There is no finer perfume than fresh-cut hay. When I reached the age of seven years, my dad introduced me to working the hay field. “Come out to the field with me and help me drive the tractor.” I thought he meant for me to sit in his lap, his arms around me, his hands on the wheel, me nestled safely against his warm body, smelling his salty sweat and the sack of cigarette tobacco tucked into the left pocket of his chambray shirt, the tag hanging out.
We walked out to the field where the flatbed trailer sat hitched to our scarred Farmall tractor. Dad hefted me up onto the wide metal seat and placed my hands on the wheel. My eyes must have been ready to pop off my face. My heart began to pound in my ears. He shoved the lever into the lowest gear and told me to just hang on to the steering wheel and keep the tractor pointed between the rows of bales. Although I was tall for my age, my feet didn’t reach the pedals. As we rode one length of the field, he gave me pointers on steering. When we reached the end of the row Dad grabbed the wheel and turned the corner for me. Then he jumped off the back of the tractor. I was on my own. I nearly peed my pants. As we chugged down the next row, Dad walked alongside and lifted bales onto the trailer. Now and then he climbed onto the bed and neatly stacked the bales. When I reached the end of every row I’d hold my breath, terrified that I’d run us into the ditch and through the fence. Dad always leaped onto the hitching bar in time to turn the wheel and point me on my way, back and forth across the field.
In time, once I could reach all the pedals, Dad promoted me to drive our old IH farm truck, with a contraption for lifting bales hooked to the side of the truck bed. But first I walked the entire field straightening the bales into long lines. Then I walked back to the truck, picked up my Dad from the shop where he was repairing the baler, and drove along the rows, scooping the bales onto the elevator. I liked to watch through the rear-view mirror as each bale pitched off the top of the incline onto the truck bed. Dad sank his bale hooks into the hay and stacked a neat pattern which tied the load so it wouldn’t shift.
When I had finished my first year of high school, Dad hired my cousin Jim and his buddy Larry to harvest the hay. Jim and Larry were two years older than me and about twenty years smarter. They told me that if I would drag the bales in line and be their water-girl, they would pay me a generous ten percent of their earnings.
Whoopee! I would actually get paid for work I had been doing for years as a family chore. In my mind I spent that money over and over. New boots, school clothes, ice cream sundaes, the movies. Every day I dreamed up a new list. Early each morning I doused myself with 6-12 mosquito dope, pulled on my leather gloves and hurried out to the field. I always had the first rows of bales in line before the boys arrived with the truck.
Once the truck bed was loaded high with hay, I rode in the cab with Jim and Larry back to the stack. I liked this because I got to listen to their dirty jokes. I felt like one of the boys. I laughed, even when I didn’t understand. Jim always knew when I didn’t “get it” and called me on it. When we arrived at the stack, I scurried to the house for jars of iced tea and platters of cookies. Then I’d sit on the truck, swing my legs, and wait for the boys to finish unloading the hay.
When we were just a couple days into the first cutting, the boys suggested that the job would go faster if I could pull the bales over to the edge of the truck so both of them could throw bales onto the stack. That made sense to me. I quickly agreed. So now I not only lined out bales in the field, performed the chores of water-girl, but I dragged the hundred pound bales across the truck bed so the boys could easily snag them with their hooks. Three days into our new routine, a summer shower ended work for the day. I stood in the rain and watched the boys drive off toward town. Something about our arrangement had been bothering me. I mulled it over while I walked out to the river-bend field where Dad was irrigating sugar beets.
I told Dad, “It isn’t fair. I’m working really hard. I work just as many hours as the boys do and I’m only making ten percent. I’m not asking for the same wages. I know I can’t throw the bales up onto the big stack like they can. They have more muscles than I do. But for all I’m doing for them, I think they should pay me twice as much.”
My Dad leaned on his irrigating shovel, studied the ground and gave my tale of woe his full attention. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “You agreed to the deal.” He turned back to his work.
I finished out the haying season, first, second and third cuttings. I did my job. I pocketed my ten percent. I never forgot.
Havre Daily News: Home Again
September 17, 2009