Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Baling with the Muellers, Walking Beans with Bill

We traded baling help with Bob Mueller for a while but he and his son took on a lot more land and cows.  Because of that they had to bale much more hay for the winter so they had to go it on their own.  Trading help worked when each farmer made more or less the same amount of hay, like three cuttings a year for three days work.  It was like a circle.

Dad, Darrell Schwartz, Bill Linden, and Paul Mozer all had about the same number of cows and kept nearly the same number of acres in alfalfa or clover. Darrell Schwartz owned the baler, an International.  That group even bought a hay crimper collectively, splitting the cost four ways, figuring they only needed one.  A couple other farmers would bring their sickle bar mowers the day another cut hay.  Mowing was slow, but you could run the crimper flat out and keep up with three mowers.  On baling day each farmer in the circle showed up with their boys if they had them, brought a tractor and rack wagon, and worked till the last bale was in the barn.  The wife of the farmer at whose place we baled would feed us when we were done.  The only money that changed hands went to Schwartz for the cost of the baling at so much per bale; you know, the investment, twine and all, wear and tear on the machine.  Bob Mueller ended up buying his own Case baler, had a bunch of hay fields, and with his son Larry baled what seemed like all the time. 

The Muellers farmed their own ground, rented more, and filled all the barns with hay and the cribs with corn.  That was back when every place had a barn and a corn crib.  When the Muellers went big and began to bale all that extra hay they hired me to help them at $1.50 an hour.  Bob wrote me a check each day I worked.  Sometimes he'd round up the half hour.  It was pretty good money for a kid in 1966.  I baled hay seemed like all summer.  They’d call Mom when they needed me and she would ask which place’s barn they were filling.  We knew the names of all the places by the farmers who owned them originally, even if they hadn’t farmed them in fifty years.  Mom would drop me off there in the car.  Jeans and a tee shirt.  Baseball cap and yellow cotton gloves.

Bob drove the baler while Larry and I stacked bales on the rack wagon.  The Muellers stacked their hay four high and a tie, the tie being a bale bridging and holding together two columns of four bales stacked side by side.  When Dad traded help with the neighbors they only stacked them three high and a tie.  The Muellers would fill their own three racks and then take them to the barn, where Larry would put them on the elevator which would run them up into the barn and dump them in the hay mow.  Bob and I carried the bales across the mow and stacked them carefully two layers at a time.  The hay was soft under your feet and there were cracks between the bales.  It got hot in those mows, under the barn roof, and dusty.  Not much air in a hay mow.  Hardly ever a breeze.  Unless the hay was totally dry it gave off heat too.  Most days we would sweat our clothes through, sometimes our boots.  We’d bale three loads, put away three loads in hay mow, and repeat till it was done.  Some afternoons I worked for the Muellers right through milking time at our place.

Depending on the amount of moisture and the length of the bale each one could weigh sixty pounds or more.  If you were paying a guy by the bale you wanted them big and heavy.  If you owned the baler and were baling for yourself you could make them smaller and lighter, but you did so knowing you would repeat each action more times, stacking the bales on the rack, putting them on the elevator, placing them in the mow.  Either way you moved the same amount of hay.  Because I stacked half the bales on the rack, alternating with Larry, and half in the mow, alternating with Bob, I picked up half the bales twice.  So if in a day we made 1200 bales, which was a good day’s work but not uncommon, especially on the first cutting, I lifted 1200 bales, six hundred on the rack and six hundred in the mow.  If they were sixty pound bales that was 72,000 pounds.  35 tons.  I tried to remember that it would make me strong.

On the rack Larry and I would talk to each other from time to time over the noise of the baler but in the mow Bob hardly said a word.  So I didn’t either, which was ironic because it was quieter in the mow.  The flat chains on the elevator, which we called the dump, screeched on the sheet metal some but we were far from the noise of the tractor turning the speed jack from the power take off that ran the dump outside.  Bob worked slowly, so I did too.  We fell into a rhythm that coincided with the gap between the bales on the elevator and its speed.  Once in a while Larry would put the bales too close together and they would pile up under the dump.  When that happened Bob refused to speed up but rather would get to the hay door and yell loudly

“Slow it down!”

Those three words could be the only ones spoken during the whole load. 

Between loads the dump stopped and there was a break in the action while Larry pulled the empty wagon away and replaced it with a loaded rack.  During that time Bob would sit, mop his face with a big red handkerchief, and we might talk or we might not.

“You need a drink?”  He  had an insulated jug up there.

I usually did.  I got sick once from the heat and Dad said it was because I didn’t drink enough water.  We would both have a pull from the jug.  The farm wives usually put ice in them but the jugs were cheap and it melted quickly.  Sometimes I would splash a handful on my face and put some on the back of my neck trying to cool off.  Bob never did that.

If Bob talked it was always about farming. 

“You been seeing all that burdock by the creek in my pasture there by Route 9?”

“I really hadn’t noticed Bob.”

“It’s washed in from the Gunn farm across the road.  Came in from the high water we had with that big rain a few months ago.” 

Bob explained things so definitively you couldn’t argue.  He was a guy who killed mystery by presenting everything as fact, as if that was the only possible explanation.  I don’t think Bob ever wondered about anything.  He just knew.  And because he was so convinced it was impossible to imagine refuting him. 

“There’s rules about that you know.  You’ve got an obligation to control your weeds.”

I wasn’t sure there were actual rules but if there were no one enforced them that I knew of.  We had Canada thistles in the sheep pasture that washed in from the neighbor’s conservation acres but we pretty much accepted that, as least Dad seemed to.  He may have complained softly to Mom and I once or twice about the thistles but he never would have mentioned it to anyone else.

The Gunn family hadn’t farmed that place during my lifetime.  The Gunn place was farmed by a tenant whom Bob didn’t mention that wasn’t particularly good about taking care of weeds before they went to seed.  He and I both knew who that farmer was but neither of us would say his name.  Burdock was a weed that had leaves a lot like cocklebur but sent up a flowery top stem loaded with brown seed.  It was a lot like sourdock.   There was no catalog of weeds defining names and types to my knowledge, just what the farmers called them in the area.  There were so many.  Burdock and sourdock were both especially hard to get rid of.  The best way was to eliminate weeds like dock (sour or bur) and Canadian thistle was to dig them before they went to seed with a spade, shake the dirt off the roots, then let it dry up and die.  Farmers then would never think of using weed spray in a pasture where cows could get to it.

“Makes me mad about that burdock,” Bob said. 

He talked very slow and looked directly at me.  He had pale eyes and a big chew of Red Man in one cheek.  He’d pause and just look at me.  I felt on the spot.  I felt I had to say something but I didn’t know what.  In those situations, I learned from listening to my Dad talk, it was best to be non committal.  There were lots of things you could say that meant next to nothing but still counted as a response.

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, and I’ll tell you something else.  You let that burdock get into your soybeans, let it get tall with those thick stalks, and when you harvest it’ll clog up your combine to beat the band.”

“You don’t say.”

I wished Bob would talk about the Cubs.  I could care less about burdock. 

Bob may have worked slowly but he worked all the time.  We would be driving into town on the hard road to go to church and Bob would be out there in his pasture digging that burdock of a Sunday morning. 

“Good God does he never stop?” Mom would ask in a loud voice.

“NO,” my Dad would answer.

Bob and his son Larry, who looked just like him, didn’t wear gloves to do anything, even bale hay.  I didn’t wear gloves all the time when I worked, but I sure did when I baled.  The baling twine would cut into your fingers and give you blisters.  Picking up 1200 bales in a day, even with a hay hook on the rack wagon dragging them from the baler and tossing them up high, was hard on your hands.  Why the Muellers didn’t wear gloves was beyond me.  I thought it a form of stubbornness.

The weed thing, I was convinced, was not about weeds robbing the crops of nutrients, or clogging up your machinery, but pride.  Back then farmers planted their soybeans in wide rows and walked through them cutting and pulling weeds.  No need to spend money on spray if you could walk your beans.  Sometimes they walked the beans twice if they were first walked when weeds, barely sprouted on the first pass, grew tall.  Later in the year the farmers drove slowly in their pickups and cars looking at their neighbor’s fields. 

“I went by the Ploenes place on my way to Graff’s in Minier to get those cultivator parts,” Mom said. I knew what farm she was talking about.  It was the Ploenes place but it wasn’t farmed by Ploenes.

“That bean field he’s got by the Stringtown road is just full of corn and butterprint.  Looks awful. 

“Yeah,” Dad would say shaking his head.  They talked about weeds as if their very existence was shameful.

The only time I would ever see Bob Mueller not working was when he and his wife played pinochle with some of the other farm couples on Saturday nights in the winter.  When they played at the little card tables in our living room I’d pass through on my way upstairs and have to speak to everyone.  When I was a little kid Mom made me pass out the tally cards on a little plate but I got too big for that.

So there was Bob wearing a flannel shirt and regular pants with shoes.  It was odd not seeing him in bib overalls and boots.  The cards fanned out in his big callused hands looked small.  Not only did he look out of place he seemed uncomfortable.  I don’t think he especially liked cards.  He couldn’t control what was dealt him.  No liquor at those parties, just lemonade or coffee.  I looked closely at Bob’s cheeks to determine if that one side sagged down more than the other seeing it wasn’t packed with chewing tobacco.  He looked back at me quietly.  Farmers at a card party let their wives do most of the talking.

Bill Linden, who lived two places away towards town until Bob Mueller later bought it and started farming it, didn’t have sons so he hired me to help him walk his beans, starting when I was pretty young.  I forget how much he paid me but it was less than baling hay.  Walking beans was so much easier.  I liked being under the sky all day, feeling the air and sun.  We‘d each take four rows at a time, reaching over the rows with a weed hook or a hoe to cut down the corn, but always pulling and shaking out the weeds.  From time to time one of Bill’s daughters would help us but not often.  When they did they always put a hand to the front of their blouse when they bent over to pull a weed, which was disappointing.  I‘d take my shirt off to get tan but Bill, like all those farmers round there, wore a long sleeve shirt rolled up.  Except for their forearms, neck, and face (but not their forehead, protected by the bill of a cap) their skin was white as snow. 

Bill talked comparatively more than the other farmers.  Occasionally he would even ask you a question, which was unusual.  Bob Mueller for example always talked about himself and farming, and always in declarative sentences.  Once Bill and I were walking a bean field close to his house and I heard music and singing coming from inside.  No commercials.

“You got records playing in there Bill?”

“No, that’s Frances (Bill’s wife).  She’s playing her autoharp and singing them old hillbilly songs.  I know when she’s doing that she’s lonesome for her family down South.”

She sang nicely, high and nasal. 

“Autoharp huh?” I had no idea what that was.

“Yeah she knows lots of songs.  She can play mandolin a little too.  You ever play music David?”

“No.  Just whistle. Sing once in a while.”

“Me neither but Frances, she likes her music and I’ve come to think it’s actually good for a person.”

He paused and looked back towards the house over his shoulder.  He smiled.  I thought he looked wistful.  Something.

“Yeah, she’s an old hill girl but I like her plenty.”

Those men never talked about feelings let alone their wives.  I was surprised to hear Bill say words that so dangerously bordered on being sweet.  I couldn’t think of a response.

That’s the way it was, working with those men, those solitary farmers, when farming was simple and hard.  I never imagined it being any different.

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