No. 2, Corn Roguer (Age 13)

rogue : An inferior or defective specimen among many satisfactory ones, esp. a seedling or plant deviating from the standard variety.

The final bell of the school year rattled the lockers and released an explosion of screams from the students. I sat on the middle school steps and watched ponytails and ribbons rush by. The din of a hundred heel-snapping flip-flops accompanied a blur of brightly colored cotton and denim. It was 1982. Eighth grade was officially over and I had only three months before I’d have to negotiate the horrors of high school. Would I still need to pretend I was having my period in gym class? And what was I going to wear?

“Hey, Piggy!” my friend Kate’s voice shouted from inside the school. Piggy was a name we called each other because we snorted when we laughed. We both played drums in the middle school band. She was talented; I had no rhythm and talked during rehearsals. The music teacher had wanted me to play the clarinet, “Because you can’t keep a beat and you’ve got that overbite.” But clarinets were expensive, and my Granny Idela was still playing drums in a country band on the Jersey shore. Granny Idela was cool. I wanted to be cool, too. So I tortured the already mediocre orchestra with my half-ass drum rolls and paradiddles. 

“Don’t you have to catch the bus?” I asked.

“No, I have a drum lesson at West Music. My mom’s picking me up later. Hey, did you and Lisa see the sign-up sheet for New Pioneer?”

“No, we’ll probably just keep working at the Palazzo.”

“We should all sign up. Come on,” she pleaded, gripping my arm in both hands and bouncing up and down until a drumstick fell out of her back pocket. “It pays $3.85 an hour and you get one big check at the end of summer.” She paused here, raised an eyebrow and said, “You get weekends off.”

Weekends off?

Hot damn! If the Palazzo Motel would settle for my presence on weekends only, I could work every day of the week. Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! My eyes lit up like a slot machine. My parents had recently filed bankruptcy for the first time and money was tight. Lisa and I would have to buy our own school clothes. More money meant more clothes, which I believed would get me on the fast track to popularity. It was a prospect well worth working seven days a week.

“Sure, why not.”

“You have to hurry, though, it’s first-come first-serve.” She bent to pick up the drumstick and her backpack fell forward, banging her on the head as a few markers escaped and clattered on the sidewalk. We snorted.

“I’ll go find Lisa and see if she wants to sign up, too.”

Corn rogueing was the first of three jobs I would have working the fields for which Iowa is famous. It’s the first step employed by farmers to assure the genetic purity of seed corn. Seed corn is planted in rows that are either all female or all male. Six female rows and two male rows alternate for endless miles across Iowa’s landscape. This is what gives seed cornfields a rippling pattern and makes them fun to stare at when speeding down a treeless Iowa highway. The male corn occasionally pops up in the female rows, and the deviant, misplaced male cornstalks are called rogues. A corn roguer walks the miles of rows with a hoe, hacking the male cornstalks out of the female rows.

On the first day Lisa, Kate, and I waited among a small crowd in the high school parking lot with our Little Igloo coolers. It was 5:30 a.m. when the bus pulled in, and thirty young women clawed over one another to get to the rear seats. The bus was driven to one of the many fields contracted by the agricultural company. After piling out of the bus and ignoring a lecture by the crew chief, we spaced ourselves every few rows and started walking. We reached the end of the field and turned around, drank a Dixie cup or two of water, and headed back in. We repeated that for ten weeks.

“Piggy, this stinks,” I whined to Kate. Two weeks in and I was complaining every morning.

“No fooling. But we will be so loaded we can buy as many school clothes as we want,” she grinned, pushing some sweaty hair out of her eyes. “And think about how tan we’re going to be. I’m sure it’s all going to be worth it.”

In the hot Midwestern sun the tiny hoe felt more like a sledgehammer. The prolific cornstalks had leaves like scalpels. We were doomed to get welts and cuts on every inch of exposed skin. Supervisors gave us no pity and we were expected to continue rain or shine. 

We routinely prayed (begged, really) for tornadoes and inclement weather to end the day early. Thank God, or thanks perhaps, to our endless curses and paganisms, thunderstorms would blow in and flood the fields while we waited on the bus. The storms stopped as abruptly as they had started, however, and we often had to return to the now muddy fields.

By week three we gave up on Kate’s tan prediction. We all got brutally sunburned instead; the dirty skin on our necks and noses was peeling off in thick chucks. In response to the job sucking so much, we made up a song to the melody of Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and sang it at the top of our lungs as sweat blinded us and sharp hoe blades caromed off our ankles. It went something like this (I can still remember it after more than 25 years):

Out in the fields there is violence
Ah la la lots of work to be done
No place to lay out or party
And we can’t have fun ‘til we’re done . . . oh, oh

We’re gonna rogue down through this corny avenue
Before it gets much higher
We’re gonna rogue down through this corny avenue
It’s hotter than a dryer

We need lots of food for our lunches
And we can’t afford a thing in the store
We are just so hot and so sweaty
And our feet are weary and sore . . . oh, oh

When I got my fat check at the end of the summer, I didn’t go gangbusters shopping for school clothes like I thought I would. Instead I hoarded the money, rifling through sale racks and parting with the cash only when I found exactly what I was searching for. Lisa bought a few clothes and then squandered the balance on cigarettes and McDonald’s french fries.

“Sandy, can I borrow two dollars?” was Lisa’s familiar request throughout our entire adolescence. I would give her the money or buy her cigarettes and in return she would do some of my chores. Usually it was just washing dishes or doing laundry, but if she was really broke, I could get her to cover my two days of “doggie duty,” the dreaded task of cleaning up after the dog. Few and far between were my days of searching for those tufts of greener grass, each clump a verdant tombstone for petrifying Schnauzer poop.

It was nice being the one with the money.


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