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Memorial Day announces the beginning of hay season and the school calendar closely follows the needs of the farmer. Young people no longer understand why school closes in the summer months. I somewhat followed the footsteps of “Mr. Henry” from the old Texas schoolhouse, and when I informed the class that the traditional reason to close school was for labor on the farm, their faces reflected deep concern – if not outright fear! But for now, that part of the story is still well into the future and we will return to a time when a very young man looked forward to riding the hay wagon after school was out. You see, when you are not quite old enough or strong enough to lift the 70 to 90 pound bales, you get to ride. Those early memories of riding in my grandfather’s lap and steering the JD 40, soon turned to driving it by myself and loading hay with everyone else.
By the time all three wagons were full, along with the flatbed truck, the hay crew was ready for a drink of cold water. We all drank from the same glass jar in those days and the well water was pretty cold without any need for ice. When it actually worked, we used the hay elevator to unload the bales and stack them in the top of the barn; it was always hot up there with little or no ventilation. If your clothes were not wet before, they certainly were after you spent an hour or so moving those 350-400 bales.
In the afternoons on especially hot days (funny, I never got hot when I was a kid), “Mr. Mc” (my grandfather) would drive to town in his pickup truck and bring back enough cold soft drinks for the entire crew. He would have a mix several soft drinks and a cooler of water. I learned to adopt some of his habits years afterwards, and another great one of them was to stop and pick flowers on the way to lunch for my grandmother, Loraine. I suspect it is a trick that will stand the test of time.
The second week of June usually brought on fescue season. This always meant it was time to check the canvas on the windrow machine and pull the Allis Chalmers combine out of the lower part of the barn. My grandfather would always say, “Grease and oil are the life of machinery.” The old combine had a cockpit with just enough room for a short bench and two chutes to alternately catch the grain for filling burlap sacks. When I was a small boy, I always wanted to ride the combine. I loved the smell of the grain and it reminded me of our trips to Johnson’s Seed Cleaning business there in town, not far from the furniture store on Lebanon Hill. The different kinds of animal feed and grain rendered a sweet aroma that was truly like no other.
A few school years slowly went by and once again I was looking forward to hay season and “riding” the combine. I guess I was in junior high when my grandfather asked me if I was ready to help him again…but this year, by myself. He quickly demonstrated exactly how he wanted the sacks of grain to be tied and I sadly confessed that I could not lift the 80-pound-plus sacks of fescue and 100-pound sacks of wheat. His response was that all I had to do was drag them across the floor and push them off the slide at the same place in the field each trip around the windrows. I was ready!
Mornings with a heavy dew meant that we would “kill some time,” as he phrased it, and maybe “count the head” in his herd of mixed Angus and Hereford or chop down a few dozen bull thistles with a long-handled hoe. One of these mornings when the fescue was too “casey” to start, I headed over to the locust thicket on my pony with a fly rod in one hand and the reins in the other. Trigger took me over to a hidden pond about a half mile from the house and the largemouth bass were as hungry as the devil. My surface Hula Popper would no sooner hit the water than another 1 to 1 1/2 pounder would hit that bait with a vengeance. I was having the absolute best fishing day of my young life when, in between the splashing water of the next fighting fish, I heard that all too familiar sound of his Chevrolet pickup truck. I was thinking how impressed he was going to be when he saw how many fish I had, but that was not how he was feeling at all. In fact, he was more than a little indignant about having to drive all over the farm to finally find me in this well-secluded spot I had chosen.
“Throw your pole in the back of the truck and get in; we’ve got to get going!” Neither of us spoke for awhile, and in no time I was in the cockpit sacking and singing one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. We would work past supper most days in June and he always thought he was so far behind he would never get caught up. I would do my best to help him load the sacks of fescue onto his old flatbed truck and we would finally head to the house to eat. He moved to his easy chair and I wolfed down supper in hopes of finding enough time to hunt before it was dark. I am sure they were stunned that I had enough energy to walk another two to three miles before the end of the day.
At the end of those two weeks, we had put up the first cutting of hay and combined all of the fescue he had for the season and now it was payday. I had worked for $1.50 an hour for the farmers in my area doing various jobs, so I thought I was ready to cash the largest check of my life. It was made out for forty dollars. I was pretty good at math in those days – so I was stumped. How could this be? I knew we had been working mostly eight to 10 hours days during those two weeks and at least a half day on Saturdays. Forty dollars! I remember that I didn’t say a word to him and I imagine his plan to pay me only $40 was very well thought out.
I knew exactly what the message was; but I was stubborn, I loved the place and the people. My relative freedom on the farm was far superior to the confinement of life in the suburbs and I wasn’t ready to face the music of the future. The next summer, I had to go to work unloading trucks in a large blue jeans distribution center and I would look out the window at lunch time. Across the road was one of the farms where I had put up hay the previous summer. It served as a grim reminder to me of the beauty of outdoor work in the Kentucky summers.
In August every year someone would invariably ask, “Are you ready to go back to school?” I guess I better keep my answer to myself, but you can say yours out loud if you want to.