Hay Hauling Havoc
Farmer Ross was really a strange character, but don’t we all run into people like that every once in a while? And it’s amazing that most of them seem to do just fine in this world. The ones who for sure aren’t strange in this story are me and my dad, and I’ll also include you, the reader, as a fellow member of the non-screwed up club, since that’s generally what people do when they gossip about others. However, did you ever think that maybe you’re strange, weird, or even creepy? That possibility does exist, and I think you should consider it.
Fortunately you don’t have to get too deep into that right now because we’re gonna talk about some high school boys who worked on a hay-hauling crew every summer for four years, almost normal people. I started the crew when I was fifteen, having spent the previous summer doing all sorts of farm work for a pretty low wage, about $30 a week. I remember clearly that about four weeks of that previous summer had been spent riding a tractor from 7:00 a.m. until 8:30 pm or so, clearing the weeds out of the rows in a pair of long forty acre cornfields. That’s not done any more today. They just plant corn that has been genetically-modified to resist the herbicide Roundup and douse the hell out of the field with it. The weeds are killed by the Roundup, the genetically-modified corn does fine, and the humans who eat the corn aren’t sure what happens to them.
Back to the tractor, I had a lot of time to think while riding that machine, and I remember explicitly trying to figure out how much I’d make if I could organize a hay crew. I’d heard hay haulers were getting paid twelve cents per bale of hay delivered from field to barn, and once I multiplied that by the number of bales my dad and other farmers I knew put up, the estimates I came up with were astronomical! I mean I figured I could make almost a thousand bucks in a little more than two months work. Plus the hay season was over by the end of July, and I’d have all that moola in my pocket to enjoy the month of August.
So the next summer, I got my first hay crew together and hooked up with baler Turner Jenkins. That was thanks to my dad because I would never have known where to find Jenkins nor would he have talked to a fifteen-year old kid. He knew all the farmers in the area who put up hay to feed their cattle through the winter when the grass stopped growing or the snow covered it entirely. And Jenkins had a hay baler, an implement expensive enough that it was better for the farmers to pay to get their hay baled by him than each one owning a baler for a once a year task.
But the farmers needed to get the hay from the field to the barn where it would be protected from rain. Once the hay was baled, it was totally worthless if it got severely drenched. So there was a need to get it quickly from the field to the barn, which is where a crew of four or five healthy young fools like us came into play. And I say fools only because it was the hardest work I’ve ever done, in a career that includes not only hauling hay but also working as a roofer in the Texas summer sun, deckhand on Mississippi River towboats, and wannabe auto mechanic while in college. Hauling hay in the hot, humid Midwestern summer takes the cake, anybody who’s ever done it will agree. They can’t get anybody to do it anymore, and they’ve had to go to huge round bales that are easily movable by tractor. There just isn’t anybody left who will haul the square bales to the barn, not even the Mexicans will do it. I hope that’s not a racist statement by the way, I’m just saying Mexicans will do harder work than the rest of us, but today even the toughest Mexicans shy away from hauling hay in the Midwestern heat and humidity.
Believe it or not, back then we were happy to get the money. The first year there were five of us and we each got 2.4 cents per bale, and we could put up a thousand bales on a good day, sometimes even more. That was almost $25 a day, not bad for 12–13 hours in the sun, going through five gallons of water and a handful of salt pills, meantime drenching right through our clothes with sweat. And spending half the day in oven-like tin-roofed barns with hay dust enveloping us and covering our bodies. Oh it was beautiful. But there was a camaraderie, we joked around, bitched and moaned, told dirty jokes, insulted each other’s girlfriends, hung dangerously off the roof of an old truck driving down bumpy country roads, and generally lived with it. Above all, we paid attention to the farmer if he asked us to please stay late and get the hay in because it looked like rain that night. It was our responsibility to get the hay in dry, and we took it seriously.
Since I was the self-appointed foreman, I didn’t think it was wise to let on that it was hard work we were doing. I mean that would give everybody an excuse to slough off, and we wouldn’t get as much hay hauled that day. For some reason, I was called “slave driver” from time to time, but nobody complained too awful much. I worked as hard or harder than anybody else and I was the guy who knew best how to drive the hay truck. Even the first year when I was only fifteen, I could back it up with a full load of hay on the truck bed, navigating through tight barnlots to get close to the hayloft door. It was important to get up as close as possible to that door, and everybody appreciated the fact that the closer I got, the shorter the toss into the loft of the 100+ bales coming off the truck.
The first year I had to hire an 18-year old college kid who was the licensed driver when we had to get out on a county road. Denny Wilkins was definitely the weakest link on the labor side, but he had a great sense of humor and could sing and play the guitar, so he did have some redeeming qualities that mitigated somewhat the fact that we were always picking up the slack for him in the field or the barn.
We burned Denny out that first summer and didn’t need an alternate licensed driver any more once I’d turned sixteen, so I went for more muscle in hiring crewmembers and got a couple of high school football players the next summer. One of them was an offensive tackle who went on to play that position in college, so a small dude he was not. He could throw a bale all the way across the barn, but his stamina on a thirteen-hour day was not that of us more experienced hay haulers. I used to get great joy hearing him tell me, “Come on, Finn, let’s go to the house. Not another load. Please man, can’t you see we’re worn out.” And maybe half the time I’d listen to him and half the time not. If there was a chance of getting in another load before dark, I went for it. It was for his own good — he made more money and it made him stronger, too. At least that’s the way I saw it, and since there wasn’t a full-scale mutiny I guess I was right.
Now let me get to the part about that weird farmer Ross. Sometimes if a farmer had more hay to haul than his barn would hold, he’d have us put some of it in another structure he had somewhere on the property. Farmer Ross had an old, decrepit farmhouse that must have been from the Depression-era as falling down as it was and as tiny as the rooms were. But he knew he could fit five or six hundred bales in there and told us to do so once his barn was full. Not a big problem, we’d done it before. The work was a bit slower, but you had to do what you had to do to satisfy the cantankerous clodhopper. The real problem was that he’d laid down some poles on the floor of the old place, which were difficult to walk on — you were liable to twist your ankle traipsing around on the damn things. The reason he did it was to keep the bottom layer of hay bales off the ground since the floorboards in the old shack were long since rotted through.
Well he didn’t explain this logic to us, and we wanted to get the job done and found stepping on and around those damn poles was a pain in the ass, so we chucked them out of the rear windows and went about our work. But then farmer Ross showed up and saw the pile of poles outside the shack. He accused us of being too lazy to deal with his brilliant excuse for a floor and made us take out the bales we’d already stacked, bring the stupid poles back in, and re-position them on the floor where they were hell to step around while toting hundreds of sixty-pound hay bales over them. As we stacked those bales for the second time in that old house, we were not real happy about farmer Ross’s false accusations of sloth, to say nothing of the extra work with no offer of extra pay from the cheap bastard.
A couple of loads and a couple of hours later as we were filling up that lousy excuse for a makeshift barn, there was a mean-looking wasp that came out of one of the walls in the front of the place, and we stepped outside hoping the wasp would bug off and find something else to bother. We could see a big wasp nest through cracks in the wall of the old shack, and one of our guys saw a big rock lying on the ground and got the bright idea of throwing it at that piece of the wall where the nest was. The rock was so big, a small boulder really, and the wall was so old that the combination created a gaping hole that, for some reason, struck us as funny as hell.
Somehow the rising mirth triggered another rock launch, then another, then finally a full scale attack by the whole hay crew on the side of the decrepit old shanty belonging to farmer Ross. By the time we had finished, we were practically rolling on the ground each time we looked at the new artistic façade we had created with the eighteen holes made by eighteen different shapes of rocks. Old man Ross was later to make the exaggerated claim that the building looked like it had suffered a series of cannon attacks, but it’s certainly true that if we had continued much longer we might have brought the place to the ground.
Fast forward to the next morning at daybreak when baler Jenkins and my father were out at the Ross place to see what our unruly hay crew had done to a previously gleaming edifice. Dad and Turner Jenkins were responding to a summons from the incensed farmer who had the payment of the whole baling and hauling job as leverage over Turner Jenkins and parental guilt hanging over my dad. When my father offered to pay for the damage, farmer Ross proceeded to give him a long lecture about raising children and how NOT to raise them improperly as Dad obviously had done.
As baler Jenkins began to realize that this lecture on child-rearing, along with the daybreak summons, was the full price to pay for his hay crew’s shenanigans, he could hardly contain his laughter at the site before him, which almost ruined the deal and caused farmer Ross to carry on even more about how not to raise children these days. My dad later told me that he seriously considered mentioning the fact that farmer Ross had never raised anything other than livestock himself, but in the end Dad decided that he could more easily afford the lecture than the price of a new wall on an old shanty that should be torn down anyway.
And of course we on the hay crew heard about it, although I must admit that farmer Ross’s ire was significantly attenuated when baler Jenkins told us, with a twinkle in his eye, that we must have had an epic battle with them there wasps. And my dad also wanted to know what the heck we were thinking that caused us to attack an old shack like that. But when I explained how farmer Ross had given us a hard time over the stupid poles in the floor of his barn, he realized that there was a certain element of stress relief involved in our destructive action that had been more positively carried out on the building than on the person of Ross himself.
It was the busiest time of the season and we had a lot of my dad’s own hay that would soon be in the fields, so I don’t think we on the crew ever suffered any negative consequences of our irresponsible actions. As a matter of fact, we remember the perverse joy we had smashing that old crumbly wall with those huge rocks to this very day.
It was really my father who had to suffer the consequences of our actions. About forty years later. It was one of those all-too-frequent funerals he was attending as he aged, this time of one of the area’s farmers who were dying off like flies. Who do you think he would run into but good old farmer Ross. Oh no, thought my dad, I’ve already heard this once, are we going to go into it again?
Old man Ross looked at my dad, who he hadn’t seen since almost forty years before at daybreak, and said in a friendly but inquisitive manner, “Hi, I’m Gordon Ross. Don’t we know each other from somewhere?” My dad thought about it for a moment, then answered as sincerely as he could, “You know, I don’t believe so,” and moseyed on over to the other side of the funeral parlor. Knowing my father, a bald-faced lie was a severe price to pay, but he still does not doubt that it was less costly than listening to farmer Ross’s advice on child-rearing one more time.