“I’d offer you lunch, but I’ve already eaten it.” The old man says without a hint of a smile.
Dry humor fits this landscape of dust and whirling blades and blowing chaff. A foreign country for sure, where everyone operates on a seasonal punch clock. Not my world, even though it’s just a few miles from Des Moines, Iowa.
But I can’t resist a big truck, or, to be more exact, a large combine.
The combine turns at the end of the row and waits expectantly for me to climb up. The machine looks like something out of a futuristic movie — foreign, large, and slightly menacing.
“I was so busy trying not to hit you, that I forgot to drop the load,” the old man shouts down over the engine noise.
I didn’t realize that hitting me was an option. Or is this another joke?
The old man sits high above the ground in a glass enclosure. He’s 80 years old. He seems friendly enough. And he must have climbed up into the combine by himself. I clutch the only ladder with some misgivings. Don’t the big rock climbers have to tie off before they ascend? He pokes his head out. Waves me up with a grin.
Warm, friendly, easy to smile, Bill Gannon welcomes me into his cab.
And off we go — air-conditioned, two soft seats, Boeing 747 controls, and the ball game on the radio.
How does this machine even work? As far as I can tell the combine runs over the beans and the beans vanish. It’s as simple as that. Magic.
And then the steering wheel begins to steer by itself.
“This combine has auto steer. So you see it is no hands. GPS. It keeps in touch with the satellite which keeps in touch with the steering mechanism. And it works.”
See. What did I tell you? Magic.
“The combine has changed big time over the years. The first combine I owned I pulled with a tractor. It cut six foot. That was the width of the platform. You could crowd three rows of beans in there. Today we’re doing approximately 22 rows of beans. It is a 25-foot platform.”
We gently sway as we move across the field, down the slope, and over the still-green waterways, all within sight of the valley where the old railroad used to make the run to Kansas City.
“There’s some nice views here.” Gannon gestures with his free hands. “A couple of years ago, we got designated a century farm. This quarter section was the ground that was in the Gannon family for over 100 years. My grandfather purchased this quarter section in 1887. My dad wound up with it. Then my dad left it to me.”
What will happen after you?
“I don’t know. I would hope it stays in the family. But when you’re dead, you can’t control it.” Gannon shrugs and laughs quietly.
And your life? Has it been what you hoped for?
“I liked all the things in my life. When I was doing it, I enjoyed it.”
“Many years ago, I ran for governor in the Democratic primary. Running for governor now wouldn’t be much fun I don’t think. There’s too much acrimony going on. Back when I was in the legislature, we had people disagree, but we were civil to each other. I was in the legislature six years. I was minority foreman four of those years in the Iowa House.”
Sure enough, Gannon was in the House of Representatives from 1965 to 1971. He ran for governor in the primaries in 1970 and 1974. He ran for lieutenant governor in the general election in 1972. His focus in those legislative days — equal pay for women and the environment. “I ran on the same issues that are still around today,” he points out.
“We didn’t have any money to run. If you don’t have money, you have to do something to draw attention to your campaign. And our campaign was Ride for Reform. I rode that horse, actually two horses, right at 1300 miles total.” He shakes his head at the thought.
After all the excitement of your life, isn’t this a little lonely sitting up in this combine on a cold, fall day in Iowa?
“Not at all,” he says, as he turns the big machine around at the end of the row. “I love listening to the ball games.”
So we sit quietly. The combine whirls its way across the bean field, the steering wheel steers itself, and the cab sways back and forth like the crow’s nest on an old whaling ship.
“Fly ball to center field . . .”