Summer Skin

Nebraska corn field north of my high school.

My skin has loved sun since it was 14, when I worked my first summer in the cornfields of Nebraska. Prominently exposed to the blazing sun each day, my light Danish skin was protected only by cheap white tank tops and swishy shorts to keep me cool. As an outdoor laborer, I thought the 100+ degree climate combined with the humid sweat of the corn plants felt almost tropical, and I would imagine I was working in an island rainforest somewhere I’d never been. It wasn’t bad, as long as you didn’t get heat exhaustion and confuse your own body with the endless rows of corn. My water bottle hung heavy around my waist, attached to my canvas work apron along with my supplies.

Walking. Walk through the row. Walk through another row. Walk through all the rows one by one all day. It would rain, and we walked still when new mud had caked on inches thick to our throw-away tennis shoes. The sun would bake the earth into cracking puzzle pieces, and we would walk on through the dust combining with sweat making layers on our skin. Calves of steel would present themselves to me at the end of the summer’s toil, like bronze trophies.

If you looked up, you could see floating bands of green leaves against a faraway blue and smell the pollen as it wafted into the creases of your eyelids and pollinated your hairline.

My cousin drove the crews in the company’s 16-passenger van all over the county and farther, to fields we had been hired out to work. I sat in the back and slept with my head bobbing over the bumps in the road on the long rides. Country music played a little too loudly on the radio and the boys sang along in their oversize, deeply cut off T-shirts. The girls did their best to ignore them and reject them when their language became irreverent. We usually sat separately during lunch on the benches.

We found everything to laugh about, everything was funny to us in the van and on breaks. We gawked and snickered at our supervisors whose genders were mildly ambiguous, who spoke awkwardly and had been in the same line of work since our mothers and fathers did their time in the fields. There was always something hilarious about last night’s affairs, our school teachers, and each other.

One older boy, whose identity was mysterious to us as he was from out of town, talked too much about guns and worked with his shirt off, made us all uneasy. A young married couple studying at the University worked on my crew one summer. They were put together, bright, interesting and unusual. Whether or not we spoke it, there was a balance to be found here in our group, the just right place between personal carelessness and a serious work ethic. We had struck up a syntax for ourselves that was an expression of the best of both worlds.

A ten minute highway drive home at the end of the day found me peeling off the yellowed tank top and rinsing away the dried pollen and dirt from my skin. In the shower I would examine my sock tan line and assess the pastiness of my toes. After the final rinse off of the season, every soiled tank and pair of shoes would be ceremonially disposed of, to be replaced with breezy blouses and cut off jean shorts. I would quickly try to repair my sock tan line so that trips to the pool in flip flops would not be an embarrassment.

At night and on days off, I rode my bike all over my small town. A glorious weightlessness beckoned me to ride through dusk and cooler temperatures. I wore as little as possible, for the sake of feeling the air woosh across my fresh skin. I rode to the pool, the coffee shop, beside the railroad tracks, circling neighborhoods, and out as far as my yellow belly would take me down the gravel roads. Once at night while riding with my best friend, we witnessed a double shooting star cascade across the velvet sky.

Though I have traded prairie for pavement in recent years of my life, I look back on teenage summers in Nebraska with fondness. I recall them one by one closely when the sun hits my skin and summer sinks in new.

Reader, blogger, and essayist Andrea Badgley is collecting “Show Us Your State” stories for her Andrea Reads America website. This is my entry for her American Vignette: Summer Garments writing challenge.

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4 thoughts on “Summer Skin

  1. This is beautiful, Leslie. You have evoked the feeling of summer sun and bicycle-made-breeze in Nebraska for me, a place I have never been. I got your note about Nebraska authors – I too love Willa Cather but have never read Wendell Berry. I’ve gotten about a million recommendations to read him since I started my Andrea Reads America project, and I have happily added him to my list. Thanks so much for sharing your story and showing us your Nebraska..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! I appreciate your reading this and your great compliment. Wendell Berry is close to my heart. I hope you enjoy him! Thanks again for creating the writing challenge!

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