Jeff Foxworthy: “That’s the great thing about a tractor. You can’t really hear the phone ring.”
KNOCK! … KNOCK! … KNOCK!
Oh, crap! Go away! These were the sounds I heard coming from my front door, along with the thoughts that I mustered in retaliation to being inconsiderately awakened before the noon hour of what I had hoped would be a lazy weekday. As I had recently returned home from my freshman year in college, and had celebrated that fact the night before in local night spots (back then the drinking age was still eighteen), this incessant knocking was not in the slightest bit music to my ears. But I was acutely aware that I was the only person yet to leave the house in pursuit of productive activities, and so I shambled down the stairs to the front hall and opened the door.
On the other side of the door, I found a lean, wiry man with a crew cut heading toward gray staring back at me.
“You want a job for the summer?” he asked.
“Sure,” I answered.
“Then meet me at Valley Farm in an hour,” and with that, he turned, walked away, and left me to contemplate the beginning of the first of my summers in the sun.
This brief, sleep interrupting, conversation occurred early in June of 1964, which coincidentally, made it less than a month after the Animals had recorded what would become their signature song. That song, if titled slightly differently, would also have described my early morning routine for the next three months. But neither the Animals nor I were in each other’s thoughts that morning as I contemplated the retreating figure of my new employer, trying to remember just who this wiry man was. It never occurred to me that this would be one of the few mornings during the coming summer season when I was not out of the house by the rising sun. Nor had I any idea how happy the habit of awakening that early would make me.
I showed up at the Valley Farm as summoned, and once there, joined three of my former high school classmates. Slouching leisurely against a pickup truck, we halfheartedly listened to the welcoming remarks of Warren, he being the wiry man with the crew cut who, I had finally recalled, was also the father of yet another former classmate. The day was sunny and hot for early June, but not yet oppressive with the humidity that marks the dog days of July and August, a period dedicated to sapping energy and inducing slow motion. Not quite that bad, but bad enough. The remnants of a late night spent in the local watering holes with half of these guys quickly started fleeing my pores and migrating to the surface of my T-shirt, and I began to wonder if this promised summer job somehow involved anything more active than just leaning against a truck in the sunshine. I didn’t have to wait long for the answer.
Our attention was directed first to a field full of hay bales, and then to a tractor and wagon stationed at the edge of the field. Uh oh, I’m starting to get a bad feeling about the “job” part of this summer job thing I had volunteered for without having had the smarts to maybe, possibly, uh ask, uh, just what the heck was involved. As it turned out, the immediate “what” that was involved was simple: all those hay bales had to be moved from the ground to the hay wagon, and someone needed to do that. I had a sinking suspicion about who that someone might be. Before I had an opportunity to search out an escape route, Warren was at the helm of the tractor, Pete and Frank were stationed on the wagon to stack the bales, and Teddy and I we were told to walk alongside as the tractor-wagon tandem crisscrossed the field. Oh, and if we should happen to come upon a hay bale, it would be wonderful if we would simply pick it up and toss it on top of the wagon. Now the sweat really started to flow.
There are times when I can be a fast learner, and that day it took less than five minutes for me to decide that showing up to load hay while attired in Bermuda shorts and sneakers was not such a cool idea. Only a mercifully dispensed set of gloves, hay hooks and a hay apron prevented my hands and knees from looking like strawberry jam by the time we had finished with those introductory bales. Despite my obvious sartorial gaffe, if this was the agricultural equivalent of a job interview, I must have passed. Once all the bales no longer littered the ground in the form of a gazillion individual cubes, and instead did so in the form of one huge cube assembled from a gazillion pieces, a process that involved loading and unloading the wagon multiple times, Warren gathered us together to explain what he had in mind.
It seems that there was an abundance of interstate highway construction happening in our state in 1964, and along every mile of those newly built highways, tons of hay would need to be spread as mulch. The hay to be cut would assist the freshly seeded shoulders in sprouting a green covering of their own, ironically one that would need to be mowed continually over the lifetime of the highway. Seeing an opportunity to make hay while the sun shines, Warren, and the hay dealers he had associated with, had lined up both the supply and the demand for the hay to be harvested, but were still a little short in the production department. That’s where we four college kids came in: we were going to harvest his hay this summer. And we were going to start right now because we were already seriously behind schedule.
Sometimes decisions are made over which you have no control, but which have an immediate impact on your future, often times leading to a period equally likely to be marked by mirth as by misery. One such decision happened for me that afternoon. Warren looked around at the four of us, then pointed at me and said, “you’re the mower.” It didn’t matter that I had never mowed anything in my life bigger than a village lot, nor that I have an innate hostile relationship with practically every piece of equipment I have ever met. I had been anointed as the mower, so I would be the mower, for better or fired. Judging from the smirks, chuckles, and barbs launched at me from my fellow rookie haymakers, attitudes undoubtedly emanating from my being singled out first and not from any particular knowledge of our new trade, I was not so sure that this was altogether a good thing. I wouldn’t have to wait very long to find out.
My introduction to mowing came that same day. I quickly learned the fundamentals of tractor operation, as well as how to attach, raise and lower the sickle bar. Due to an unscheduled mishap, I also became experienced in how to change broken teeth in the blade. During my first few passes around a twenty acre field, Warren rode shotgun and then left to offer instruction to the rest of the crew who, by now, were either asleep under the hay wagon or chasing each other around the field while having mock fights with grease guns. Maybe Warren had been particularly insightful when he designated me as the mower. I like to think that it worked out well for both of us.
I was reminded of that long ago summer day just last week while mowing my lawn. I had tried to squeeze one more day into my mowing interval, and then a four day period of intermittent rain stretched that break to the point where my lawn now started to imitate a hay field of my own. When I eventually was able to get to the lawn, and had made several passes with my push mower, I recalled one of the weird visual thrills I enjoyed about mowing hay: the mounting sense of accomplishment that comes with a repetition of shrinking geometric patterns, and the clear delineation between work that was done and that yet to be. My memory drifted back to the sense of a new beginning that I felt whenever I arrived at field full of waist high hay waving at me in the breeze.
The first pass around a field was always a bit nerve racking, because this was the one time in each field when I would be operating blindly. Fortunately, I am cautious and routine oriented by nature, and those traits got me through my first summer as a mower in fine fettle. Positioning the left tractor wheels along the very outside edge of the field, the mowing team (that being the tractor, the sickle bar and me) marched slowly forward in a clockwise direction. While the tractor did the heavy pushing, and the clickity clack of the mower’s teeth to my right signaled the steady separation of stalk from stubble, I sat perched on high like an advance scout. From my elevated position on the seat of a Ford diesel tractor, I scanned the ground ahead of us, intent on lifting the bar over all obstructions. That first pass was always the slowest, being forced to peer through the hay surrounding me as I was. Once that lap was completed, however, I reversed directions and knocked down all the hay lying between the first pass and the very outside edge of the field, again moving slowly so I could dip in and out of the irregular edges that make each field different from the next. Finally though, I would finish the second pass, and that gave me a swath of sixteen clear feet that framed an un-mown field. Now it was time for the fun to begin. Time to turn the tractor back to the remaining mass of tall grass, rev up the engine to signal the world that the real mowing was at hand, and surge forward as fast as the sickle bar would tolerate without being jammed by more hay than it could digest, and detaching itself from the tractor in surrender. Within a short time, the mechanical mower and the mower in me developed an understanding about how fast was too fast, and then we became an unrelenting team in the game of “shrink the square.”
I took great pride in my role as advance man in our agricultural army. Dawn would regularly find me at the edge of field, watering my mechanical steed with the 18 cent a gallon diesel fuel it needed to sustain itself, and gingerly applying just the right amount of grease to mechanical joints that held up better than mine have. Then I would climb aboard, start the engine with a roar, and begin my daily internship as a budding field psychologist. It usually took me no more than several circuits to determine the personality of a particular field. Would it be flat, obstruction free, and inviting of a carefree day of full tilt mowing? Or would it be hilly, interspersed with rock outcroppings and fruit trees, requiring more precision than gusto. Or maybe it would be deceptive, a flat rectangular field that invited speed, but then quickly caused mayhem to tractor and driver via washboard ruts common to clay based fields with high water tables. I encountered them all during my first summer of mowing hay, contemplating each field’s attributes and deficiencies with every lap, and being off on my own as I was, I developed a philosophical bent that took solid root. More than hay grew in those fields that summer.
1964 was a summer of maturation for me, both mentally and physically. Though much of the time I chased the hay, the rake chased me, and the baler tidied things up, the proverbial end of the day saw all of us “young guys” wrestling and throwing the 90 pound wire bails that our combined effort had produced. Warren had let slip that he was paid by the ton, so I was not above mowing the occasional patch of weeds just to add a little bulk to the mix. We worked from dawn to sunset, resting only on Sundays and rainy days, and in more weeks than not generated close to a dozen tractor trailer loads of hay. At the end of the summer, I returned to college with a healthy bank account, owning several pairs of jeans bleached by the sun and worn to the friendliest state imaginable by the friction of sliding hay bales, and personally altered by the 10 to 15 pounds added to my frame where it was most welcome. I also had intuited one more reason to long for a speedy arrival of the following summer.
The next year, I eagerly resumed my job as the mower. Fairly recently, I read Ivan Doig’s “English Creek,” and when I got to the part where he described Jick McCaskill’s summer of making hay in detailed rhapsody, I forced myself to read slower than is my natural habit. The place, the time, and the machinery were all different from what I experienced, but the feelings about the job were the same. I let Doig’s words warm my spirit just as the sun used to bake my receptive body, and I relived those carefree days from long ago. Had you asked me then, I would probably have told you that my ambition in life was no greater than to mow hay during a perpetual summer. But, like most teenage pipedreams, it was not to be. My job as a mower disappeared after two years, to be replaced by that of working for a moving company. Though I enjoyed the “strong back” aspect of this new line of work, it just wasn’t the same. Still, since I remained in school, I couldn’t be too choosey about my source of summer income.
I graduated from college in 1967, and returned home to await my first year in law school. Though the school was different, the need for cash was identical, and I was about to let the moving company know that I was once more willing to hump furniture when I heard a knocking at our front door. This time I was more curious than resentful, so I hustled to the front hallway and threw open the door. On our stoop was another wiry man, this one older, shorter, leaner, and possibly more wiry than the first. I did not know him, but judging by his weathered face and his worn, but clean bib overalls, I had an idea of what he did. We stared at each other for a few seconds, him looking me up and down and me just looking down toward him, before he spoke.
“I hear you’re a mower,” he said. “You want a job for the summer?”
Sure,” I answered, and with that the last of my summers in the sun began.
[Note: I know this video doesn’t fit very well with this post no matter how hard I tried to tie it in, but this was such a great song for us to bellow on the hay wagon in 1964 that I just had to include it. Fortunately, only the crows got to hear us back then.]