Saturday, March 1, 2008

Story Hour XV

Story Hour is a collection of short, auto-biographical stories written by my father, about his boyhood memories of life on a farm in Upstate New York.

Threshing Day Continued

We were all up early the next morning, when I suddenly realized that DG had not come home as scheduled. This was not terribly unusual as he frequently was asked to fill in a vacancy on a shift. Always willing to pick up the extra pay, he would accept the additional assignment. The problem was that without a telephone or other means of communication there was no way to let us know what was going on. We could only wait and see when he would show up. One thing was for sure, he would be very tired.

Morning chores had to be done, the milk had to be taken to Pulaski, chickens had to be killed (increased to four) along with innumerable little side jobs that would crop up. So we went right at it. By the time the cows were let out to pasture Jack and Dick were well on their way with the milk run and the rest of us headed for the house for a quick bite of breakfast. The timing worked out well as the older boys returned in the Studebaker at the same time Jim, the owner/operator, of the threshing machine arrived.

The tractor was, I believe a John Deere with a big side-mounted belt drive pulley. I don’t remember if the tractor was on rubber but the threshing monster was on steel wheels and quite noisy on the black top roads. A short meeting between mom, Jack, Dick and Jim determined where the rig was to be set up, where the straw would be blown to and where the sacks of oats would be placed.

This accomplished, Jim and Jack started positioning the thresher and the tractor so the power belt would be in good alignment so as to prevent run-offs. Dick went to the chicken coop to select four chickens, taking Dugal with him for a helper. Hopefully they would select chickens that were slowing down on the egg production instead of good layers. I went into the barn and brought out the good feed bags that would be filled with the oats and placed them on the bag rack by the grain discharge pipe. Once filled, Jim would quickly tie them off and set them aside.

Each teamster with a load of oats would drive up to the thresher, stopping his wagon in a position so that he could fork the bundles of oats into the feed hopper. This needed to be done in an even distribution to prevent clogging the machine. The feed had to be interrupted to allow Jim to tie off and replace the bags as they filled. The whole job at the machine side was hot, terribly dusty and so noisy it hurt your ears (no OSHA then).

The straw was blown into a pile where it would remain until the first opportunity to transport it to the barn loft. By now the neighbors with their teams and wagons were arriving and getting organized. Dick and Dugal returned from the chicken mission and I reported to mom in the kitchen to help her and Sally with the garden produce, water hauling and any other chores that I could help with. Dick was designated to stay with Jim and tend the machine and Jack would take his place driving Tom and Jerry while Dugal helped as a loader. A couple of farmers had brought hired men with them so we ended up with sufficient manpower to accomplish the job.

Jim decided we were ready to go so he sent the teams to the oat field to start hauling grain. ”Kinda space the loads out a bit, so they don’t jam up,” he said with a grin. “We wantta make ‘er last until after lunch. I hear we’re having chicken ‘n biscuits.”

As the caravan of rigs headed out through the meadow he started tinkering and adjusting various knobs, levers and controls on the tractor. Finally he grasped the flywheel, and with a grunt gave it a mighty twist. He did get a faint pop and a puff of exhaust smoke. Again he repeated the effort with the same results. He adjusted the choke setting and tweaked the throttle and tried again. This time he got two or three half hearted pops and an ALMOST start.

”Once more” he grunted and sure enough with the traditional hit-and-miss firing rhythm of a John Deere it was running. “We’ll let ‘er warm up a bit then smooth ‘er out”, he said to Dick as he increased the throttle setting a little more. Soon the engine seemed to be settling down to a fairly even throbbing beat with no load on it.

“Time to twist ‘er tail”, said Jim as he reached for the big lever that would engage the drive pulley. “Watch that belt don’t run off and hit you. If she let’s go, just get out of the way. We can put ‘er back on quick enough. Just don’t get hurt.” With that said, he started easing the lever forward.

The strain on the engine was immediately noticeable and as the belt started to tremble and creep, the monster seemed to be coming to life. Clanks, groans, slaps jingles and bangs, whirrs and clunks and DUST.

“Smooth as silk”, Jim shouted and grinned. “Guess we’re ready to make oats.”

Just as he said that, the first wagon appeared around the corner of the barn and pulled up to the unloading spot. “Feed ‘em in easy at first, ‘til we get in the swing of it.” Shouted Jim with a nod to the driver.

As the first few bundles passed under the feed flails the noise and dust increased as expected.
“Keep ‘em coming, we are doing OK.”

The first straws started coming out of the straw pipe and the oat bag showed that it was getting the oats. With a nod from Jim the driver increased the speed of his unloading. The machine made more noise and dust but took the strain in stride.

”BAG”, shouted Jim and the driver stopped feeding while the filled bag was tied off and replaced with an empty one.

“OK” and they were running again.
Dick grabbed the full bag of oats and carried it up to the barn floor out of the weather and continued walking around the set up looking for potential problems (mostly the belt wandering on the pulleys). A big iron crowbar had been driven into the ground where the belt crossed itself to reverse direction of the drive. This also lent a stabilizing effect as a belt guide.

Needless to say things were going better than was anticipated. The teams were arriving at decent intervals so there was no time lost waiting for oats. I had been sent out with a couple of jugs of cool switzel for the thirsty, dusty men to refresh themselves. It was hot, dirty repetitious work so I will not bore you with the details.

We eventually made it to lunch time and shut the machine down. The drivers had timed their trips so that we ended up with one load ready for the start up. Each driver looked after his team with water and an oat bag before heading for the well to wash up and cool down. They expected the kitchen to be hot and they were not disappointed.

That old kitchen stove had just been pouring out the BTUs all morning. The table with all the extra chairs and planks on saw horses enabled us to seat the whole crew at once. There wasn’t much extra room but with good natured elbowing and lots of laughing they all fit in.

Mom, Sally and I were the wait staff busily carrying dishes, shuffling pots and pans, bring water or whatever was needed or wanted. Big bowls of chicken and gravy were placed within easy reach and piles of biscuits strategically located, Platters of golden sweet corn, plates of sliced tomatoes, pickles and relishes along with the ever present chili sauce. Two large bowls of mashed potatoes were there for those who wanted them and piles of home made bread and preserves were not lacking. Setting on the pantry broad shelf cooling off were several fruit pies made from yellow transparent apples, blueberries and rhubarb.

No one got up from the table feeling hungry, that was for sure. In fact, that was probably the best meal some of them had eaten in several days. Most of them would like to have taken a little nap but that was not on the agenda.

After a few minutes more of joking and conversation Jim stood up and announced, “Back at it, boys” and out they went.

Mom, Sally and I collapsed in the nearest chairs and ruefully surveyed the disaster area that faced us. I never realized we owned this many dishes, pots, pans, tubs and flatware, all in need of washing, rinsing and drying before being put away until Silo-Filling Day in October.

There were no options, so with a sigh mom said, “We might as well get at it and get it over with. Rod you get the slop pail out and start scraping dishes for the pigs. Mind you don’t dump any forks, knives or spoons.”

The dish pan and rinse pan both sat right on the stove with a very low fire a couple of cookie sheets were placed on the cooler side of the stove to stack the dishes until they could be wiped and put away. A small table held the scraped dishes until they went into the dish pan. Mom handled the washing, rinsing and placing on the cookie sheets. Sally was the dryer and stacked the dishes on the wiped down table. I took the buckets of slops out to the pigs and they enjoyed their threshing day dinner. Boy, how they did crunch through those chicken bones and corn cobs.

In the meantime the oat operation was going full blast, things running smoothly when DG’s model “A” pulled into the driveway. He sat there for a minute or two just taking in the sight of the thresher and all the activity. You could tell he was exhausted just from his appearance.

He opened the car door and got out, slowly walking towards the house a deep yawn attesting to his condition. Mom opened the door and said,”Welcome stranger, come, sit, there is a bit left if you are hungry.”

“I might just do that. Then I have to see what I can do to help out there.”

Mom smiled and said, “I think you will be surprised. I talked with Jim at lunch and he assured me things would be all done by three or three thirty. Oats are yielding fair to middling. We should have enough for the horses, chickens and ourselves, if need be. You might want to stop out and say hello to Jim and then I would suggest you get a couple hours of sleep. I’m sure he will agree with me.”

She placed a plate of food in front of him and urged him to “Dig in.” He did.

Finishing his lunch, he arose from the table and made his way out the door. As he approached the machine he noticed Jim motion for Dick to come over where he was to take over for him. Dick had been observing and filling in on occasion so he was capable of handling the job. Together Jim and DG walked a few steps away so they could talk without shouting.

”Man, you look like death warmed over”, said Jim with a smile. “I think you better get a little shut-eye before you go down in a heap.”

“I’d really like to help out here if I could, gotta get these oats in,” DG said.

“Don’t you worry none. With this crew and those boys of yours we will have them all taken care of real soon. That Jack is handy with those wild horses of yours. They were pretty skittish first time up to the machine but he held them real close until Dick went up, held their bridles and calmed them down while Jack off loaded the oats. After that they were ok. You go on in now, we will settle up in a couple of days, OK?”

DG nodded and said ”OK, I guess you’re the boss on this crew, see you later.”

Back in the house we were just finishing up the dishes, pots and pans and sweeping the floor. The kitchen looked fairly presentable considering what it had looked like an hour ago. DG headed through his bedroom door and asked to be awakened for supper. Sally and I eagerly stepped out the door into the relative coolness of the fresh air.

“Busy day, huh?"

"Yeah, I’m beat.”

We walked slowly out towards the machinery and clouds of dust.

“Ugh” said Sally, "that hot kitchen was almost better than this.”

We stood as much up wind as we could to avoid most of the dust. The pile of straw looked like gold in the sun with a little green from the ragweed mixed in. The timing was good - the last three wagon loads were coming up through the meadow and as each was emptied the drivers waved and started down the road for their home farms. They knew that Jim would keep them informed of the next threshing event on the schedule.

As soon as Jack finished unloading the wagon he drove it around to where it was usually parked. He unhitched Tom and Jerry and drove them to their stalls. Cool fresh water was the first order of business along with a few oats as a reward. Off came the harnesses which were properly hung on pegs.

Grabbing an old feed bag, he briskly rubbed both horses down and climbed to the hay loft to dump some fresh hay into the mangers. Proper care of the horses was one of the most important jobs a man could do on the farm at that time.

Jim had shut the machine off and was breaking down the rig for transport. Dick was rolling up the belt and Dugal was securing blow pipes and beater bars. The boys were hurrying a little because in the back of their heads they were figuring on a quick trip to the swimming hole on Deer Creek before chores. Poor Sally was not to be invited as this was a boys' swimming hole (skinny dipping only).

Restarting the tractor, Jim jockeyed it around until it was in position to hook up the thresher. Dick coupled the units together and reached out to shake hands with Jim.

“Thanks for the training session”, he said with a grin.

Jim grinned right back at him and said, “If you ever want a job, come see me.”

With a wave to the rest of us he let out the clutch and the noisy, dusty monster started on the road to home. We headed for the Studebaker and the swimming hole. We knew Sally would tell mom where we were headed (grudgingly, of course).

This was basically what oat threshing day consisted of. More often than not, it was a day filled with frustration, broken equipment, sprains and bruises, run away teams, broken belts and the threat of rain.

After the quick swim, chores were done a bite of supper was eaten. A little relaxation and a general review of the day’s events brought the day to an early close. Several times in the past few days I had heard the word “School” mentioned. September was almost upon us. Time to think about wearing shoes again, also shirts.

My usual attire in the summer was a pair of raggedy shorts. I did truly hate the thought of corduroy knickers that whistled when you walked. Maybe I had outgrown them and they would get passed down to Alex. I could only hope!


John said...

I LOVE this. I'm a creative nonfiction writer, and I enjoy this kind of writing anyway, but this is really good. Your dad has such a constant voice, and his tone is folksy and patient. Great stuff. I need to find your other Story Hour posts.

I'll be back!


Burbanmom said...

Hey John! My Dad will be pleased to see your comment! If you want to read all the story hour posts, scroll down until you see "Looking for Specific Tips" in my sidebar. Under that is a category titled "Story Hour". That should give you all of them!

Thanks for the comment and enjoy! :-)