Clyde Torp is a former plant manager, now semi-retired and working part time as a consultant in manufacturing and warehousing. He is an active member of the NWG who writes short stories and poetry simply for the joy of it.
The Hay Balers
by Clyde Torp
My T-shirt was sweat-soaked and hung out of my hand-me-down trousers. A growth spurt made them too short for me, and I had been teased about wearing high water pants. I didn't care, not today, pushing my lawn mower home with a new dollar bill, as green as the stains on my sneakers.
"Hey Bud," old Frank called from his porch, "Whaddaya boys get for baling?" Frank sat on his swing, turned sideways like always with his bad leg out straight.
I set down my gas can. "Fifty cents an hour. Why, you know someone?"
"Was talking to Ernie," Frank said. "He's Parrish's man. Lookin' for a couple boys."
"Great," I said with the eagerness of a twelve year old. "Tell him you know two. I'll tell Bob."
Bob was my older brother, Frank our next-door neighbor. He was the grandfather we never had and looked out for us boys. Right from the beginning he insisted we just call him Frank.
Later Frank told Mom we should be at Parrish's the next morning. We knew where the Parrish farm was. Parrish was the richest man in our small-time town. He owned the bank, and we figured all the money in it. He owned more farmland than anyone, and I was excited to work for a man of such wealth.
Bob was three years older than me and had a permit to work evenings at Jensen's Drugs. I teased him about being a soda jerk, but he knew I was envious. He did not know that I missed him those evenings. That night I waited for him. It was after ten.
"Got us a job in the morning." I said.
"Baling." I followed him to the fridge.
"Where?" He reached for the milk.
Bob hesitated. I could not tell if he was concentrating on filling his glass or considering the job until he said, "Don't think so."
Bob gulped his milk and said, "Gotta work tomorrow."
"Com'on, Bob. It's all set."
Bob raised his eyebrows, cocking his head. I could tell he was tired.
"For the '46 Plymouth." I pleaded. I knew how badly he wanted it - our father's old car. He checked it daily for dents. He talked hardly of anything else and saved every penny for it, like a ticket to a whole new life.
I continued. "Gotta be there at eight. We'll be done long before you have to go in. What's wrong?"
"Parrish," he said, "has kind of a reputation . . . "
I cut him off. "Hey, he needs both of us, and I already promised." Then added, "I'd do it for you."
That was usually the clincher. Bob drew a deep breath, letting it out with a condescending okay.
The next morning we pedaled down the river road to the Parrish farm. We found Ernie by the barn, hitching a wagon. We told him Frank sent us, parked our bikes and climbed on. Ernie drove the tractor with the baler and wagon in tow to a nearby field.
The July sun heated the field, and the air was filled with the sweet smell of alfalfa. The purr of the tractor and the chunk, chunk of the baler rang in our ears. The wagon bed bumped beneath our feet. We worked together, each taking our turn, stacking the bales in an overlapped pattern. Bob winked at me and took off his shirt. I stacked my bale and then took off mine, tucking it in the back of my pants, like he did.
The bales grew heavier. Our backs glistened with sweat. "Man," my brother complained, "this stuff is green."
"Whaddaya think they weigh?" I said.
"Sixty pounds, maybe seventy. You okay?"
"Yeah. I can handle 'em."
Bob pulled the next bale and groaned. "Oooow, this one is more like 80 or even 90 pounds. Gimme a hand."
He slid it off the chute, grabbed one end and waited for me. We lifted it, turned sidewise in unison, staggered to the back of the rack and dropped it in place. We were going through a low spot and the hay was still wet. We worked together like this until we got through it and then went back to every other bale.
Ernie drove the tractor, keeping the baler aligned with the raked mounds. Every so often he cast a glance back to make sure we kept up.
"Ernie!" Bob hollered. "Twine's out!"
Ernie threw on the brake, climbed down, shut off the baler and set about reloading a new roll of twine without saying a word. We sat down on the bales and waited.
"Hey Ernie," my brother said. "Got anything to drink?"
"No, you thirsty?"
"Getting there." Bob said. "Just thought you might have a couple Cokes or something."
"You can stop at the pump when we take in this load," Ernie said without looking up.
Bob looked at me, pursed his lips while raising his eyebrows and making his eyes real big. This was his faked surprised-but-stifled look. It meant I don't like it, but there's not much else we can do. It made me smile, and I knew we could wait.
By late morning we finished the field, loading three wagons high with the heavy green hay. Ernie hauled each back to the barn while we rode on top, standing side by side, like two young kings on their self-made mountain.
After the last load we helped rig a conveyor that went up to the loft. Bob was first to test it. He scaled the long incline, grabbing its side-rails hand-over-hand, running up its full length like a monkey, with his T-shirt bouncing behind him. He jumped off at the top, turned back and waved me to follow.
"Come on," he hollered. "Just don't look down 'til you're up here."
I climbed like he did, without thinking.
From the loft we could see the hayfield, the pasture for horses with a white board fence, and Parrish's big house surrounded by elms.
The loft was already two-thirds full. Ernie told us that this was the third and last cutting. There was a little breeze at the open door but the rest of the loft was like an airless oven, set on low and baking hay.
Ernie turned on the conveyor and threw on the first bale. It teetered its way toward us then toppled over the side.
"Oh shit!" yelled Ernie as it fell through the air.
It struck the ground with a bounce that split it, and sent hay flying like a deck of cards. Bob turned and gave me that faked surprised look. I turned away so Ernie wouldn't see me snicker. Ernie was more careful with the next bale, and it rode to the top and slid off on the floor.
"Want us to start a new stack?" Bob yelled to Ernie.
"Better continue. Hope there's room, as it is."
We took turns toting each bale and adding to the stack that ended just under the rafters. We built stairs with the large rectangular blocks and used lower layers to reach top tiers. The floor and the rafters were coated with dust. It stuck to our skins and turned our suntans black. Between trips into the sweltering vault we returned to the door to gasp fresh air.
Ernie kept the bales coming. He was thin like us, but his bare arms rippled with rope-like muscles. It was hard to keep up with him, especially with heavier bales requiring both of us. There were only two periods for a little rest when Ernie finished a load and had to change wagons. Bob and I came down each time and went to the pump. We took turns on the handle while the other splashed his face and then cupped hands to drink. We blew black snot from our noses and went back to the loft.
It was noon. I was not only tired, but also hungry. Bob said nothing about it, so neither did I.
"They gonna all fit?" Ernie hollered up as we began the last load.
"Don't think so." Bob hollered back. "We're already here by the door." Just then Parrish came around the corner of the barn. He looked at the split bale of hay on the ground. He looked at Ernie, then up at us, but didn't say a word. Bob's words - kind of a reputation - echoed in my head. I wondered now what he meant.
"'Fraid we're out of room, Mr. Parrish," said Ernie.
"Can't be," said Parrish. "Did you boys load to the roof?"
"No, we kept the same height," my brother explained.
"Well, now you're gonna have to go higher. We're not leaving this out just to rot." He turned and walked away, leaving Ernie shaking his head. I looked at Bob. He raised his eyebrows while he took a deep breath, but didn't look at me. He hollered to Ernie.
"Better send 'em up slow. It's gonna take us forever to stack 'em that high."
Ernie nodded and said, " I know."
Bob looked at his watch. My mouth was dry. I felt a lump in my throat that made it hard to swallow. I said nothing. All I could think of was how did I get us into this mess. I wanted to quit and go home.
The last wagon took a full hour to unload. Even under the hip of the roof we could not stand straight, and we had to lug each bale bent over. My thighs ached and sweat stung my eyes and dripped from my nose. The old barn let out several loud creaks as we added to the load on its timbers. I looked at Bob. He shrugged his shoulders, and we kept working until the last bale. It was right up to the ceiling next to the door. We made our last descent and strolled to the pump.
Old man Parrish came around the corner and saw the empty wagon. We went to him. He asked how many hours he owed us.
Bob looked at his watch and said, "Five."
Parrish reached deep in the front pocket of his shiny blue slacks. He unfolded two dollars, counted two quarters and handed it to Bob, then turned and started to walk away. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. I thought I was going to cry. I looked at Bob.
"Hey, this is only two fifty," Bob said.
Parrish stopped, turned and faced us. He was a big man and tall, and he looked even taller in his large-brimmed hat.
"You owe us two fifty A PIECE," Bob said.
Old man Parrish just stood there, looking at Bob and squinting his eyes a little. Then he reached in his pocket and said, "Here's another dollar." I could not believe it. A man so rich, so miserly.
"I don't think so," said Bob.
Parrish stood his ground, looking back and forth at the two of us, then said, "I'll have to go to the house for more."
"We'll wait," said Bob.
Parrish pointed to the broken bale on the ground and said, "Put that in the stall before leaving." Then he headed to the house with Ernie trailing.
We did as we were told and then waited, straddling our bikes in the shade. I folded my arms on the handlebars and rested my head on them studying the ground at my feet. I remembered Dad telling us once that the rich make money from the backs of the poor. I hadn't understood. Then. I rocked back and forth on my bike, feeling defeated and used. I lifted my head and saw Bob look again at his watch.
"Let's go." I said.
"No. Just wait."
Boy, I thought, is he stubborn.
Finally, Ernie came out all red-faced and handed me the rest of the money. "Thanks," I said with relief. I shoved it in my pocket, and we rode away.
On the way home we stopped at the Texaco for a couple of ten-cent Cokes, drinking them there so we didn't have to pay two cents for the bottles.
"How did it go?" hollered Frank from his swing as we coasted to our front yard.
"You tell him, Bud. I gotta get cleaned up for work."
Frank chewed his tobacco as I told him how Parrish tried to bilk us. He leaned forward and spat on the ferns in front of his porch. "That tight old bastard," he said. A large dribble of brown ran down the corner of his mouth. It was the first time I ever heard Frank say a swear word. It flushed my face.
Frank wiped the dribble with the back of his hand. "I'm going out there tomorrow," he said. "Have to shoe one of his horses. I'll give that old tightwad a piece of my mind."
"Get your money first," I said.
"Oh, don't worry about that," said Frank. "He'll pay. I'm the only smitty left in the county, and he knows it."
The next afternoon I was out back in the garden, picking green beans, when I heard Frank's old Chevy come down the alley. The next thing I knew Frank was coming across the lawn, swinging his bad leg out, almost hopping.
"Just came from Parrish's place," he said. "His BARN fell in!"
"No kidding!" I said.
"Guess you boys loaded it with too much hay. The loft just finally gave way. Fell straight through on his tractor. Oh, what a hellava noise!"
"You were there?"
"Yep, just finishing. Was working outside, or I'd be dead and buried right now."
"What'd Parrish say?" I grinned.
"Was mad as all GET out. Said I pulled it down with his horse. I told him he was NUTS. Oooh, was he mad!"
"Didja get your money?"
"Not yet. I was so tickled I forgot to ask."
Copyright © 2002 Clyde A. Torp, Jr.