the lesson

I looked out the window of the old ford truck as we backed into the drive. The truck looked like something out of The Grapes of Wrath, updated to a 70’s version. I was looking to see if there were any hay wagons parked at the Wright & Barley farm down the road. There were two of them, and though I’d been working hauling junk farm machinery with my father since sunup it appeared the day was far from over.

Jumping down off the running board of old yaller (the truck was a godawful color of yellow where it wasn’t rusted through), I headed down the driveway .

“where you going?”

“there’s hay to put up”

“You gonna eat first?”


Although this was the longest conversation between us all day, I wasn’t doing cartwheels in celebration of our communication breakthrough. My father was always taciturn, but after the death of my brother two years before he started taking brevity to new heights. I was covered in grease and dust, and had a farmboy tan. You know the kind; both arms and my neck middle eastern dark, and the rest of my body Scandinavian white.

When I hit the end of the driveway I started counting. It was 679 steps from the end of our driveway to the entrance to the farm. Though the sun was starting to slide inexorably to its demise on the western horizon, the temperature was still stifling, and I could see heat shimmering up off the cracked and potholed asphalt. It was the middle of July and the corn which the Norwegians always said was supposed to be “knee high by the fourth of July” was well over ten feet tall and tasseling. It was turning that sandy brown color that denoted to little moisture, and if it didn’t rain soon the crop was gonna wither on the stalk. For now though it stretched down both sides of the road, creating a tunnel effect that allowed me to enjoy that only person on earth affect that is so hard to come by.

As I reached step number 329 I could smell a sickly, pungent aroma wafting up from a pile of horseapples that had been cooking on the asphalt, and was presently being dive bombed by a host of flies. Flies 330 really 331 do 332 eat 333 crap I thought irreverantly never losing track of my step count. Counting made the walk seem more endurable after a day of sweating in the midsummer heat, and I can’t remember ever losing track. This points out how little of interest ever really happened here.

I stopped counting when my boots crunched for the first time on the white gravel driveway of the farm. It was owned By Jim Wright and Earl Barley. Jim was a tall lean dried up Norwegian who could outwork men half his age and smiled as sparingly as he talked. Earl was just as quiet, but short, stocky and also of Norwegian descent. Scandinavians had settled this area of Wisconsin, cutting their farms from virgin forest, and fighting off Indians and wild animals in the 1800’s. They were hardy folk, and their descendants were here now; more advanced than their forbears, but I liked to think unchanged otherwise.

The large oak trees in front of the main farmhouse cast a shadow over the drive, and along with the light breeze that was rattling the dessicated corn fields lent an almost bearable feel to the late afternoon heat. It was all to short-lived as I rounded the house and headed for the wagon. The mechanical clanking of the elevator that carried the bales up into the hayloft was interposed with the sounds of 100 head of Holsteins going through the milking process in the barn.

I clambered up onto the wagon, and caught a pair of gloves that Earl tossed me and put them on. The twine used to bind the bales would cut the palms of your hands to the bone without them, no matter how work hardened they might be. I began tossing the bales to the front of the wagon. Tossing is a bit of a misnomor I was a slight 15 year old and the bales weighed half as much as I did. If you grabbed one that had wet hay on one end, and dry hay on the other it’d put a hitch in your gitalong that you wouldn’t forget before the middle of next week. So tumbled was probably a more accurate description.

We worked soundlessly. If you talked the chaff from the hay would get in your throat and choke you anyway. I counted. It always seemed an interminably slow process to unload the wagon with the dust flying, the sweat flowing, and the cuts from the hay stems opening up and down your forearms, and by the end of the first wagon I was panting from the exertion. Earl hopped off the wagon and shut down the elevator. As I climbed down I could see his wife heading across the lawn. She climbed up on the seat of the tractor and started pulling the empty wagon around the side of the barn. She would unhitch and hitch up the full one to replace it.

Earl and I headed toward the house, stopping to cool ourselves with the garden hose. I waited for him to finish, and then as he stepped onto the porch and into the house I did much what he had just finished doing. I hosed down both forearms, and then soaked my head and neck before following him into the house.

It was cooler inside, and the smell of fresh baked pies permeated the air. Their were meats and cheeses on the table, along with bread and butter. Earl poured us each a glass of lemonade from a pitcher that was sweating on the counter, and we began what would be his fourth meal of the day in silence. I don’t know if eating a lot of small meals was the result of some Scandinavian farmers tradition or merely because it fit better in the days schedule. We continued in silence until the food was gone, and then I cleared my throat. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Sure is hot out was a waste of words, and wasted words were an uncommon commodity. Finally I settled on “so where’s Jim?”

“Jim passed away this morning.”




“lets go get that other wagon put up”


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