“What are those big round things we keep seeing?” asked Zach, my ten-year-old grandson as we drove to his cabin in rural Wisconsin in October.
“They’re cylinders like a Coca-Cola can. Your soccer ball is round,” I began.
“OK, but what are they?”
“They’re rolls of hay. The last time you came by hay was growing in this field like tall, green grass. A machine cut it and wrapped it in these bales of dead hay. The farmer will feed it to his cows and horses during the winter when snow covers the grass.”
“I’m glad I don’t have to eat hay,” said Zach glancing at me waiting for my reaction to his witticism.
I obliged with a smile and told him that hay bales used to be rectangular, and before that it was loose, piled in haystacks and barns with pitchforks.
“My devil costume came with a pitchfork. It’s soft rubber and can’t hurt anyone. I poked Tommy,” he said.
“I used a steel pitchfork working with my grandfather in the hayfields when I was not much older than you. My Grandpa and Grandma worked my uncle’s farm in the hills of southern Ohio,” I said. “Horses pulled the mowers, rakes, and wagons in those days.”
I was preparing to explain the entire process when he said, “I just got on the internet. I’m going to download Ghostbusters. Mom said I can watch it,” he said as he focused on his iPad and left me to my thoughts..
Mom’s parents were old when I met them. Grandma was forty-two when Mom was born and nearly fifty in my earliest memories. Grandma was an old fifty, wrinkled and tottering, cautious on the two steps up to our porch. In the living room, she carefully backed up to the couch and sat heavily, almost falling onto the cushions, always tired and often staring ahead.
Grandpa was a couple of years older, but his cheeks were smooth and his gait was steady. When seated, his pipe was part of his countenance. He often held the pipe bowl at the end of a short curved stem the way people hold their chins in pensive moments. His wavy, gray hair was parted in the middle above his mobile face. His eyes followed movement and conversation in the room, and he smiled and laugh softly with his pipe in place.
Two of Grandpa’s smallest fingers on his right hand ended in rounded stubs without nails, shorter by half an inch. Mom told me a machine at his work cut the fingers off and warned me not say to anything about them.
They were born in the 1880s, Grandma in Columbus, and Grandpa in Gallipolis, a town on the Ohio River across from West Virginia. They met when the railroad transferred him to Columbus. They married later than most, particularly in that era, but they soon had a son, my Uncle Bill, and then Mom.
They struggled through the Great Depression. After Pearl Harbor, Uncle Bill enlisted in the Navy and went to the Pacific. Their daughter’s new husband, my dad, was called to active duty with his army reserve unit. Before he went overseas, my mother learned she was pregnant with me. Mom lived with Grandma and Grandpa. I was a toddler before Dad returned after fighting in North Africa, Italy, and southern France.
Later Grandpa worked at a grocery in the days before cash registers. He learned how to add double digit prices in his head as he wrote them on the grocery bag. The customers relied upon the bag as their receipt. When I was in the first grade memorizing sums of single digits with flashcards, Mom gave Grandpa the grocery tape from the supermarket and asked him to add it. I stared at his stubs as he pointed to each number on Mom’s grocery receipt and called out the running total. He sat back, smiled, and relit his pipe.
A few weeks after V-J Day, Uncle Bill returned from the Pacific tanned and impatient to begin the life he planned during the long nights in the navy. In short order, he began making plans for buying a farm in Southeastern Ohio. He wanted to be his own boss and owning a farm promised independence. He grew up in Columbus and had no experience in farming, but he was an optimist in a time when returning servicemen brimmed with hope for the future. His wife, my Aunt Josephine, was ready to join him in this enterprise. Financing was available through the G.I. Bill. He took a job as a brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad as he awaited word on his loan application.
Grandpa and Grandma agreed to help with the farm. Grandpa, who was nearing retirement, grew up in a farming community and worked in the fields as a young man. In a few months, they moved to a 100-year old farmhouse with a barn, henhouse, corncrib on 165 acres about two hours southeast of Columbus in the foothills of the Appalachians. Mom and I moved with them since Dad was still in a V. A. Hospital in Memphis.
Uncle Bill arranged to work a night shift so he could help Grandpa plow, plant, and work on the farm as much as possible. He met with the U.S.D.A. county agent, the owner of the local feed store, and neighboring farmers. Grandpa hitched Dolly, the old black nag left by the previous owner to an old plow and planted some fields with corn and some with hay. Uncle Bill bought a few head of cattle, some chickens, and two hogs and a litter from a neighbor. He threw in a puppy, the first of several dogs named Shep.
I often followed Grandpa around the barnyard as he did the chores. He let me toss handfuls of feed to the chickens as they clucked continuously and pecked at the feed mix. He chuckled at how I screamed with delight at the strutting birds.
When he leaned over the fence to pour buckets of slop in the hog troughs, I stood back as the mud-covered beasts squealed, grunted, and shouldered their way to the trough. They rolled in the muck and gloried in the filth. It was such a contrast to my Mom’s insistence that I wash my hands before every meal and keep clean.
A calf was born, and Grandpa asked me to name the new addition to the herd. “Gene,” I said, probably because I was a fan of cowboy actor Gene Autry. The calf was a red Guernsey, and Grandpa often took me to the pasture to point Gene out when we visited the farm.
After I started school, I would spend time with Grandpa during my visits. He was comfortable with long silences as we did chores, but occasionally he mentioned his youth in the 1890s working in the fields within sight of the Ohio River. Training mules to pull plows and carts, shearing sheep, butchering cattle and hogs, smoking meat, and storing apples for food in the winter was not much different from his labors on the farm when I was a boy.
I glimpsed the end of the era before tractors, hay balers, and corn threshers replaced horses in harness, oxen under yokes, and men and boys. In most of America, farms were powered by the muscles of men and beasts. Food and fiber was wrested from nature with great exertion in a continuation of agricultural practices around the world.
“Funny movie,” shouted Zach jolting me back to the 21st century.
I began relating my boyhood experiences with Grandpa on the farm and his stories of the farming life in the 1890s along the Ohio River. He likes math so he subtracted 1890 from 2016, and proudly told me it was 126 years ago. Then he wanted to talk about his soccer team’s second place finish and why he liked the Green Bay Packers more than his hometown Vikings.
Someday he might be interested in my boyhood and his great, great grandfather’s farming life in the nineteenth century. Now the question was whether the Packer’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers would be ready to play on Sunday.