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July 26, 2011


Dear God, Please don’t let my son die in a cornfield today

by Deena Winter

Alec (left) and Jacob (right) manage to muster a smile after returning from a long day of detassling.

How many Moms are so proud of their kids for doing a job that they take pictures of them after their shift ends?

Probably not many. But I often see Moms with cameras when the big yellow school bus rolls up to the church in southwest Lincoln carrying a load of young teenagers coming in from the cornfields after a day of detassling. Including my 14-year-old son, Jacob.

I’d never heard of detasseling until I moved to Nebraska, but it seems to be a rite of passage for many teens around here. To create hybrid corn seed, machines pull tassels off the cornstalks, and ambitious teenage Nebraskans pull off the ones that are missed for about three weeks in July.

It’s one of the few ways a young teenager can make a lot of money in just a few weeks. Somehow, the boy who often asks me to fetch him a drink of water decided he wanted to do it this summer.

His friends sold it as a fun adventure or some kind of get-rich-quick scheme. He cut off the footies on a pair of soccer socks, put them on his arms, pulled on a white T-shirt, shorts and long baseball socks, and off to the fields he went. He wears a bandana around his neck, and one of those net hats like beekeepers.

He has asthma and allergies, and I was afraid he’d die of an asthma attack out there in a cornfield. I briefly considered riding the bus with him and supervising his every move, but his allergy doctor said to give him a Zyrtec every day and send his inhaler along with him, and he’d be fine. I still think I should have gone with him, just in case.

The night before his first day in the field, we returned to Lincoln from a vacation in Texas and it was so humid here that the windows in my sunroom were fogged up. Someone told me the heat index was like 112 degrees that night.

What a great way to start the detassling season! I sent him on his way at 5:15 a.m. and prayed many times that day that he would live. That he would not have an asthma attack. That the heat wouldn’t overcome his 105-pound body. That he’d remember to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

I’ve never been so happy to get a text message from my son, saying the bus was on its way back to Lincoln. He was ALIVE! He got off the bus dirty from head to toe — with mud caked on the bottom of those $90 Nikes he just HAD to have a mere year ago. I think he realized his friends’ idea of “fun” was not the same as his.

Rain doesn’t stop the detasslers, who sometimes wear garbage bags over their clothes when it’s wet or dewy. Some days start out cold, like after a stormy night, and then suddenly turn hot. The kids often wear high-top shoes because it’s hard to balance and not twist ankles in the ridged rows as they reach for tassels, pop them off and throw them down. Over and over and over.

The jug full of ice melts to warm water within a few hours in the field where the heat index has regularly soared past 100 degrees this summer. And wherever the corn pokes through the clothing, he develops a nice little “corn rash.” And all of this for minimum wage.

In the paper today a Wahoo crop consultant said in all his years of checking out cornfields, he’s never seen it so hot in “the corn canopy.” Some parents make their kids detassle, to teach them to work. My son said one of those forced laborers simply laid down in the middle of the field one day and said, “I quit.”

I’ve picked rock and weeded gravel and pulled a garden full of weeds that were taller than I was for $5 — and my first real job was washing dishes in junior high — but I know I’ve never worked as hard as my son is out in the cornfields between here and York. I am quite certain that if you sent me out in a cornfield in the weather we’ve been having, I’d lay down and quit within an hour. Maybe sooner. And I’m not known for being a slacker.

I don’t know if it’s peer pressure or if he inherited my stubbornness or what, but he keeps going back, day after 100-degree day. After two weeks, he finally said, “Mom, I want to quit.” I said it was up to him, but he could take a day off. You don’t get a bonus if you miss a day, and he wanted that bonus. But he needed a break.

I told him no matter what he does from this point on, he’ll always look back on this job as the toughest job he ever had. When he’s the CEO of a Fortune 500 company some day, and Newsweek comes to interview him (more likely he’ll talk about those days in the cornfield, where he learned how to work.

He took a day off. Then another day, because he had a baseball tournament. And on Monday morning, he went back to the fields for more.

My little detassler, after a day in the field.

I’m proud of him, but sometimes I cannot believe it’s legal to send those kids out into the fields when it’s this hot (although they start very early and quit early in the afternoon, escaping the brunt of the heat). A part of me fears one of those kids is gonna die out there. My friend makes her son do it and won’t let him skip a day. My mechanic thinks it outta be illegal.

And then I hear stories of “the old days” when Nebraska kids detassled without shirts on and without strict regulations and supervision or roving nurses.

So I tell myself to stop worrying so much. The season is almost over. The text saying “We’ll be home in an hour” will come. And it’ll be time to empty the cooler, wash it and fill it with tomorrow’s lunch.

And ice. Lots of ice.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Roberta
    Jul 27 2011

    Excellent story, kept me reading

  2. Roger Yant
    Jul 27 2011

    Very good story. Thanks Deena for sharing!

  3. Shana Durham
    Jul 27 2011

    Great post today! I worry a little too, but I think it’s a valuable experience. Mainly I think they will have extra impetus to succeed in college, knowing that manual labor is difficult! Lots of ranch kids where I went to school spend long hot hours in the hayfield with no long-term ill effects. My own sweet ranch grandpa, bless him, chose to send out my brother (who is four years older) and spared me, the only granddaughter. I delivered the ice tea and snacks to the hot mowers and rakers and bailers! In our case Parker wanted to try detasseling because he loves expensive sneakers, and he can quit if he wants or take a day off if he wants. Some days are better than others, which I am judging by the car ride home when he declares he will never ever do this again, followed by the next day, when he says he will. Now his third season, he’s practically gleeful when he gets to do cleanup crew, which has a higher pay rate and the rows go very quickly on the second or third pass. By suppertime, he is so worn out he is barely able to hold his head up, and he’s passing on the sweet corn!

  4. Jessica K
    Jul 27 2011

    Great story, Deena! I remember my brother doing this and it was, in the end, a great experience for him. I, like you, would have laid down and quit. 🙂 (You haven’t even mentioned the bugs they probably encounter!)

  5. Natalie
    Jul 31 2011

    Thanks for this piece of writing. As I read through it, I couldn’t help but insert (Adam) in place of (Jake). Their days sound similar. I am jealous of your photos because I was told in no uncertain terms that I was NOT to take any pictures as he got off of the bus! 🙂 That’s okay, I’ll be sneakier about it next year!


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