself and ready to make shameless, sweeping judgments about anyone else.

We pull off the road and into a cornfield. "I want to buy this place," Mike says getting out of the Camaro. "But Old Kramer won't sell. He's waiting for land prices to go up."

There's a pause between my ears and then a "ding!" Now I'm taking a good look at him. Mike is maybe 3-4 years older than me, wearing a work shirt with sleeves rolled up over his elbows, jeans, dusty work boots, aviator sunglasses, and a Dekalb Seed cap, the brim bent into an angle over his eyes.

He's smiling at me, looking friendly, as a farmer will, one thumb resting on his belt buckle. It dawns on me that he isn't just being friendly; he likes me.

"Where'd you go to high school?" he says, after I explain to him how to walk ahead of me with the tape.

And as we walk along, we talk about that. What about sports? Did I have a girlfriend? And he names everyone he can think of I might possibly know from there. The ones I do know are guys older than me.

"You know the Farquhar brothers?" he says.

"I might," I say. Turns out he's talking about the two older ones, not Bob and Beaner. "How do you know them?"

He doesn't answer right away. "Aw," he finally says, turning and grinning, "it's a long story." Then he falls silent.

Following along behind him, I notice that he's about the same size as me, but nice and compact. His butt fills out his jeans, and his step is lively; he kind of bounces as he walks. It's getting warm under the afternoon sun, and beads of sweat are working through the back of his shirt. He whips off his seed cap to wipe across his head with one sweaty forearm. I see he's got short dark hair, cut high and tight.

We're driving to another field, and I'm glancing over at him on the passenger side. I notice his legs spread wide apart and muscular, the crotch of his jeans full. His cap is on the back of his head. He's got one arm in the window; his other elbow is bent toward me, his hand on his thigh, the fingers rough, the creases of the knuckles and around his fingernails lined with dirt and probably grease -- a farmer who fixes his own machinery.

He takes off his aviators and pulls out a shirt tail to wipe off the dust and sweat. I switch on the radio; Patsy Cline is singing "Crazy." I'm not crazy about country music, but it lightens the silence between us.

"So what does a college boy from around here do for fun in the summer?" he says.

Drink beer and jerk off is my honest answer, but I mention something about driving to the ballpark in town to watch baseball. A buddy plays short stop in the local league. And some friends take a boat out weekends to Johnson Lake.

"Could be fun," Mike says, and he moves his hand closer to his crotch. "Could be fun," he says again and then turns his head to study the hay field we're driving past.

I can't help myself; I take a really good look at him. His thumb is moving ever so slowly back and forth across the nub of something in one jeans pocket. I glance at the road to make sure I'm not headed for the ditch, then look back. The nub a bit larger and having shifted position, I see that what I'm looking at is the end of Mike's dick.

Now you probably think you know where this story is going. But you have no idea.

I'm still a greenhorn. I couldn't make the first move if you put a gun to my head. Besides, for crissake, I'm a government employee. And my heart's pounding so hard, I figure if he makes a move in my direction, I'll black out. And I need all my wits about me, because it's a narrow gravel road and coming our way, hogging the middle and trailing a cloud of dust, there's another car.

Mike perks up, peers ahead, and starts saying, "I'll be damned." He gets a big smile on his face. "Pull over and flash your lights," he says to me. Which I do.

The other car eases up beside us. It's a big wide Buick convertible, gleaming white, gravel crunching under the tires. The driver is a big guy in a big straw cowboy hat. He looks in at us and hits the brakes.

"Some bitch," he's saying, a big grin spreading from ear to ear. "Look who it is."

Mike leans across me to say hello. It appears they're old friends. Service buddies it turns out. And they carry on as the cloud of dust drifts slowly from behind the Buick and settles over all three of us.

"Who's yer friend?" the guy wants to know, ignoring the dust.

Mike says to me, "This here's Ed," nudging me with his elbow. "Go ahead, introduce yourself."

So I do, and the guy reaches out to take my hand in a grip that would crush rock. Somehow he manages to grin even wider. "Pleased to know ya," he says, looking straight into my eyes.

Then the two of them are jawing again, agreeing to meet up later at the farm. Ed spits a mouthful of dust over the side of the car and steps on the gas, spinning up gravel in the wheel wells, kicking up more dust.

"Ed keeps his horse in my barn," Mike explains. "He travels a lot. Rodeos. Comes by here once in a blue moon."

I tell him I've never known a rodeo cowboy.

"Oh," Mike laughs. "He doesn't ride; just sells stuff. He's a salesman."

We proceed to the last field, way down by the river, where the trees are thick along the fence line, and cut off every breath of a breeze. It's 40-some acres with corners at odd angles, and we have to measure all four sides. Before we're half done, the sweat is dripping off both of us. And we're slapping at mosquitos, swarming up from the river bottom

I'm watching Mike. Looking for some sign of something, I don't know what. But he's on his best behavior. I decide I'm being nervous for nothing. He's just a friendly guy. And that's all.

I take him back to his place and get ready to drop him off at his front gate. The Buick is nosed up under an old, crooked cottonwood tree.

"You're not going without a beer," Mike insists. He won't get out of the Camaro until I agree to stay. I'm thinking, what the fuck, the day's shot anyway. All that's left is to head home, stop at the A&W for a burger and root beer, go to the trailer park where my dad lives, crank up the A/C, watch some TV, and finally crash on the sofa. That's the exciting life I lead. I cut the engine.

"Yeah," I'm saying. "A beer would suit me just fine." And with the sun still hanging in the western sky, that's how the night begins.

Mike gives me another one of his grins, and we peel out of the front seat of the car, our wet shirts sticking to our backs.

He sends me around the house to the backyard. Here the sun has dropped behind the trees. There's a battered play set, a big old dog wagging a shaggy tail, and a small aboveground swimming pool. Not small -- little. If you were doing laps, you'd be turning around every two strokes. And there in the pool I see Ed, up to his chin, with a bottle of beer, still wearing his hat.

"Get yourself in here," he's saying.

I'm protesting. Always the polite guest.

"This is Ed talking," he says. "Stop suffering out there and get your butt in here."

Mike emerges from the house with three beers and passes them around. "Go ahead," he says, nodding toward the pool.

The beer in my hand is wet and ice cold and I feel that wave go through me -- the yearning that starts somewhere deep down inside and reaches all the way up to your back teeth -- and my arm is already moving, the cold lip of the open bottle coming to rest against my open lips, the first mouthful washing away grit, old spit, and the taste of the day's share of hard work, hard luck, and other needless burdens. (And there you were, not expecting any poetry in all this.) I empty the bottle in two long gulps and realize I'm not going anywhere for a while.

I kick off my boots and undress down to my jockeys, putting my jeans, shirt and socks on an aluminum lawn chair, taking a last look around before setting my glasses on top of them, the backyard blurring into soft focus. I swing up to the platform around the pool and jump in. No testing the waters They may be straight from the Arctic; I don't care. The shock is pleasant. My feet hit the bottom and I duck my head under.

Coming up for air, I rest the back of my head on the edge of the pool, feeling the air bubbles trapped in my underwear percolate up around my balls and up my crack. I want to let go and float forever.

Ed is across from me, shouting at Mike to bring more beer. And he does, a cooler full of it, which he lifts onto the pool platform in one easy motion, the ice rattling inside.

Mike has taken off his shirt and I'm seeing his muscular shoulders and bare arms as he pushes the cooler in closer. Then I'm watching the rest of him emerge, as he comes up the steps, his hairy chest, his tight gut and smooth hips, and -- lo and behold -- Mike is buck naked. There's a great thick bush of curly hair around his Dick, and his balls are dark with it. I get a flashing glimpse of hairy legs, and then he's cannonballed into the water with a great ka-loompf! When the waves subside, he's there grinning at both of us, blinking water from his eyes.

"Let the games begin," he laughs.

What games are in store, I have no idea. I remember only some of them. We're trying our best to empty the cooler, and the sun's going down. Mike has set stereo speakers in a window and put a stack of LPs on the record changer -- a lot of Ella Fitzgerald with some Hank Williams mixed in, and after many, many beers, one scratchy Julie London album, with "Cry Me a River."

Ed is telling salesman jokes. One after another. It's the first time I hear the one about the penguin who has car trouble and stops at a small town garage and goes down the street to a diner for a tuna salad sandwich while he waits. When he returns to the garage, the mechanic says, "Looks like you've blown a seal." And the penguin wipes his mouth and says, "No, it's just some mayo."

Much after that one, Ed tells a long, long, long story about a young guy who goes to the doctor for a physical. The doc says, "You check out OK, son, but you're really looking tired." There follows a long, long, long confession from the guy about having sex with his girlfriend about fifteen times a night. Ed enjoys telling this story and embellishes it with endless, rich detail. So much so that I'm getting a boner in my briefs. (And for the life of me, I don't remember how this joke ends. If you know, tell me sometime.)

Anyway, Mike eventually wobbles out of the pool to fire up the outdoor grill, and as he does, I'm admiring the way the water rolls off his backside. Then Ed lifts himself out, hopping backward to sit with a wet splat on the edge of the pool. I see a generous set of equipment slapping into place between his legs. Sitting across from me, he looks even bigger naked than he does with clothes on.

Then he's up and rummaging through his pants draped over the railing. "Roll you a smoke?" he wants to know.

I say no. I've been off cigarettes for a couple months. He lights up and gets back in the water. "It's some home grown," he says coming over to my side of the pool.

"Oh," I say innocent as you please. "I think I've heard of this stuff." I try not to drop it in the water when he passes it to me.

And on top of who knows how many beers, I am soon totally buzzed. When Mike comes back, he slips into the pool and joins us, and as darkness descends, I've got one of them on either side of me.

"I think it's time we get you out of them BVDs," Ed says. I seem to have no objection, as I feel two, three, maybe four hands sliding under the waist band of my briefs. I have put my arms over their shoulders to keep my head above water as my jockeys glide down my legs and off the ends of my toes.

I'm loving the feeling of water moving freely and intimately all over my nether parts, and the two of them next to me, knees and feet bumping against mine. And I'm laughing because there are still hands touching me under the water, in places I can't quite identify. Maybe the inside of my thighs, my balls, my butt. I'm all jelly, except for my boner, which a handful of fingers has now wrapped itself around. I'm pretty sure they're not my fingers.

Ed has put his hat on my head, and Mike bends down to my chest, where I'm feeling his warm tongue on my nipples. That and the hands -- there are more of them -- on my Dick are blowing all my fuses. I want to holler. Then I realize I'm already making noises -- breathing hard and sighing so loud I'm having flashes of yelling my lungs out once on a county fair carnival ride, while my white-knuckle buddies are mute with terror.

There now seems to be no holding back. I don't know what there is that doesn't want to be held back. I'm just getting the hell out of the way.

"What's he saying?" Ed wants to know.

"I think he said let-er-rip," says Mike.

What follows, of course, is that I come in quarts, as I normally do. Polluting the pool with what seems like a large helping of my vanilla pudding. I'm blissful. Then things kind of fade to black.

Memory picks up again briefly a while later. I'm lying naked on a couch, under a sheet. Mike is tucking me in and bent over me, whispering something in my ear. "Sleepy time for this little cornfield measurer." Or some such sweet talk. In my substance- tempered fog, I love him utterly.

The next morning, I wake up at dawn, strangely clear headed. Lights are still on, but the place is silent. Outside, birds are singing up a storm. I find my clothes folded neatly on one armrest of the couch, along with my glasses. All but my jockeys. I suspect they're in the pool, but I figure I can go without them.

I get dressed, my shirt damp and cold, and hunt for the bathroom. Looking through an open door, I see Ed and Mike, arms and legs wrapped over each other, sleeping heavily on a big waterbed. Ed's cowboy hat hangs from one of the bed posts. Mike's back is turned to me, the sheet around his ankles. There are his broad shoulders, and just over his butt, a patch of soft curly hair. The dog looks up at me from the foot of the bed, wagging his tail.

I slip out to my car, parked where I left it beside Ed's Buick. On both, there is a scattering of puffballs from the old cottonwood tree overhead. As the Camaro rolls slowly down Mike's driveway and back to the road, the sun breaks over the flat horizon. It is a golden burst of bright yellow, and above it is the bluest, clearest sky I've ever seen.

End of Part One of Three Parts:
Measuring Corn Fields" Part 2

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