Making Hay

This may come as a surprise, but when we left the house and went a ways up the road, or into the nearby fields or forests, we were completely cut off from everyone and everything. Really, it’s true. Once out of sight, there was no way for anyone to contact us, or for us to contact anyone else. Our WiFi extended only as far as our mothers’ voices (though, out in the country, that could be a long way).

This, of course, didn’t bother us (or even occur to us) because that was just the way things were, and had been since time began. Therefore, our playtime was generally unsupervised. There was no inherent danger in disappearing into the surrounding countryside for hours on end, so our parents didn’t worry about us. They knew we’d turn up eventually.

Mostly, we played locally, but every now and again we’d have an adventure. This was one such time:

Tractors very often traveled up and down Rabbit Lane, pulling wagons or the honey-cart, a big, red metal trough on wheels designed to spread cow manure on the fields. Occasionally, they were empty, other times so full of slop it spilled on the road when they went around a corner. Sometimes, for a lark, we’d hop onto the back of a wagon (not the honey-cart) and ride for a bit. On this day—when a tractor pulling a baler and wagon passed by—we grabbed hold of the back wall of the wagon and, instead of hopping off and walking back home, we stayed on. The tractor went up Rabbit Lane, with us bouncing and clutching on, and turned off the dirt road onto a farm track and into a field.

The Honey-Cart

I’m not sure when the farmer became aware of us, or even who “us” were. I expect it was Frankie from next door (we often played together) and the farmer, no doubt, knew who we were. So, instead of telling us to go home, he asked if we’d help him. Of course, we said, “Yes.”

Primer for the non-farmers reading this:

The farmer was there to bale hay. Or, more likely, straw, as it was lighter; we’d have had a harder time with hay. Hay is a mixture of dried grasses that is packed up, stored and used to feed livestock, straw is just dried up stalks of wheat after it has been harvested and is used for bedding. A hay-baler is designed to scoop up the grass or straw, pack it into a tight, rectangular bundle, and shoot it into a wagon pulled behind it. These particular bales were 2-string bales, measuring about three feet long, a foot and a half wide and fourteen inches tall. A 2-string bale of hay—depending on the moisture content—can weigh anywhere from 50 to 70 pounds; a 2-string bale of straw, on the other hand, weighs no more than 45 pounds.

End of Primer.

We needed no instruction, or safety lecture (as if), we just climbed into the empty wagon and off we went. The farmer drove into the field, the baler clanked to life and bales of straw began hurling through the air, coming straight toward us. Our job was to stack them neatly so the maximum number could fit into the wagon.

Real farmers (i.e. not us) baling hay.

A bale would shoot through the air and thump down onto the boards as we dodged away from it. Then, as it bounced around between the walls, we’d grab it by the twine holding it together and swing it into position, hopefully before the next one came down on us.

A Hay Baler

At this time, I must have been about 10 years old, less than four and a half feet tall and weighing in at fifty-five pounds. I was quick and wiry and able to lift a bale of straw (just) and we knew what we were doing but still, in looking back, I can’t believe how insanely dangerous that was.

Still, we spent that hot, summer afternoon—with the sun beating on our backs, breathing in the dry scent of straw, our shoulders aching and hands stinging from the thin twine cutting into them—stacking bale after bale, exhilarated and exhausted, without a single mishap. When we finished, the farmer drove us home, with us sitting up front, on the wide fenders of the tractor. When he stopped to let us off, we found Mom out in the driveway. She’d been wondering where I’d gotten to, but there was no bawling out, no, “I’ve been worried sick about you!” All she did was exchange a few friendly words with the farmer, then we went inside, and Frankie went home.

She never minded that I’d been out of her WiFi range for so long; she knew I’d turn up eventually.