Buck up!

Some days I wake up feeling young. Really. I open my eyes in a half-fog and temporarily forget that I’ve belonged to AARP for over a decade, and it’s only when I go to straighten out my knees that I remember I must be dreaming. But sometimes the events of the day remind me of my age even more quickly.

Such was the case this week when I traveled to Carrollton to speak to the Greene County Farm Bureau’s annual meeting. I enjoy speaking to farmers. Unlike some groups they have little pretense and are willing to give an after-dinner speaker a chance to entertain them. This is sometimes a tough job when the sun has gone down, they’ve dined on a sumptuous buffet of pork chops and chicken-ala-something, then they’ve had to sit through a business meeting. But I try. And if they aren’t pleased then I have a fast car and know my way back to Arenzville.

On this particular evening I sat at a table of Greene County farmers and their gracious wives . . at least I assumed they were their wives. Somewhere between the scalloped potatoes and the pink stuff dessert the subject of baling hay came up. I told them that the main reason I went to college was to get out of bucking bales for the rest of my life. They stopped mid-swallow and looked at me as if I were an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Six farmers and their spouses at my table and not a one of them had ever bucked a bale. They’d all grown up in the mega-bale era in which huge balers turn out small silos of hay that can only be moved with a tractor. “Oh surely!” I said. “Surely somebody else at this table has worked in a haymow!” They stared at me. I checked my shirt and there were no gravy drippings so it must have been something I said.

For those of you who may have missed this vital part of your upbringing, grass crops die so in order to preserve them for winter cattle feed the farmer had to first mow the field, allow it to dry a day or two, then rake it into windrows where it would be picked up by a machine that compacted the brittle stems and leaves into bales. You then had two choices: pull a wagon behind your baler while a young man stacked the square bales into a four or five-high block, or dump them onto the ground to be retrieved by young men walking alongside a truck. Most of these bales were square, but a few of us truly unfortunately souls occasionally worked for a farmer who believed in baling round bales, and bucking round bales all day was just about as close to a definition of hell as could be found on the Illinois prairie. You reached down with a hay hook in each hand, jammed the hooks into the nether ends of the bale, then hoisted the thing to your chest while a season’s worth of hay chaff streamed down your sweaty chest. Think of holding 60 pounds of unpackaged kitty litter around your neck and you’ll come close.

As a young man working the hay fields your job was to either work on the wagon behind the baler or spend the day in the haymow stacking the bales as they came up the elevator and into the farmer’s barn. Standard pay in those days was $1.25 and hour and some of the better jobs paid two cents a bale. A summer day in mid-July is torturous enough under a shade tree, but when you add another twenty degrees by climbing into a barn loft thick with humidity and types of pollen that hadn’t been classified yet, and you have the makings of . . . well, character. It’s a guarantee that for the rest of your life you’ll never have another job more miserable. Barns were actually known to explode with the combination of wet hay and heat, and we often hoped for just such a detonation as we watched our life’s essence pour down our shirts and onto the wooden planks. The saving grace: most of us farm kids had never done anything else so we assumed this was the way of the world.

And if you worked for an exceptionally tight-fisted farmer he’d loosen the cranks on his bailer, thus allowing more and more pounds of hay to be packed into each bale. Add to that a last-minute rain on the hay and you have a bale that weighed up to a hundred soggy pounds. Your pay for getting it off the ground, tossing it six or seven or eight feet into the air, then ooph-ing it into position was an amazing two cents. And you’d better hurry. Another 600 bales were coming at you. Alfalfa hay was bad, but clover was the worst, and you yearned for the wheat cutting when you could “vacation” a few days by bucking the feather-light straw bales.

When I got up to speak at Carrollton that night I considered telling the crowd about how grungy farming used to be but who wants to hear tales of misery on a full stomach? Besides, I’d sound like my grandfather. He had it really tough.

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