I had always been a city kid. My closest experience with farming came when "the farmer's daughter" became my wife, and I helped with baling hay.
As a young man, my regular job took me to St. Paul, Minn., each day to do construction work, so when the weekend came, that was "my day." My wife's only brother always went racing on weekends and the first year we were married, Lila volunteered me to help "Dad."
I usually slept in on Saturdays but getting up early was not a problem. I arrived on the farm at 7 a.m., and Erwin already had the tractor hooked to the baler. He also had pulled two other wagons out to the field and left them there, then walked back. Because I had experience using construction equipment, I asked him if he wanted me to drive. "When you own the equipment," he said, "you drive the equipment."
Upon arriving at the field, I had no trouble hooking the empty hay wagon to the back of the baler. I was quite proud of myself after we had completed almost one round. When the tractor stopped, I had hay bales stacked on both sides with a walkway down the center. Erwin got on the wagon and explained that the bales had to be arranged a certain way, working from the back to the front. It seems he used a bale fork that would pick up, I think, 10 bales at a time. He also told me that we wouldn't ever get done if he had to stop all the time.
I got pretty good at stacking. On the corners, it seemed, that's when the bales would drop to the ground because I couldn't reach them. I became skilled at jumping off and retrieving the bales before another one came. Having worked with my hands, I didn't use gloves. The twine didn't bother my hands at all. I had never owned a long-sleeved shirt, so by evening my arms looked like I had measles.
Changing to the second wagon, I noticed a board on the floor was broken. I mentioned to my father-in-law that in St. Paul, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) would "red tag" the wagon and it wouldn't move until it had been fixed. Erwin told me that if I stepped into the hole, I would know that it was there. He was right. I think it took three weeks for the scabs (which were as high up as my groin) to fall off my leg.
We pulled both wagons with the second tractor to the barn. I was given a rope and told to pull it until the bale fork appeared, then pull the fork to the wagon. Erwin would arrange the bale fork and set the forks into the bales. He controlled an electric power winch with another rope. When he pulled it, the bales went up in the air until they got to the track and were moved away into the barn. This was much easier than using a conveyor, the previous practice. In addition, I didn't have to get into a hot barn.
When the hay load got to the other end of the barn, I would pull the rope and trip the fork, which would drop the bales. Then I would pull the forks back for another load of hay. The second wagon went real smooth until I realized that I was stepping on the trip rope, and halfway into the barn the load tripped. The next weekend we spent the day replacing 2-by-10s in the haymow floor.
At noon, my mother-in-law came out to the field with lunch, and I was starved. I figured we had about two more wagon-loads and then I could go home and take a well-deserved nap, as I was beat. After unloading those two loads, I was surprised when Erwin said we were going to bale ditches next. Let me tell you, there isn't a ride at the county fair that's as exciting as baling a ditch full of hay. I spent four years in the U.S. Navy and rode out two typhoons, but this was worse than any of that!
We finished at about 7 that night and had everything unloaded. Erwin had a thing about himself that I really liked: He didn't work on Sundays. It had crossed my mind that if he did, I might have to take up racing, too. Sunday morning I didn't think I could get out of bed, and I didn't until 10 a.m., getting to church for the late service.
As the years went by, I got better and better at haying until my father-in-law didn't bale anymore and dropped out of the cattle business. One Sunday, when he was at my house for dinner, we reminisced about my career as a farmer. "For all the times you helped me bale," he asked, "how come you never used a bale hook?" "Bale hook?" I asked. "What's a bale hook?"
John Cole is a postcard collector and dealer from Minnesota. His memoir was originally published in the Goodhue (Minn.) County Ag Reporter.