Sweat dripped into my eyes and sizzled. It slipped off the end of my nose, onto my lip, and down my neck.

My back felt like dagger slashes marred the flesh at the base of my spine and I wondered how all those folks working close to me in the other rows moved so quickly, steadily, while I had to stop and stand tall and stretch my back and drink water.

It was June, hot, and I was 17.

As I gazed across the field, the people, all bent over, reminded me of beetles. Their potato sacks fastened to a wooden stick with hooks that attached to the torso with a thick leather belt.

Besides my compadres, the brothers Tim and Brian, and the ragamuffin punk, Jacky, there were kids working among us with whom I’d attended school—elementary, junior high, high school. But as I spoke to Pete and Enrique, two guys I’d known since I was six, they turned away like they were more interested in the jagged incisors of Picacho Peak.

When I called to them again, like I would have when jiving into English class or out on the playground, they ignored me.

Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

That happened the first morning, and this all comes back to me now because I have been thinking about agriculture. It’s the season of crops maturing here in Idaho and the fields are all around. Besides, the COVID-19 episode seems to have brought into sharper focus where we get our food.

Back in 1964, morning number one of my spud-picking adventure commenced with high hopes that I’d make some money to buy and do the things that my parents told me I didn’t need. New shirts, some albums—Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones—and maybe even my own car like my neighbor had, a 1950 Ford with the bullet point emblem on the grill.

We assembled at the Greyhound Bus station at two in the morning and jumped into the back of a bobtail truck with sideboards. A lot of folks I didn’t know joined us. Mostly Hispanic -Americans, a few Native Americans and African-Americans.

Out at the spud fields the permanent crew handed out gear and we were ordered, “Get to work.” The drone of the machine that turned up the potatoes growled across the fields, people lined up abreast over individual rows of spuds, and the picking began. We stuck our hands in the dirt and threw the potatoes in the sack, which hung between our legs, and when the sack was full, we put it next to where we worked and moved on, picking, picking, picking, and the jefe came along and marked our sacks so we could get credit for them.

Being in some ways damned competitive, I looked left and right, not at my mates, but at the folks I deemed knew what they were doing. They worked fast, their hands and arms like tools on a robot that picked and sacked the potatoes at a quick and steady rate.

I had to keep up, but soon understood I could not keep up while they chugged along briskly, chatting in multiple languages. When they laughed it amazed me because I could barely keep breath in my lungs.

As the day progressed, my compadres and I fell further behind and when we got to the end of the day, noontime, I received a total of five dollars and some cents. That wouldn’t buy new, cool surfer shirts, or a bunch of Beatles albums, but at least some Cokes and a burger at the drive-in joint we festered around at night.

When we loaded onto the truck for home, I looked around for Paul and Enrique and the others I thought I knew well, but there was no sign of them. On the ride back to town, I dozed in the heat, sitting in the truck against the sideboards, sweat dripping down my back

At home, I showered and ate and soon hit the bed.

Day two was much the same. Not much cash in my hands.

On day three I rose early again, the swamp cooler outside our house blowing damp air into my room. When I arrived at Tim and Brian’s, I followed them down the ladder into the basement where we found a cabinet full of liquor. We poured Johnny Walker Black Label and Smirnoff Vodka and some red table wine into each thermos.

Upstairs, we added sweet tea and topped off the mix with ice and water.

At the bus station, we boarded the bobtail and watched the stars wane as desert heat began to nag. I unscrewed the top of my thermos and took a long swallow. I shivered all the way to the bottom of my spine, as if it were freezing outside instead of a surly Sonoran Desert morning.

At first, I burst out of the chute like all the other workers and I thought, I’m getting as good as the old guys. I saw Paul three rows over and I vowed that since he ignored me, I’d keep up with him.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

As I threw spud after spud into the bag that hung between my legs, my mouth grew dry and tasted like the worst thing I’d ever swallowed.

As I constantly sipped at the concoction in my thermos and wiped the sweat out of my eyes and stood up to ease the knife-stab jolts in my lower back, I noticed that I’d fallen way behind and so had Tim and Brian and snotty Jacky, too.

Even before the jefe called for an end to the day, we’d stopped and received our meager earnings.

In the company store on the farm, we bought Twinkies and Cokes and peanuts to put in our Cokes and walked out on the porch and then around the corner where we noticed a long line of cottonwoods that drew us down to the banks of what remained of the Santa Cruz River.

One of us, probably Tim, because he was kind of a leader, said, “Hey, my thermos is dry.”

We pooled what little cash was left and Jacky wandered up to the store and found an adult to buy us some beer.

We sat along the creek and drank Coors and got stupider waiting for the truck for home. Insulated from the others, we acted our ages, giggling and throwing rocks into the slim trickle of water that once was the pride of Southern Arizona.

We hunted frogs, making sharp sticks for gigging but all we found were big, warty toads that, according to Tim, were loaded with poison.

Finally the truck came and the horn honked, and before climbing in we managed to finagle another quart of beer each, which we harbored in brown paper sacks choked around the cold, sweating bottles.

As I loaded up, I again looked for Enrique and my other pals from school. But they were nowhere around.

On the road home, we took big sips and clowned around and folks back there, sitting with us on the hard deck, laughed and rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

Once, we hit a bump just as I took a big swallow. The beer didn’t go anywhere but out my mouth in an explosion that flew into the middle of the truck bed and down my shirt. I choked and coughed and the others really laughed. I felt kind of stupid, my head like a spinning merry-go-round.

Later that year, when I went back to school, all those kids I knew who chose not to recognize me in the potato fields acted like always, laughing and talking with me, clowning around.

For over five decades I have pondered what happened out there. Beyond getting stupid drunk and making an ass out of myself, and finding out that I was soft, and even though I would learn to do things that now amaze me—walk up steep hills with forty or fifty pounds of gear while smoking a Camel, unfiltered, of course, and the things that followed, the death and the fear—is the memory of those fellows not acknowledging me as…as what? An equal?

Back in 1964 I don’t think we were viewed, in my town, in my time, as being equal. There was a lot of talk about rights and equality, but no, we weren’t equal. And those kids who shunned me out in the spuds knew it, and when we showed up at the spud field, maybe they thought we were trying to take what was theirs, their world, their privacy. They weren’t going to get to go to college, and they were going to spend their lives probably working menial jobs, and we—us Anglos—weren’t keen to share what we thought was ours, either. Or maybe they were just tired of us after a year of all of us acting out “She Loves You” and “Alley Oop” while wearing our expensive surfer shirts. They showed up to school, in many cases, because the law said they had to. Or maybe it was something else altogether, like they secretly hated us, or something that I don’t know even now, and never will.

But they could work my butt into the ground, and they knew it.

On the Snake and Other Rivers

On Christmas Day, Betty and I ventured south of Boise down to the Snake River Canyon for photography and a look at the wigeons and goldeneyes, the sheep grazing in the snow covered sage, and the river.

The Snake is a long river that starts in Idaho with major contributions to its flow rising in Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon. By taming the Snake, engineers in the early 20th Century set the table for an agricultural explosion on the Snake River Plain, a region of harsh winters and summers and little precipitation.

Snake River Plain Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

Where I live, the Snake offers, among other things, recreation, wildlife habitat, electrical power, irrigation water and photographic opportunities. Idaho’s famous spuds rely on the waters of the Snake.

I think we often take rivers for granted. I know I do, assuming that they are there to offer up the varieties of satisfaction I require at any particular moment. Need a cold drink of water further chilled by chunks of ice? Check. Need to turn on the lights in the backyard so I can cipher what is making all that racket? Check. Need a photo op? A sturgeon? A view of some flashy male wood ducks? Check. Check. Check. Need a fresh spud?

Here in Boise we have the Boise River running right through downtown, and the Snake, the Jarbidge, the Bruneau, the Owyhee, the Malheur and the Payette aren’t far away. Most of the time I don’t even think about them unless there is something I want to do along a riverbank or I start fearing that they may flood.

When I was a kid on southern Arizona we lived in the middle of what had been at one time the Santa Cruz River which flowed from the mountains on the US-Mexican border and then hung a left turn at Tucson and headed west-northwest for the Gila River. My grandmother told me that when she was young, around 1900, the Santa Cruz carried steamboats from the Phoenix area to Tucson, that there were critters in the river, fish and otters and such. By the time I was born, there was nothing left of the Santa Cruz but sandy places in the dirt roads that ran out through the country. Here and there a bridge went over a low spot which had at some point been part of a river conduit. There was a Santa Cruz County and a Santa Cruz high school and names of old Santa Cruz River channels on maps, but until the wild rains occasionally showed, the Santa Cruz River was only a rumor.

Boise River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

In the summer of 1964 it got up with a fury that was startling. Three of my friends and I went out driving to look at all the WATER in that desert and alas got stuck in the mighty flow of the Santa Cruz. We could see Francisco Grande, where the major league San Francisco Giants practiced some spring training. One friend and I decided to walk over there and call some friends to come pull us out. What, under normal circumstances, would have been a short evening walk turned out to be an ordeal: bobbing over our heads down surprising channels, dirty water in our mouths, our eyes, our noses, having to use greasewood to pull ourselves across places that wanted to pummel us downstream. Besides the threat of shattered bones or drowning, we didn’t even think about all the critters displaced by the flood: raccoons, skunks, coyotes, badgers, all with the capability of clawing and gnawing had we been unfortunate enough to encounter them. And I don’t even want to think, these some forty-nine years later, about the snakes; side winders and diamond backs and tiger rattlers and Mojave rattlers and coral snakes abused by the assault of muddy waters in their dens and that had to climb up into the foliage that we used to help us navigate the entire maelstrom. Ouch!

Not far from my hometown were the San Pedro, the Salt, the Verde, the Hassayampa, the Agua Fria and the Gila which are all dammed and don’t allow much flow. But in the ferocious times, like the storms of September 1984, they can roar ten miles wide and destroy everything in their paths. Back then, the rivers cut the state of Arizona into blocks where it often took a plane or helicopter ride to get from one place to another. Roads were pretty useless.

When I domiciled in Vietnam, there were big rivers everywhere. Right after I arrived, a Seabee drowned on the Song Vu Ghia in Quang Nam Province, and they helicoptered Second Platoon of Bravo Company, 1/26, out to a sand bar in that river. We landed in a hail of sand and rifle fire, the snap of AK-47 rounds pinging our ears and white sand dancing at our feet. We got on line and assaulted a paltry row of trees, but alas, the enemy had evaporated right before our eyes. We saw nothing of the drowned Seabee.

Later, at Khe Sanh, we crossed the Song Rao Quan in the summer of 1967. I was the first to cross to the south bank on a patrol Second Platoon ran in support of First Platoon which were ambushed on Route Nine which runs parallel to the river. We spent a soggy night on a hill further south of the river. I remember that my fingers looked like the wrinkled digits of fishermen as we set in, waiting for an attack that never came. The only thing that came was the incessant rain. The next day we headed back to Route Nine. But instead of a shin-deep, quiet flow, the river was hissing in anger. But we were Marines with a mission, so we crossed the river. A Jarhead swam across with the end of a thick rope. He secured the rope to a big tree and we began to hazard the battering of the water.

One of our radiomen lost his footing and his hold on the rope and went floating towards Quang Tri, twenty-five or thirty miles downstream. His feet were in the air, and he pedaled, as if on a bike, as if that might save him. He reminded me of a beetle when you turn it over on its back. The furious kicking of the legs. As if that would save it from death. Someone went downstream and waded into the river and brought him across. That happened three or four times to different Marines. Some of us could not swim at all. Some of us swam well. We all made it and climbed up onto the road and then up a hill. I walked point, sure that the enemy had set in on the high ground we’d occupied before we went south across the river. But they had not. No booby traps, no sign.

Snake River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

When Betty and I lived in New Mexico, we homesteaded near the Rio Peñasco which in many places you could step across. But why not, New Mexico is a dry land with scant rivers. I heard tell that the Mescalero Apaches spoke of a time when the only place to get a drink of water was the Rio Grande or the Rio Pecos. The space in between is a mighty distance. You would die of thirst if you had to traverse the desert and the mountains and the plains between without a taste of water.

When Betty and I lived in Sonoma County, it was the Russian which was a docile rio until the winter rains lifted it over its banks, ruining houses and farms and vineyards. And it was the same with the nearby Eel and Gualala and Napa and Petaluma Rivers as they belched their muddy waters into the Pacific Ocean or San Pablo Bay.

And here we are now in southwestern Idaho, a parched land with lots of rivers. We often take them for granted.

On Nikita Khrushchev, Boy Scouts, the Cold War, and Graduation

Yesterday, walking along the sidewalks that wind through the subdivision where we live, Betty and I admired the fulsome blossoms of ornamental trees that line the streets and walkways. Dogs barked . . . Dachshunds, Springer Spaniels, yellow Labrador Retrievers, German Shorthairs, black mutts with gray and wizened mugs.

The sound of a plane engine cut the afternoon air. Without thinking, I looked up. A single engine plane flew out of a cloudless northwest. I asked myself, why do I always look up, or want to look up, when a plane or helicopter flies over? And I immediately had an answer. I won’t say The Answer, but it was an answer.

I was raised in the 50s and 60s when the United States grappled with the Soviet Union in what we called the Cold War. Not that it was cold; it was plenty hot in Korea and Vietnam and Laos and Nicaragua and Angola. We just called it cold. The threat of annihilation via nuclear armaments hung across the planet like a giant shroud. We had bomb drills in school, watched Walter Cronkite broadcast Cold War info nightly from CBS News. It blared at us from the newspapers and Time Magazine and US News and World Report. We talked about it at school and at Boy Scouts. I was a rabid Boy Scout back then. The semi-militarism of it all draped on me like a French general’s tunic. It was heady, wearing war-tinted uniforms, talking about survival and battle. Dreaming of killing krauts like Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back.

One of my Boy Scout projects was to work with Civil Defense on some type of project designed to teach me the value of public service. One of my good friends, “P,” who was also my fiercest competitor on the march to be an Eagle Boy Scout, decided he would spend some time at the local airport watching for enemy aircraft. This was in the time when missile technology was new, so the standard method of nuclear armament delivery was the airplane. “P’s” father, “Mr. S,” was a Civil Defense volunteer and knew all the skinny on planes and weapons and the politics of Anglo-Russian enmity. If “P” was going to spend his weekends helping defend America, then in the spirit of competition, so was I.

We rode out to the airport on Saturday mornings in “Mr. S’s” green Chevy Suburban. Back then a Suburban was more utility van than sport vehicle. The airport was a sand-and-clay-particled mess that sat on a big flat stretch of desert surrounded by creosote and saguaro cacti. In the 1800s it had been part of the Santa Cruz Riverbed, but now it was just a flat spot where when the wind blew it created a dust storm that browned out the sun, the moon, the stars, the blacktop, the honky-tonk on the side of the airstrip, Little Mountain to the west and everything within an arms length of the viewer.

We climbed up the stairs to the observation tower and inside, sets of binoculars were strewn on plywood tables and posters of airplanes papered the sheet rock walls: side views, top views, bottom views, numerical enumerations, plane manufacturers, what ordnance they were capable of delivering, the names we knew them by, most prominently the Tupolev T-95, or “Bear,” as we called it. We stood most of those mornings with binocular straps cutting into the flesh around our necks as we watched the sky over Picacho Peak, and Newman Peak, and San Tan, and Silver Reef, Table Top, the Vai Vo Hills, and the Sierra Estrella. All we ever saw were buzzards and red tailed hawks, the pigeons that nested in the date palms that grew along the highway to Phoenix.

We were obsessed with the Soviets back then, or our parents were, as were our politicians. Nuclear attack was so imminent it was not a question of “if,” but “when.” But I must admit, other than a chance to get another merit badge on the road to my Eagle Scout goal, or a chance to play Army, I, and most of the kids I knew, paid very little attention to the Soviet threat.

Some of my parents’ friends created makeshift bomb shelters in their basements, stocked with fifty-gallon drums of flour and raw sugar and pasta and cans of beans and tuna fish. Lots of water. One of them, “Mr.B,” even had a lot of games for his kids to play. At night, we used to raid his air raid shelter and drink the soda pops he kept in the refrigerator as we played Chess, and Clue and Checkers, and if we could get some girls down there, strip poker. For us, girls were a whole lot more dangerous than Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan.

One of the physicians in our town actually had a real bomb shelter built to specifications with a special system for filtering the fallout from the air that targets would breathe in the aftermath of a hydrogen bomb attack. Anecdotally, we called that possibility Nuclear Winter.

In 1964, at the close of my junior in High School, I went with my neighbor to his high school graduation party. I got drunk, not once, but three times that night, spent some hours fandangoing around a big mesquite wood bonfire as Sputniks passed overhead every hour-and-a-half, watching us, or so I imagined, and sending signals back to Moscow about our whereabouts. Later, we unstuck someone from the caliché muck of an irrigated cotton field, and then we went to the physician’s house for a graduation breakfast. His eldest daughter was graduating, too. She slinked around in her white shorts and blue top, the most dangerous thing I’d been near all night.

The sun was barely up and the Sonoran Desert heat not yet steaming off the paved streets and the concrete sidewalks. We all wanted to go into the bomb shelter, but the doctor’s dangerous daughter kept telling us no. I wanted to see what an air filter for nuclear fallout looked like. I wanted to see if they had ice cold Cokes down there, and maybe some more Vodka so I wouldn’t lose the buzz I worked on. I wanted to get close to the dangerous daughter.

One of the graduating seniors, “L,” kept sneaking down the steps and then we’d have to go down, led by the dauntless daughter, and capture him. At first it was funny, all of us laughing, but then it turned surly. “L” was drunker than I was, than anyone was and he grew violent, his face purple, his glare like a drill instructor’s. He wore a new gray graduation suit and was walking around with a bottle of Gilbey’s Gin which he sucked on now and then as he bellowed about going off to San Diego to US Navy Boot Camp later that day. Soon, he clunked someone in the noggin with the gin bottle and we had to gang him down in the green Bermuda grass that stained his new gray suit. We thought nothing of going to battle with him. That’s what we did, we Americans, we did battle with whomever: Dominicans, Lebanese, Laotians, North Koreans, Chinese, Russians, our next-door neighbor. We did battle. We wrestled “L” into the bed of a new Ford pickup and eight of us sat on him as he bucked and scrabbled and screamed obscenities about our mothers. He lived outside of town down a dirt road. We pulled into the gate and turned the truck around and threw him out into the dust and gravel. He staggered up and chased us down the highway, stumbling and falling, lurching in his now ruined new gray graduation suit as he picked up large rocks and tossed them at us. We laughed and headed home for sleep.

And soon enough most of us were in the Army, the Navy, the Marines, fighting too, or preparing to fight, each in our little parts of the Cold War, Germany, Korea, and for me Vietnam where we often looked into the skies for signs of North Vietnamese MIGS and Russian Bears. And then, years later, of course the sound of those September wings of 2001. How they haunt our lives now. The memory caught up in the dreams we sleep, the way we exist. Wary now. Striking out at what frightens. Looking into the sky at the sound of planes. Keeping a close eye on our new neighbors. We live uneasy.