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Life lessons learned in the hayfield

On a recent trip back from Natchez, I counted at least six hayfields in the process of being cut, raked or baled. Had I been blind, I would have known it still. The smell of freshly-cut grass and drying hay is a familiar, intoxicating odor.

I said a quick prayer for the men and boys sweating in those fields. I know their struggle.

A hayfield in July is a special kind of hell. It’s not just hot. It’s both wet with sweat and dry with grass and seed at the same time. It’s dusty. It’s dirty. It’s stifling and itchy and all kinds of other indescribable miserableness. And that’s when things go according to plan. It gets worse when the baler breaks a belt, or the tractor won’t start, or the trailer has a flat tire.

The hayfield is where I spent too many summer days as a boy. It’s where I learned to drive a rusty, stepside Chevy with a three-speed on the column. It’s where I had one of my first jobs. It’s where I learned not just the value of hard work, but also the peace that comes with it at day’s end.

My hay-hauling days are long gone (I hope and pray), but the memories of them have stuck with me like a grass seed on a sweaty neck. My first venture into the hayfield was as a boy, helping my father and uncle haul square bales.

I drove between the rows of bales while they tossed and stacked them on the trailer. When I got older, I graduated from driver to thrower.

I hauled square bales for a neighbor’s farm, a friend’s dad, my own family and just about anyone who needed a strong back. It was grueling work that didn’t pay much. Sometimes it didn’t pay at all.

A large dairy farm down the road needed help with 18-wheeler loads of alfalfa bales that were longer than I was tall. We called them “two-man” bales, because it literally took two of us to move them. I spent three days unloading them into a tin-covered barn that felt like a pizza oven.

I made $2.50 per hour when it was all said and done. We were paid per-bale not per-hour, though none of us knew it when we signed on for the job. I learned to get the pay details worked out before the job began.

But I apparently didn’t learn it well. Later that summer I hauled what must of been thousands of bales, only to be paid with a steak dinner instead of cash. A fancy steak doesn’t mean much to a 14-year-old. At least not the same as a wad of cash.

There were other lessons that came with hauling hay.

I learned that when a 50-pound bale is coming toward your head and someone yells “duck” then you better duck instead of asking “why.” I learned from an old timer who had worked on the railroad that long sleeves are your best friend in a hayfield. You’ll soak the shirt with sweat in the first 10 minutes, and every breeze that blows after that feels like an ice cube on your skin. I learned that sunscreen is unnecessary because the dust, dirt and sweat covering your exposed skin forms a protective layer that blocks UV rays. I learned that cowboy hats aren’t just for looks, they also will substitute for a shade tree. I learned, above all else, that hard work makes up for ignorance, pride and just about every other negative quality that comes with being a teenager.

Unfortunately, I don’t think my sons will learn those lessons. There are no hayfields in their future, unless one of them finds a farmer’s daughter. They won’t know that the day doesn’t end just because they are tired; it ends when the work is done. They won’t know the sheer terror and joy of learning to drive in a hayfield as a 12-year-old. They won’t know how refreshing a dip in the creek can be at the end of a long day in the field.

Unless, of course, you have a hayfield and a need for some good help. If so, I’ve got a couple boys in need of a few life lessons.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.