Vol. VI, No. 4, Spring 1993


One day in the life of a hay hauler, one not bred and not yet conditioned to the rigors of the profession.

Hay Journal: 5-30-80

by Sandy Primm



We were at it by an hour after noon yesterday. Cookie and Diane Youngblood picked me up in Bourbon, Missouri. As we zoomed a few miles out to Scott's place, she introduced me to David Ousley and Jeff Hunt, muscular college students home for the summer whose sheer bulk filled the back seat of "Molly-boo," a 1964 convertible Chevy Malibu. It felt almost like Surf City, us all out in the open, Cookie with her sort of pony tails and Diane with shades. No bikinis or shorts though. We were all in old denim and long sleeves except for David and Jeff, bare chested for the sun. They seemed utterly confident about the work ahead and joked about what a fine day to buck bales. As we drove down the four blocks of main street, they called to friends sitting on a shady stoop, "Come work with us."

"We got to eat and keep cool," one boy yelled back from the shade. Few farmers or passersby at the Roller Mill turned to see the riffle of excitement in the bright still heat. Cookie and Diane, a neighbor down the road and schoolteacher pressed into service at the last minute, smiled at each other and then guffawed; they love downtown Bourbon's few storefronts on a hot summer's afternoon when dogs only move eyes, not heads, to see what's happening.

When we arrived, after fifteen minutes of wind therapy, midday seemed markedly warmer, stifling in the bowl of the hayfield. A huge, tidy lawn, it looked scalped, only green stubble, a vast minimalist garden amidst the hills. Scott was beginning to bale what he had cut a day earlier and left lying in windrows around the half-mile square field. He was ready for us.
A wagon, about 10 by 25 feet, had a solid homemade look about its welded steel bed and stakes on front held together with a few bars running crossways. Cookie helped us unload four gallon jugs of ice water, then jumped into the driver' s seat of her father' s truck pulling the hay wagon. She gunned it. With no pause for conversation with Scott, we four hay-haulers hopped on the wagon and rode out the gate, past the barn to the new hay.

Diane told me to stay up on the wagon with her when we reached a line of bales along the upper section where David and Jeff got off. First she showed me how to pick up the bales as they began tossing them up, then how to stack them. I tried to do what she did as Cookie drove slowly up the field straight along the line of bales. When we got to the far end, I looked over to the hills as we turned to pick up more hay lining the edge of the field.

A serpentine of distant blued trees marked the valley, comforted me, made the work lighter and a trifle compared to the age and gentle roll of the ridge over the Meramec. Between this high land and me was the river. I sensed it near us, though it was maybe a half mile away. How good it would be to swim. Later, it will be even better, I told myself as the truck turned the wagon around the comer of the field where David and Jeff began pitching up another line of bales.

Poking my hands under the taut twine holding the hay compacted into hard bundles, I sensed my hurt new muscles developing. Stacking the wagon from the wood bracing on back, I thought the bales looked like thick Japanese tatami mats. Diane showed me how to build layers of five bales. They fit the wagon perfectly. As we loaded more, their bulk made me feel we were doing okay. They held together when stacked right. By the time the wagon was full--112 bales--and we turned back to the barn, I was sweating good. Dry green grass flecks covered my chest and worked their way down my beltline inside my jeans and itched. My forearms were covered with tiny bumps and gouges from stubble on the sides of the bales. My belly too was suffering from this treatment because once you lift a bale with your arms, then straighten up, you have to use your knee to buck the bale to give upward momentum. Hardly a smooth process for me. Tummy got into the act. My fingers still ache, and the belly itches and still complains of hunger despite frequent feedings all this misty morning on Landis farm.

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"Don't worry. After three days you'll be able to throw a bale like a softball," Diane said at one point. I can't believe that's true, though it certainly is now for David and Jeff. They pitch them one-handed every once in a while to show off and get ahead so they can talk and relax.

The wagon fit right through the barn door, but before we unloaded we rested, saying little, all well-winded, drank cool water and watched a pair of barn swallows dart back and forth above us. They were guarding their nest of straw held together with mud on a rafter. "Sometimes a nest gets closed in behind stacks of hay," David said.

"So do the little kitty cats," said Diane. We heard some mewing, but Diane couldn't find them. Did find a tiny speckled king snake, as snappy as a chickadee. We passed the baby around to feel his quick slippery twists, then let him disappear into the loose hay on the ground.

Unloading the wagon was easy this first load because the barn was almost empty. A simple downward toss was all it took. Still, it was hot enough so we needed another few rounds with the water jug before going out again.

Diane and I walked to buck bales up to the wagon this time while David and Jeff stacked. She pitched up onto one side, I on the other. I'd tossed a few up when I came across a common box turtle which had been crushed in half by Scott's tractor. But the creature was still alive the moment it saw me, the eyes seemed to ask me to get him out of this fix, but instinctively he pulled his head back into his splintered shell.

I told Cookie to stop the truck. Then Diane found the only thing available to put Mr. Turtle out of his misery, a hammer. A half-dozen whops finished him off. I cleaned the hammer head with a few rubs in the grass stubble and we continued on.

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I couldn't forget this for the rest of the day, and kept thinking how gasoline-powered farming, living really, sets a pace much of life can't tolerate. I began thinking of long lines of men working across the grain fields with their scythes, as Tolstoy describes in Anna Karenina. An idyllic scene. One of the great ones from the book and an image of work as being both the purest delight, the essential connection to life's core, and an escape from the world's evil and complications. I guess this is part of the experience I'm after, but on this first day I could hardly hold the image in mind because the process of lifting a bale took all my concentration.

I would shove a hand under each of the twine bindings. Then in one movement pull the bale up, trying to think how not to strain the back, and straighten up quick in a glide tossing the damn thing with both arms and a knee, all jerking to heave the 50 pounds up toward whoever and the stack filling the wagon. However, my natural tendency was to lift the bale off the ground with both arms and back at once, a process I felt would create long-term problems. I had to fight to think each time I came to a bale, to say to myself this one will be done right, just pause, catch a breath till the wagon is as near as it's going to get. As the afternoon wore on, it seemed to take more concentration just to lift a bale, much less do it with any awareness of what muscles were getting into the act.

After the third load was stacked in the barn, we took a long break, cooling ourselves with a garden hose in the back yard of the farmhouse. I asked Cookie to spray me, water pressure turned on all the way, chest and back as I stood, arms outstretched, slapping the wet chaff off my gut, and turned slowly in the icy spray. Her mother had come out to the picnic table in the shade with a big pitcher of iced tea and we all wolfed what food we'd brought.

Revived, we went back for a fourth, final load, but once we had stacked it and were resting with ice water, we looked up with horror: the stack at one end of the barn was falling. It just seemed to melt. There was nothing we could do but watch as a hundred or so bales tumbled onto the bum floor. We discussed why it happened: bales left over last year provided a poor foundation for the new bales. Diane convinced us to take the fallen bales and build a more solid foundation, as we had on the wagon, to support those which hadn't fallen. This meant blocking the barn door and the breeze, which made working the bum even more difficult due to heat and frustration of stacking bales stacked once already.

I began moving slower and slower, barely able to lift the hay and carry the bales even one step by 7 p.m. when we finished.

We, at least I, the others to some degree, dragged ourselves to the Landis backyard picnic table and hose for a final cleanup of hay chaff stuck all over us. Out came Cookie's mother with a tray of strawberry shortcakes, berries fresh from the garden and huge scoops of ice cream, an act guaranteeing canonization

Cookie's hay-hauling immortality had probably been secured long ago. As she said when we got back to her place in the evening, she's been arranging hay crews for her father and others "ever since I was 15 and had a boyfriend." Dinner back at Landis Farm was just as good as the shortcake, not only because we cooked terrific stuff, plates of liver, steak, spaghetti, but also after a shower and clean clothes, my body felt both exhausted and energized by the day's effort.

I ate three times normal, smiling because Diane said, "You did good, Sandy." I couldn't fully believe her, though I appreciated it. I felt like a pup thrown into the river to learn to swim. Somehow I had made it back to shore. I couldn't believe I had been much use in hauling those 521 bales that Cookie said we did. The $26.05--Scott paid twenty cents for each bale hauled, so the crew each got a nickel a bale--seemed to make my stumbling effort worth trying again. Indeed, necessary. Now the thought of getting good at it, being in any sense in shape, whatever that means, seems like just so much icing. I feel as apprehensive about the next day when the weather finally clears as I did about the first. It could be what Cookie sees coming up. A thousand-bale day.

Sandy Primm is a writer, speaker, artist, media producer and former hay bale bucker who lives near Rolla, Missouri.

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