My dad grew up in Bird Island, Minnesota in the 60’s and 70’s, though with the picture I’ve made in my head it could be the beginning of America: man, woman, 5 boys, farm.
It’s the wind.
And the dirty kids in fields picking rocks.
In cities the dirt is new, the wind filtered through AC vents and the exhaust pipes of a million buses and taxi cabs, turning the place into a contaminated terrarium you wish could be cracked open. Just the thought of striking a match will make it combust.
On a farm it’s a different kind of heat, a different kind of sweat. You start the day with a hundred wet hay bales to move in a coral green pickup truck while listening to the radio, singing along to a song you don’t know–it’s Bruce Springsteen–and when it’s over your hands blister, showing you the work.
On a farm it’s not the brain’s hourly coffee relapse that, at the end of the day, makes you want to climb in a hole and cover yourself with sleep’s soil. It’s not the glare of a screen that leaves your retinas singed. (Just to be clear, my dad never told me this outright, he’s not one to waste breath.) No, on a farm screams and laughs melt equally into space. You become vulnerable under that open sky until the only thing you can do is exhaust your body by tearing into the earth.
When I was born, I imagine the doctors cleaning my fingernails of dirt.
(This is about dirt and sweat.)
Living in any major city, there’s a rule everyone knows: don’t be a sitting duck. Living on the farm in Bird Island, my dad’s family didn’t have a garbage man, so they kept a trash heap and every month they’d burn it, covering the banana peels and fertilizer bags with sticks they found strewn around the property. My dad was seven years old the first time his parents let him burn it on his own and, like the beginning of a column in the Obits section of the Bird Island Union, he couldn’t get the blaze going like he needed for lack of a breeze. When you’re that age, in that town–you’ve grown up next to combines with blades taller than your first ten notches in the door frame and a sky bearing down on your back every day–at a point of frustration you grab a can of gasoline. Lobbing the flimsy tin container into the small patch of trash that was flaming, struggling, he waited for it to light.
He can’t remember what happened next, but I picture projectile debris.
Before collapse, panic.
Upon being tackled to the ground: a mouth that tastes like gas but filled with soil. He didn’t have time to think he was a sitting duck. Or to feel vulnerable. The only thing he remembers is being picked up, like the finishing move in a Mortal Kombat video game, and being forced backwards, through the air, in a flash.
I wonder what city kids do with their innate hopes for self-destruction, this antagonistic growth.
Growing up in the middle, on the edge of the sprawl, I had Neil Young. It was something I inherited from my father on our long drives around different upper middle class suburbs in the summer where we would leave the windows open and sweat. In high school, now living in one of these upper middle class suburbs, I’d sit on the porch and listen to “Old Man” while other kids passed out in well-lit basements from holding their breath.
My cans of gasoline were girls posing as zephyrs.
When I realized my crevices were clean I made a point to cram them with dirt and be vulnerable.
Neil Young taught me the right things were worth the agony. Living in the city now, years later, I’m getting used to seeing people with the ends of their fingers cut off, watching themselves bleed even though they saw that scene in Man on Fire where Denzel Washington uses a cigarette lighter as cauterization. Not everyone can get something out of “Unknown Legend” by Neil Young. Maybe that’s just the “farmers.”
People who remember that soil is vulnerable.
Wind births flames.
The bedrock gets washed drip by drip.