In the twilight hour of a summer’s day, when the fireflies begin their twinkling show, my dad and his brothers, and me, would finish a long day’s work of hauling in wagon-loads of hay or straw from the fields.
There weren’t many days like this, but as a fifth-grader in the late 1960s, being able to drive a tractor between the bales, and sometimes all the way back to the barn, was an exhilarating experience.
I can’t say that this is when I learned to drive, though maneuvering between hay bales and avoiding huge ruts in a field gave me a feel for being behind the wheel long before I was eligible for a driver’s license. Sitting atop that dirty-orange Allis-Chambers tractor was like sitting on top of the world.
I wasn’t raised on a farm, but my dad and his brothers kept things going on Grandpa’s place, and chores continued for a while even after Grandpa died. The feeling of the hot sun on my shoulders and the smell of freshly mown hay is a memory for my senses.
There were usually three or four of us, slowly making our way across rolling fields. I think I was allowed to drive because the tractor and wagon moved at a snail’s pace — less than five miles per hour. It was slow enough for my dad to jump on the tractor and correct any error I might make in my steering, or to suddenly stop in an emergency.
As I got used to the routine I was able to start the tractor, put it in gear, and even chug down the lane at a faster clip than we did when we crept along in the fields. What made this even better was a little transistor radio that was strapped to the fender well of the tractor, tuned to WJPS in Evansville. I heard “Chrystal Blue Persuasion,” “by Tommy James and the Shondells, a lot that summer.
Dad usually walked on one side of the wagon, picking up evenly-spaced bales, tossing each one onto the wagon, where one of his brother’s would stack the bale in place then turn around to get another from the other side of the wagon. It was a routine that lasted until a wagon was filled. The taller the stacked bales, the more careful I had to drive. A dip in a rut or a too-sharp turn could cause the bales to tumble.
This happened to me one time. With a wagon stacked high with hay, I turned too sharp and at least a dozen or more neatly-stacked hay bales tumbled to the ground. It happened to one of my uncles, too, and so then I didn’t feel so bad. Uncle Fred got as much grief as I did, since everyone had to re-stack the bales, adding more work to an already hot and sweaty job.
The men were in better moods when we had to pick up straw, and we moved at a quicker pace. Straw weighed much less hay. My dad and his brothers were playful, then, too. One or more of them would sing along with the radio, and they’d sometimes throw a straw bale when the stacker wasn’t looking, trying to knock him off balance. They’d laugh.
At lunch time Grandma would bring everyone German bologna sandwiches with American cheese, pickles, and ice-cold Coca-Cola in the old-fashioned bottles. We would eat under the shade trees that lined the fence rows or on the bottom bank of hay bales in the barn. It was hot, yes, but the shade, soft-drinks, and rest was welcome relief.
I was fearful, sometimes, of making a mistake or doing something that might frustrate my dad. I didn’t want to disappoint him; I wanted to make him proud. I was 11 years old.
This memory comes rushing back to me these summer days, especially when I’m in the country. My work as a driver lasted only a couple of years. Things changed when Grandpa died. The farm operation was slowly phased out, though Dad continued to raise a few hogs and a couple of fields were still used to generate some hay.
By the time I got to junior high school there wasn’t much of a farm left. Grandma lived in her rural home for many more years afterward. Dad got a job on the railroad, we moved to another town, and I began to worry more about music, girls, and being cool.
I never did the hard work many kids do on a farm. But for a tenderfoot who was raised on a quiet street in a little town, I got to breathe in my share of country air and contribute to the hard work it took for my dad and his brothers to heft, stack, and store dozens of hay bales for later use on the farm.
And I got to drive a tractor.
By Bernie Schmitt