I was mowing the lawn the other day.
Well, the term “mowing” would be an understatement…
And… come to think of it, so would the term “lawn.”
I’d been recovering from a broken leg (long story, for another time) and for all the time my leg was healing, the grass back there was growing.
By the time it even got *onto* our priority list, it was so tall that small children could have gotten lost in it. We’d been able to tame the front yard, but the back one – well, it was a jungle out there, and it was more than we could handle, so in response to our cries for help, we got a fellow from church who came over and mowed until we had all available yard waste bins full, and then it rained, so for two weeks the grass just grew again. Our neighbor right next door who, for a six pack of his favorite “beverage”, volunteered to help, had brought his mower over and attacked the jungle with a passion. It now looked like a new military recruit after the barber had had one – or maybe 10 too many drinks the night before.
So the other day I was out trying to mow it one step further to even it out. By that time some of the ‘bad haircut’ grass had dried out a bit, and while my son and I were out there raking it up a little bit at a time, I caught a whiff of that drying grass that just rocketed me back to a time when I was just over half his age…
Back then, my grampa had a herd of cows – Black Anguses (Angii?) and they needed to be fed both summer and winter. In the summer, he’d have them grazing his acreage, but he needed hay for them in the winter, when the grass wasn’t growing. So he’d contract with people all around the area to mow their fields of grass and bale it for cattle feed. This was back in the days when feeding cows grass was considered normal, not a ‘green’ thing.
Summer meant a lot of things, but the big thing at the end of summer for me was that it was haying season, and it was time to fill up the barn with bales of hay for the cows. This meant that someone would make many trips to those fields in the area grampa had contracted to get the hay from, cut it, and turn it every now and then so it would dry, and eventually be put into bales.
When it was time to bale it, a veritable army of vehicles went out to bring it all back. If everything worked right, someone had been out there a day or so earlier, with the little Ford tractor from this story and it was pulling the hay baler that was powered by a little hand cranked, air cooled V-4 Wisconsin engine – the same kind mentioned in this story. A lot of gas was burned to get all that year’s worth of hay back to the barn – but I think it was the combination of smells that I seem to remember so vividly. The exhaust from those old engines smelled so much different from the cars nowadays. If you were behind the baler, you’d get the smell of the freshly baled hay, mixed in with the hot, dry smell of the little Wisconsin engine that powered it. Little pieces of hay would get sucked into the cooling fins of the engine, so you’d get a little whiff of of that, too. You’d also get a whiff of the Ford tractor pulling it, which smelled just like – well, like something that could pull 3 cars out of a creek, single handedly – oh, wait – it actually did that… and – gosh, as I write this, I’m realizing how hard it is to describe smells that simply don’t exist anymore – I mean, the engines on the tractor, the baler, and all the trucks burned leaded gasoline, and there just isn’t any of that anymore. A lot of those engines had air filters with oil in them, so you’d smell a little oil mixed in with the exhaust. The big dump truck just smelled and sounded like raw power. Nothing fancy, nothing extra. Just a deep, throaty, “I’ll win a tug of war with, oh, say, Corsica” kind of power.
All of these engines had carburetors to mix the air and gas so the gas would burn, sometimes they didn’t burn it as well as they do now, and you could smell that. In fact, most engines nowadays have fuel injection, so they burn the gasoline far more efficiently. Most engines now have pollution control equipment and catalytic converters to make the already clean (from the fuel injection) exhaust cleaner, and that’s all well and good, but those smells that symbolize an era of simplicity, of just success from hard, simple work, are long gone.
About those trucks: There were two main trucks we used:
There was the red 1966 ¾ ton Dodge truck with the 318 cubic inch V-8, and an automatic transmission. It was simple in the extreme. It just looked like a pickup truck, but really, it could handle anything you could throw at it, and it would do so without complaining at all. It was much easier to drive than the dump truck, which was a 1955 Ford F750 flatbed dump with a 5 speed manual transmission and a two speed rear end for a total of 10 speeds forward and two in reverse. As old as it was, even then, you could move the shifter all over the map even if it was in gear. The shift pattern, if there had ever been one, had worn off the shifter knob decades earlier, so knowing where to look for a specific gear was something only accomplished by experience. In fact, finding a gear was like finding buried treasure. You’d feel the looseness of the knob as it vibrated in your right hand. Then, when it was time to shift, and you did find a gear, you smiled in satisfaction as you felt the synchros in that old transmission reluctantly acknowledge you as master of the truck. I would not know this feeling for several years.
It only had two pedals.
The gas pedal had worn off (yes, you read that right) and had never been replaced. There was just a steel rod that you pushed your foot on, and two identical round pedals that The Men driving the truck would just work magic with. How they worked three pedals with two feet was beyond my young comprehension, but it was part of driving the truck during haying season, and it happened every summer, as this small convoy of vehicles would go out to the surrounding countryside to pick up bales of hay to feed the cows in the coming winter. Every year, The Men of the family, that is, my grampa, my dad, my uncles, and eventually me, went out to do battle with the bales.
One year, when I was 12 or so, I went, sitting in my usual spot in the passenger’s side of the Dodge, and I felt so grown up, going with “The Men” to do this manly thing – and then, as we got to the field, we all got out and talked about who was going to do what. My uncle Bill came over to me and had me climb up the mile or so into the cab of the Ford. It suddenly became very clear that I wasn’t going to be a passenger anymore.
I was going to be one of “The Men”.
I was thrilled.
I was terrified.
This was the truck that growled.
This was the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight.
This was the truck that could pull Mount Rainier into Idaho if you got a chain long enough.
But he wasn’t having me pull over Mount Rainier. He was just having me drive the truck while two or three guys stood on the back, standing on, throwing, and stacking 80 pound bales of hay as tightly as they could be stacked.
Once they got to loading, there was nothing for them to hold on to, so whoever drove the truck had to drive it smoothly. No sudden starts, no sudden stops. It could be dangerous, I was told. I’d seen how high the hay was piled, and knew that if someone were to fall off, it could be a bad thing.
I was ushered into the cab, behind a steering wheel the size of a manhole cover and my instructions, in their entirety, were as follows:
“Ever driven a stick?”
“No sweat, piece of cake. See that pedal on the left? “
“Push down on it.”
Pushing it to the floor required holding onto the steering wheel with both hands and standing on the clutch pedal, which lifted my butt right off the seat.
My uncle reached across from where he was standing on the running board, grabbed that big shifter and shoved it with some authority into first.
“…let up on it to go, push down to stop.”
(said with far more confidence than I felt)
“We’ll bang once on the top of the cab for you to stop, twice to start up again. You think you can do that?”
And he swung off the running board, climbed onto the bed, and we were off.
Now you’d think that with instructions that simple, it’d be easy, but the muscles in my 12 year old legs were barely a match for the huge springs in that truck’s clutch. Pushing down was hard enough. Letting up on it wasn’t any easier, because I learned very quickly that if I let it up, that truck was going to move, and anything not tied down (say, the guys stacking hay bales in the bed of the thing, for instance) better hold on tight if they didn’t want to fall over or fall off.
I thought I was a big kid, but I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I only had two feet, why were there three pedals? – well, two pedals and that metal rod thingie.
All I knew was to go, I had to let up on the big round pedal on the left.
And to stop, I pushed down on it – and held it.
Let up on it to go.
Push down to stop.
I did this for about 45 minutes, and it worked fine on the field, but I could tell my left leg was getting a little tired. You know how it happens when you’re standing on a ladder or something – on your toes, and all of a sudden your leg starts bouncing like the foot of a sewing machine, all on its own? I could feel that starting to happen in mine, so I figured I’d give it a rest, and used my right foot to push down on the clutch.
This worked, too, only the first couple of times I let up on it WAY too fast. Understand, the truck didn’t care how fast I let the clutch up.
It had a monstrous truck engine.
It had a monstrous truck transmission.
And it had one of the lightest loads you could put on it – a couple of guys and a bunch of hay, so when I let up on the clutch, no matter how fast, that truck was going to move.
And when my right leg let that clutch up, oh, man, I heard about it from the guys up on the back. They were scrambling to hang on to anything they could to keep from falling off, and then they used words that my young ears hadn’t heard before.
I went back to using my left leg.
One time, we must have been in the middle of a bunch of bales, because they had me stop for the longest time, and by now both legs were pretty tired from the constant pushing down on the clutch pedal.
What was worse is that both legs were starting to do the sewing machine thing after just a short stop, so I was getting a little nervous, the field was only half empty, but the truck was getting piled up there pretty high.
We had one more length of the field to go, and then we’d be through. I was looking forward to that. No, that’s not true. As thrilled and terrified as I was to be one of “The Men” – by now my legs were doing that sewing machine thing so bad they could have stitched their own set of pants. I was really looking forward to being through.
So I aimed the truck toward the end of the field, and each time I stopped, it took a little longer, because so many hay bales had already been loaded, that these last ones had to be piled up on top of the ones already there, and therefore lifted up, much higher.
By now, we were in the middle of the field, which wasn’t completely flat, but a little higher that at the edges. That made things different. Before, when I wanted to stop, I just hit the clutch (with either foot) and the truck stopped. Now, heading toward the edges from this middle meant I had to deal with a bit of a downhill slope, and I realized that the truck would keep rolling, ever so slowly, even if I hit the clutch.
I learned pretty quickly that the middle pedal was the brake, and hit that.
And heard some of those same words I’d heard earlier coming from the back of the truck.
It seemed that being gentle with the truck kept the guys on the back from using some of those words, so I did what I could to be gentle, but my left leg was so tired, and was clearly doing the sewing machine thing that I decided the next time around, I’d give it a rest and use my right leg to hit the clutch. (the left pedal).
Now, remember that downhill slope? I was on it, and there was an old fence at the end of the field about 50 feet ahead of me, and there was a swamp on the other side of that.
I heard the thump on the roof, and it really seemed like an excellent time to stop the truck, but with my right foot firmly on the clutch, the truck didn’t stop that time. I couldn’t let off the clutch, but had to stop the truck, so I used the only leg I had left (uh, that would be the left one) to hit the brake (the right pedal).
By the time I got all this done, the 50 feet had shrunk considerably, and I was standing there hanging onto the steering wheel with both hands, holding down the clutch with all my might with my right leg, and my left leg braided over it on the brake.
And of course, that area being near the swamp, there were a lot of hay bales in that area. It felt like all the guys on the back of the truck were taking their own sweet time while my arms were getting tired from hanging onto that huge steering wheel while standing on those pedals with crossed legs, trying to keep the truck from either rolling forward because my foot was off the clutch, or coasting forward because it was off the brake. Either way, I was close enough to the fence to where going through it and tipping the truck over or getting stuck in the swamp was a real possibility.
Of course, this is when my right leg (the one on the clutch) started doing the sewing machine thing again.
I couldn’t jerk the truck this time.
It wasn’t level.
The hay was piled too high…
…and even if I didn’t drive it through the fence and into the swamp, if I wasn’t careful and jerked the truck while turning to avoid the fence, I could lose part of the load (of either the hay or the guys on the back of the truck).
And that would be bad.
On top of that, by that time, seeing the green murky water in front of me, and thinking of nothing but how to avoid it, I had this sudden and immediate need to go to the bathroom.
But I couldn’t go.
I had to keep the truck where it was, and to do that I had to hold the steering wheel, and couldn’t hold onto anything else, nor could I find anything else in the truck to help solve that rather pressing problem. I was within seconds of calling for help when I heard a voice from on high call out, “Go ahead!”
Ahh, the sound of relief.
But it wasn’t an angelic voice, it was my uncle, telling me to move the truck ahead. He didn’t mean I should “Go ahead” and take care of that pressing issue that had become the center of a battle in the cab of the truck that he actually knew nothing about.
I put all my weight into pulling on the left side of the wheel, and just barely brushed the fence, but didn’t’ lose either the hay or the guys on it. My knees were like jelly, and I could barely stand, much less hang onto the wheel, but I got us to a safe spot, and called out to my uncle, who hopped down off the bed and then jumped up onto the running board.
This time I put my left foot on the clutch, and we were on level ground, so I didn’t need the brake, and when I told him how bad I needed to go, and what had happened, he laughed so hard I thought I was going to – well, you know…
He reached across me and pulled the truck out of gear and had me pull on the parking brake.
Turns out no one had ever told me that you could take the fool thing out of gear, and me, being a whopping 12 years old at the time, didn’t know to ask.
With the truck safely stopped, he let me jump out and take care of some important business, and then someone else got in and drove the rest of the way that day, but they loved, absolutely loved to tease me about jerking the truck around, and how they were hanging on for their lives while I was stomping on the gas, slamming on the brakes, and slaloming across the field. Understand, I couldn’t reach the gas pedal to stomp on it – no, wait, the pedal was gone… I couldn’t reach that steel rod where the gas pedal had been. Well, I could, but I wasn’t big enough to do that and see out the windshield at the same time, so all the stuff I did was with the engine just idling.
There was no slaloming going on…
But reputations are made, and stories are told and retold, and the stops and starts, along with the slaloming got worse and worse every time the story was told.
One year, I was driving the Dodge, the truck with the automatic transmission, and it was a dream to drive compared to the Ford. The standard thing was still to thump once on the top of the cab to stop, and twice to go, and the ribbing about not jerking the truck around continued, but the Dodge was easy enough to drive to where I didn’t have to work at driving it smoothly, so I was ignoring the ribbing and just driving, smoothly, carefully, relishing the whole automatic transmission thing, when I heard a thump to stop. I stopped – and I remember very distinctly how gently I was stopping.
In fact, I remember I was actually proud of how gently I was stopping when I heard this HUGE crash, the truck shook as if it had been hit by something, the roof of the cab caved in, and to my horror, I saw my uncle roll off the cab, down the windshield, bounce onto the hood, and then disappear over the edge.
Believe me, I stopped.
I saw him get up, holding his clearly sore back, but with a smile on his face. He looked up at the guys on the top of the load, and I could tell that they’d decided to take the ribbing one step further and see what I’d do if someone actually did fall off. He ended up being okay. I didn’t run over him, but he never did that again.
Haying continued over the years as I grew up – and eventually I grew big enough and strong enough to take a turn hucking those 80 pound bales up onto the truck like my Grampa, and my Dad, and my Uncle and all the rest of The Men had done all those years before.
Every year we all looked forward to the trip back to the farm, where my grandma would be waiting with huge pitchers of iced tea or lemonade, and then we’d load the bales onto the conveyor, which took it into the barn, where we’d stack them all the way to the roof for the cows to eat that winter.
As I think of this, the one thing I remember so clearly – as if all of this seems like it’s in a bit of a haze – is that grassy, cowy, milky smell you can only smell in a real barn, with real cows, eating real grass. And on top of it all was the fresh smell of that hay – which is where we started, isn’t it?
That brought me back to the present, in my own back yard, where I was standing with my son, who was still raking up the dry grass, and who wasn’t aware I’d just gone for a long trip through half-forgotten memories.
I looked around, realizing that the tractors were gone, literally not in the back yard, but also having been sold years ago. I realized my son wouldn’t have stories to tell of adventures with cows and driving slow motion slaloms in ancient trucks through even more ancient fields, so it was important for me to tell the stories to him, so even if he couldn’t say he had had those adventures – he could say he knew someone who had.
And I told him the story, and idly wondered, as I looked about, if we could get my grampa’s old baler into the back yard, whether we could have made a few bales.
We were just missing a barn.
Post script: both trucks were sold to a neighbor, who still has them, and they both still run. And the Dodge still has a dent in the roof of the cab.