That Time My Sister and I Detasseled*

By Michelle Railey

Everything you wanted to know about detasseling but were too afraid to ask!

My sister and I, as it turned out, had delicate hands. And no patience for flies.

And yet. It being Indiana and we, being pre-teens with much desire for the latest fashions as advertised by Sassy and YM, we signed up to detassel. A summer job for Hoosier kids. Get on the bus at Zero-Early a.m. and ride the combine until dusk, doing some job called detasseling. The rumor is it’s essential for the pollination and therefore the fruiting of the corn.

How bad could it be, we asked, in between singing along with Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, making mix tapes combining Rick Astley and Wang Chung, “Walk the Dinosaur” and “Toy Soldiers.” We are Indiana girls. We can do this.

So my sister and I, we pack our cooler, with Lunchables (totally adequate sustenance for a day in the fields) [1] and Diet Faygos (Frosh and Redpop, some cream soda for late in the afternoon). [2] And we board the yellow school bus, labeled by the name of the farm.

We’ll make money, you betcha. And with plenty of time afterwards to watch Say Anything. Again.

The day is hot. The corn is endless. There are kids there who are made of steel. They don’t have time for your Children of the Corn jokes. By 9 a.m., they do not – do not – give a shit about “Malachi.” They are unimpressed by your Nike saddle-style cheerleading shoes. They brought gloves and they’re ready. By 10 a.m., these kids are looking at our bleeding hands and laughing. They are drinking their water and their Gatorade and I am wishing Faygo had been invented for the purposes of hydration and not pleasure. My sister might have been wishing the same. If I had had any spittle left in my mouth, I would have asked her. I did not.

My hands. The palms of my hands were scratched. My face was sun-burned. My shorts clung to my legs in ways I could never have predicted. There was possibly chafing. There were bugs. And then there were bugs. And some more bugs. And walking, sticky and shaking and interminably, between rows and rows of six-foot tall corn, bathed in bugs.

The first knuckle on the insides of every finger on both hands: rubbed raw. I looked at them in horror. I could see, or so I thought, bone and tendon; lashed naked by endless rows of sturdy Indiana corn, emerald leaves with knife-edges. I still don’t know what a tassel is. I think I’ve pulled some. Not enough to please the 16-year-old screaming at me from the combine. But still. I look at my hands. I think of death. I think of Skeletor. I think of my sister, eating Doritos after school, and watching She-Ra. The Princess of Power would not bow to this. She would look at her bleeding, open fingers and still pull tassels.

I am not She-Ra. I could not possibly care less about Lunchables. Where’s my sister? I want to go home.

Eventually, my sister and I go home. We do not return for Day Two of Detasseling; the part where we took Lunchables instead of gloves [3] is proving our summer income downfall.

We do, indeed, watch Say Anything. My sister and her friend Kim learn how to puncture Dr. Pepper cans with pencils and guzzle them (they do this, considerately, in the bathtub, so as not to make a gloppy, sugary mess in the rest of the house. The shower curtain has drops of candy-like soda, smelling like Lip Smackers lip balm, for weeks).

I sit in my room, on my peach bedspread, and wonder how the summer, so early in, could so possibly have gone so very wrong. And how I will use my hands in the next couple days.

I dreamt, when I was younger, of being Laura Ingalls Wilder. Of being a farm girl, a pioneer girl, indomitable and tough, as sturdy as well water, as the plains, as Indiana corn or Frances Slocum being all strong and Quaker-y and not minding a bit when she’s kidnapped. I am soooo nothing like these things.

Neither is my sister, which is no consolation. If the prairie is calling, our bleeding and exposed fingers can’t answer. We’re not made of sterner stuff.

But the summer is young. If detasseling is impossible, well, we can always read an obscene number of books. We can paint our nails peach and then pink and then iridescent. We can page through the Sears and Penney’s catalogs, looking at clothes and models and daydreaming of having perfect hair, even teeth, perfect legs, and the best, tightest jeans, as we laugh, shaking our hair off our shoulders in front of a very clean locker, holding a pom pom or some color-coordinated books while a hunk in a letter jacket adores us, hygienically, but still. We can set off firecrackers we bought from Village Pantry. We can spend entire evenings weaving friendship bracelets from embroidery floss.

We can dream of being cheerleaders or honor students, pop stars or presidents. 

We can wonder what it would be like to have palms and fingers of titanium, able to withstand any number of corn stalks, making a bazillion dollars pulling tassels from corn.

We can always watch Say Anything. Maybe someday the boombox will be for us, and not Ione Skye. Heck, maybe we can be sorta like Ione Skye.

Summer is forever. Summer is for self-improvement. And learning how to punch a pencil into a Dr. Pepper and chug, chug, chug. Summer is for making sense of what happened in the fall, in the winter, in the past, in the future.

Detasseling? Well, that’s for better people.

Say anything. Our Skeletor hands will heal. Our minds will expand. We’ll draw lots of hearts and globes with Crayola markers in an ’80s palette. We’ll write bad poetry and fight with our sister about clothes. We’ll hitch-kick and pirouette to “Rhythm is Gonna’ Get You” and…we won’t detassel.

We’ll – I’ll – always feel inadequate about that.

And yet, summer and makeovers and the sense that anything other than the damned cornfields is possible….

Adequate. More than adequate.

Tassels aside, you’re okay, kid. It’s a brand-new school year in front of you. Practice your handwriting. Practice your hurkey [4]. Ignore the tassels and get ready for the year when you finally get everything right.

You have a khaki skirt in the closet. Press it.

Remember that Sassy magazine said that pale pink eyeshadow is classy, subdued, and unexpected.

Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” is right around the corner. So limber up.

The world is your oyster. Corn is for other people.

Summer is going. Paint your nails, improve, and prevail. No one will know you screwed up at detasseling if you don’t tell them. So don’ t.

Detasseling? What’s that?

I never did it. Neither did my sister.

Don’t look at my hands. Just don’t look at my hands.


*Fun game: this article doubles as a word search, drinking game or both. Drink/circle the word every time a 1980s pop culture reference is made.

1.) It is entirely possible our mom made us include fruit and sandwiches with our sodas and Lunchables. We were teens and old enough to know better. There’s no excuse.

2.) There were probably some Capri Suns in there, too.

3.) Always listen to your mother. If she says to take gloves, take them.

4.) Fancy cheerleading jump.


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