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Collateral Damage in the War of the Thistles

My father bought a 160-acre farm ten miles from town in the summer of '84, and to my eternal misery, he moved us there. The "us" included myself, my mother, and, of course, my father. The land on the edges of our new farm was fenced off into fields of alfalfa and wheat. A few acres were sectioned off for the barn and feed lots where our herd of 500 sheep spent most of their wretched lives. The rest was a withering pasture comprised of thirsty grass, vast armadas of thistles, and countless striped gopher mounds. Dad originally wanted to quit his regular job, driving truck for Hartz Truckline, and farm full time. However, Dad's decision to buy the farm also coincided with the drought that choked northwestern Minnesota and much of North Dakota for the latter half of the 80s and into the early 90s. Thus, he continued to drive truck part time. Fortunately for the 13-year-old me at the time, this kept him away from home for at least four days a week. See, when my dad was home, he found countless chores for me: mend fences, mow the lawn, shovel out the barn, trap gophers, paint the sheds, and so on. So when he was gone, naturally, I goofed off. I habitually saved all of my chores for the day before he returned and then worked like mad. That didn't last but a month when my dad was seized by an obsession that eventually consumed me as well. I was helping my dad grease our John Deer "A," before we took it to mow alfalfa, when a strange green truck pulled into our yard. A peculiar little man got out and approached us. He had a long, white beard that would have reached to his waist had it not been so windy. My dad went to see what he wanted while I quickly finished greasing

the tractor. This meant just giving each zerk a quick pump and not actually waiting for the new shiny purple grease to snap and pop the old dark crusted grease from the tractor's joints. When done I looked up and noticed my dad leaning against the side of the man's truck with one hand tucked in the lone back pocket of his tattered Levi's. Yes, I thought. Dad was in his "visiting" stance. The man too was propped up against the side of the truck. This had the makings of a real jaw session. As I plotted my escape, I noticed that the driver's side door had a square yellow plaque with "State of MN" stenciled in square black lettering. So I crept over to a shed on the other side of the truck, feigning that I was looking for a tube of grease, then slipped effortlessly around the shed and dashed toward the house, within five minutes I was in a T-shirt and cut off jogging pants, lying on my bed with Def Leppard on the stereo and Salem's Lot in my hands. Eventually Dad bellered up the stairs, calling me back to duty, and we began mowing the 60-acre alfalfa field. Over the clatter of the blades, Dad explained to me that the visitor was the state "weed inspector." "There's no pot around here!" I shouted. "No. He inspects wild weeds like . . . " and my dad rattled off names of plants that I had never heard of, like "leafy" something and something "spurge" or maybe it was "leafy spurge." He explained that the "weed" inspector also warned about thistles. Amidst the withering grass, the thistles battled the gophers for supremacy of our pasture.

I encountered them several times on my three wheeler. In fact, my favorite thing to do when my friends from town visited involved revving up my three wheeler and taking them through a thistle patch. I, of course, lifted my legs up onto the front fender and raced through the thick patches. My friends, caught unaware, screamed as the thistles gouged their legs. They pounded my back and vainly tried to raise their legs out of the way. However, that was impossible for they had to lift their legs up and forward, which brought them only deeper into the thistles as they whizzed by scraping the gas tank, my friend's legs, and the rear plastic fenders before going under the tires. laughed the whole time. My dad said the state inspector warned that if we didn't spray the thistles, they would literally take over the entire farm. Of course, my dad was not about to buy into any such conspiracy theory. After all, he adamantly believed Lee Harvey Oswald really shot Kennedy and that Area 51 was actually just a military base. Plus, there was no way my dad was going to pay the state to fly a plane over and douse the thistles with weed killer. So he informed me that once we were done mowing the alfalfa, we were going to begin a full-out ground assault on the thistles. This, of course, was only a temporary solution since the roots would still be intact and the thistles would simply grow back again later in the summer, germinate, and then lie dormant over the winter, only to renew their campaign the following year. But Dad didn't seem too worked up about that. We made one good sweep through the thistles when something wonderful happened. The far end of the mower dug into a gopher's mound and snapped the I

mower's drive shaft.


It was around six in the evening and both of our

stomachs were growling, and the last thing I wanted to do was squander another minute out here. With any luck Dad would have to go out in the truck for the rest of the week, and I would be left with a broken mower. There would be nothing else to do other than lounge around and listen to my stereo and move on to The Tommyknockers. Perfect. Over supper Dad got a call to go out in the truck . Things are getting better by the minute, I thought. However, little did I know that my dad's obsession for the eradication of the thistle menace had overtaken what little bit of good sense he had left. Suddenly over a mouth full of mashed potatoes and chicken, he mumbled that when we were done eating, we were going to the quonset. Uh-oh. That was my dad's laboratory, so to speak. From there he hatched all of his mad scientist ideas to keep me busy while he was gone. I trailed him to the quonset beneath the fake yellow glow of our yard light. He entered the quonset, rummaged around, and emerged with what looked like a wooden stick with some blue, twisted and jagged metal on the bottom. "What is that?" I asked. "It's an old fashioned sickle." Oh no. I could tell right away what he had planned: Kurt vs. the thistles. "Dad, I won't be able to get them all. Plus, they'll just re-grow. Why don't we wait until the mower is fixed? Then I'll gladly mow them down next week," I lied. But Dad wasn't having any of it. He was obsessed, and I had become the

instrument through which his obsession would continue in his absence. So began my

battle with the thistles. When he was away driving truck, he called each evening to check on my progress. I loathed every second of it. I, of course, had my own battle plan. Since he was gone and I was calling the shots, I decided to scrap the hand to hand combat method with the old fashioned sickle. Instead I was going to reveal a secret weapon. Our lawn mower. Why waste my time when I can just dispatch them with this, I figured. Secretly, I snuck the weapon of mass destruction out of the quonset and began the slaughter. Everything was working

according to my master plan. I had to take it slow, first gear, which was painstakingly slow for me, I never mowed the lawn in anything lower than fourth gear. I just cut a wide swath into the thistle's flanks when they revealed their secret weapon. Rocks. They had dug themselves into a section of our pasture covered with large rocks. Unfortunately, I didn't detect their hidden weapon in time. The right wheel lifted a bit and before I could push the clutch in and disengage the blade, the mower began to rattle, shake, and jump. Until it finally stopped dead. Uh-oh. The blade was broken. Vanquished, I pushed the mower back into the quonset where I wired the blade back together. I knew it would never hold. I just hoped it would hold long enough for Mom to get on the mower, she loved to mow around her precious garden. With any luck she would mow for a second or two and then the blade would fall apart. Of course, she would come to me. Of course, I would feign surprise and

disbelief. I would suggest a trip into town to buy a new blade before Dad got home. Hey, a trip into town is a trip into town is a trip into town. But for the moment, I had to revert back to using the hand sickle, or weed whacker as I called it. So I set out on foot to launch the third wave of the land campaign against the thistles. I suffered many scorching afternoons with my walkman stuffed in the back pocket of my jeans teeing off, literally, with the weed whacker. After all, it was little more than a wooden shafted golf club. Instead of a club at the end, though, this thing had a flimsy row of metal teeth. It was some sort of medieval golf club. I spent much of that summer launching assault after assault against the thorny infidels. The thistles, unfortunately, had no natural enemies in our pasture. The sheep sure didn't eat them. Since they were the dominant life form on our farm, the thistles grew unfettered. Some were as tall as a person. Have you ever seen a thistle? The damned weeds are armed to the teeth. If Rambo were a plant, he would be a thistle. Their bases are thick and hard. Often times I had to hack at their bases with the sickle like a lumber jack attacking a pine. To make matters worse, the thistles had organized themselves into great, dense battalions. Sometimes they were so tightly hunkered that it was nearly impossible for me to cut them. They had me vastly outnumbered -- and they knew it. Then over the course of the summer something strange began to happen. Often when I ventured out to the battlefield in the mornings to wage campaigns, I would suddenly be halted when my mom pulled up on our three-wheeler to get me for lunch.

Where did the hours go? One time I was so focused on the mission that I realized my tape player had quit. I stopped and flipped the cassette. Then I began another mission only to realize that the tape player wasn't playing yet. So I pressed play and heard it click off. When I examined the tape, I was shocked to see that it had already played through the other side. I had been totally unaware. My dad's obsession was now my own. I found myself spending more and more time out in our pasture battling the foe instead of bunkered in my room and sheltered in a book or trying to dodge work. I began to see my war thistles as a challenge. Eventually, I developed strategies and tactics. Sometimes I plowed straight

through a patch until there were none left. Other times I circled around, carving my way inward until they were all down. Sometimes I randomly dropped them where they grew, like an expert sniper. Other times I swung feverishly until I wiped them all out, like a blitzkrieg attack. I began to develop a sense of pride standing amidst a battalion of cut, chopped, sawed, and hacked soldiers, er, thistles. Soon I totally neglected all of the things I had done while Dad was gone. I quit lounging around the house watching TV, devouring Stephen King novels, and tearing around the countryside on my three-wheeler. I was totally bent on driving the thistles from our shores, er, land. Then my battle and obsession came to a halt one August day. I was out on duty dispatching a few more hordes. My parents had gone to town, a luxury I usually never missed, but I refused this time, preferring the battle. As I mowed my way through a platoon, I disturbed a small herd of sheep lying in the midst of the thistles (go figure,

they were sheep). The lambs and ewes scattered immediately. But one remained: a buck. Actually it was THE buck, "Barney." Barney was a huge, 250-pound, six-year-old ramblouilett. His dominant feature

was his thick horns that spiraled out from his white, chiseled forehead like a mountain ram. Barney was my dad's pride and joy. He produced the biggest and sturdiest lambs. He was THE buck because he still had some of his ancestor's mountain blood in him, for he often butted heads with our other bucks, killing a smaller buck just that spring. Unlike the 500 other sheep we owned, except for a few bottle lambs, Barney was tame. And above all else he enjoyed having his chin and horns rubbed. Next to the thistles, Barney was my sworn enemy. More than once he had chased me around the feed lot as if I was a rival buck. He had even taken in after my dad, who just stood his ground and kicked him square in the jaw. For what Barney loved even more than being scratched was to butt. Sometimes he didn't care whether it was another buck, a person, the dog, the three wheeler, or a telephone pole. Barney watched as I hacked away at the thistles. After a few minutes, he waded through the fallen thistles and lowered his head. This was his way of saying he wanted his horns scratched. I decided to call a brief cease fire. I walked over and scratched his horns and chin. Unfortunately, when he tired of being scratched, he sometimes took a few steps back, pawed the ground with a front hoof in warning, lowered his head, and shifted into ramming mode, which was exactly what he did.

I walked toward him and continued to scratch his scalp. This was all I could think to do. Barney backed up further. I kept following him. Unfortunately, this took me farther into the pasture. Barney began to stomp the ground viciously. I grabbed the end of a thick horn. I didn't want to think about how that horn would feel plowing into my backside. Suddenly, he wrenched his head to the side, tearing his horn free. I bolted for the fence bordering the feed lot. clenched in my hand. Though I never turned to look. I could feel him barreling down on me. Barney's hooves thundered inches behind me. I saw several bales leading up to the edge of the fence. I lunged for the first bale. Safety was only a small step away, but my high top caught a bale string. I toppled over into the pen. I untangled myself from the pile of limbs I was coiled in and tried to stand. Dirt and grass scratched my back as it tumbled down the back of my shirt, and, sure enough, down the back of my pants and, sure enough, into my boxers, and sure enough, into my shoes. Tiny dirt particles scraped my eyes when I blinked. It ground between my teeth and stuck to my tongue when I shook my head. I rubbed my hair furiously to brush it all out. Then I looked around. It wasn't dirt. I had landed in a pile of manure. Dried, crusted, flyblown manure. I spat and gagged, dropped to one knee, and realized that my jeans were now torn in that knee. Finally I looked up. There at the edge of the pen was Barney, beaming. The weed whacker was still

Forgetting my war with the thistles, I focused on my new foe. I grabbed the weed whacker and scaled the fence. I began bashing the beast over the head with the sickle. But I neglected to realize that his head was basically armor plated. In fact, he was relishing the blows. This infuriated me even more. So I cracked him over the skull again. The weed whacker splintered and shattered in two. I was furious. All the while Barney continued to gloat. As I stood there boiling, he finally gave up and turned away, appeased. That was his major tactical error. Instantly I noticed his weak spot. When he sauntered off, I noticed his huge sack of testicles almost dragging on the ground. I seized the advantage. I ran up and kicked with all my fury. It was a direct hit. Right in the balls. The cajones. The family jewels. The nuts. The package. The junk. The nards. The sack. Barney uttered a shriek I have never heard from another male creature before or after. He immediately tottered and then tipped onto his side, legs straight out. Oh my God, I thought, I killed him. His pale tongue hung out from beneath his yellow teeth. His eyes didn't blink. I began to curse even more. Not only was my dad going to be mad that the sickle was broken, but I also didn't even want to imagine what he was going to be when he saw his prize ramblouilett dead. Then I noticed Barney's nostrils ever so faintly flaring up and down. Thank God, I thought, the big bastard is still with us! Then, as if on cue, the familiar crackle and crunch of tires sounded in the driveway. Mom and Dad were back. I quickly stuffed Barney's tongue into his mouth,

grabbed the pieces of the weed whacker, and hauled ass toward the pasture, making up my lie as I ran. Shortly, my parents pulled up to see how the battle was going. "Not good," I said, holding up the broken sickle. To my amazement, Dad said, "that's okay." He pointed to the back of the truck. There was the newly welded sickle for the mower. "Great," I replied. "Boy, the sheep sure don't like this hot weather," Mom began. "Look at Barney over there keeled over from the heat." Dad nodded in agreement. He said, "Kurt, make sure their water troughs are full." It was a miracle. I had gotten away with it. The next summer, I was a year older and burdened with bigger responsibilities. So I was no longer left with mundane tasks to keep me busy and out of trouble; there were more important battles to wage. I was placed in charge of seeding, fertilizing, and cultivating in the spring. Then I did a vast share of mowing the alfalfa and bailing it over the summer. Later I drove our combine during harvest. Finally, Dad relented and paid the state to fly over and drop the herbicide bomb on the thistles. I missed it. I was bailing hay several miles away in a field we were now renting. I only noticed their shriveled husks on my way to and from the fields. That was the last of the thistle

problem. We had another last around that time too. That was the last summer we ever had any ramblouilett lambs, for some reason.