Seeds of Destruction
Before I tell you about the corn seeds, I have to tell you it doesn’t take much to shake up a little town like Bedford. I should know because I work in the bursar’s office of the County Courthouse. It might seem odd to some that the county courthouse is in Bedford, which has a population of only 1,280, surrounded by miles and miles of open fields and corn, mostly owned by conglomerates making ethanol. But considering that the nearest towns over—Clearfield, Hopkins, and Lenox—are each more than ten miles away, with nothing to show for themselves but water towers bearing their names—you could see how Bedford might qualify as the center of civilization. (If none of these towns sound familiar to you, you’re probably not from Iowa!)
Bedford’s not like it was a couple of decades ago, though, when everybody around was farming, and the grain mill down the street was always busy. Not like when you couldn’t walk the block around the courthouse square without getting sucked into a half-dozen conversations. Not like when the lunch counters on the square were always thick with the smell of coffee, cigarette smoke, and chat.
Ten years ago, the hotel in town—the only for thirty miles around—caved in, and you could look inside and see really nice wood furniture and a baby grand piano, but nobody bothered to fix it. Why would they? Who was going to stay there? I was surprised that everything inside was still there, but who would loot it, and why?
Okay, I forgot to mention that there is also the Whip-Or-Will Motel, now run by a nice Indian couple. When the smaller farms disappeared, nature moved in, and we had a lot of quail and deer to shoot at, so the Whip-Or-Will got a lot of hunters from Des Moines and Kansas City. It got so messy and disgusting at the motel that the Indians finally had to put up a sign telling them not to track mud in, let the dogs sleep in the room, or—get this—clean their game inside their motel room. Can you imagine?
Nobody in Bedford really knows their neighbors anymore. Most of the older people are now in assisted living in Maryville. There are many Mexicans who work the farms, and while I've got nothing against Mexicans, I don't know Spanish. Most of the younger people who grew up here have moved out, except for a few who drive down to Maryville for work. The ones who don’t work—well, no one knows much about them, but there are rumors that they’re using and selling crystal meth, which might help explain all the cars with out-of-state license plates cruising the alleys at night. Bedford has turned into the kind of town that, if you went outside after dark (and why would you and where would you go, anyway?) and you saw a stranger on the sidewalk, you’d just cross the street and keep walking without looking back. Not really scary, just sad.
So, back to the story in progress: When I got home one evening, my husband Earl wasn’t where he usually was, which was on the front porch, drinking beer. As I was putting my purse down on the kitchen table, I looked out the back window to see him out in the backyard, digging up the turf and wheezing and sweating so hard I thought he'd like as have a heart attack. I made him quit and sit down on the front porch while I brought him a beer and a tall glass of water. “What on earth are you doing?” I asked.
Once he could catch a breath, he said, “A box of free corn seeds come in the mail.”
“Where from?” I asked.
“I don’t know exactly who sent it, but it come from a warehouse in Omaha. The great thing is they didn’t cost me a cent. And you know what else is funny? They spelled the corn c-o-m as if they just scanned the word into a computer or something. Anyway, I’m gonna go ahead and plant them. I thought as long as I’m retired, I might as well do something productive.”
After he was laid off as manager at the grain store many years ago, Earl had been the head of the Department of Public Works. He didn’t do that much at the DPW except make sure his workers actually showed up for work, they pulled weeds from the cracks in the sidewalk and mowed the courthouse lawn and all that, but it gave him a sense of purpose that he’d been missing. But eventually, he retired from that, too.
So, I just told him to take it easy, drink plenty of water, and take frequent breaks in the bedroom in front of the AC. Inside of a few days, he had the backyard all dug up, a few days later, it was all tilled, and a few days after that, he had all the seeds planted in rows, and the backyard smelled of fertilizer. It wasn't my favorite smell, but growing up in Iowa, I'd had a long time to get used to it, and besides, it was a small price to pay to give Earl something to do.
The stalks started showing up a few weeks longer—much sooner than expected, and they grew like they were in an awful hurry. I told him those must be some helluva seeds he got there, and he grinned. "Now, if only the damn stalks would stay put where I planted them!”
“What do you mean?”
He swatted the question away and said, “If I told you, you’d think I was crazy!”
“Too late! I already think you’re crazy! I've been waiting for years for the guys in white coats from Clarendon to come after you with butterfly nets!” (For those of you who don’t know the area that well, Clarendon is where the nearest “hospital” is!)
Now, things can’t keep going that well without something coming along and spoiling it. This time it was an electronic notice that went to the courthouse from the United States Department of Agriculture. Wouldn’t you know it? And it was all so official: “Iowa citizens are warned not to plant any seeds from unidentified sources that arrive by mail. Such seeds, some of which appear to be sent by other nations hostile to our country, are potentially dangerous and should be reported to the USDA immediately.”
I went out for a quick lunch at the Junction with my friend Elise, one of the county clerks who went to college down in Maryville, where she studied agriculture. As we nibbled at our BLTs, I tried to figure out the best way to bring it up.
I looked around to make sure nobody was listening, and wouldn't you know, Ansel Phillips was two tables over. Ansel's ears stick way out—I swear to God it's on purpose because he doesn’t want to miss anything—and he could spread news faster than the Internet. But like most people at the Junction, he was too busy flapping his gums to listen to anyone else, so I leaned into Elise and asked her, “Did you get that memo from the Department of Agriculture?”
She said, “Sue Ann, I get memos from the Department of Agriculture all the time in my line of work. To which one are you referring?”
I took a print-out of the memo from my purse and handed it to her. She lifted her glasses, which were hanging around her neck on a pearl chain, and carefully rested them on the bridge of her nose. She read it over for a few minutes. It’s not like she’s a slow reader. It’s just that she reads everything very carefully.
As she took her glasses off, I asked, “Do you think the seeds are poisonous or something?”
“Maybe,” she said, “But most likely they’re worried about spreading some kind of plant blight or maybe disrupting the eco-system.” When I gave her a frown (English, please!), she said, “You know, like bittersweet—the way it spreads all over and chokes out the other plants. Now, with genetic engineering, they could probably make something even worse. If another country wished us harm, that would be a good way to do it.”
“Earl already planted the seeds. What should I do?”
“I would definitely contact the USDA and tell them what happened.”
“Do you think Earl and I would get into trouble?”
“I hardly think so,” she said. “After all, neither of you knew.”
“Be that as it may, Earl will be furious.”
“I’ll contact the USDA for you—that way, you're off the hook."
I thought about it and then said, "It'll still break his heart.”
“Look, we can buy him some new seeds. I’ll give the USDA a call this afternoon, and then it'll be over with."
I figured they'd mail a warning, and, with any luck, I could intercept it before Earl got at it and break the news to him gently.
When I first heard the choppers, around 10 o’clock that night, I thought it was just the death rattle of our AC unit. It was followed by searchlights that were so powerful they lit up the living room like it was noon. Earl went out on the front patio in his boxers, and the wind from the chopper blades made his comb-over flap around. I came out, too, and had to tie the belt around my bathrobe to keep it from flopping open or coming off completely. Once I could keep the hair out of my eyes for a second, I saw the first helicopter come down in the middle of Wyndham Street, kicking up enough wind to create a dust storm and knock over some of the trash cans on the street. I could see the letters “USDA” on its side as clear as day. But they were just the beginning.
The Jeeps, trucks, and—God help me—the tanks had the letters too. They all screeched to a halt wherever they could find room. Dozens of young men in fatigues and wearing shielded helmets and gas masks jumped out at once. An older man in a black uniform and black cap with a megaphone called out, “This is an emergency! Everyone clear out immediately!” Earl and I backed up a ways, but he was in his boxers, and I was in my bathrobe, and where the hell were we gonna go?
House lights clicked on all over the neighborhood, and people started stumbling out onto their porches, rubbing their bleary eyes.
"Put those sandbags around the perimeter—just outside the fence!" the man with the megaphone called out and soldiers wearing a vest that said "USDA Task Force" grabbed a bunch of them out of a truck.
Other soldiers with what looked like leaf blowers jumped out the back of an armored truck and ran, single file, to the backyard fence. Once the guys were done laying down the sandbags and had moved away, the man with the megaphone called out, “Commence firing!”
They were flamethrowers is what they were. As soon as they torched some of the nearest cornstalks, we heard a terrible screeching sound, and in one sickening moment, I realized it was coming from the cornstalks. (I can’t stand the screeching of any animal in pain, but it’s even more upsetting to hear cornstalks screeching like that!) Then one of the men with the flamethrowers backed up, holding his face. “They’re spitting acid!” the man with the megaphone called out. “Let’s step it up before anyone else gets hurt!”
What followed was the likes of which I have never seen. They continued to torch the corn stalks, which had somehow unrooted themselves and backed up against the fence, still screeching like crows from hell. More USDA agents poured in with machine guns, and their gunfire turned the cornstalks to little green ribbons, which all seemed to have a mind of their own and scrambled in every direction. The flamethrowers turned the green ribbons into ashes, and they stopped moving. It sounded like a war zone, which I guess it was.
I was expecting Earl to be devastated, but instead, he watched with his mouth and eyes wide open like a little kid. "I've lived here for seventy years, and I ain't seen nothing like this!"
A few of the corn stalks got loose from the yard and started down Wyndham Street, but some more men with flamethrowers torched them before they could get very far.
When it was all over, the backyard was black and smoldering, and the smell was disgusting, like chicken soup left on the stove too long. The house was still standing, but it was scorched around the edges. By now, everyone was out on the street staring and whispering to each other. (I could only guess what was going through the meth heads’ minds!)
The man with the megaphone came up to us, lowered it, and said, “Sorry about the craziness and inconvenience, but you can see what we’re dealing with. I would stay inside if I were you, in case any of the plants survived. Here’s my card. Please don’t hesitate to call if you spot any more of these things. You might also need it when talking with your insurance agent because sometimes they have trouble believing some of these claims."
“How widespread is it?” I asked.
He pointed to faraway lights in several directions that looked and sounded like Fourth of July fireworks. “All over. We’ve had similar incidents in Clearwater, Hopkins, and Lenox—even as far away as Maryville. Those are just some of the other towns that were hit. The whole state’s a disaster area.”
“Well, God bless you for saving us!” I said. “I’m so glad somebody still cares about us and has got our back!”
He cleared his throat and looked embarrassed. I thought he was just humble until he said: “We only did what we were hired to do—protect billions of dollars in crops in the state of Iowa.”
As what he said was sinking in, he pinched the visor of his black cap—a holdover from the days when men used to tip their hats—and said, “Have a safe night, Ma’am.”
About the Author
Rob Dinsmoor, a frequent contributor to Lowestoft Chronicle, has published three memoirs: Tales of the Troupe, The Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime. His short story collection, Toxic Cookout, was recently published by Big Table Publishing.