On the west edge of the village of Lincoln in the south eastern Idaho, is what remains of the old U & I Sugar Factory. I enjoyed every moments of its destruction.
My sadistic delight was not due to any personal grudge against the factory, even though I did spend a painful month of employment there, pushing a broom along its concrete floor. Painful because of the third degree chemical burns I got on my legs during the second day of work.
My dislike for the factory was established years earlier when I spent my high school summers on the farm so that the factory would have something to do during winter.
Sugar Beets. Roughly one million of them in nice straight rows, twenty‑two inches apart. This white, slightly sweet plant with a bitter after taste is shaped something like a fat turnip. Not spherical, like conventional red beets, but more like a six inch wide cone, with the pointed end some 14 inches below a crown of broad green leaves.
While all our school chums spent their summers cruising First Street and flipping burgers, my brothers, sisters and cousins would trudge up and down the rows of beets. In June, we thinned beets, reducing the clusters of plants so there was one every 10 inches. In July, we hoed the beets to remove unwanted weeds and in August, we’d pull the few remaining weeds by hand.
Hoe, hoe, hoe.
It wasn’t as funny as if sounds.
It was sometime during those years that Sonny and Cher began singing, “The beet goes on, on, on, on, on, and the beet goes on.” And I was out standing in a field with one million sugar beets. I have never attempted murder but it is well for both of us that they did not come to Idaho Falls.
There was silence out in the field. The sound was limited to the shuss shuss shuss of the hoes, the crunch of the ground beneath our feet, the pitter pat of sweat striking the ground. While our bodies were occupied, our minds were free. We were a television generation out standing in a field with no electricity. The Walkman had not been invented and since there was nothing else to listen to, we talked. We told stories. We took turns reciting the entire plot of every movie we had seen, of every book we had ever read, of every story we had ever heard. We sang songs.
Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum,
Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum,
Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum,
Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum.
Our goal was to get to the end of one field before the next field was ready for work. It never happened. The various fields were irrigated in rotation. As soon as one area was complete, the next was ready for our labors. Around and around we’d go, hoe, hoe, hoe.
Someone said that an idle mind is the devils play ground. In our case, the devil had a forty acre play ground. The opportunities for mischief were limited, but after a month of singing Cool Whip commercials, we had contrived some devious diversions.
We created fake weeds.
We worked in a group, perhaps five or six of us kids in cowboy hats, each taking a row. If I happened to be faster than the others, I got ahead. When I found a big weed, a big one, the type that required two hands to pull, I’d gently pull it free, taking care not to damage it, and set it in my brother’s row so that it stood up straight and looked natural. When my brother came to the “fake”, he would set both legs firmly, grab the weed with both hands and launch himself into the air with the dead weed in hand.
We laughed. I laughed because of my joke. He laughed of the revenge he was planning. Since my back was to him, he had an advantage. He would count over a certain number of rows, and plant a fake. He’d plant two. He’d plant fifty. No wonder he was the last one in the group.
Quickly, we became skilled at recognizing fakes. This lead to the next dirty trick, planting fake fakes. I’d look over and find a weed in my brother’s row, and mutilate it so that it looked fake. It was the high point of my day when he shouted, “You can’t fool me,” and then to have him discover that the thing was real.
This foolishness sometimes lead to violence.
I was starting a new one row before my cousin had finished his row. We were passing by each other when he hooked my hoe with his hoe and yanked. I had been going hoe, hoe, hoe when suddenly my hoe vanished.
Sometimes I initiated the attack. Sometimes the other person did. Once we both acted at the same time and the contest evolved into a tug of war. In this case, he was the winner. His hoe broke at where the handle attached to the head. He got to go home and try to come up with a new hoe. I had to keep working.
Getting a new hoe could be difficult. Hoes were personal things, like your own personal toothbrush.
One day my Dad borrowed my hoe. (Would you let someone else use you toothbrush?) Then he started asking me questions.
“What are these notches on the handle?”
“Notches. What notches.”
“These notches here.”
“Those fifteen notches. Mice.”
“The mice did that?”
“No. I did it to the mice.” I could see we weren’t communicating. “I cut a notch for each mouse I killed.@ I figured if a gun slinger can carve notches on his gun, I can carve them on my hoe.
Being raised on a farm, he understood about mice. They live in the field and sometimes they eat the center out of a beet and live inside. It is a sweet little home. When I come along, hoe, hoe, hoeing. The mouse would panic and start go, go, going. I’d chase after him. It must have been a ridiculous sight, a hundred and twenty pound kid in a cowboy hat, chasing a beady eyed two ounce fur ball. Sometimes, the vermin escaped but, on fifteen occasions, I caught the him and turned him into fertilizer.
Poor little fella.
It’s been twenty years since I swung a hoe. I am told my fifteen notch hoe was sent to the Smithsonian, where it was mounted and placed on display next to the Wright Brother’s Airplane. The sugar factory has been torn down and the scars on my legs are almost invisible.
Still, the memories are strong and my dislike for the menial task has not faded. Now, when I’m asked to weed a garden, I don’t have to think about my answer: ho, ho. ho.