The Sons of the Pioneers

It’s a big job, feeding America, but someone’s got to do it.

Walking his land that cold, clear February morning, Mart Wagner felt just a taste of spring, a hint of promise. Sharp pieces of dust blew as always with the prevailing southwest winds, but the visibility was endless. Wheat farms like Wagner’s stretched west from Ochiltree County in the Texas Panhandle for hundreds of miles north all the way to Canada, an almost perfectly flat horizon of grain, swaying like waves on the country’s mid-ocean, interminably broad and far.

Despite the splendid brisk morning, Mart Wagner felt all of his seventy years. For four hours he had checked his dormant winter wheat and was ready to break for lunch. June would mark Wagner’s fiftieth harvest on the High Plains, and, despite the winter drought, his 186 acres of wheat looked healthy. Irrigation had made the difference. He hated to be at nature’s mercy, to plant seed only to watch it die if the rain refused to fall. Expensive as it was to drill the wells, service the motors, and buy fuel, that clear stream of water trickling down the furrows at his command had tripled his yield and helped protect him against crop failure. No one had to tell Mart Wagner that success to a wheat farmer was measured in bushels per acre. Last year, in 1976, when his dryland field had yielded 15 to 20 bushels per acre, the irrigated acres had produced 55 to 60. This year the crop looked even better.

Through the years of plentiful harvests and high grain prices and the terrible seasons of sere, burned-brown fields, he had raised wheat and cattle and a family on his single section (640 acres) of cropland. It was not a large place by Panhandle standards, just big enough, if properly managed, for Mart to support his family and maintain his land and equipment. He prospered during the forties, when his county twice produced one per cent of the nation’s entire wheat crop, and he persevered during the drought of the next decade, years so dry that workers in the nearby town of Perryton had dug eight feet down before reaching moisture. He had fought to a draw the government, the weather, and the insects, three forces no farmer ever truly conquered. He knew that no matter what a farmer’s bank balance, education, or number of four-wheel tractors, the will of this unholy trinity would be done. It was impossible to become arrogant or greedy laboring under such conditions. A successful farmer was a contradiction in terms. No matter how good one year was, the next year could-and often did-bring disaster.

Mart Wagner was a careful, unhurried man, a hardworking perfectionist, whose yield per acre was always among the county’s best. He had worked the fields alone until his second child, Don, was large enough to drive the tractor and help with the chores. Beginning with the June of his twelfth summer, the boy had worked a full day alongside his father. Mart Wagner always considered it one of the Lord’s blessings that his son understood the land and loved to farm; in his heart he hoped that one day his son, now grown tall and muscular, would return to assume his duties.

But on this particular day, now that the morning was gone, Mart Wagner would follow his custom of driving over to John Doores’ grocery in Farnsworth for lunch. How Mart’s El Camino ended up overturned in the ditch is still a mystery. On the sheriff’s report the cause of the fatal accident remains “unknown.” Perhaps he had been lulled to sleep by the passing gray scenery. Perhaps he swerved to miss a rabbit or Chinese pheasant. Mart was not a hunter and did not tolerate killing of anything except insects on his land. Now, at age seventy, life had ended abruptly for Mart Wagner, and that day he dreamed about, when his son, Don, would return to the wheat fields, had come.

Captain Don Wagner, United States Air Force, sat at his desk worried as usual about one of the sixty air-traffic controllers under his command. As he often did these winter days, he turned his chair around to gaze out at the bleak February sky, thinking of Texas. In Michigan it seemed like it had been freezing since Labor Day. The other problem was too many trees, just like in Georgia, where he had met his wife, Nancy, during pilot training. After they were married, he had taken her to Jekyll Island off the Georgia coast for a holiday. Crossing the island bridge he had suddenly stopped the car.

“What’s wrong?” she had asked.

“Nothing. I just wanted to see the view. I just wanted to feel the space,” Don had replied, as he stared out at the whitecaps on the Atlantic. For him, only the oceans and the Texas Panhandle offered enough space to move around in. Nancy had visited her husband’s hometown in Perryton, county seat of Ochiltree County, and she understood. Perryton didn’t seem to have much else but a view.

The telephone rang and Texas evaporated from Captain Wagner’s mind. Nancy’s soft Georgia accent sounded shaky; strange, unusually solicitous. “There’s been an accident near the farm. You had better come home,” she had said. He hung up and stared at the floor, trying to ignore the certain feeling that told him this call involved death. He had received many calls about death during nine months of flying rescue helicopters out of Da Nang in Viet Nam. He knew there was no other feeling like this one, and he was right.

After Nancy told him of his father’s death, they sat together in the living room. I was long past midnight. The kids—Keith, seven, and Krista, five—had been asleep for hours. “You’ve got to remember,” Don said, “that Mom isn’t going to let anyone else run Dad’s equipment. She could lease the place or sell the tractors and things, but she’s not going to let a stranger run Mart Wagner’s machines. He

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