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25 July, 2016

A FARM BOY REMEMBERS MAKING HAY WHILE THE SUN SHONE

I enjoy people who can tell a good story, particularly if the tale is about a subject I am not all that familiar with or on an aspect of life that, due to circumstances, I have not experienced.  Bob Johnston is one of those people.  In many respects our lives have paralleled, but with one major exception -- Bob grew up on a farm.

He was talking the other day about the old expression "making hay".

That oft-repeated proverb reminds us to “make hay while the sun shines.” Of course, as Bob pointed out, "on the farm, we also made hay on cloudy days. And while those heavy gray clouds graciously offered some relief from the oppressive July heat, darkened skies made tanning efforts less successful."
"Muffets" of  hay.

As an insecure, shy, high school boy, young Bob counted on those summers in the hay fields as an opportunity to remold his scrawny six-foot-plus (to this day) frame. "I was hoping to create a more appealing physique to attract any one of those good-looking girls who, up to that point, had been ignoring me. The first goal was to cover my sun-starved, pasty, winter-white skin with a deep golden-brown tone. Dangers of excessive UV rays were not widely-known. We simply took off our shirts and waited, sans sunscreen lotion, for the inevitable painful sunburn. Once the skin had blistered and peeled we knew that further sun exposure would turn us brown, not red," he explains. Short term pain...

A second goal for Bob was to gain muscle. Daily rides to the boss’s farm and back on his old, battered, one speed CCM bike did produce strongly-sculpted, buff legs. Unfortunately, in that era no young fella would wear shorts to school. "My curvy, bulgy calves remained unnoticed by the world. Efforts at remaking my upper body failed miserably. ‘Nuff said!," he adds with a laugh.

Bob also recalls the pleasant interlude of bodily rest on top of a swaying wagon load of bales moving slowly between the hay field and the barn. "Once on site, we reluctantly sprang into action. I’ve never resolved which task was more challenging---the elevator or the mow. Each load of a hundred or so sixty-pound bales had to be placed one by one and end-to-end onto a moving elevator track which carried them up into the hay mow.  The sun beat down relentlessly, an overworked back grew stiff and the bales grew heavier as the day wore on,"

Life in the hay mow was apparently no picnic either. He continues, "Here, the farmhand stacked bales in neat rows as each one tumbled off the top of the elevator. Often, when I wasn’t paying attention, an errant bale would land on my head. Standing on each layer of piled bales brought me closer to the barn’s sun-scorched, galvanized tin roof, where stifling heat quickly became the enemy. No cooling breeze penetrated the windowless space. Did I mention the swirling clouds of chaff (hay dust) which stung my eyes and lungs?"

Yet, long after he exchanged adolescent summer work on a farm for the adult world of white collar desk jobs, he still yearned to be back on that hay wagon. "Every year from mid-June to Mid-July, I would plan a day or two away from the desk. We had family friends who farmed and always welcomed an extra pair of willing hands and a strong back."

Years ago, when he wrote for the Peterborough Examiner, he once penned a column entitled “Farmer for a Day” in which he encouraged city folks to offer volunteer help with hay crops in nearby fields. "I doubt if anyone took up my challenge, given the issues of legal liability and possible unwanted intrusion into a farmer’s routine and privacy," he readily acknowledges.

"Just as my sweet-smelling crop of loose hay gradually gave way to tightly-packed bales, so did those small, manageable bales eventually make room for the latest innovation -- giant bales which look so much like huge breakfast cereal "Muffets". Now, instead of hired hands, the farmer calls upon his front-end loader which never needs mid-afternoon lemonade breaks or complains about chaff in its eyes. Just as I could never comprehend how the baler ties knots, I have no idea how a baling machine can wrap each mega-Muffet in white plastic to be safely stored outside even in rainy weather. Farming technology has surely passed me by," says Bob with a degree of resolve.

His last memory of haying season is a bitter one. It was 1959 and the family farm was about to be sold for developers to erect three high-rise apartment towers. "The old, now-rusting rake and cutter sat silently and forgotten in the pasture. a remnant of hay in the barn lay moldy and encrusted in pigeon poop. Where I once biked to be a summer farmhand was now transformed into a CPR terminus for freight cars."

Yet, every June when Bob smells the sweet fragrance of newly-cut hay, it seems he can once again hear the sound of children playing in the family barn and feel the heat of summer sun on his bare back. He was young and life was simple then.


Life back then was simple for us town-slicker-kids too.  We didn't know any different.  We "made hay" in our own way!

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