Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
—from Fireflies in the Garden by Robert Frost
By my last summer working on the Whittington’s farm in Galena, Ohio, I had grown in many ways: I was taller, I was stronger, and I knew a few things about slopping hogs, suckering corn, calling in the cows for feeding, harvesting wheat and soy beans, and the nasty job of ringing a pig’s nose. Farming was hard work, but there was a joy in it unlike mowing lawns in the city, raking leaves, and certainly schoolwork.
Though I was away from the farm from September through May, when I returned for each of the three summers I spent there, it was like coming to a second home. The Whittington girls, Joyce and Diane, still in high school, still at home were happy to see me, though that acknowledgement was communicated briefly between the activities of young girls and phone calls. Galena was on a party line system, meaning several households shared the same line. Phone time was pressured and precious and the source of some drama in the household. Carolyn had moved to attend college and now the girls seemed to talk to me more, asking opinions about their boyfriends and each other.
There seemed to be a constant “loving” banter between Joyce, Diane, and Johnny, the Whittington’s son who was now eight years old and more mature. Although he was very happy on my last return, he spent less time shadowing me. He was engaged in 4-H and his chores around the farm had increased in importance. When he was able to spend time with me, we talked mainly about his school and mine, his 4-H project for the coming Ohio State Fair, raising a prize hog.
So much was different, and yet much remained the same: the routines of the family, a calm and kindness that permeated their everyday lives. The old farmhouse with its wrap-around porch, the gravel drive leading to the large red barn, the silo, the fields of crops—all these parts as wondrous to me as a dreamscape, as true and reliable as the sunrise. Because of this family and their farm, I had come to realize I seemed to be two different people.
It was 1958. During the interval since the previous summer I hadn’t totally forgotten about the farm. I played football for a boy’s city league. I occupied my time as usual riding my bike in ever widening explorations of the north end of Columbus, building forts from Christmas trees, and making up stories with Billy Joyce and Kevin McCoy, then pretending to be the characters. As spring approached with dandelions, wild violets, and wandering honey bees, and as the Locust tree in front of our house hid its menacing branches and thorns with the delicate oval leaves of warmer weather, I was remembering days and evenings on the farm, and I began counting the weeks until I was back in Galena. I spent time dreaming of days there that passed like long freight trains full with wonder.
The previous year, I had learned to “buck hay,” discovering that it was an art and one that seemed to come naturally to me. Of all activities on the farm, I relished it most. After the alfalfa was cut and raked into airy mounds to dry, the baling began. Some farmers used balers that automatically compacted hay into round bales and dropped them over the field. Allen Whittington’s was a rust-red Massey Ferguson square baler. The bales were dropped from the baler and I would give them a rough alignment on the ground. That first year I bucked hay, I learned that timing was most important. Hay must be cut, raked and baled while the sun shines. My grandfather used an aphorism about making hay. Understanding its source was to me like being handed the secret to something I had heard most of my life without knowing it.
Allen owned a Ford Farmall tractor, gray hood, red engine, and huge wheels and tires filled with lime and water to give them weight for traction. They are much heavier than they look, something I found when I tried to “help” by pulling one off its lugs while jacked for repairs. Its four hundred pounds nearly crushed my hundred-pound body.
After the bales were dropped, Allen would pull a wagon with his tractor along the rows of baled hay. He would stop and toss the bales up to me to be stacked on the wagon, then move on to the next few bales. It was slow work, but I loved standing on the wagon as we moved along. I felt strong hefting bales that weighed nearly as much as me onto a stack, higher and higher. Allen would brag on me that I was the best hay stacker he ever saw. I always thought he was just being encouraging to a young boy, until my last summer there, when he offered to “loan me out” to a neighbor as a hay bucker. I’ll get to that later.
My last summer on the farm we baled the hay more efficiently. I was experienced now, so the hay wagon was tethered to the back of the baler, while the chute of the baler, shined from years of straw and alfalfa bales, was riding over the wagon’s leading edge. It was a flat wagon of thick, sturdy, gray wooden boards bound together over metal wheels. What had been a slow two-step process was now an exciting single, rocky motion that roused muscles and nerves I didn’t know I possessed. My heart pounded as I heard the roar and rattle of the bailer engine released into the air above a field of raked and waiting rows of hay.
As the feeder started to turn, latent clusters of alfalfa dust rose into the air in a delicious, earthy fragrance. The baler pitched forward and I rocked back for an instant, then steadied myself. I saw the feeder take in the loose piles, heard it packing and tying the brown twine. The piston that pushed the bales out the chute pounded repeatedly. Then I saw it coming toward me, the first bale, a foot at a time as the baler piston banged in a cadence like a colossal metronome. I had my work gloves, creased and conforming after two summers, and two hooks with T-shaped handles to meet the ten acres in front of me as it exited the chute in blocks of alfalfa, now turning brown, but spotted here and there with fading lavender flowers.
We rolled forward in wide circles, the day, the baler, and my body heating up. I found myself feeling both a part of the machinery and the landscape as the stack of hay rose higher and higher on the wagon, my sleeves coated with the dust of that field, as if I had disappeared into a core of majestic purpose.
We filled the wagon once. Allen was astounded at how well such high stacks held together over the bumpy ride back to the barn, where he loaded the bales on an elevator that took it up to the hay mow door. Once again I stacked each bale as it came to me, until the wagon was empty. We headed back for one more load. Soon came the first signs of evening. Fireflies in multitudes seemed as if daylight had kindled the field dust to carry its light into the darkness. On the wagon they were all around me as I moved into the piles of hay made different through the alchemy of the baler. I felt part of a grand transformation that I wanted to be part of forever.
We finished baling and storing the alfalfa in three days. It would rain in the next few days, and Allen’s neighbor, Bob, was ready for me to help him if I could. Bob worked in Westerville during the day, and tended a small family farm he inherited during evenings and weekends. His was a smaller farm, only a few acres of hay for horses. Taking a cue from Allen, he used the same setup with baler, wagon and me. I was a little uncomfortable. Bob was not as easy to be around as Allen. It could have been my doing. I was very shy when I was young. We started the baling process and the first thing I noticed was the bales were heavier, because the hay had not been dried enough. The first time we stopped I mentioned this, but Bob wanted to get the field in before the rain came.
I knew, but did not say that it is actually better to let it rain and re-rake and re-dry the hay than to store green hay. Hay mows are warm, even with thoroughly dry bales. I loved to sit in them and smell the hay while looking out over the corn field. A barn can actually explode from green hay bales, and that is what happened to Bob’s barn. It was destroyed in a few minutes, reduced to etched and charred framing. Fortunately his horses were grazing away from the fire. Allen and I were harvesting oats when it happened. He knew the sound right away, and drove next door to check on his neighbors.
At the end of August I said good-bye to the Whittington family, knowing I would probably never see them again. My family was moving to Florida so my mother could care for her aging father. It felt the way it does when morning light slides into a dream from which I do not want to wake. I hugged them all. Carolyn was home. I watched from our car as we drove away until all that remained was the corn silo rising above the countryside. And then, all that remained was this memory, my life packed around it like a lavender flower deep inside the stems and leaves of a plant I had never heard of before those summers—alfalfa.
Photo by Jimmy Brown, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Richard Maxson.
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