The wind was hot as I sat on the edge of the tractor seat.
I held on with dear life as we rambled along on the bumpy surface of the hayfield — but I knew I wouldn’t fall or get hurt because there was that other hand hanging onto me.
I smiled at the tractor’s driver and giggled as he said I was going to “lose my cookies.”
He smiled back. He didn’t say any more. I just knew I was safe and in good hands. So did my younger brother, Terry, who was on the other side of the seat.
Between us sat our “part-time big brother.” His name was Joey. We were just kids, but he was nearly a man. He had become part of our family over time — working for my dad on the farm.
Mom had no problem with us being on the International with Joey. She trusted him — or at least that’s what she always told him as we climbed on to ride along.
So, at that moment, I stared at him. He didn’t look like the rest of us. He was nearly white-blond, really thin . . . . nearly skinny. He had a smile that resonated like the sun and a quiet calmness about him that was far overridden by our constant noise.
As we got off the tractor, I said, “Thanks for the ride, Joey.”
He grinned, waved and drove away, into a cloud of hot dust.
That’s when I woke up.
Last night, I was startled to have that dream. As I laid there in the dark, I remembered when we still had Joey, our only big brother, although on a part-time basis.
I’m the oldest of my seven-child family. Terry and I are so close in age, we were nearly twins, being only nine months or so apart. So you can imagine our thrill when Joey Thiele came into our lives.
At seven and eight, we were enthralled with this tall, lanky teenager when our dad introduced us at the supper table. He said Joey was going to be helping out, putting up hay, doing chores, moving pipe.
Joey’s real parents, Vince and Marie Thiele, lived just down the road. I didn’t know much about their family at the time — except they had the best candy at Halloween, the best lights at Christmas. And, they were the people who shared their son with us, our “new big brother,” he’d say.
Joey’s employment started as summer help. But it gradually extended into the school year, because I remember him coming to help work cattle, with vaccinations, branding, ear-tagging and all that goes with raising livestock.
While he didn’t necessarily live with us, it seemed he was with us all the time. As the massive Mueller clan congregated around the table — he’d find a place on a side bench with the rest of us, always to the right of my father who sat at one head of the table, my mother with the high chair at the other.
Joey was a good natured guy — he laughed at my dad’s jokes, told my mom she made great fried chicken. He was a ferocious tickler — we’d beg him to do it any time he was around. Dad would often scold, telling us to leave the poor kid alone — he was tired after fixing fence or hauling things to the pasture.
But we always knew a way to get Joey riled up — it was simple, really. After we had eaten, one of us would crawl under the table, grab Joey’s pliers from his pocket while the others distracted. And then we’d go for his sensitive spot — that darn “outie” bellybutton of his.
None of us had ever seen anything like it. During the summer, when it was really hot, he and my dad would often work without shirts, so it was more than obvious that his bellybutton was something records were made of. We all had “in-buttons” — he clearly came from another planet, we’d tease.
He didn’t care — I think he enjoyed having so many young ones around. He was the youngest in his own large, Catholic family — so maybe it was a nice change of pace to be the oldest, if even for a little while.
Joey meant something to each of us.
He was a strong guy who could carry heavy feed to the chicken coop for my mom, while asking her about the flowers that the rest of us often took for granted. His favorites were marigolds.
He was someone my dad could talk to who wasn’t in diapers or afraid to hold the gate. As Joey aged, to the wonderful period of being 17, I’d often hear him and my father talk about girls and dating and all that stuff that only teenage boys and former teenage boys know anything about.
He was kind to my grandparents, complimenting Grandma Onie on her roast although it was always drier than the Sahara, and telling Grandpa Andy his car “was really something,” although it was an old Plymouth that hadn’t gone over 35 mph in years.
He was more than cool to us kids. We looked up to him, he cared for us.
So Vetch Days approached — the annual town celebration in Elgin. While we, the little kids, looked forward to the carnival, Joey was looking forward to going to the teen dance. Dad gave him tips on how to ask girls to dance, while my mother told him to stay out of it “because he really wasn’t that good at it, until he met her.”
We went to the carnival one night — and the next day, everyone hurriedly worked to put up another field of hay because rain was looming, according to the forecast. They’d already cut down an acreage of alfalfa that was now ready to go. To have it rained on — that would be a disaster, my father said.
So they got up early and started right in. We took them water and sandwiches — the cycle never stopped. Joey and Mom raked up the windrows, Grandpa helped move the cage and Dad used the loader to fill that tall cylinder they used back in the day.
For hours and hours, they worked to put up the hay. Early that evening, Dad suddenly remembered that Joey’s dance was that night — and told him to go ahead and leave. Joey, being the diligent worker and ultimately faithful friend, told his mentor he could stay as late as necessary.
“It’s just a stupid dance,” Joey said.
Dad finally insisted that he go. As if he were Joey’s father, he instructed him on what to do and not to do.
“Take a nap quick,” I remember Dad saying, the recollection as clear in my mind today as it was that sultry June day. “You’ve been hard at it all day and I don’t want you to fall asleep on the way home.
“We don’t have time for funerals around here,” my dad joked, with Joey laughing and promising that he’d get some shut-eye before heading to town.
The next morning, I heard the back door of the house open. By the looks of the light outside, it was much too early for Dad to be done milking. I heard his work boots clump down the hallway to where Mom was still sleeping. He went inside and shut the door.
As I laid there, in the bottom bunk, I could hear their muffled voices. I could hear my mother cry out and my father begin to sob. Horrified, I laid as still as I could. And then I heard my father utter the words I’d hear him say many times over in the remaining years of his life.
“I can’t believe I said that to him,” he said, crying. I couldn’t understand my mother’s response.
“This is all my fault,” he said, in a voice that didn’t sound like my father whatsoever. “If we hadn’t worked so long yesterday, if I hadn’t said that. I didn’t mean it, I didn’t . . .”
Twenty minutes later, my mother came into the room. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she asked me to move to the couch.
“You’ll have to watch the kids for awhile, your dad needs me to help finish milking,” she said.
I asked what was wrong, she said we’d talk about it when she got back.
I grabbed my blanket and didn’t dare look down the hallway when my father emerged from the bathroom. I didn’t want to see — I didn’t want to know.
A couple of hours later, as us kids sat around the kitchen table eating cereal, Mom walked up the sidewalk and took off her overshoes. She sat down at the table and gently told us that something sad had happened to Joey.
“He’s not going to be coming back,” she said, trying not to cry. “He’s in heaven.”
I guess I could accept that — I’d seen the Bible pictures and it looked like a nice place.
“Daddy went to his house, to talk to his mom and dad,” she said. “They’re really sad right now, too.”
Days later, I sat in our St. John’s Church, among a bunch of other people crying into their Kleenexes. There was a strange box at the front of the church — Grandma said it was called a casket.
As I sat there in silence, my eight-year-old feet dangling above the floor, I heard the women behind me say no one knew what caused the accident.
“His car just rolled, just north of the eight-mile corner,” one said. “It was already on fire when they got there and no one could get him out.”
I never did ask anyone about what exactly happened to Joey — my young ears had already accidentally heard too much. Besides, I preferred imagining him in the place visually depicted in the back of Grandma’s Bible.
All I physically knew was that Joey was no longer at the dinner table, there were no more rides with our blond big brother on the International. Mom’s marigolds were monstrous the next summer, although no one really commented on them any longer.
I think my father harbored guilt over it all, although it wasn’t his fault. I’d hear him ask my mom, “What if he fell asleep? What if he was too tired?”
I hope he eventually accepted the fact that it was just Joey’s time.
A number of years passed. My memory of Joey didn’t fade — the instances just became less frequent. Then came the first time I chose to go to the cemetery to visit my father’s grave with Mom. After the initial shock of being there wore off, I happened to look at the grave next to Dad’s, just to the south.
The words etched into the single stone said “Joey Thiele.”
“Mom,” I whispered and pointed.
“I know,” she said, putting her arm around me. “After all, he was like our son. He was like your big brother. It only made sense that your Dad would be buried next to him. We were family.”
And so we were.
I’m thankful for the tractor rides, the laughter. He was our only big brother, always will be, even if it was on a part-time basis.