An unpleasant August memory

Published 6:49 pm Tuesday, August 8, 2017

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following Short Rows is a repeat. It was first published on Aug. 8, 2001. It is republished in honor of August, the culmination of summer.

The corn fodder worm, I’m convinced, was placed on earth to make man more respectful of nature and its surprises. If you’ve never had one fall down your shirt collar, you’ve been deprived of a memorable experience.

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The little caterpillar-like worms abide on corn fodder in late summer, and a person walking through a field of tall corn can shake them loose. Thus dislodged, the colorful little worm has an uncanny knack for finding its antagonist’s neck.

If a fodder worm ever falls down your collar, chances are you’ll know it instantly. The sting, or burn as it’s often called because of the red welt it leaves, is excruciating. I’d just as soon be hit by a wasp.

As youngsters, most of our encounters with these little insects occurred when we were cutting tops in August. It was the last major field chore of summer. “Cutting tops” meant literally cutting corn stalks off above the ears. It was an important part of preserving a corn crop back before the advent of crop-drying equipment.

Corn is now combined in early fall and dried in bins or trailers with forced, warm air. In the mid-20th century, corn was harvested by mechanical pickers which snapped the ear off the stalk. The ears were then stored and fed whole to livestock or later shelled and ground into feed.

Picking corn in that fashion meant the corn had to be thoroughly dried in the field, and that meant harvesting later in the fall. As cornfields awaited harvest, the stalks grew weaker and more vulnerable to hurricanes or the strong winds of northeasters. Cutting the tops above the ear reduced the height of stalks and made the corn less vulnerable to wind damage.

It was such an important part of farming in those days that mechanical top cutters were built, but many farmers stuck to long, sharp knives, wielded by a crew of workers. A half dozen or more people would walk through the field, swinging their knives at corn stalks as they went. It was a fascinating site, as corn tops dropped, leaving a field with an unnatural but neat appearance, something akin to a crewcut.

Impromptu races would often develop, something you rarely saw when chopping peanuts. That probably had something to do with the fact that tops were generally cut by men and boys, and wielding knives has always held a certain fascination for we males. It also had to do with the fact that you could cheat while chopping peanuts by overlooking grass and weeds, but not while cutting tops. The row behind was either neatly clipped or not.

But despite all those sharp knives swinging at breakneck speed, it was rare that anyone ever got hurt.

There’s a lot to miss about farm life, but cutting tops isn’t one of them. Neither is the sting of the fodder worm.