Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Morning Thanks--Baling Hay


I've never been a late-sleeper, so I remember very well lying in bed and hearing the telephone ring. I knew what it was, and I knew that it would only be a minute or so before my mother would put down the receiver and call upstairs with news I could have forecast. The dew was going, the sun was shining, and soon enough we'd be bailing hay. The next fall I'd be in eighth grade, I think, maybe seventh.

Today, there would likely be child-labor laws to prevent my going, but what I understood from my mother's call was that in just a matter of minutes I'd hop on my Bridgestone and ride to some out-of-the-way farm somewhere, where I'd meet the family of the old man who'd hired me to buck bales. They'd already be there, checking the baler, poking the elevator up into some weird barn door that hadn't been opened since last May, some wooden squeaky thing festooned with cobwebs thick as yarn.

I hated baling hay. I would much rather not have gone. The guy we worked for was a God-fearing man, a fact I'm sure my mother relished. What she didn't realize was that baling hay also meant being packed into a mow with a gang of other sweaty adolescent boys, all of us boiling over with hormones we couldn't begin to negotiate. What I learned baling hay was a lot more than she ever bargained for when she called upstairs.

No matter. Today, a half-century later, when I look back, I know baling hay was a rite of passage I wouldn't--not in a month of Sundays--be without. Baling hay has made it into more than one story because the experience was rich with life, as rich as the smell of cut alfalfa on a lakeshore field, a smell, oddly enough, I still love.

I was a town boy, no farm background whatsoever. I was not--nor have I ever been--blessed with any kind of mechanical aptitude. That I may have been a better student than at least some of the crew back then, was no matter. I was, on the farm, a clutz, an embarrassement. No matter. I worked, often until late into the night. Such was life back then.

The boss was one of those men who believed, wholeheartedly, in the sanctity, the redemptive power of work. He was tight as a fist, and, by my estimation, could care less for the kids he employed at a slave's wages. But he gave me more vivid life's experience than I could ever have learned in town on those sunny days, doing nothing at all.

This morning, our neighbors are putting on a roof, employing their two adolescent boys. Today, I must admit, I find that fact absolutely wonderful. Roofing, like baling, is hard work--hard, hard work. But when I look over there, beyond the alley out back, and I think it's a great thing to see those town boys up there scraping off shingles and nailing down new ones, wearing out their jeans. They're working. Bless 'em.

I wonder what my mother knew back then when she'd open the upstairs door and call up to tell me I had a half hour to get to Cedar Grove. She couldn't have known everything. What I learned were things I'm not sure she could imagine, even today.

But this morning, I'm thankful that, back then, she got me out of bed and on that little scooter, put my lunch in my hands so I could strap it to the seat, and sent me off--way too young to work as hard as we did, and far too lazy to know clearly enough how important, how life-bringing it was for me to have to get up in that almost hellish hay mow, to hear the infernal clanging of that orange elevator delivering those twiny beasts, to brush away the cobwebs and start packing bales six-high, seven-high.

This morning--the sound of hammers coming from just next door--I'm thankful my mother called. I really am. Not that I liked it then. Not that I'd like it today. Nope. But working for that praying skinflint gave me lessons for life that I remember far more poignantly than what went on that year in school. I'm thankful for an education that included scratched-up arms and worn-out gloves and jeans that come with the sweaty, dusty work of putting up bales.

Once upon a time I did a story on a man who invented the round baler. He told me his motivation was simply this, to keep his neighbor, a good farmer, on the land because, he said, that neighbor of his hated baling hay so much he threatened to quit. I understood fully. In actuality, I hold little nostalgia for the arduous work myself. But I'm glad, thankful, I'm a veteran.

So this morning's thanks, with the sound of those hammers coming into our house from next door, is for my mom's persistant voice coming up the stairwell of our little house, telling her boy what he already knew--that this morning there'd be hay to bale and I wouldn't be home until dark. Sixty cents an hour, I remember--that was my second year, when I got a ten-cent raise.

The truth is, on those mornings the boss would call, I was already awake; but that didn't mean that she didn't have to get me out of bed. Today, I'm glad she did.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jim, just be thankful that you didn't have to sit on one of the seats of a Case wire baler, wearing out your leather gloves tying those wires and choking in the dust all day.

Anonymous said...

For guys like me--part of the Dutch Reformed in southern Ontario--it was working in humid greenhouses packed with air that swelled to 40 degrees by late morning and looking at your watch on a sweaty wrist every ten minutes to assure yourself coffee break would come. And there were arguments over trivial theological differences, and lots of boredom, and hours of daydreaming, and always, always, always, managers who had nothing on their minds but efficiency. And, of course, there was lots of vicious teasing of young women with blond hair and long limbs, even though we silently yearned for them.