The Summer of '62; Episode 10
There is a certain amount of bravado attached to grabbing a ninety pound bale from a baler, dragging it with a hay hook stuck in it to the rear of a moving wagon, and stacking it six high.
The first cut of hey is usually early June. It is the heaviest cut and most productive, the hay still has a lot of moisture and producing the most bales per acre. It’s best to bale when the dew has had a chance to evaporate or “burn-off” and the grass is dry, otherwise if wet hay dries while baled and stacked it causes a phenomenon called spontaneous combustion. A fire occurs. So baling was never done in the cool mornings, but only on hot sunny late mornings or afternoons.
A second cut happens sometime as soon as mid July if the weather is cooperative with plenty of rain and perhaps even a third cutting before the summer is over, but this never occurred on our farm.
Straw was baled after the wheat harvest in July. Straw was easy work. The stocks were dry and brittle and the bails seldom weighed more than twenty pounds.
Baling hay and straw was one way a boy earned money in rural farmland.
Uncle Bob contracted the baling to a short, stout, red-headed man with a quick temper named Red Basinger. He wore tight fitting gray pants and long sleeve shirts and a straw cowboy hat to protect his tender face and neck from the sun.
He arrived at ten in the morning pulling his baler with an red International Harvester tractor. He had his tractor in the field and ready to the baler before Uncle Bob and I got to the barn yard.
“Let’s go!” He said motioning with his arm. “I got two more farms to do before it gets dark.”
Uncle Bob ordered Rich to start their smallest tractor, an Allis-Chalmers B. That was the one used to pull the wagons back to the fields. The tractor had a crank start and it failed to start after about a half dozen tries. Red jumped down from his tractor and stomped across the barnyard.
“Get out of the way,” he said and grabbed hold the crank, cursed a few times and gave it a mighty spin. The tractor only sputtered. “Bob when you gonna get your cheap behind busy and buy a battery for this tractor. I bet your billfold has grown shut.”
Uncle Bob shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said, “I donno.”
Red grabbed a hold of the crank again and mocked. “I donno." We don‘t know what daggone day we‘re gonna a die, but that don‘t stop us from gittin‘ ready for it and havin‘ a heckuva good time on the way.” He cranked again with more cursing and it started.
Red was the only farmer Rich ever heard swear. The farmers around them were all members of the Church of the Brethren. Rich knew little of their doctrines and he suspected they did too, but they did not smoke, drink, or swear. Red was a fallen Mennonite.
He once asked Rich, “Do you know the difference between a the Mennonites and Brethren?”
“No,” Rich said.
“Darned if I know either.”
Red had his ten year old son with him. A miniature of Red down to the gray attire and straw hat. He was introduced to us by saying, “That‘s Skip.” Skip was quiet. He was a Red in training. Skip sat on the finder of the tractor as Red pulled the baler along the rows of raked hay. Every time Skip’s attention drifted away from the baling process into a distant field or woods Red slapped him with the back side of his hand across the knee.
Baling was hot exhausting work in a relentless sun that baked and evaporated the life from a man or boy. It takes coordination, strength, and skill. There is always the danger of falling from the moving wagon while holding the hey hook.
The man on the wagon thrusts the hook into the bale and drags over the bed of the wagon. The bale is lifted against the body with the hook, released and reset in a lower part of the bale so it can be leveraged against the body and with a kick of the knee and stacked with the other bales. A day of baling hay left one too sore to move the next morning. Gloves had to be worn, long pants, and a long sleeve shirt. Any exposed skin was pricked by the sharp ends of the cut hay. The cuts bled and scabbed. It is hard honest work and a measure of satisfaction is derived from it.
The hey is stored and ultimately fed to livestock that eventually feeds the world.
Uncle Bob and Rich stacked the bales on the wagon as the baler spit them out the chute. The wagon was nearly full. Red stopped the tractor and told Skip to drive as soon as he got on the wagon. He ran back to the wagon and told Bob to go get another wagon.
Rich gave a hand to Red to help him on to the wagon. He looked at my hand like it was diseased and boosted himself up.
Skip looked back at Red with uncertainty.
“Put ‘er in gear, give ‘er some gas, and let’s get some work done,” Red said whirling his arm as if wanting to achieve flight.
Skip pushed in the clutch as far as possible for him and ground the gears. He pushed the gas throttle forward and let out the clutch. The tractor, baler, and wagon lunged like a bronco out of the chute. Red lost his balance and stumbled off the wagon. He landed on his feet and tried to maintain his balance with his arms waving like he had achieved weightlessness, but eventually came to rest on his back. Skip slammed on the brake and stalled the engine. Red got to his feet and ran up to Skip. He yelled at the boy at the top of his voice and slapped him in the face. “Did you hear me?”
Skip’s lips quivered and he shivered from fear and was too frightened to speak.
Red slapped him again. “Did you hear what I said?”
The boy pulled in his tears and said, “Yes, daddy.”
This was difficult for Rich to observe and frightening. He suddenly had visions of his oldest sister, a was the victim of Mr. Larsen’s rage. No one ever stopped Mr. Larsen. Everyone was afraid. Somehow one envisions the rage being turned on them. The aggressors know that. They view the rage as their own personal domain. If just someone steps forward to announce their objection perhaps that will stop the brutality. Every one is paralyzed with fear. It’s like a herd of antelope standing helplessly at a distance watching one of its own being ripped to shreds and consumed by a lion.