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Submitted Article
Chores
by Frank Young

The ceaseless passing of time! It is at once our friend and our enemy. It measures our progress and it makes us old. Like most features of our life, few things are all good or all bad, and most such judgments depend on our own perspective or viewpoint.

In our particular hobby, we enjoy the nostalgic return to the days of our youth as we recreate many of the scenes that took place on the family farm that served as the stage for the first few acts of the play that is our lives. For most of us, the set, the props, and most of the cast has changed dramatically since then, and probably will again before the final curtain falls. We recognize that Act I or II took place on a different set than the one we are looking back from, and that things look a bit different from here.

An educated and accomplished friend of mine, from the early years, began a project some years ago to document some of the mundane tasks that went into the making of a typical day for those of us who grew up in the mid twentieth century family farm environment. These were the commonality of our lives, much as they were for our parents. They were a shared experience that never needed a word between us to be understood. They were the anchors of familiarity that kept us from drifting away. They were, "chores"!

But let's try to be accurate here, the term "chores", as we knew it, only referred to those scheduled tasks that occurred every day of our lives at the same time. When you climbed out of bed in the morning you didn't start your day with coffee, you started with cows; the same one's you milked the night before, needed it again, as they would from that day forward until one of you died or was sold. And the music of the morning was the reassuring "snick-chunk, snick-chunk" of the Surge milking machines, the metronome of the milk house, as they hung beneath the placid Holsteins.

In order to maintain their valued production there were two more elements that completed the daily cycle. Each morning and each night they had to be fed. With pitchfork in hand you climbed the hand hewn rungs of the ladder that led to your silent refuge from the world, the hay mow. Even late in the Winter you could unearth the smells and memories of Summers past as you pried layer after layer of tightly packed alfalfa or clover from it's resting place and sent it over the edge of the mow to it's destiny. In January you tried to recall the sweat that rolled down your arms as you "mowed it back" last June.

In the evening, you found your arms reaching mindlessly for the cold steel rung on the next door of the silo. You knew without looking that the worn beet fork would still be up there where you left it the day before. It fit your hand like the gloves you didn't really bother with unless the temperature was near zero. As soon as it was nestled against the right row of calluses it was doing your bidding and your mind absently enjoyed the regular rhythm of the ensilage rattling down the metal chute. On a good day you put a forkful through the door before the last one hit the floor of the silo shed below.

But there was still a missing piece of the great cycle of the cow; how well we all knew that we would encounter that same measure of hay and silage one more time. The next time we would cross paths, it would be a good deal heavier, and somewhat more fragrant. Our city cousins couldn't imagine how we could wade in manure up to our ankles and we laughed at their frailty as we listened to tines of the fork sing when we dragged it over the steel sides of the spreader. It seemed as it was; a natural part of the cycle and of our lives.

But still there were more stops to be made before the hat was hung on the nail in the back room and the boots were placed just outside of Mother's viewing range, the next station on your route would be the pig pen. In one hand a bucket of water and in the other perhaps a bucket of kitchen cast-offs to add a little variety to the hogs diet. You don't even notice the pungent smell of the animals but enjoy the sweet aroma of the pig feed as you shovel it into the trough. A splash of water while the eager swine push to get under the gate and then you mix it a moment with an old garden hoe worn to half it's original size from the bottom of the concrete trough. Thank God people wear better than tools...or do they??

Still to come is the obligatory stop at the chicken coop to add fresh water and fill feeders with mash while the roosting hens silently watch from their evening perch. As you retrace your steps back to the house with the galvanized pails clanging together in your hands, you glance up at the endless canopy of stars above, and wonder if they look the same to your friend in the next mile as he comes in from the barn. You think how boring it must be for the kids that lived in town, there's nothing for them to do!

These were the routine tasks that were so much a part of each day that you did them as automatically as breathing while your mind was free to wander where it would. If anyone had asked, you would have grumbled about your role, but there is often comfort in routines, and those who guided your life seldom took opinion polls.

The items listed above may have comprised the scheduled portion of a typical day but, as mentioned, they were only "chores" and, as such, were not really part of the day's work.

If the season was Spring, you could feel the tension in the air. When the weather broke early, it was exciting to begin the field work needed to fit the ground for planting, a welcome change from the Winter's dormant period. If the Fall had been uncooperative and you still had the plowing to do, you spent long days getting acquainted again with every square inch of every acre, turning over 28, 32, or maybe even 42 inches at a time. The staccato sound of the old John Deere spoke loudly to you as you worked your way up the red clay hills and then more softly as you cruised through a patch of lighter ground. This was the soundtrack of your youth, and like an like an endless looped tape, it was still playing in your head when you drifted off to sleep that night.

The fitting and planting would follow, and almost never at the desired pace. A sense of urgency began to build as the calendar pages were turned, and you would hear the old man begin to add phrases like, " well, if we have a good September....".

But each Spring was followed by a Summer, and with it a new set of tasks to help build your character. The fledgling crops that had battled the weather were now in a head to head competition with their mortal enemy, the weed. To tip the scale in favor of the crops he intended to fill his barn with, the farmer dispatched the most potent weapon at his command,... the kid with the corn knife! Parting the humid air with a "swish" the crude instrument dealt death to thistle and chicory alike with a thin, metallic "ching" that told you your aim was true. The warm sun on your back and the soft whisper of the wind through the grain allowed you to ignore your aching legs, for a while at least.

The next day might bring a new challenge as you sought to maintain your mastery over those same Holsteins that you spent your mornings and evenings with. Expecting a 900 lb. animal with the intellect of a doorknob to stay where you wanted it was a great failing of the young agricultural mind. The consequence of this misplaced trust would be an afternoon spent with a posthole digger, shovel, hammer, and a bag of staples. Nearly an art form, it was simply known as, "fixing fence".

The actions of wayward cattle are neither subtle nor dainty, so little time was wasted finding the breach in the perimeter. The broken stump of the fencepost had to be extricated from the hole and a new one inserted, a straightforward task, were it not for customary practice of shoring up the previous post with excess fieldstone. One by one they had to be pried loose before the new post could be installed, a life lesson in patience and profanity. A rusty squeak would soon tell you the wire was as taut as you could get when it was drawn through the staples using whatever mechanical advantage you could find hanging on the wall of the toolshed. You still wear the scars on your hands that remind you of your apprentice days as a fence stretcher.

By now the row crops had begun to form clearly discernible traces from fencerow to horizon which meant long days astride the family Farmall concentrating on keeping the tender young shoots between the shields of the cultivator. As you looked ahead at your task, the shimmering mid-morning heat made the distant end of the field appear wavy and distorted but you looked up for only a moment, lest your mechanical steed wander from its path. The drone of the tractor, the heat and humidity, the endless trips across the field, the hours of concentration, all joined in a sinister effort to lull you into that 5 second nap that the old man would notice tomorrow. Your contention that the planter probably just missed that ten foot stretch last Spring would not hold up in the court of your jurisdiction.

For those of us a bit behind the technological curve, the arrival of haying season meant early morning trips to the field with the hay mower to begin the multi stage process. Clouds of tiny bugs would be sent skyward with each pass as the cutter bar dislodged them from their overnight nesting beds. There is no single smell that invokes memories of your farming days like the sweet fragrance of curing hay. Another pass with the side delivery rake a day later and soon the work would begin. The ancient hay-loader would be hitched behind the wagon and, with the tractor in the lead, the parade set off for the field. The windrows of hay flowed endlessly up the incline of the loader and onto the wagon below, where there was no rest for the load builder except when it was time to lay down the second and third slings. When the load finally reached the barn, the slings were drawn by pulleys to the peak and pulled over to the side where the hay mow, you , and your pitchfork awaited it's arrival. A gentle hand was needed to coax the huge bundle back and forth to help place it in the correct spot and minimize handling. At just the right moment, a sudden tug on the trip rope and the barn would shudder as the load landed. You marveled at your control when it hit the desired spot and cursed the gods of gravity when it did not.

Though the threshing machine was still around, the combine had become device of the masses when the wheat and oat harvests were in season. Always an afternoon enterprise, to allow the dew to dissipate from the grain, the image that remains uppermost in our minds is the heat. The junior members of the crew were often forced to take shelter on an old feed bag thrown on the stubble beneath the wagon to escape the midsummer sun while waiting for the next load. The dust and heat inside the barn could be nearly unbearable during the unloading process, often using manual transfer by scoop shovel or the above mentioned feed bags. The building of character took many forms.

As Summer faded again into Fall, it would be time once more to fill the silo you had personally emptied a season or two ago. This was often a cooperative effort since many specialized pieces of equipment were required to the extent that the cost might have been prohibitive for any one farmer. The result was an operation reminiscent of the old threshing crews that traveled from farm to farm. A man to run the chopper in the field, two more tractor and wagon teams to do the transport, another tractor to run the blower, a man in the silo, and a good woman or two in the kitchen. As dinner time neared, the old timers would be noticed pulling the watch out of the pocket on the front of their bib overalls and perhaps lifting their nose to the breeze in an effort to get some advance information on the menu for the day. Time to trade that cheek full of Mail Pouch for a mouthful of mashed potatoes and gravy. As a youngster it was a time to eat well and listen closely to the collective wisdom of those who walked before you.

The mornings would become white with frost, and you had a new item to fit into your schedule, school days. To say the least, it required an adjustment to move back to an indoor life, but you knew you would still have to take a couple of days off to pick corn. Of course you didn't actually pick the corn, someone else did that while you were back at the crib sharpening your skills with the scoop shovel. On a cold November day, suddenly that math class didn't sound so bad.

A farmers life is measured not in days or years but rather in seasons, and so we have come full circle to the point where this retrospective look at our early years began. What a varied and instructive lifestyle it was. As we moved on and became parents ourselves, what pride we took in re-telling the tales to our children. When they were young and impressionable enough, they might say, "gosh, I wish I could'a been there". We stifle a grin and say to ourselves, "think it over, kid, think it over".

After years have passed you go back and walk through the old barn, you can still smell the cows, hear the same boards creak, see the smooth spots on the wood worn by your hands as you climbed up and down the stairs all those years, and you realize that your early experiences have left an indelible imprint on you as well. The lessons learned may vary widely from one person to another, but the standard parental admonition, "You ain't goin' nowhere if you don't do your chores first", in retrospect, may have been as profound as any advice we ever received.

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