Haying season, when I was a boy, was all summer long.
With only small patches to mow, it began when hop clover blossomed and continued as long as wild grasses grew and Korean lespedeza was in bloom — generally May through September, with fall cuttings of some of the first we mowed.
By modern standards it was almost pioneer-style farming, a couple of pickup loads of hay a day hauled to the barn and tossed with pitchforks into the loft of our airy oak barn.
It was more than the mind could comprehend — to imagine in late winter as we swept the barn loft bare that by September our stacks would touch the rafters, and even more would be stacked on the ground. But we did it every summer, moved thousands of forks of hay from field to barn, then fed them out much the same.
Were I a young man, I’d do it all again just for the sublime satisfaction of throwing the last forkful into the loft, wiping the sweat and grime from my face and thinking, “There, another summer’s work done. Tomorrow we’ll go fishing.”
But, the work was never really done. At age 17 I began working for neighbors, as well as helping in our home hayfields. The pay was $1 an hour — more money than I had ever seen — and the days were long and hot. I recall some of the sweltering, humid days I worked in the fields from milking-to-milking, and sometimes at night. I don’t know how I did it. Two hours of the same work would kill me today; but, at 17 and 18, I don’t remember even being sore or overly tired.
Ah, youth. Were it so today.
I learned a lot hauling in neighbors’ hay, but I knew from working at home that even the largest field could be cleared one bale, one wagon load and one trip to the barn at a time. I also learned what alfalfa was, how heavy poorly cured Sudan could be, and how risky a carelessly stacked load could be when crossing a dry stream bed. More importantly, I learned to drive little, gray Ford tractors; but I can’t claim I ever mastered backing a wagon.
At 17 I already knew how to work. From daily milking hours I understood implicitly the first rule of any job — show up on time. But what I had not experienced before was working with men other than my dad and brothers. That, too, was as important as the dollar an hour I earned, but my upbringing had me pretty well prepared. I knew to listen, to not talk back and to respect my elders (about everyone else there). Indeed, I learned much from old timers in patched overalls. I credit one such neighbor with cementing my desire to go to college. “Get an education,” he urged me during a break in the shade.”I never had the chance,” he said. “I wish I had.”
I knew then I was already getting a priceless education in the hayfields, and I knew exactly where my hay-hauling dollars were going.
In August 1967, more than two years after high school and thousands of hours in the hayfields and other jobs, I began classes at Southwest Missouri State College (now MSU), just like “Doc” wanted me to.
Jim Hamilton is a freelance writer and former editor of the Buffalo Reflex. Copyright James E. Hamilton, 2020. Find his latest essay collection, Ozarks RFD 2010-2015, at The Marshfield Mail office.