Cales from England & An Old Driver


| November/December 1978



Threshing tackle

George W. Eves

222 Porter Avenue, Seaside Heights, New Jersey 08751

Several years ago, thanks to some magazine articles, I was contacted by a man in England. Over several years of correspondence we have built up what I feel is a true friendship. We have never met face to face, but I pray that we shall, yet we are on a first name basis. If we ever meet there will be stories to tell 'late atha nite.' Though he was born 30 years before me, I feel we understand each other, as witness some of the tales he has told me; and given permission for me to tell. Some are serious, some are humerous, and all seem similar to the ones I hear from 'old timers' here. Geroge, as I shall call him, was born about 1900 and began his career about the age of 12. The first of his experiences which he has related to me is as follows:

'During my four years apprenticeship, I was always the mate, dreaming of the day when I too would drive one of those wonderful engines. The 14-18 War shaved two years off my waiting years, for most of the firms drivers racked into the Army. The dawn when I heard the boss utter the magic words, 'George, I want you to take over old Jack's set of threshing tackle,' I was just 15. That's all there was to it no period of learner driver. One evening I was a fitters mate, next morning at 6:00 A.M. I was a man in charge of a set of threshing tackle, two old men, and for the first time in living history, my gang were twelve bobby dazzlers in the newly created womens land army. I shall never forget their arrival. They pedalled into the yard on bikes, chattering away like a flock of sparrows.....'Whose gaffer (foreman) here', and it was some minutes before I could unglue my tongue from the roof of my mouth where it became stuck, to say, 'I am.' Me, who had never been in charge of anything before. Conversations were hard to come by, but I did gather all 12 had left school last autumn. They had all drifted into a firm which made all manner of envelopes, this was in the midlands so their dialect needed a lot of understanding. Then when the cry went up for girls to work on the land, they volunteered as one. They spent a month at a training school, learned to harness a horse, milk a cow and tar a barn, then they were packed off down south into a large house commandeered by the government as a hotel, and 12 hours later this gaggle of pretty seventeen-year-olds stood before me, greener than grass.

'What's that,' said one redhead, pointing to the engine simmering away belted up to the thresher? Later that day they found out. There were all the problems as you can imagine, blistered hands, no first aid boxes then, sacks overflowing, chaff shoot blocked up, belts off, no stop cries of 'gaffer' and, of course, one of the pitchers fell off the stack. But they learned fast, and for that matter so did I, not about threshing but the strange way in which a female mind works. In about a month they had worked themselves into a very efficient gang, and I was the envy of all the lads of my own age. One of them used to steer my engine around torturous country lanes just wide enough for the tackle and in and out of gateways as though she had been doing it for the last 20 years. But they were terribly homesick. I was often comforting, or trying to, some tearful lassie who needed a motherly touch not the fumbling words of a green engine driver. But we made it.

'Those war years were hectic. The first night as a threshing engine driver, a bomb from an invading zeppelin missed the sleeping van I and the two old men were sleeping in by 25 yards. My driving career was almost ended before I got started.' And now for another letter:

'Gee, what a lot we missed in those Victorian times. The worst punishment a school teacher could inflict on any boy who misbehaved in class, was to sit him next to a girl. He would loathe her afterwards and cross the other side of the road if he saw her approach. I often smile watching the kids here coming out of school, what a lot of tiddlers they are. The top class at my school held boys 5' 10' high, grown men by today's standards, who barring age could have gone straight into the police force, and the girls were grown women at twelve, only the rigid mode of dress forbid they be mistaken. So when I found myself in charge of that threshing gang, although being a big chap, I was just 15 and a ?, and green as grass in how a female mind works. I learned that in due course. And the same went for the girls. They regarded me like an ogre and were unapproachable. When on the first day, one of them, despite my frequent warning of watching the end of their pitch fork when raking out the cavil and poppy pots and docks from under the machine, and close proximity to pulleys and belts in those days, never guarded. The inevitable happened the result a broken arm. When I went to investigate I was shooed away. The very thought that I should see a bared shoulder was unthinkable. A week later the girl on the stack got too close to the edge and toppled, resulting in a broken collarbone. These girls were billeted three miles in a big house commandeered by the government and in charge of a haughty buxum woman of the nobility, who used to come and visit me and my gang once every day, who watched over them like an old hen.'