The Big One
Run of Hollow
Preface & Reader Response
Bob posed an elemental challenge to the young men he supervised. Apparently he helped make some of them suck-it-up stalwarts. Others faded away after getting burned by the work, the heat, the pay, or Bob's rebukes.
by Jerry Murley
Although a freshly mown field dotted with big, dark round bales of hay is not unattractive, the remains of modern-day hay harvesting do not have the aesthetic staying power of the square bales of former days. A round bale can weigh 700 pounds or more; a square bale weighs from 45 to 65 pounds, depending on the types of grasses and whether the cut hay has sufficiently dried prior to baling. Round bales are bloated nobles, inert on a spacious, vacuumed lawn of green. Where square bales are lean, everyday foot soldiers with whom one can mingle, ordered all in rows upon a field strewn with untidy leavings and crunchy stubble.
Thirty years ago, Bob had not mechanized his farm in a way that would eliminate the need for strong-backed men to sweat buckets in the four- to six-day-long activities of hay harvest. Able men needed to be recruited for hay hauling by the half dozens. But in a pinch three long-suffering high-schoolers would do. Since everyone else was cutting hay at the same time, willing youth were hard to find; they had to be wooed, cajoled, suckered, and paid – in cash or in kind.
Without the big round bale and the big baler and the big tractor and the big trailer, it was rare for a farmer to find all the help he needed within his own family. A hurried, sweat-soaked, and exhausted Bob urged the women folk to secure the helpers that he had not induced to join him. His wife, Bobbie, got the uncomfortable task of calling grandchildren, the children of neighbors, children from her church, in-laws, and any other yet-breathing male that she and Bob could think of with some time on his hands. The hay hauling threw together males who rarely worked together and who rarely occupied the same square mile together. These were boys and men of the family and those of friends' families and the families of work-needy laborers in the neighborhood. It was the one time of year that brought all of these types together and it made for interesting theater. Teasing was a huge entertainment; therefore, the one thing a hauler didn't want to do was make a stupid or weak-looking mistake.
Often times it seemed that there was no rhyme or reason to the wild-hair notion Bob would get to start the hay cutting. It seemed that he just up one day and mounted the tractor and started the chain of events that with luck would end in a week with barns stuffed with golden hay. But on closer look, one could see the weather forecast for consecutive dry days with perhaps a forecast of rain in the coming week. One could see the fat, full pastures of tall grasses. And one could hear Bob pulling all of his implements out of corners in the shed and barn lot to sharpen, tighten, tune, and oil them for the coming days of all-day operation in the bright, hot late-May or early-June sun.
When the notion struck him and he upped and commenced cutting hay, Bob had a heated, driven, single-minded focus that was marked by quick irritability at the shortcomings of his reluctant crew members. A tractor implement might break and he would absorb the setback with fuming frustration but soldier on with the repairs. But the human help was a little less comprehensible, malleable, and easily fixed. I still hear stories from older men who hauled hay and did other work for Bob in their youth. They say that he drove a hard bargain and they worked all afternoon in the hot sun for near nothing. To a man they still remember their fear of Bob and revere him long years afterward. One gets the message from these former crew members that Bob posed an elemental challenge to the young men that he supervised. Apparently he helped make some of them suck-it-up stalwarts for life. Others simply faded away after getting burned once or twice by the work, the heat, the pay, or Bob's rebukes. Some few, who had bristled and harbored mute resentment in Bob's presence, no doubt were rendered defensive malcontents for the remainder of their days by the experience and others like them. Whatever the effect, Bob was largely unaware of the transitory or long-lasting personal impact at the time, in the heat of battle, as he doggedly pursued his preoccupation with getting the job at hand done and moving on to the next demand of the farm.
Bob, dressed in weathered cap, boots, jeans, and a white T-shirt, mounted his 1953 Ford NAA tractor and mowed all day long, sometimes two days. Then within a day he started his rounds again with his Italian rake, ever so smoothly pulling the uniform rug of felled grass into tidy rows of hay. In damp weather he made another pass to turn the row of hay again. After allowing the hay to dry for a day or two, Bob cranked up his diesel International Harvester tractor and fought with his square baler, stopping frequently to dismount and go back to the baler to remove tangled hay and knotted binding twine.
Woe be the day that the raked hay or the finished bales where not allowed to dry fully, for a green bale weighed half again as much as a dry one. Oh, a young man could pick up one of them okay, but when he had to pick up bale after bale for a while in high humidity and a hot sun – and throw them up on a moving hay wagon or pickup truck stacked high with hay – and then pick them up again to throw them on a hay elevator and stack them high in the barn as they fell off of the elevator – that young man soon realized how short a distance he could travel in life powered on his youth alone. The old experienced hands seemed to know how to do everything with half the effort. Or maybe they knew how to ignore the effort better, knowing that the grueling work would not end before all the bales were moved from the front field and securely stacked in the barns. Life for them just didn't accommodate pleasure and wasn't expect to.
In my mind there are several configurations that exemplify Bob's hay-hauling process. When there was a big harvest, in Bob's younger days, we had a hay wagon and a pickup truck working at once. Ideally, there would be a team of three for the truck and a team of three for the wagon, excluding the drivers. In each team, one man stacked and two walked on either side of the slow-moving conveyance. The two on the ground picked up a bale by the two strands of binding twine around the length of the bale and hurled it onto the side of the load bed. As the hay was stacked higher and higher, and the strength and energy of the haulers waned, the job for the walkers and the stacker became more difficult. Sometimes, one of Bob's daughters drove the pickup truck, which was rigged with a wooden extender to strengthen the tailgate and lengthen the loading bed. In later years, just two pickup trucks were used. Because one was old with shot springs and questionable brakes, driving on the hillside was a cheap thrill for the driver and the stacker. The walkers jumped on the fully-loaded truck for the slight breeze and respite on the trip to one of the barns. But any pickup truck loaded with square bales and four crew members was perilous transport. If two crews got competitive, which Bob encouraged if they didn't also get careless, they would mock race to the barn, though no one was eager to make the trip too fast. Making the one-wheel-at-time ascent and descent over the elegant windrow of soil that follows the contour of the field around the base of the hill, what Bob calls a diversion ditch, was the place the crew was most likely to lose a few bales from the load, due to the inexperience of the driver or the stacker or the shoddy condition of the vehicle or all three. Then the ground crew had to jump off the hay stack and throw the fallen bales back up for stacking and suffer the ridicule of Bob later in the day, especially if the tumble and rough handling caused bales to slip out of the twine holding the bale together. Busted bales were something that Bob kept count of and noted each year in his records.
Hay stacking was a whole different art. If the males that Bob managed to recruit were a little small or too gentrified, Bob had to use two people to stack rather than one. Every young stud greenhorn believed he could stack as well as the sixty-year-old men who had farmed all their lives or the middle-aged day laborers from up the hollow. But when novice stackers lost a quarter of a wagon or truck load of hay at breakneck speed downhill or saw all their labor collapse before it reached the barn, they had to take the laughs and thought-so scorn in stride and have their insides eaten out with rage against gravity. Novices could not stack hay. I could fake it after a few seasons, but I knew it was not up to standard.
* * *
Our neighbor Paul, the farmer with the most know-how in the hollow, says that a round bale typically weighs between 700 and 900 pounds – but he leans more toward the 700-pound figure. A square bale weighs from 40-50 pounds, probably 45 pounds on average. If the bales are damp, they can weigh 60 to 70 pounds. Paul asserts that after lifting a few 65-pound bales, even a young man begins to feel his age: you just can't do it for long. According to Paul, a pickup truck can carry about 50 bales and a hay wagon holds from 100 to 125 bales. Paul likes 100 bales on a 14-foot wagon bed. More than 125 bales, Paul says, and you are in for trouble.
I remember warily watching the old tires on Bob's old pickup truck when it was fully loaded. A wagon or truck might hold more, but the tires can't handle the weight and the driver can hardly keep from losing bales while driving over rough terrain with too much weight and bales stacked too high. Even backing up to the lower barn through the rugged barnlot or into the big red barn across the creek was dicey with too many square bales on a pickup truck or a hay wagon. It was a bit easier backing up to the hay elevator at the old barn, but the loft above the corn crib and stall could not hold many bales. So in any given season, we unloaded square bales into as many as three different barns, the newer red barn, built in the summer of 1973, being the only one capacious enough to hold round bales as well.
Bob kept a journal during his active farming years in the hollow, with section headings such as "Hay 1991" or "Bees 2001." According to Bob's journal, his crews picked up about 450 to near 600 square bales in a good harvest season from the front field during the first cutting. He tried to cut hay twice a year in early summer and late summer, but in dry years a second cutting was impossible. In 2000, his second cutting was in September. Bob's notes for the first cutting in 1995 exclaim, "...Worst hay experience ever." That year he faced rain and multiple equipment failures, and more bales than usual busted due to the weight of some of the bales. That year Bobbie was enlisted to drive the truck while Bob and his first-born grandson picked up the hay. For the first time, Bob paid a neighbor to round bale his second cutting in August 1995. Thereafter round baling encroached on Bob's farm and square baling tapered off.
About thirteen or fourteen years ago, Bob bought a round baler and bale-lifting attachments for his tractors and shifted from square bales to round bales. Then he could do the entire hay harvest by himself. One winter, a few years after starting to use mostly round bales to feed his Angus cattle, Bob got clobbered from behind by a runaway bale that he had just left uphill for the cows. He was knocked so hard into his tractor that his head bent the tractor steering wheel – and yet another broken pair of glasses joined the museum of smashed eyeglasses that marked the birth of another story about farm-chore mishaps.
* * *
By the end of a hay hauling day, the hands and arms of the short-sleeved younger haulers were cut a hundred times by hay stalks and the weight of the abrasive binding twine holding the bales of hay. T-shirts were completely wet. Skin was burnt. Eyes were light sore. And every inch of clothing was smudged with field and barn dust.
The most pleasant moments of the afternoon were the five-minute rides to the barn and field between loads. But there were other benefits as well: the women in Bob's family treating the helpers like Greek gods, serving up cold water, and preparing a fine meal of fresh vegetables and corn bread at the end of the day for family crew members; the feeling of self-satisfaction at survival, as if a hauler was really superhuman for a brief moment; the breeze at the end of the day, riding across a field full of the aroma of fresh cut grass. I won't claim that the end of a big hay-hauling day was the most exhausted that I have ever felt: there are plenty of opportunities on a farm and thereabouts for utter exhaustion. I can't quite explain the feeling of out-of-body contentment that comes with exhaustion after such labor. But the best feelings were fleeting and the night had to be dosed with aspirin and a beer or two to make the aching go away until sleep carried one into dreams of sunlit fields full of square bales of hay and the repetitive motion of picking up one after another until consciousness fully and finally slipped away.
* * *
For almost ten years now, a farming family from 15 or 20 miles southeast of here has cut, round-baled, and carted away the hay from Bob's fields. In 2005, that family obtained 50 bales of hay from Bob's front field and about 40 bales in 2006, 2008, and 2009. With the size of the equipment and a couple of operators at a time, it is a swift process. However, if the bales are left in the fields too long and soaked with rain, the load is too heavy to be lifted onto the large trailer and taken away until the fields are dry again. Still, it's a beautiful sight to see dozens of big bales on the gentle inclines of the expansive front field. Shadows and subtle shades shift the panoramic scene throughout the day. A misty early morning with the first appearance of the sun is the best of all. We marvel at the apparent ease with which the hay harvest takes place, all recalling the years when so many bore so much to haul the hay.