CHAPTER 1 This Is Farm Life CHAPTER 1 This Is Farm Life “Y
ou can go see your family now,” the man told my dad. He had long white hair and cowboy boots, a flannel shirt, and some blue jeans on. My dad looked him up and down. Why is the janitor telling me that I can go see my wife? he wondered. It was 1973, and even in rural Hillsboro things were a little kooky. “Who was that?” he asked my mom when he entered her hospital room.
“He’s the on-call doctor,” she told him. “Dr. Draper is away at a football game.”
Dad shrugged. He was more interested in seeing his newborn twin sons.
They say there’s a lot you can do in five minutes. You can change a tire, eat a sandwich, or choke out Frank Trigg (again). But that October 13, I wasn’t doing anything but a whole lot of crying in the five minutes between my birth and that of my twin brother, Mark. “The doctor says they’re fraternal,” Mom said,
“but I think they’re exactly alike.” But just because we were alike didn’t mean that we weren’t going to be rivals. I say that everybody with any sense knows that being born is a race, which means that I won because I was first. But Mark tries to argue that it’s a test of stamina to see who can hold out the longest, so he won.
The next day our parents took us back to our farm on the outskirts of Hillsboro. Hillsboro is a small farming town in central Illinois, an hour or so away from St. Louis and home to about five thousand people. The town square is just a spot where four streets intersect in front of an old courthouse, and the sign above the video store reads video store. There’s an Orpheum movie theater, one bookstore, one hotel, and a Subway restaurant that has both Mr. Pibb and Mello Yello. The tallest structures are silos and water towers. More people chew tobacco than smoke in Hillsboro, and just about everybody wears blue jeans, white sneakers, and white socks. When the radio announcer mentions how the girl’s high school basketball team is doing that year, we pay attention.
We own guns and hunt. We don’t worry about someone breaking in through a window, because they can just open the front door. The people in Hillsboro who don’t believe in evolution aren’t jerks about it. Most everyone is friendly, both in the sense of being amiable and in the sense of knowing things about you. There’s an idea city folk have that everyone in a small town has a secret. It’s true that there are things that people don’t talk about openly, but those things aren’t hardly secret.
The Hughes farm was around fifteen hundred acres when Mark and I were born. Our older sister Beth was still living at
home, but Dad’s daughters from his first marriage, Annette and Evelyne, were older and had moved on. Our house sat on a hill, so if you stood next to it and looked around in a full circle, everything within eyesight was our property. We had fields of corn, beans, and wheat, and we raised chickens, turkeys, horses, and cows.
One day Dad asked Mom, “Why are we burning our money when there are two perfectly healthy milk cows up there?” Baby formula was expensive, and Mark and I went through two cases a week. “I’ll just milk them, pasteurize it, and give the boys whole milk.” From then on, the Hughes twins were raised like cattle in a lot of ways.
Quickly, my parents realized that bringing up Mark and me wasn’t going to be like bringing up Beth. One day when we were two years old, Mom and Dad did the farm work, got done late, and came in tired. They had recently remodeled the house, which was a lot of work on top of their usual load. They sleepily ate their supper, fed us, and then put us to bed. At two in the morning, Mom heard a sound and went to the kitchen to investigate. She returned to the bedroom and woke up our dad. “You’re not going to believe what they’ve done,” she told him. The kitchen had a refrigerator with a freezer on the bottom. Mark and I had gotten into it, pulled out the butter, and smeared it everywhere. All the new paneling and drywall they’d put in now looked like the inside of a baked potato.
Dad decided to build us a cattle fence to keep us out of trouble. He spent all of one morning getting that fence halfway done. When he stepped back to admire his work, he saw Mark and me climbing over it, back and forth, just for fun.
As soon as we could walk we could run, and as soon as we could run we could climb. When you’re a little boy, a farm is the best playground you could possibly imagine. There are mudslides, woods to run through, trees to climb, and old footpaths to explore. We could scream our heads off, and no one would ever be bothered by it. And when you’re a twin, you constantly have your best friend around you. He likes the same things you like, and he has the same energy level as you do. Even after we got our own bedrooms, we didn’t like to be separated, and we’d just get up and go to the other brother’s room after Mom left.
When we were only about two or three years old, barely able to talk, Mom took us to another family’s house. Mark and I were outside playing with their son, who was older than we were. Suddenly Mom heard a scream. She ran outside and saw that Mark was crying: That boy had bit him. She took Mark inside and was looking after him, trying to calm him down and make him feel better.
Then they heard an awful yell, much louder than Mark’s. Mom ran outside again and that boy was shrieking as I pinned him, punching him with my little fists as hard as I could. “He bite Marky!” I yelled, as she tried to pry me off. “He bite Marky!” She separated me from him, and I never did get in trouble for it. Mom thought that was just fine.
My brother and I didn’t care about material possessions as long as we could have fun. We had a lot of toy trucks and tractors. We had our own little piece of ground where we played outside, making little roads and plowing imaginary fields. Mom once told us to pick our toys up and put them away, but Mark
and I just dug a hole out there, put the toys in it, and covered it up. And that was the end of it.
Once, Dad and the crew put up an entire harvester in one day. They came into the house to have some iced tea. “Hey, where are the boys?” Dad asked the men. They shrugged, looking around. “Shoot, I forgot to take that stepladder down,” Dad said. “They couldn’t have …” It took an eight-foot stepladder to get to the ladder that climbed the harvester, and that’s all that Mark and I needed. Dad looked up to the top of his new harvester and there we were, sixty feet in the air.
By the time the day came when Beth ran into the house, yelling, “Dad, you better get out there quick! One of the boys filled a wagon full of gas and the other one’s got a lighter!” no one was even shocked—it was already par for the course.
Our nearest neighbor was over a mile away. As kids, our only real friend was our cousin Mikey. Three years older, he was cool no matter what he did. He liked the outdoors, so we would go shooting with him. He was always messing with motors and automotive stuff. He was the big brother we never really had.
We always liked to be around when there was work to be done. It was fall and Mark and I watched them shelling corn. The corn went out the bottom of the wagon into a hopper, and then the auger shot it up into the bin. I climbed the ladder up the side of the wagon and jumped into the corn, with Mark right by my side. We could see the corn flowing out the door in the bottom of the wagon; it was like we were standing inside an hourglass.
Mark’s legs got buried in the corn as it slid out from under
us. I could see from his happy expression that it was as fun as it looked. It was like we were on some sort of slide. Then my legs got caught in the corn too. We couldn’t get our legs out; we were in a kind of corn quicksand that was pulling us under. Then I saw the chains that went across the wagon and tightened up to keep it from busting. I grabbed a chain with my right hand and with my left arm kept Mark’s head, now barely above the corn, from getting sucked under. Beth heard us and climbed up the ladder to see what was happening. “Oh my gosh!” she yelled. She ran down and shut off the wagon so we wouldn’t get sucked down any farther. She came back and grabbed my hand and tugged as hard as she could. When we didn’t budge, she said, “Hold on, let me go get Dad.”
Dad came up and he started pulling on my arm. Nothing. He cleared away the corn from Mark a bit and tried to pull him out. Still nothing. “I’m going to rip them in half before I get them loose,” he told Beth, shaking his head. “I guarantee it.” Dad stood there for a moment, thinking about what to do. He pulled the wagon up away from the auger and opened the door wide. All the corn shot out the door, taking us with it like we were on rockets. “Look at them,” Dad said to Beth. “They think that was some amusement park ride or something.”
Mark and I were still grinning. “Can we go again?” I asked.
“You know what?” Dad told us the following summer. “If you like being around farm equipment so much and you’ve got so much energy, maybe you should actually be doing something instead of just messing around. I’m going to put you boys to work. Now, we
have to bale twenty-five acres of hay off of Uncle Jack. It’s going to take all day. I’ve got a crew coming, but they won’t be here until the afternoon. Do you want to help me out tomorrow?”
To Mark and me, this felt like Christmas.
The next day, the hay had already been cut and raked and was waiting for us to bring our baler along. We got on the wagon with Dad. “We can put it on here so then the crew can unload it in the barn,” he explained. “When the bale comes onto the wagon, you stack it as best you can.”
As the bales kept coming, Mark and I made it into a competition. We waited for that hay, and then each of us grabbed for it. Instead of taking turns, we were knocking each other off the wagon to get to the bales. Finally, we were in a fight over every single bale. We felt a jerking motion; Dad had stopped the tractor. “We’re going to be here until dark!” he yelled. And this was summertime, so that meant eight or nine o’clock. “Just absolutely stop it!” he shouted, exasperated.
The 1970s were real good years for the farm community, and grain prices were extremely high. My parents were even able to expand their acreage. Then came 1981 and the government embargo. Farmers couldn’t ship grain overseas anymore, which made the price of grain collapse. It went from $9 a bushel to $4 a bushel. It was like getting your salary cut by more than half, practically overnight.
At the time, the Federal Land Bank Association, backed by the federal government, was basically setting the price of farm ground. They were the ones who lent the money to farmers who
wanted to buy new land. It wasn’t some sort of welfare or a program to assist farmers; they were out to make a profit. If someone needed $100,000, then they’d have to borrow $105,000 worth of stock. That $5,000 worth of stock was what the association made their money on.
Because they were setting the prices of ground themselves, they could run it up. The higher the price of ground, the higher their percentage, and the more money they made. If they could set the price at $200,000, then they made $10,000 on their own—while borrowing the money that they lent from the federal government. No risk, all reward.
While my parents were sitting on fifteen hundred acres of ground, the interest rate at Federal Land Bank went up. They had borrowed the money to buy the land at 8 percent, and it went up to 16 percent on a six-month payment plan. There were many, many people who were crushed by the interest alone. Add to that the collapse in grain prices, and a lot of farmers had the same fate my family did: bankruptcy. From ’83 to ’85 the farms started falling like dominos. Mom and Dad tried really hard to keep us from having to declare bankruptcy. Somebody told them that they could get a Small Business Administration loan. Mom was a very good bookkeeper, and they worked for a month on the paperwork. They sent it off to the SBA and hoped for the best.
A letter came back: Denied.
Mom and Dad never talked to us kids about money troubles, but we were smart enough to know something was up. In 1979 my dad had bought a brand-new truck. I remember plain as day the first time I saw that ’79 Ford F-250 with the white rims on
it. One day I noticed it wasn’t at the farm anymore. “What happened to the truck?” I asked Beth.
“Dad sold it,” she said. “He’s selling some of the land, too.” We went from farming about fifteen hundred acres to about seven hundred, basically down to the homestead.
“Yeah, and Mom’s getting a job at Hucks, so I’m going to have to keep my eye on you little jerks when she’s not around.”
“What about Dad?”
“He’s going to drive a truck for a bean mill plant in Grand City.”
Mark and I looked at each other. We were more confused than worried. We knew our parents would take care of everything, because they always had before. Dad drove for the plant ten hours a day, five days a week. Plus he had to spend an hour getting there and an hour getting home. He would kind of let the farm run down for a while, then he would stop trucking and get the farm caught back up. Then he went back to trucking again, putting in really crazy hours. He went from setting his own schedule and doing what he loved to doing something he hated, around the clock.
We had a big picture window in front of our house. Mark and I stood there, watching our sister do her aerobics from one of those exercise shows on TV. She’d stretch her body into weird angles. Mark gestured to me and, trying hard not to giggle, I followed him inside. We waited until she started doing squats, working out her quads.
“Hey, Beth!” I yelled out. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”
Her head spun around real quick. “Get out! Both of you, get out! Go outside and do something and leave me alone!”
“She pooped her pants,” Mark said. “She pooped them so bad she has to take a shower.”
“Beth, did you poop so bad you have to take a shower?” I asked.
“Leave!” she screamed.
“We’re not getting out,” Mark told her.
She grabbed us both by the back of the arm and yelled again, “Get out!”
“No!” I yelled back at her. She dragged us away from the TV and out of the living room, and then Mark and I started putting up a fight. I pulled back and hit her as hard as I could right in the stomach. The wind went right out of her. She bent over, gasping for air like a fish on the floor.
Mark and I just looked at each other and walked outside. You need to know that you don’t push me out of my house, I thought. I don’t care what you’ve got going on. It’s my house too. She’s not the big dog around here anymore.
Something had clicked when Mark and I stood up to Beth. Not that long after this incident, a boy named David got on the school bus coming home and saw us sitting there. He was four years older than we were, and tall. He started shoving Mark around, which was the kind of thing he did for fun. I was watching him, my eyes flashing red with anger.
As we got off the bus, I told my brother, “I know how we can take care of this guy.”
“How?” Mark asked. “He’s a lot bigger than us.”
“I have a plan,” I said. It wasn’t one of those sit-down-and-talk-with-him plans, either. The next day we got on the bus and sat on either side of the aisle. My hands were in tight fists. Mark and I had been waiting all through the school day, and now the moment was finally here.
David walked on the bus and stood in front of my seat, but turned for a second to face the front of the bus. I didn’t need to look at Mark; he was on a hair trigger too. I jumped up, grabbed David from behind, and locked my hands so that his arms were trapped. I fell backward onto the floor with David on top of me, wedged between the seats. I felt him struggling to break free, but I squeezed him as hard as I could. Mark quickly got on top and started punching him, over and over. Once Mark thought David had gotten the message, he got up. I let go and rolled away underneath the seats. Nobody on the bus said a word—least of all David.
When we hit junior high, Mark and I started having a bit of a change in our relationship. It’s like wearing your favorite shirt every day, or listening to your favorite song over and over, for years at a time. Suddenly the shirt starts to chafe or the music gets cheesy; the sound annoys you. We still made a great team when we wanted to, but we didn’t want to that much of the time. We each found our own friends in school.
One time I went down the hill behind our house over to the field, passing the thin creek that ran under the trees. There was Mark, smoking a cigarette with Brian Cameron. He thought he
could get away with it, I realized. You can’t see the house from down here and the house can’t see you. “What, are you smoking now?” I asked. Mark shrugged and took another drag. “I think I’m going to talk to Mom and Dad about what you’re doing here.”
“Just leave me alone,” Mark muttered. “Come on, don’t go tell them.”
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “I like that Simmons knife you got. You’re going to have to give me that.”
“I got that for my birthday!”
“I know it was for your birthday. Mine’s the same day,” I told him, laughing. Mark just stared at me.
“That’s a real nice knife,” Mark pointed out. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
“I don’t care what you think is fair or what isn’t fair. Mark, you need to give me that knife,” I insisted.
“You need to just give him the knife,” Brian said.
“Fine,” Mark said. “Just go take it and get the heck out of here.”
I went up the hill and found the knife in his room. I took it and claimed it as my own, never thinking anything of it.
Another day Mark told me, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea.”
“What is it?”
“You’ll see,” he said, running down a path that led away from the house. A minute later we were at the seven-and-a-half-acre pond on our property. It was practically a lake, so big that a nearsighted person couldn’t make out the other shore. Where we stood, on that narrow path, we could see the plants growing in
the water and the bugs skimming around on the surface. It was straight out of a Mark Twain story. “See that over there on the far side?” Mark asked me, pointing.
“You mean that big oak tree?”
“Look how it’s leaning halfway over the water. Let’s take a bunch of planks and nail them up the tree to make a ladder. Then we can tie a rope to it so that we can swing and jump into the pond.”
“That’s perfect,” I agreed. “The bank’s really steep on that side of the pond.”
We quickly rounded up our hammers, some nails, a bunch of wood, and a rope. We took some of the nails and ran them through boards so they’d be ready. Arms full, we lugged all those materials into our boat. We paddled fast to get to that tree and make our vision a reality.
“You climb up and get started,” I said to Mark as we jumped out of the boat. “I’ll start the rest of the planks down here and pass them to you.” Mark grabbed a few planks and carefully made his way up the tree. Using the trunk as a workbench, I began pounding nails through boards.
Suddenly, wham! Mark’s hammer slipped out of his hand and hit me right on the top of the head. I leaned over and grabbed the hammer. “Get down here!” I yelled at him. I want vengeance, I fumed. “I said, get down here!”
My twin looked down from his branch, saw a crazy person waving a hammer in a threatening manner, and decided he didn’t want to move toward me one inch.
I took that hammer, cocked back my arm, and threw it directly at him. He watched it go by, not even close, as it flew past him into its new permanent home at the bottom of our pond. Mark moved out over the water on a branch. Oh, he’s not getting away from me, I thought. I jumped in the boat and watched as Mark kept climbing out, farther and farther, until he got so far on that branch that he couldn’t go back to the tree. I put the boat right underneath him and waited for him to hit from thirty feet. He can only hold on for so long.
“Matt, move the boat!” he yelled.
“Why are you firing hammers down at me?” I screamed back. “Did you think that was funny or something?”
“It was an accident! Could you just move the boat?”
“Usually when people do something by accident they apologize for it! That’s what I’ve always thought!”
“Okay! I’m sorry! Now can you move the boat?” he pleaded.
“Okay, okay,” I said. I sat down and rowed the boat a bit away. Mark saw that I was clear and dropped down into the water. I seized my oar and starting swatting him with it as best I could.
With all of our aggressive energy, it’s no surprise that Mark and I took to sports. There weren’t really any official wrestling programs for the junior high kids, but after the high school wrestling season was over, they brought the mats to the junior high and taught us what they could during the week. Then we had a wrestling tournament at the end.
I wrestled a guy named GP Grabbe and beat him pretty bad in the first round. Mark did well also, and it ended up being me and him in the finals. The battle lines had been drawn. We weren’t twins or even brothers anymore. Now we were rivals. He got a reversal on me for two points and ended up taking me by a point. I was so bad at athletics in junior high that my brother beat me.