SEWARD — Micah Quirie makes his way down a Seward County cornfield, seed cap shadowed by Nebraska’s biggest cash crop.
He’s pulling tassels, helping create next season’s hybrids. Moving along the endless row in mud-caked soccer shoes and a backpack filled with water that he sips from a tube.
There is singing in the rows nearby. And shouting in the distance. The rustle of stalks as dozens of bodies jostle for space. Sun and bugs and far-off crop dusters.
Micah answers questions about how he got here as I tail him through the muck.
“Well, I was born in China in a farming community and I was born with one arm,” he says.
The 13-year-old pulls another tassel. And another and another.
“So they left me at a gas station and a policeman found me and took me to an orphanage.”
I take notes, dodging ruts and sharp-edged leaves shaped like swords.
Dodging tassels tossed with a strong left hand.
“Then I got adopted and now I am here farming.”
* * *
Micah will start eighth grade at Mickle Middle School in a few weeks with a pocket full of cash and his first summer job behind him.
“It really isn’t physically hard,” he says Thursday morning. “It’s more like mentally tiring.”
Boring, he says.
But the pay is good.
“And it’s not like we’re doing mile-long rows today, those are horrible.”
Back in March, Micah filled out an online application at NATS Detasseling.
He fit the outfit’s acronym: Not Afraid to Sweat.
And he wasn’t afraid of the hard work, either, or the heat, or the hours. He didn’t even mind getting up at 4 a.m. to catch the bus to the fields.
“I usually wake up early anyway, so I don’t mind.”
After Micah was offered a job, he attended orientation, listening as Dawn Buell explained the work. What to expect. What to wear. What to do to succeed.
Then it was over, but his mom still had a question.
“She wanted to go ask if you needed two hands,” Micah says. “It was super awkward.”
Buell has been in the detasseling business 21 years. She knows some outfits look for the tall kids who can more easily pluck the top tassels, but her philosophy has always been to look for character and attitude over physical attributes.
She’d never had a kid detasseling with one arm.
She remembers the mother and son approaching that night, the empty shirt sleeve.
“My brain was going, ‘I don’t know. Is this going to put him at a disadvantage? Is it going to set him up to fail?’ I can’t do that.”
She looked at Micah’s mom and then at Micah. She thought about the thousands of kids who’d worked for her in the cornfields, the hustlers yanking tassels with two hands as they walked the rows.
“I looked at his eyes and I knew, this kid wants to do this.”
She opened her mouth: Happy to have you.
* * *
It came up more when he was younger, Micah says.
Curious classmates wondering what happened.
“My dad always wants me to make up stories, like a shark bit it off. Or I was working in a fireworks stand in China and it got blew off.”
Micah laughs about that. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why he was born missing his arm. Maybe a syndrome where a limb becomes attached to the uterine wall and never develops. Maybe his birth mom took thalidomide.
Not that it matters.
Micah plays soccer and video games, hangs out with his friends. He’s a good student. He has a dry wit.
His dad, David, works at Lowe’s; his mom works at a community learning center. He has an 11-year-old sister, Adria.
Adria is his first memory: Flying across the ocean and bringing her home from Vietnam.
Micah was 13 months old when his parents went to China to complete his adoption. Sheri was adopted, too, so when the couple couldn’t conceive, deciding to become parents through Holt International instead of trying fertility treatments was easy, she says.
The first photos they received from their agency social worker featured a 5-month-old boy dressed in pink, grinning and missing his right arm.
“Obviously, that didn’t matter to us.”
They toured the Jiangxi Province where that little boy was born, the landscape filled with rice paddies where farmers eked out a living.
They signed all the papers to adopt a baby left at a gas station, his umbilical cord still attached.
Later, they headed to a temple, walking past beggars on the sidewalk, men with physical differences — a missing leg, a missing arm, facial deformities, large birthmarks.
“It was in that moment, when I was carrying my son who had a visible, physical difference, that it really sunk in that he wouldn’t have to ever go through that,” Sheri wrote in her blog this summer. “Joining our family and becoming ours was giving him a chance to be himself, even with only one hand.”
They arrived back in Lincoln on Dec. 24, 2005.
“We always say he was the best stocking stuffer ever.”
When he learned to walk, Micah fell on his face more than once with no second arm for balance or to help catch himself. Black-eyed and bloody-nosed, he'd try again.
“Can’t was a word he never got to use. He knew he needed to figure out how to do things.”
He did. When Micah was in elementary school, he wanted to swing from the monkey bars, so they had him fitted for a prosthetic arm. But it was more hassle than it was worth.
For years, he attended a sports camp for “limb-different kids,” Sheri says, taught by coaches who also have limb differences.
When Micah told his coach he couldn’t come this year, the coach celebrated his player’s summer job.
“He said, ‘Go shine. The attention might be uncomfortable, but you might inspire them in a way that surprises you.’”
* * *
Micah is a member of Squad One on Thursday.
Four detasselers and a squad leader.
His bus driver is yelling at all the squads to line up and get ready for the next round — a half-mile pass down one row and a half-mile pass back the other way.
“Hustle your pails, Guys! Let’s go, let’s go.”
Everybody heads down the rows together, easier to keep track of so many bodies, Buell says. “It’s like a demented summer camp.”
While they wait for stragglers, Micah gets a high-five from a squad mate. And a “secret handshake” that involves some sort of adolescent humor.
“You guys are doing a fantabulous job,” says Squad One leader Aiden Rousseau.
It’s a pleasant morning. A little mud and muck. The end in sight.
Buell rents out Star City Shores every August for an end-of-detasseling celebration. She’s got a gallon Yeti jug at the trophy shop right now with Micah’s name on it. Detasseler of the Year.
He deserves it, she says.
“When his mom told me the back story I thought, ‘Man, this is redemption.’”
But it’s more than that: Diligence. Attitude. Skill. Hustle.
“He’s already talking about next year,” his mom says.
Sometimes she thinks about his birth parents, the honor of a baby boy, and the pain they must have felt.
They learned something in China, Sheri says. She’s not sure if it’s true.
Their guide told them there is not a word in their language that means abandoned. The closest thing to it is another word that means this: left to be found.
She was talking about babies, like Micah.
“She said, ‘We always have reason to believe that someone is left watching until someone picks them up.’”
And sometimes that someone is found by someone else. A mother and father who carry that baby across the ocean to another home where there are farms.
And cornfields that need young farmers in July.