Why Are We Still Alive?

An article The Atlantic magazine entitled “The over-protected kid,” talked about helicopter parents who spend their lives protecting their children from anything that might possible cause them harm or disappointment. The author talked about how even our playgrounds are so safe and rubbed-coated that they bore kids and rob them of their imagination. She went on about swing sets now being removed from many play areas for fear of lawsuit. One of her interesting solutions was to allow your kids to play in a junkyard where they’ll have to come up with their own slides, swings, and Jungle Jims.

It made me stop to wonder how I made it off the farm alive. I can remember being worked hard, gotten up early, and sweated through my shorts but for the life of me my parents must have missed the bit about coddling and protecting.

Dad would send us out to check on the cows. Easy. Except for the fact that our very large Angus bull was blind in one eye. You never want to sneak up on a bull and if the entire left side of his world is hidden from his view then you’d better make a lot of noise to tell him you’re coming. Doesn’t everyone send his or her eight-year-old boy into the pasture to check on a mean, half-blind bull?

But bulls get a bad rap. By far the meanest critter on a farm is a sow with pigs. If you’ve ever seen a mother witness a bad call at a Little League game you know what I mean.  But Dad always figured the only way to get through a small opening to retrieve small pigs was to send a small boy.

Dad wasn’t completely foolhardy. He waited until I was nine to send me down the busy highway driving a slow moving John Deere 70 with a four-row cultivator dangling off the front end, carefully avoiding speeding trucks on route 104 on the way to the farm. Nine was about the average driving age for the farm boys in our neighborhood. But don’t think Dad was endangering my life in any way. He always sent me off with a, “Be careful.” I must have been. I’m still here.

Baling hay was probably the most danger-fraught job on the farm.  Nearly everything in the haying process has the potential to kill or at least maim you. A generation of one-armed farmers can attest to this. You stood in a haymow waiting for 80-pound bales to drop perhaps as far as twenty feet. Don’t all 12-year-olds get to experience this? The other option was to load the bales onto the elevator, a moving death trap that could easily snag a loose shirttail and haul you screaming up the elevation. And the elevator was always attached to the PTO shaft of a tractor, whirling at several thousand RPM’s and the cause of the farmers who still had two arms to perhaps spend the rest of their life with one leg. The perfect place to put your child. And if working at the barn weren’t dangerous enough, you then traveled to the hayfield itself where your father would put a hay hook in your hand. I confess that I giggle a bit when they admonish today’s kids to stay away from table edges or car doors because they have sharp surfaces. They should take a look at a hay hook sometime. I can remember riding the hay wagon through our field sitting beside my brother. I turned to talk to him and noticed that Keith was no longer on the wagon. I shouted to the driver and he stopped for us to run back and find my younger sibling face down in the stubble, the wagon tire marks clearly visible on his white t-shirt. In fact, he was perfectly capable of standing up, but he wanted us to see that he’d been run over by a hay wagon. And he still held his hay hook.

A John Deere 4020 weighs approximately 12,000 pounds. I know. I looked it up. So if you want to back a six-ton tractor up to four tons of corn to hook up the wagon, what do you do? You put your ten-year-old boy between the tractor and the corn. You tell him to hold the tractor hitch in his little hands as six tons come together with four tons. Oh yes, you also say, “Be careful.”

Anhydrous ammonia is perhaps the most dangerous chemical on the typical farm and in the trick is to always stick your tines in the ground before you pull the rope and let the caustic gas fly. But accidents happen. If you’re lucky you’ll simply end up blind and not dead. The perfect place for your fifteen-year-old boy!

I recently walked by a school playground and the little ones were lined up, just standing there doing nothing. When I asked them why they weren’t playing a young girl said, “We can’t play until the teacher comes out to watch.” They were about to jump into a play yard with rounded rocks (special play pebbles, no hard edges) on a plastic-coated playground set with handholds and safety bars galore. I feared for those kids.  If they were to ever face real danger they wouldn’t even recognize it, much less know how to avoid it.

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