"The Experiment"

I stood back and looked at the door of the round, white, wooden granary. The granary was almost full of soybeans, but I knew Dad had put plywood in front of the door so that when the door was open, the soybeans wouldn’t spill out. The question was — to get the soybeans, could I climb up on the staves and reach over the plywood — or would I have to climb over the plywood and go into the granary? But if I went into the granary, an even bigger question was — could I get out again?

Whether I ended up reaching into the granary or going over the plywood really didn’t matter. My mother had told me to get some soybeans, so I knew I had to try.

The sky was the dull gray color of the cement floor in the milkhouse, and a raw, damp wind blew out of the south. I knew the wind was out of the south because it was coming from t.he direction of the church, and I knew the church was south of our farm. The little white granary stood next to the garage. The driveway circled past the house, the machine shed, the big granary, the barn, the little granary and the garage. In back of the round wooden granary was the large silver maple that shaded the gas barrel. The silver maple had long since dropped its leaves, and the bare branches rattled in the wind, sounding like teeth clicking together.

I pulled the collar of my coat closer around my neck. We didn’t have any snow yet, but Dad said it might not be long until the ground was white.

I stepped forward and reached for the short piece of two-by-four that Dad had nailed to the granary so it formed a latch to hold the door shut. I turned the piece of wood until it was straight up and down, and then I grabbed the spike Dad had hammered into the door to act as handle. My father had built the granary during the summer a few years ago, and when he had finished putting up the boards and shingling the roof, I had helped him paint it white. All of our farm buildings were white: the house, the barn, the garage, the big granary, the corncribs.

Painting, as I had discovered, was not only easy, it was also fun. Dip the brush into the coffee can of paint Dad had gotten ready for me and then move the brush up and down and back and forth. Dip the brush into the paint again and move it up and down and back and forth. When we were finished, Dad said I had saved him a lot of work and that he wouldn’t have completed the job nearly so fast without my help.

A sudden gust of wind blew around the garage and rattled the branches of the silver maple again. I hadn’t come out here to think about how much fun it had been to paint the granary. With the saucepan Mom had given me in one hand, I pulled open the granary door with the other, grasped the doorframe and hauled myself up onto the first section. The bottom part of the round granary was like the front part of a silo where it had square openings, and from here, I could almost see over the plywood.

And then, just as I was about to pull myself up farther, I remembered what Dad said.

When my father had finished unloading soybeans a few weeks ago, he had told me I must never go into the round granary. “Now that the granary is full of soybeans, I don’t want you climbing around in there. The soybeans might not hold you,” he’d said.

“What do you mean?” I had asked.

“They’re like quicksand. You could sink and be covered up and suffocate,” Dad explained.

“What does that mean? Suffocate?”

“It means you can’t breathe. And if you can’t breathe, and you can’t get out, you might die,” he’d said.

Oh, great. I would have to remember what Dad said about the granary. Mom told me to get soybeans, but if I couldn’t go right into the granary and if I couldn’t reach them from the door, how was I going to get them? I knew Dad wouldn’t say something like that about suffocating for the fun of it. He was always careful around the farm and made sure he shut off the tractor when he had to work on the hay baler or the corn picker or the combine, so the machinery wouldn’t accidentally start up when he had his arms and hands inside.

I thought about my promise to Dad for a few moments, then I unzipped my coat and tucked the saucepan down the front. I grabbed hold of the doorframe with both hands and pulled myself up on the next stave. Now I could see over the top of the plywood. The little granary was almost full of soybeans.

I leaned over the plywood and stretched out my hand.

I. . .could. . .almost. . .touch. . .the. . .soybeans. . .and. . .maybe. . .if. . .I stretched. . .a. . . bit farther. . .

But it was no good. I couldn’t quite reach —

No, wait! Maybe I could reach the soybeans. The saucepan had a handle on it, and the length of the handle might be enough.

I pulled the saucepan out of my coat, grasped the end of the handle, and reached into the granary. The edge of the pan rested against the soybeans, and I discovered that if I wiggled the pan back and forth, soybeans would roll over the edge. If I kept doing this for long enough, maybe I would end up with enough soybeans.

As I lifted the nearly-full pan of soybeans out of the granary, I heard footsteps on the blacktop behind me.

“What are you doing up there?” Dad asked.

I turned to look at him.

“You weren’t thinking about going into the granary, were you?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No, I wasn’t going to go into the granary. I’m getting some soybeans,” I said.

My father peered up at me from beneath his chore cap. “I can see you’re getting soybeans. What I want to know is why are you getting soybeans.”

I held the pan toward him. “Here,” I said.

Dad took the pan from me. “Good crop of soybeans this year,” he said, as he stirred the beans with one finger.

After a last look around from what I imagined it would be like to be a very tall person, I grabbed the doorframe and lowered myself onto the next stave.

“You still haven’t told me what these are for, you know,” Dad said.

“An experiment,” I said.

“Oh, I see,” Dad replied. “They’re for school.”

I stepped down to the ground and turned toward my father. “No, not for school. For Mom.”

Dad stopped stirring the soybeans. “What?”

“They’re for Mom. She wants to try an experiment. She’s going to bake them.”

I liked experiments. We did experiments in science class at school. Just the other day, we had taken dull, dark-brown pennies and had rubbed them with salt. The salt had turned the pennies bright and shiny again.

“Ma’s going to do what?”

“Bake the soybeans. Like baked beans. Mom says soybeans are very nutritious.”

Dad handed the pan back to me.

“She read all about it in the newspaper,” I explained.

That’s what my mother had said when she told me to get the soybeans — that she had read an article in the newspaper about how nutritious soybeans were and how you could bake them and make baked beans.

“We’ve got a whole granary full, so I want to try it,” she’d said. Mom made baked beans sometimes, but before this, she had used white beans she bought at the store. She said they were called Great Northern Beans.

“I know soybeans are nutritious,” Dad said. “For cows, anyway. If we’ve got plenty, I like to mix them with the corn and oats when I go to the feed mill. Soybeans are high in protein.”

About once a week, Dad would load up the pickup truck and go into town to the feed mill to make ground feed for the cows. During the summer, I went to the feed mill with Dad all the time, but after school started, I wasn’t able to go to with him anymore.

“I suppose it would be interesting to see how the baked soybeans turn out,” Dad said.

“I’m going to take these to the house,” I said.

“And I’ve got to feed the cows,” Dad said.

On my way back to the house, I studied the soybeans in the pan. They were round and light brown like the color of the eggs we bought from a neighbor — and had tiny black dots on one end.

Each spring, Dad planted soybeans in one field or another, and many times when we were driving around with the pickup truck to check the crops, we stopped at the soybean field. Dad would eat a few of the beans to see how well they were ripening, and the first time I tasted raw soybeans, I was surprised to find they reminded me of peanuts. Dad said the reason soybeans tasted like peanuts was because peanuts and soybeans are both legumes. When I had asked what legumes were, he said legumes were plants that put nitrogen back into the soil. He didn’t have to explain about nitrogen. I knew what nitrogen was — nitrogen was fertilizer.

When I walked into the kitchen, Mom asked me to put the pan in the sink.

“I’m going to wash the soybeans,” she explained, “and then I’m going to boil them and let them sit overnight.”

“When will they be ready to eat?” I asked.

“I’ll bake them tomorrow. We’ll have them for supper tomorrow night,” Mom said.

I was pretty sure my mother would not let me stay home from school so I could watch the soybeans bake.

“But Mom, if you bake them tomorrow, I won’t be here for the experiment!”

“Yes, you will,” she said. “For the best part, anyway. Eating them.”

The next afternoon as the school bus went up and down hills and around curves, I kept thinking about the soybeans and Mom’s experiment. My mother’s regular baked beans were sweet. She added plenty of molasses, brown sugar and some onion and bacon for flavor.

The school bus stopped at the end of our driveway, and I climbed down the steps and headed up the hill. I figured there wasn’t much of a reason to hurry. The baked soybeans probably wouldn’t be ready to eat until supper, anyway, although there was a slim chance they might be done and sitting in the oven to stay warm.

As soon as I opened the porch door, I could smell the soybeans. The scent grew stronger when I opened the kitchen door. The air was thick with the aroma of molasses and onion and bacon. That’s how Dad described an odor, by saying the air was ‘thick with it’ — pine trees warmed by the sun, blackberries blossoming around the big wooded hill behind the barn, or gasoline that spilled over while he was filling the tractor.

Through the doorway connecting to the living room, I could see Mom sitting by the picture window, working on her embroidery.

I set my books on the table and went into the living room.

“Is your experiment done yet?” I asked.

Mom shook her head as she tied off a section of embroidery floss. “The beans will have to bake for a while longer, until supper.”

Sometimes when Mom made baked beans, she would let me taste them even though they still were not quite finished baking. A small dish of baked beans with a bit of butter and some crumbled Saltine crackers on top sounded really good right about now.

“Can I taste them?” I asked.

My mother paused as she thought about my request. “No. I want them to be a surprise for all of us. If you’re really hungry, and I suppose you are because you usually are when you come home from school, there’s still some of those oatmeal cookies left.”

After I had changed my clothes, eaten my cookies and had gone out to the pasture to pet Dusty, I went to the barn. The cows were already in their stanchions, and Dad was working on giving one or two more scoops of feed to the cows that milked the heaviest.

“Hi-ya kiddo,” Dad said. “What’s the news about the baked soybeans?”

“They’re not done yet,” I said.

“Well, then,” Dad said, “I guess we’ll just have to wait until suppertime to find out, won’t we.”

While my father went up to the haymow to throw down hay for the cows, I walked along in front of the stanchions with a broom to push in the feed that the cows had swept out of reach with their tongues.

By the time we finished feeding hay, my stomach was as empty as the bulk tank after the milk hauler pumped out the milk, and I thought it was possible I could eat the whole casserole of baked soybeans myself.

When Dad and I came into the kitchen, I saw right away that Mom had already set the casserole dish of baked beans in the middle of the table. I bent toward the dish to get a closer look, but the cover was still on, so I couldn’t tell much.

Besides baked soybeans, Mom had made fried potatoes, fried ham (we’d ham for Sunday dinner) and green beans that we had grown in our garden last summer.

My mother waited until Dad and I were sitting at the table before taking the cover off the baked soybeans.

“Well,” she said, reaching for a serving spoon that sat beside the casserole dish, “let’s see how these turned out.”

Mom dipped the spoon into the baked soybeans. She lifted the spoon and dipped it into the dish several times. Then she frowned.

“These beans still didn’t absorb very much liquid,” she said. “I thought they would. They’ve been baking all day.”

Each time Mom dipped the spoon into the beans and lifted it, hot syrup made of molasses and brown sugar dripped off the spoon. Instead of stirring baked beans, it looked as if she were stirring soup.

I glanced at Dad, and he lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

“And look at those soybeans,” she said.

I leaned forward. Regular baked beans turned brown, like the caramels wrapped in cellophane Dad bought at the grocery store. The soybeans were almost the same color as they were when I brought them in the house yesterday.

“That’s what I thought would happen,” Dad said. “Soybeans have a lot of oil in them, so I suppose that’s why they didn’t soak up as much molasses and brown sugar.”

My mother looked at Dad, eyes narrowed. “Oil? How come you didn’t say anything about oil before this?” Dad shook his head. “You never asked.”

My mother threw a withering look in Dad’s direction, sat down and folded her hands. I folded my hands, too, and Dad bowed his head. “By thy goodness, all are fed, we thank the Lord for daily bread. Amen,” Mom prayed.

My mother reached for the spoon and put a spoonful of soybeans on my plate. She waited for Dad to spoon some onto his plate and then put a spoonful on her own plate.

“Mmmmm,” Dad said after he had tasted a forkful. “These are pretty good.”

“Yeah, Mom. These are good,” I said.

My mother finished chewing a forkful of beans. “They don’t taste much like baked beans,” she said, “but they do have kind of a nutty flavor.”

“Like peanuts,” I said.

“I can’t figure it out, though,” Mom said, stirring the beans on her plate with her fork.

“What’s that?” Dad asked.

“The article in the newspaper said soybeans would bake just like regular beans and that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

Dad reached for the bowl of fried potatoes. “Maybe it depends upon the soybeans,” he said.

“What about them?” Mom asked as she passed the bowl of green beans to me.

“This is the best crop of soybeans we’ve had in years,” Dad said.

“Are you saying our soybeans are better than the ones they used to test the recipe for the newspaper?” Mom asked.

“I don’t know if they’re better,” Dad said, “but maybe ours have more oil.”

“How do you know they tested the recipe?” I asked.

“She’s got a point,” Dad replied. “They might’ve just figured all beans would be the same.”

My mother wasn’t quite smiling, but she looked happier than she did a few minutes ago. “I guess I never thought of that,” she said.

In the end, my mother decided the experiment was a failure and that she wouldn’t make baked soybeans again.

Personally, though, I didn’t think Mom’s experiment was a failure. After all, if my mother hadn’t tried it, then I wouldn’t have found out baked soybeans taste as good as they do fresh from the field.

And isn’t that what experiments are all about? Learning something you didn’t know before?

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