With my father commuting back and forth, it was clear by that first spring our parents needed a full-time hired hand to work the farm, keep a handle on what was happening in the barn, feed the livestock, and till the land. Unfortunately, they never seem to settle on the right person and constantly found themselves with new hires in the position, many of whom had drinking problems or problems with their wives, or friends, or the law.
Each of our hired hands lived in an old mobile home just off the highway turn-in to the barn and, with our house a quarter-of-a-mile up the small lane through the fields, it made going down to the barn to check in on the hired hands slightly disconcerting. I don’t think my mother liked being around the barn at all, and for us kids it was always a struggle to walk down there to do our chores.
I remember on one occasion when Allison and I, in our Hans and Gretel best, walked hand-in-hand to the barn to feed the chickens, we discovered our hired hand had killed a deer out of season and had skinned it in one of the cattle stalls, thinking my mother and us kids would never know. I remember the carcass draining from the first floor roof and blood everywhere mixing with the beat up, white-washed wood from the stall and the thickly matted straw.
I swear we didn’t think it was a deer at all, we thought it was one of the three Billy Goats Gruff, or a fabled monster of some sort, and the blood, the blood of the unimaginable, or, at least, of children who went into that god-awful barn uninvited or without a parent to protect them! The hired hand threatened to skin us alive if we told anyone and, of course, looking at the skinned deer, we knew he could do it too! We promised we never, never, never would tell, and, after quickly doing our chores while appearing to be quite sympathetic to his situation, we immediately ran up the lane and told our mother who had our father fire him that night.
On another occasion a group of field hands arrived at our farm early one summer morning to harvest peas that had been planted earlier that spring. These were a rough bunch of men working as pickers for extra money. It was a hot day in the dead of summer and, as luck would have it, my birthday. My mother had arranged for a number of my school friends to come to our house from their farms around the area, and I was very excited about everything going on that morning, the pickers up in the field and mother getting ready in the kitchen for the party that afternoon.
I rode my bike to the field where the workers were picking and watched them for awhile pulling the ripe pea pods from the rows and rows of plants. Soon I became aware of several men chewing tobacco near the edge of the field where I was standing with my bike. I don’t think I ever watched anyone chewing tobacco before, and I marveled at the large plugs they put in their mouths. Before too long one of the older guys standing in some shade on the side of the field offered me a “chew” by handing me his pouch of tobacco.
“Hey, boy, would you like some?” he asked innocently enough through a toothless mouth, spitting a stream of brown juice into the field full of peas.
Thinking it was much like bubble gum, and realizing that the bunch of pickers were looking over to see what I’d do, I reached into his bag and took out a handful of the dark and stringy substance. It was sticky to the touch and smelled really bad, musky and not at all inviting like gum.
“Go on, boy, try it.” With his encouragement and the nodding of the other men, I put the plug in my mouth and chewed. I realized immediately I absolutely hated the bitter taste and horrible juice filling my mouth. I looked at them aghast as they burst out laughing.
Rather than spit it out in front of them, I immediately swallowed it to get it out of my mouth. With the realization of what I had done, even more of the men joined in the laughter as I became ghostly white, turned, and ran with my bike back to the house.
Seeing me running down the yard and bursting into the kitchen, Mother looked at me concerned from the kitchen sink and followed me as I rushed into the bathroom and immediately threw up in the toilet.
“Jonathan, what is going on!” but I was too sick to tell her. The rest of the day was spent hugging the toilet or lying on my bed completely dizzy and disoriented and totally sick to my stomach.
Soon though, Mother learned between heaves what I had done and was furious with the pickers; she had had so much planned for that day, and I could barely crawl out of bed.
She stormed up to the pea field, a small tornado of anger, to where the callused pickers were enjoying their fun, and, yelling loud enough to be heard across the field, she demanded to know, “Who gave my son the tobacco!”
The picking stopped and all the men stood and stared at her. When no one spoke, she screamed at them all, “Why would you do that to my son!” Furious, she yelled, “Get these peas picked now and the hell off our farm.”
Not satisfied, she demanded, “Where’s our foreman? I’m not paying anyone if I have to take my boy to the hospital!”
Whatever laughter the pickers had had in their respite quickly fell away, and their effort in picking the remaining peas immediately intensified.
My mother stood there eyeing each and every one of them as they got to work in earnest; then she turned and stormed back to the house. That was the one thing about my mother, she was not a person to be trifled with, especially when she was angry, and that morning, the morning of my eighth birthday, she was furious.
Still at Mother’s urging, that first summer on the farm Charley and I helped the hired hand and guys he paid to bale hay. We learned first-hand how hard it was to pull those large bales off the baling machine and carry them to the back of the wagon or stack them with the help of a conveyer into the upper reaches of the barn.
Once haying was finish and, especially, with our father not around and our mother letting us to our own devices in the barn, the kids from Brotherton would come over, and, together, we, Holly, Charley, Allison and I, would build tremendous forts with the fresh bales high in the stacks of hay. Secret passageways and hidden dens provided an endless maze just for us kids. With tied flashlights hanging down from bales overhead, we would crawl all over the stacks and pop up and throw rotten apples and eggs at each other.
Someone, I remember, tied a thick rope to one of the rafters, and we would swing out into the center of the barn and back into the stacks, letting go just in time to land in a pile of hay. With Mother and Daddy being so new to the farm, these were the days of childhood fun, beautiful sunsets, and endless spasms of laughter.
Categories: My Family Story