Don, Rustred, and Nedd, and Jim of the Yesterday's Tractor Company: Antique Tractor Headquarters forum, provided much-needed information about this tractor. A very special thanks to Jim who agreed to proofread the chapter of my novel that uses information he, Don, Rustred, Nedd, Sheldon and Dar provided. Posted temporarily, is the chapter:
Excerpt from my novel (working title: Dakota Tough:
Synopsis: Claire, a woman from the West Coast of Washington, meets Frank, a fourth generation North Dakota man through a singles Internet service. Frank presents himself as a "rancher" who owns a 750 acre place. With a great desire to fulfill the dream of partnering with a rancher, she wants to pursue the relationship, however, she is shocked when she first sees the "ranch," as it is not at all as he had led her to believe it would be. In this chapter, she visits Frank on his "ranch" for a second week to see if the dysfunction she observed on her first brief visit was due to negligence or overwhelm. She rolls up her sleeves and digs right in.
Boyd Helps with Hay
Copyright 2009-- no part may be copied or duplicated in any form without explicit, written permission from the author.
I set each man’s sandwich on a paper towel as they washed their hands, starting with Boyd. Each took his sandwich and headed outside. I followed Frank to the picnic table loaded down with all three of Betty’s cakes, placed those on the table and returned to the house for another load. By the time I arrived with a gallon of milk and jug of water they had consumed half of their sandwiches. I set off a third time to fetch plastic cups and my own sandwich and found myself more than irritated that they had neither waited for me before eating nor offered to help carry things outside. I decided it best to mentally excuse their rudeness; after all, they were likely half starved from moving all that hay.
The sky was cobalt blue without a cloud in sight. No longer a gentle breeze to rustle the elm leaves or wave the tall grass that grew at the edge of the lawn, the air had grown gooey. The only break in the stillness was the four of us.
It was notably cooler in the shade of dying Elms. Whole limbs wore tired, yellowed leaves while other limbs sported healthy branches that did not betray their fatal illness. In a few short years we would sit below skeletons, baking in the sun’s intense rays. In contrast, the bluegrass lawn spread beneath the Elms in a rich, thick carpet that seemed to cool the earth another five degrees. I kicked my shoes off to allow my toes to work the soft blades between them.
“Frank says you have horses too.” Boyd said as way of an ice-breaker.
“Four,” I confirmed.
“What do you do with them?”
“Trail ride mostly. I started packing in ’94. I got into driving accidentally when a friend of mine loaned me a little bicycle-wheel cart. Fortunately I got the bugs worked out with my old Paint mare before trying to teach any of the others to drive.”
“Had a wreck did you?”
“Well, it could have been. I was driving down the road when the wheel came off. She felt the extra drag and quit pulling. I’ve heard that driving is about the most dangerous of all equine sports. It does seem that a lot can go wrong!”
“Yea. It’s not as easy as it looks, that’s for sure,” Boyd agreed.
“Boyd’s got one for the record book,” Frank laughed, winking at Boyd.
“Oh boy, do I. I had a draft horse years ago and he was just about the easiest thing in the world to get along with. Well, like with you, this guy gave me this cart and I didn’t know the first thing in the world about getting a horse to drive. This horse took to things so easy, I figured all I’d have to do was hitch him up and drive him out.”
“Oh-oh,” I said, anticipating the outcome.
“’Oh-oh’s’ right! He stood just a nice as pie while I fumbled around and got the harness on. I think I had it mostly right. He stood still as a statue while I dragged that two wheeled cart up behind him and slipped the shafts into the tugs. Didn’t move a muscle while I attached things near as I could figure out to whatever it looked like they were supposed to attach to. Everything was going so well, I just sort of figured that we were home free.”
“Famous last words,” Frank chuckled.
“Yea, yea, smiled Boyd, rolling his eyes. “I got in that cart and said ‘Giddy-up’ and ole Dodge, he ‘giddy-up’ed all right!”
“Which county did you end up in?” I laughed.
“That’s about the size of it. He took off at a dead run. We hit the highway at about forty miles an hour. A semi truck was coming straight at us and that idiot laid on his horn and ole Dodge hung a hard right, went down the bank; flinged me out before flipping the cart. But that didn’t stop him. The wheel that hit the ground shattered into a million pieces. The cart bounced up, and if there’d still been two wheels, it might have stayed upright. He kept going, at break-neck speed, that cart just bouncing around behind him. I caught up with him two miles later. The shaft had broke and stabbed into the ground and I guess somehow he figured he’d better just stand around until something else came to mind.”
“No one was killed in the making of this film?” I asked incredulously.
“Nope. Well, just the cart. It was totaled.”
“Sounds like it,” I said thanking my lucky stars that I’d managed to escape bodily harm thus far. “So you ditched the horse and got into cars?”
“Well, something like that. I met Frank right after that. He worked with me and Dodge for a few months and we used him for a little farm work, but not for carts. I imagine Dodge could have done it, but I was scared shitless of trying again.
“I would be too."
"Where do you drive? You live in the city, I thought Frank said.”
“I live in Bellingham. I guess it would feel like a city to you guys, but it’s just a big town by West Coast standards. I drive in town, actually. I called the police department to make sure it was legal and it is, as long as you follow the rules set up bicycles and dogs; you have to obey traffic signals and pick up your poop. The poop part was challenging so I bought a ‘bun bag’ because I usually drive alone. Picking up poop while attempting to drive is as close to impossible as anything I’ve ever tried. They use bun bags on city carriage horses to catch poop on the fly. They also call them diapers, but I think ‘bun bag’ is a bit more dignified.”
“She ain’t much for ‘bodily functions,’ are you Darlin’?” Frank said teasing.
“No bodily functions. Absolutely not!” I laughed, adding, in my best Boston accent to quote the character Charles Winchester III from the M*A*S*H television series, “First of all I don’t ‘sweat,’ I ‘perspire; secondly I don’t ‘perspire.’”
The men laughed.
“You know about ‘Meader Supply? They’re a pretty good company to get driving stuff from. They’re up in New Hampshire. I’ve got a catalog of their’s at home. I’ll bring it over and you can have it.”
“Frank’s a real good horse trainer,” Boyd volunteered. “He’s got patience and a gentleness that really goes a long way with horses. Good with people too. We used to do a lot of training together. He’s a real good teacher, and a true-blue friend.”
“You’re just sayin’ that ‘cause I’m sitting right here,” Frank said, feigning a sulk.
“Oh shut up, you asshole,” Boyd quipped back punching him roughly on the shoulder. They laughed again. “Why’d you quit training together?” I asked.
“Old Dodge foundered and I had him put down. Decided I didn’t want to get another horse. Too many strings to my heart. So I got into cars again. I’m a Chevy man. I had a Corvair when I was in high school and I tinkered with that thing every weekend. Had to get a job to support my habit. At the same time, my brother bought a Jeep, threw a snowplow on it, and made about four times as much as I spent by plowing snow in the winter. But I didn’t learn. I’m still dumping money into inanimate objects!”
“The Camaro’s real sweet!” Mike piped up.
“She’s comin’ along.”
“We’d better get back at that hay. Darlin’, if you drive the tractor, the three of us can load and it’ll go a lot faster. You up for a lesson?” “Sure!”
“Okay, we’ll get the trailer hooked up if you want to get them dishes put up.” “All right,” I said. The men stood up and wandered off toward the barn. It seemed to me the least they could have done was to each take something into the house before departing. In my family growing up, and later when I was married, we always bussed dishes to the kitchen even if we did not participate in washing them. I gathered an armful of dishes and set off for the kitchen. It took two trips to bring everything in.
I’d forgotten to heat water for washing so while the water heated I put the milk and cakes away then brushed my teeth. The men had left the bathroom sink full of grimy water again. I pulled the plug and rinsed my hand with the Whisk pitcher’s water, splashing the sides of the basin to wash away the scum.
By the time I’d returned to the kitchen, I found the pot had little bubbles stuck to the sides of the pan indicating it was not too far from boiling and I figured that was hot enough to do the few dishes we’d accumulated. The worst, of course, was the Revere Ware pan, for even though I had thought to put a little water in it to soften the scabs, they stuck like dried glue.
Frank appeared just as I let the water out. “Hey, Darlin’. ‘Bout done?”
“Just finished.” “Did you check the bucket before letting the water drain?”
“Oh no. Not again!” I whined.
“It’s probably okay. Here, let’s take a look.” Frank strode to the cupboard and peered under the sink. “Yup. It’s okay. This is the last it’ll hold though. Let’s empty it now so we don’t have another wreck.”
“I don’t suppose it would be too much to ask to have a drain that drains?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” Frank said earnestly. “See the windmill behind the Russian olives? That’s where the well is and it’s only about 75 feet from this window. If we just drained the sink onto the ground below the window here, we’d probably contaminate the well. I ain’t got the money to put in a proper septic system. So we’re kinda in a bind, see?”
I signed. I had long ago coined the expression, “spaghetti job,” for this sort of situation because it felt as though completing the task at hand was like trying to pull one spaghetti noodle from a whole bowl of them; in order to get the one you needed, the others had to be pulled apart too. One led to a second, the second to a third, the third to a fiftieth, that to a hundredth and getting one thing done really became about doing dozens of pre and sub-tasks.
Why did he put this trailer here anyway, I wondered. It was susceptible to flooding when the rains rushed down the coulee. It was too close to the well. If he’d planted it on higher ground the pump might not have flooded and there would still be water in the house.
I bit my lip. “Okay,” I said, trying to sound cheerful.
“We got the trailer hooked up. We’re waitin’ on you so you can have a little driving lesson.” He scooped his arm around my waist and herded me toward the door. “You ready?” he asked.
“Hat,” I said, tucking my ponytail into the baseball cap and practicing swishing flies. “Shoes. I added slipping my feet into my sneakers without untying the laces. “Ready.”
“No socks?” he asked disapprovingly.
“We ain’t got to ‘hot’ yet, Darlin. We can get up over 100 degrees around here. Gets so hot that a light rain after a day like that will steam the wheat right on the plants. They ain’t no good for harvest after that. That’s ‘hot’.”
“This place is the most hostile land I’ve ever heard of. Your people have been here for five generations?”
“Yup. We’re tough. Dakota tough,” Frank added with a wink. He gathered me in his arms. “Don’t worry none, Darlin’. You got your man to take care of you.” He paused to give me a lingering kiss and I melted into his arms. His strength was intoxicating. Was I falling in love with the man in spite of the red flags that hovered around my head? Did I need someone to love me so badly or did I really love him for who he was.
Who was he?
“We’d better get out there.” I said, deferring my self-argument for a later time.
Mike had the tractor parked in the shade. He and Boyd were sitting on the deck of the trailer.
“’Bout time you love-bugs decide to show up,” Boyd teased. “I figure you want to off me by making me work at the hottest part of the day.”
“I was just telling her we ain’t got to ‘hot’ yet.”
“Feels hot enough to me to call ‘hot.” Boyd rebutted.
“How ‘bout a lesson before we head up to pick up them bale?” Mike offered as I approached.
“Absolutely! I haven’t the faintest idea as to how to drive this thing,” I admitted studying the floor of the tractor. There were two pedals. Gas? Clutch? Brake? I had no idea.
“Brake pedals,” Mike pointed as though reading my mind.
“Both of them?” I asked searching for what could possibly be the clutch and gas pedal.
“Yup. Neat thing about this tractor is that you can actually help it turn just by hitting one of them pedals. Push on the right one, you go right; push on the left one, you go left.”
“So you don’t need the steering wheel?”
“Oh yea. That little trick helps in soft ground or on something slippery, like wet grass or snow or something. Them brakes are a little wore out though, so you might not get a good turn. The right one’s a little more wore out that the left I think, cause if you push real hard on both of ‘em, it kinda’ wants to pull a bit to the left. Not too bad though.”
“Okay. So where’s the clutch? It should be on the floor with the brake pedals.”
“Platform. Tractor’s ain't got a ‘floor’,”Mike corrected with a gentle smile. “See this here?” He pointed to a lever that nearly extended to the top of the hood. I would have guessed it to be a gear shift. “This here’s the clutch. You pull it back toward you to disengage and push it forward to engage. You just let it out nice and easy, just like you would driving your truck.”
“If that’s the clutch, where… how… what do you do to shift gears?” I asked. I could feel my eyes starting to glaze over betraying my growing confusion. This was compounded by the realization that I would need to operate this machine well enough to make the men’s work efficient and safe. What if my brain froze and couldn’t remember how to stop it and I ran someone over?
“Don’t worry. It ain’t that complicated! You’ll get the hang of it in no time,” Mike consoled. “It shifts like a car, but the pattern’s kind’a different from what you’re probably used to.”
“’Probably’?” I tagged, feigning good cheer I hoped would camouflage the fear welling inside my head.
Mike laughed gently. He waited a few seconds until he sensed I could hear again.
You ready to drive her?”
Mike recognized panic when he saw it. “How ‘bout I drive her up to the hay field. Then you can kinda see how she handles and stuff.”
“Good idea,” I agreed.
Mike sprang onto the tractor with the grace of a cat. “Come on up,” he suggested. I followed somewhat clumsily and stood awkwardly on his left.
“Okay, so when we shut her down we’ve disengaged the clutch,” he said, pulling on that long lever I’d guessed to be the shifting lever, “we set the brake, and turn off the ignition. Nothin’ to it. And to start her up again, we just check real quick to be sure the clutch ain’t engaged,” he paused to pull the lever again. “and we make sure she’s out of gear,” Mike added, wiggling the shifting lever that came out of the platform from what I recognized as to be the transmission cover.
“Shifting pattern’s here,” he said, pointing to two rows of numbers and an “R” cast into the transmission cover. See the pattern? Away from you there’s second, first and fifth gears, and on the second row it’s reverse, fourth and third. For now, we’ll just put her in first gear. We won’t worry none about how to shift gears. You got enough to learn without adding that.”
The irony of his words made me laugh. “That’s some relief!” I choked. “I just have to learn how to use a clutch that’s operated by hand and a gas pedal that’s… Where is the gas pedal?”
“Your ‘gas pedal’ is operated by this lever that comes off the steering post.”
“That looks like a shifting lever on an old American car or truck,” I said.
“Yea, it does kinda look like that,” Mike agreed. “But on this tractor, it’s the throttle. You pull back to rev her up, push it to slow her down. You want to run her around 1,000 to 1,500 rpm’s.”
“So, how do you know when you’re at 1,000 to 1,500 rmp’s?” I asked searching the instrument panel for a tachometer.
As usual, Mike read my mind. “There ain’t no gauge for that. Them gauges tell you what the oil pressure and the temperature is and how she’s charging.”
“No fuel gauge?”
“We use a stick.”
“I drove a ’58 bug with a ‘fuel gauge’ like that.” I recalled.
“It starts real simple. This here’s the switch. It’s a ‘lever’ type switch so you just turn it to the first click to turn on the ignition, two clicks for ignition and bright lights, three clicks for ignition and dim lights and four clicks for lights only. We’ll make sure the clutch is disengaged, and be sure the gear shift in neutral, then click the switch over just once, and hit the starter button!
The tractor roared to life.
“You can lean against the fender here,” Mike shouted over the engine.
I propped myself against the fender and held on to the back of his seat with my right hand and gripped the fender with my left until I realized that a slip might drop my hand onto the wheel. I released my white-knuckled death grip, leaned in toward Mike, and clutched the back of his seat with both hands.
“So now, we put her in gear. We’ll just put her in first. Then we real gently engage the clutch and off we go!”
The tractor clipped along at a pretty good pace. I would have had to walk much faster than my usual sauntering pace in order to keep up had I been walking along beside it. I concentrated on the contour of the land so that I might anticipate bumps and tipping.
“Mike? How old is this tractor anyway?” I asked from my perch on the clamshell shaped fenders.
“Oh… ‘bout 54 years I guess now. It’s a ’49 Minneapolis Moline. My great Gran’dad bought her when my grandpa was my age! He’d flipped that old tricycle tractor you probably seen up there above the outhouse and then he got this one. She’s got them two front wheels spread far apart. And they’re adjustable too. It’s a Model ZAE and she’s just as tough as she was back then,” Mike added and I wondered if he realized this level of information dissemination was a bit over his audience’s head.
“See that disc over there in the garden?” he added, pointing to a couple of rows of rusty shallow bowls lined up like dishes spaced out in a dish rack that were attached somehow to a couple of metal bars. That there’s got 16 inch discs on a seven foot beam and we pull ‘er just fine with this Minnie with the disc fully extended running her in third gear!”
“Wow!” I said, sensing he needed me to be impressed, but not having a clue as to what in heaven’s name he just said.
Past the garden, he veered to the left and we started up the hill to the west. “I’ll get her to the top of the hill so that you don’t have to start on an incline,” he suggested.
Frank and Boyd, who had been riding on the back of the flatbed, slid off and began tossing bales onto the deck. Frank could easily take one bale in each hand like giant suitcases. Boyd grappled with one bale at a time and seemed to fight each one as though he were the fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea trying to land the 80-pound halibut.
When we reached the top of the hill, Mike brought the tractor to a halt. Frank leapt onto the flatbed and began stacking the hay. He had the front third stacked two high by the time Mike concluded his lesson with me. “Okay, now we’re gonna put her back in first gear so you won’t have to do nothing but steer. We’ll throttle her down so you don’t go too fast. You don’t gotta shift or nothing. Real simple. You okay?”
“Yea, I think I can do that, but I’d really like it if you’d stay up here until I’m sure that I can stop it just in case something happens. I need to know how to stop.”
“Don’t worry. It’s easier than driving a car! You’ll see.” He read my expression and laughed encouragingly. “Really. It’s not so hard. I’ll stay here for a little bit.”
I hadn’t realized that I’d been holding my breath until at last I could hold it no longer and out came a huge exhale.
Mike laughed. “Okay, come on. Sit here,” he said getting up and scooting past me to leap to the ground. “Move the shift lever to first. The gear pattern’s cast on the transmission cover down below you there,” he reminded me. “First ain’t on the left. It’s the second position. See? It goes second then first then fifth. First find second.”
I thought of the old Abbot and Costello skit, “Who’s on ‘first’,” but this did not appear to be the time to interject comedic impersonations.
“Yea. Now bring the lever down and take it over one notch.”
I pulled back, and slid over what I figured was one notch. Then pushed it forward again.
“No, that’s fifth. You missed a notch. Pull it back and slide it left, but a little less this time. That’s it! There you go. Okay. Now pull the throttle little until the RPMs are up around 1,000. Yea, that’s it. Now engage the clutch nice and slow.”
I stared blankly at him.
“It’s the tall lever. Just push her forward real easy.”
I took a long draw of air and pushed at glacial speed.
“Yea! That’s good. But you gotta take your foot off the brake,” he added noting that my feet had migrated instinctively to hold the brake pedals down as though my very life depended on them.
The tractor crept forward.
“You got it.” Mike encouraged walking along beside me.“I’m right here,” he coaxed. “You’re doin’ great! You’re a farmer now,” Mike whooped.
He walked along beside me for a few hundred feet. “You’re doin’ great. I’m gonna go help Dad and Boyd now. You okay?”
“I think I can do this now, Mike,” I replied feeling genuinely relieved.
Mike headed for two bales on the port side of the tractor. Like his dad, he snatched them by their strings and carried them as though they were no heavier than five gallon buckets. He slung the first one onto the second tier of hay at the front of the trailer and launched the second one before the first had landed.
The tractor zipped along at a pace I guessed to be around two miles per hour. The pace was driving Boyd very hard, but was so slow that Frank got down from the trailer and bucked hay until the deck was littered with bales. Then he jumped up, stacked the jumbled bales, and hopped off again to repeat the process.
We neared the end of the field and I realized I didn’t know where I should go next. I took aim at an aisle between two rows of bales and turned the tractor hard to the right. All at once I felt a rhythmic bumping. Alarmed, my feet instinctively slammed down on both pedals. At the same instant I heard Mike and Frank yell in unison, “STOP!”
But the tractor would not stop. It slowed a little, but I could not get it to stop.
“Disengage the clutch!” I heard Mike yell. “Pull the clutch! Pull the clutch lever.” I searched the floor for the clutch. The bumping continued.
Mike sprang onto the tractor and pulled the tall lever back. The tractor came to a stop. He shut off the ignition and directed me to slide the gearshift to neutral and set the brake.
Frank jogged up to the back of the tractor. He and Mike knew immediately what I did not. Turning sharply had jammed the back wheel of the tractor against the trailer. The torque of the tire against the right front corner of the trailer had caused the tongue to slide left along the axle, and in the eternity it had taken to jam on the brake and disengage the clutch, the tongue had traveled a good 18 inches along the axle. It was now in a most unusable position.
“Oh shit!” I spit out when I realize what I’d done.
“No harm done, Darlin’,” Frank consoled. “Ain’t the first time this has happened and it sure won’t be the last. Mike,”
“I’ll go get the crescent wrench and the hammer,” Mike anticipated. Frank nodded.
“Thank God,” Boyd replied. “Rest for the wicked,” he sighed and plopped down on the tongue.
“It’s okay, Darlin. Don’t panic. You okay? This has happened before, don’t worry.”
The kindness of his voice soothed my frayed nerves and I smiled sheepishly.
“ Climb on down!”
I stood up and realized I was shaking. Frank laughed and lifted me down to the ground and embraced me. I wanted to cry, but hid against his chest.
“You did good,” he encouraged. “There ain’t no harm done!” He tipped my chin up and looked into my eyes. His were dancing. “Remember when we were fixin’ this thing down in the coulee I told you it wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last? Well, we just didn’t expect ‘the last’ to be quite so soon,” he laughed.
I joined Boyd on the tongue. We watched Mike jogging effortlessly up the hill.
“I played football when I was in high school,” Boyd said patting his stomach. “All went to fat. Waste of good muscles and stamina, old age.”
“Oh yea, Boyd,” I chided. “You’re over the hill all right.”
“I’m tellin’ you, Boyd. A few weeks out here on the ranch and you’d be in top-notch shape in no time.”
Mike arrived and wasn’t out of breath. He handed the crescent wrench to his dad who went to work loosening the nut. When it was loose, Mike pounded the axle as Frank watched to tell him when it was mostly centered again, then he tightened the bolt again. “Good to go!”
“You can’t turn quite so tight.” Mike coached. “When you turn, just make a nice, gradual sweep and keep an eye on the side you’re turning to so you can straighten her out before you jackknife her. We all done it,” he added so that I wouldn’t feel the fool.
Laughing at them for the care they were taking with me, I stood up. “Okay. I’ll try to remember all this. Does someone else want to start this monster?” I added, the feelings of insecurity welling up again.
“No, it ain’t that hard.” Frank urged.
I climbed onto the tractor and sat in the padded seat while Frank slipped the hammer and wrench into the toolbox behind the seat. Mike was already up on the trailer re-stacking the bales that had been shaken apart when the trailer was bouncing around.
Frank rattled off instructions for starting the machine while my mind fought to hear all he had to say. It was overwhelming. I still felt badly about rearranging the axle and my mind was busy trying to figure out else I might do to screw things up. Still, I managed to follow his instructions and the tractor rumbled to life. Mike hopped to the ground and joined Frank who stood beside the giant back wheel.
“Way to go, Darlin’!” Frank chimed. “Now, find first gear. We’ll go real slow. Slow is good!” He walked me through finding first gear as patiently as Mike had done earlier. “Now remember: no sharp turns. Keep an eye on the trailer, like Mike said, and just take nice, round turns. We’re gonna go down that row,” he pointed north where the coyote had slipped over the ridge yesterday when we’d checked the moisture of the hay. “Go on this side of them bales near the old driveway, and when you get toward the bottom, make a nice wide turn and go along the north end of the field heading east on this side of the last row of bales.”
“Throttle up to about 1,000 RPMs.” “ That’s it! Okay, boys, we’re good to go!”
I let off on the brake and pushed on the clutch and the tractor lurched forward, frightening me. I instinctively jammed my feet back onto the pedals. It barely slowed. I stomped harder. But by that point the machine was rolling forward and I gulped away my fear and concentrated on steering. A minute later I caught my feet still clinging to the brakes. I coaxed them off the pedals feeling like I was talking some guy who was bent on suicide off the ledge. They peeled off reluctantly.
I remembered what my mom said when I was learning to drive a stick shift: “Pretend you have a bowl of water on the back seat when you’re starting and stopping. You don’t want to spill the water, so practice smooth stops and starts. Your passengers will appreciate it.” My passengers would have whiplash right about now. And Frank would have a little re-stacking to do.
Frank and Mike resumed their two-bale per trip loads while Boyd struggled with one. They filled up the bed until it was a jumble then Frank climbed aboard. While Boyd and Mike continued to add to the jumble he stacked the bales until he’d caught up with the surplus. Then he hopped down and bucked hay with them again.
By the time we had gone down the north-south line and the west-east line, we’d filled the trailer with bales five tiers high with a few bales riding on top of those.
“That’ll do for this load,” Frank called out. Let’s head to the barn. Mike, you drive.”
Mike leapt onto the platform beside me and coached me to a stop. Throttle down, apply brake, take her out of gear, set the brake. He jumped to the ground as I dismounted and then he sprang back up again, offering me a hand. I climbed carefully up and sat on the fender as he drove.
“Dad used to do this all by himself. I remember being so little I couldn’t do nothin’ to help him and I hated that. Even then I knew he was doin’ everything he could to keep this place going, and I felt like I was just a big old rock around his neck. He’d be out here putting up hay by himself. He’d put the tractor in first, like we done today, only there wasn’t no one to drive, so he’d tie off the steering wheel with baling wire and catch up with it on the corners, get it turned, rewire the steering wheel and keep on going. He’d have to stop every now and again to stack the bales tight on the trailer. I was sure proud the first time I could help him.” Mike smiled broadly.
“How old were you when you started being able to help?”
“I think I was about six or so. Maybe five.”
Mike drove to the barn with Frank and Boyd riding atop the load. When we reached the barn, Don jumped off and took down the hot wire so that Mike could back right up to the hay pile. Boyd stayed up on the trailer and threw bales down to Mike and Don who made the art of stacking look like a choreographed dance. They never interfered with the other’s movement even thought they were contributing to the same stack. Would we ever work like that, like telepathically connected dancers? I thought of his kindness toward me, and Mike’s. They were such gentle souls, these two. Neither had quipped back with satirical jabs or joined the “vulture culture” banter that Boyd seemed willing to initiate. They seemed to be honest, kind, good-natured souls, and that was certainly worth a lot in my book.
I watched Frank’s muscles flexing under his thin cotton shirt. He was damp but that was the only sign that this work was strenuous. Neither he nor his 17 year old son showed signs of tiring. Boyd, on the other hand, was becoming red in the face again.
“Boyd? Do you want help tossing bales down?” I called up.
“Help me up,” I called.
Boyd reached a hand down and helped haul me to the top of the pile that was now down one set of bales. We did not work smoothly like Frank and Mike, but bumped into each other like a couple of keystone cops. A few times we nearly bumped the other off the top of the hay stack, and a few more times I nearly threw myself off when I failed to release my grip soon enough. My glove routinely sailed off tucked into the string of a bale and had to be retrieved by Frank or Mike who took turns tossing it back up to me.
“This is hard work,” I panted.
“You’re telling me!” Boyd gasped.
Frank sounding like a football coach. “After this load we’ll get some water!”
We finished unloading the trailer. Boyd and I stumbled into the back yard, collapsing into chairs at the picnic table while Frank brought out a gallon jug of water and four plastic glasses. Boyd drank greedily. “Careful,” I warned. You’ll give yourself a stomach ache drinking so much so quickly.”
He wiped the water from his chin. “I don’t care,” he slurred.
Frank collected our glasses and set them on the picnic table with the jug. “Okay, men. Back at it.” He threw an arm over my shoulder and we led the procession back to the trailer where we resumed our positions: Frank and Boyd on the trailer, Mike driving, and me riding shotgun.
As I surveyed the land from this antique tractor I considered what I had taken for granted in the years and years I’d been buying hay. In those bales I had not considered twenty acre plots of alfalfa cut then eagerly monitored for just the right moisture to hold its leaf yet not cause bales to mold. I had not considered optimum sizes of grass leaves harvested before seed heads were formed. I certainly never considered the multiple trips around a field, first cutting, then turning and raking. More trips would be needed for baling. The only part I had really experienced was that of loading every bale by hand and unloading it – by hand. I had no clue that antique tractors still performed gallantly with men whose life-blood depended on them. And I certainly never saw the faces of men who labored with unimaginable determination and grit, creating autopilot steering systems with baling wire until a six year-old kid was tall enough or strong enough to replace the wire. In cutting open a bale of hay, I neither saw that boy, now seventeen, nor his forty year old father co-creating a choreographed dance on a 750 acre “ranch” in North Dakota. That image would last forever, indelibly burned into my memory.
There were ten loads in all. Seven hundred eighty-three bales, according to the counter on the baler. $1,957.50. It had felt like seven thousand bales to me. They were giving them away at $2.50 each.
The sun slipped over the hill on our last trip back to the barn. Frank suggested I return to the house and get supper ready. I eagerly took on the new task, but felt a little badly for leaving Boyd the task of flipping bales down all by himself.
In the trailer, I turned on the florescent light in the pantry-kitchen shattering the cabin-like ambiance and replacing it with that of a garish, green-toned trailer house. I’d assessed our stores earlier and now pulled pork chops from the refrigerator, frozen broccoli from the freezer and the Uncle Bens white rice out of the cupboard in the pantry-office. After starting the stove, I put vegetable oil in the enemy Revere Ware pan, heating the oil while I salted, peppered and sprinkled the chops with flour. Then I dropped them into the hot oil hoping that they would brown rather glue themselves to the pan’s bottom. After doling water from the five-gallon bucket for the rice I lit another burner to heat the water. And in a third pot I poured in a few cups of frozen broccoli, covered the pot and left it on the back burner, unlit.
I rummaged through the refrigerator looking for a way to dress up the pork chops and found a jar of apricot jam. In the cupboard below the sweets I found a bottle of sherry. I made a glaze from these two and after the pork chops had cooked, added a little water to the pan and smeared the tops of the chops with the glaze then let them simmer while I made a cheese sauce for the broccoli and started the rice. When the men appeared, I heated the broccoli and made gravy for the rice from the chop-flavored water in the Revere Ware pan. By the time they had washed up, dinner was on the table.
“Wow, Claire, this is good. You have a sister who wants to move to North Dakota?”
“No. I’m afraid she’s a city girl and prefers Dallas to Bismarck.”
“Too bad. Too bad,” Boyd said shaking his head.
“So, how’s your back feel?” I asked him acutely feeling my own.
“What back? Shit-oh-dear, I’d forgotten how hard this is. Why did I volunteer to help you anyway, Frank?”
“You just can’t stay away from me. It’s my magnetic charm.”
“Magnetic charm, my ass.”
Boyd left right after dinner. Don and Mike saw him off while I took on the dishes. When I’d finished I set out to find out where they were and found them gathered in the cool, dark night around the orange Camaro.
“You didn’t get very far,” I observed.
“You know boys and their cars,” Frank said, cupping an arm around me. For as hot as it had been earlier that day, it had cooled off considerably and I was a little chilly. Frank placed me so that my back was to his chest and wrapped his arms around me. His body was warm and comforting.
We stood around the car for a few more minutes. It reminded me of being a teenager in the 1970’s in the days when my boyfriend of the day spent all of his spare time fixing up cars. I handed him wrenches, hammers, screwdrivers, screws, bolts, nuts, spark plugs day after day. ’62 Monza Corvair Convertible, ‘71 Triumph Spitfire Mark IV, ‘58 Volkswagon Bug Deluxe Sedan. Here I was again, 25 years later hanging around old cars whose owners were giving them facelifts.
“Didn’t Corvette make a car this color?” I asked, pursuing a niggling memory in my head.
“Hugger Orange: It hugs corners, so it’s ‘the hugger’!” Boyd said pretending to hug a sweetheart beside him. “Came out in ’68. Corvette used the same color in 1969, but they called it Monaco Orange.”
“So, did you pick the car for the name of the color?”
“Well, the color and the year. ’69 was the cat’s meow of muscle cars, and this little baby really has power. And she’s cute.”
I stared at the boxy little car. Its angular mustache grill bent in the middle like Barbara Streisand’s nose. Stuck on the grill a few inches from the outside corner was a lonely little Volkswagon-style headlight minus the “eyelashes” that gave the bug’s lights charm. A little chrome bumper curled up on either side of the grill giving it an absurd little grin and under the bumper two round lights gave the appearance of it having symmetrical moles on its chin. No, I would not classify this car as ‘cute.’ Bugs were cute. Kharmann Ghia were cute. Triumphs were cute. This little car was just plain homely.
“I see.” I said innocently.
Boyd headed out shortly after that and Frank, Mike and I returned to the house where they selected a movie and we settled down for the evening video.