The first job I ever had was Hauling Hay with Pop, my paternal grandfather. We called him Pop, but everyone else called him Slim. Or Slee-um, as we were in rural Alabama. Hardly anyone knew him by his real name, Dan Theo Wells. He was tough and strong, and I never heard anyone say a bad word about him, and if they did they would have been lying. I don’t remember exactly when I started working in the hay field with Pop, but I think it was sometime around the 1st or 2nd grade. I earned $5.00 per hour driving the manual transmission truck since I was not big enough to pick up a bale of hay.
Hauling hay, for those not familiar with this worthy vocation, involves a tractor with three or four different attachments, the cutter, the rake and the baler, and a truck and trailer to gather the finished product. You usually let the hay grow about a foot and a half then wait for a dry day and you cut it with the cutter, which is similar to a lawnmower but causes the hay to lay flat instead of being strewn all over the field. Then you allow the hay to dry for about a day before you rake it into windrows. If the hay isn’t sufficiently dried, you’ll need a fourth tractor attachment called a fluffer. The final step before you can load hay on the truck and trailer involves running the baler along the windrow where it compacts the hay into a square bundle about 18”x 36” and binds it with two strands of baling twine. Square bales of hay can weigh anywhere from 40-75 lbs depending on what type of hay, how wet, or how many fire ant beds are in it. Fire ants have a peculiar strategy of holding their fire until they have enough troops on the ground for an entire regiment to fire a volley. You learn to notice if you feel anything crawling on you before they have a chance to take aim. You also learn to kick hay over before you pick it up to carry it to the truck. Other animals can take to the refuge of a square bale in the field or barn, field mice, rabbits, and worst of all, snakes. I haven’t found many things more disconcerting than picking up a bale of hay only to feel a snake crawl down your leg.
As I got older I graduated from the air conditioned cab of the truck to the position of stacker. I would stand on the trailer or truck and stack each bale of hay in an alternating pattern five bales high, so in the end the stack would have 20 bales each. Then I would tie down each stack with a rope so they wouldn’t fall over on the high. If you’ve ever had to restack a load of hay because someone stacked it poorly in the beginning then you will know how important the job of stacker is. And if you’ve ever stood 20 feet high in a barn in an Alabama August with dust flying as your big brother throws bale after bale of hay up for you to stack you will know how uncomfortable the job of stacker is.
Once I moved up to stacker, Pop would have Henry McGloughlin drive. I don’t know how old Henry was, but I remember going to his funeral once I was in High School. Henry wore overalls, had the same glasses since 1978, and chewed tobacco. The tobacco juice ran out both sides of his mouth, which made it a little awkward if you lost your Styrofoam cup at the community water keg, you didn’t want to have to drink after Big Henry. Henry also had an allergy to deodorant, I think, so you didn’t want to have to ride in the middle of the truck when Henry was driving either.
One of the nice things about being the stacker was you didn’t have to walk on the uneven ground. You could just ride on the trailer as the truck pulled you across the rough hayfields. Eventually, I gained enough strength and height to walk alongside the moving truck, picking up the bales and stacking them from the ground, only getting on the trailer to straighten and firm up the loose bales. My brother was so strong that once he threw a bale clean over the loaded trailer and onto my head on the other side of the truck, knocking me down.
We not only would load the hay in the field and unload it in the barn, we also delivered hay, which meant we loaded it our barn, or chicken house, and unloaded it in someone else’s barn. Pop was not just feeding his cattle, he was running a hay business. We delivered to people with cows, people with horses, people with all manner of livestock, construction companies, and even the county for building roads. What this meant was early mornings loading the trailer while the barn was cool and then a long drive to our delivery location. Pop was not much of a talker and we hardly listened to the radio when on these long trips. It was not an awkward silence, I think Pop was enjoying spending time with his grandsons, and I cherish the memories of those long truck rides with him.
Sometimes we would spend the night with Pop so to get an early start before the sun came up, beating the Alabama heat as best as we could. This often meant eating a bowl of cereal at Pop’s or on special occasions, going to a restaurant and getting a biscuit.
We had some cousins that would occasionally work with us, but never on a consistent basis. Pop said they “was a different breed”. What I think he meant was they were lazy, and wild. They had not enough of the strong work ethic that Pop was so steadily instilling in us. I remember the last time that they worked for us, one of them hit me in the head with a rock. I told Pop and I never worked with those particular cousins again. One of them turned out just like Pop said he would, “Sorry.” He said it like it tasted bad in his mouth.
I had another cousin that was a chronic complainer and hated working in the hayfield. One day my Dad said to him, “You are Slim Wells’ grandson, this is not just what you do, it’s who you are. You don’t just haul the hay, you are in the hay business. It’s who we are, get over it.”
In all of the years of working with Pop, whether we were delivering a load of hay or planting potatoes, quitting was never an option. Even if we were doing something as uncomfortable as castrating bulls, leaving the job never crossed my mind. I’m thankful for the work ethic that I gathered from Pop. Pop also helped build my confidence. He never made me think that I couldn’t do something, he just told me to do it. I also thought he was the strongest person I had ever met. I believe that he got a much needed confidence boost when he was drafted into the Army.
Pop was also a champion of education and was so proud of my brother Zach and me when we graduated high school and went to college. I often wonder how different he would have been if he didn’t have to drop out of school in order to help make ends meet around the house. Pop was extremely mechanically inclined and could fix just about anything. Perhaps he would have been an engineer. One thing he was not was a patient teacher, but he “learned” me a lot of things in his own way.
The older I got the more I could anticipate what Pop was trying to say. Perhaps it was from years of trying to decipher his hand signals while backing the truck, or from his tractor across the field. He didn’t say it much but he told me I love you in a lot of different ways, from getting me jobs, to creating work so that I could have some spending money when I went to college.
The only real regret that I have from working with Pop is the one time I refused to retrieve the truck from about half a mile away. It wasn’t so much the distance, but the difficult truck. The White Truck as we called it, an ancient F-150 that had a tricky transmission. The fact that it was a standard made no difference as that was all I knew how to drive until I was about 13 and we loaded a customer’s truck in the field. I hopped in the cab to pull the truck up and didn’t know how to stop it sense there was no clutch. The deal with the White Truck was that I could never get it started, I always dumped the clutch, and it was embarrassing. On this day, we had just finished loading the trailer and needed to go get the White Truck for some reason, I don’t rightly remember. At any rate, I told Pop that I didn’t want to go get the truck, and he got up and went to get it himself.
It wasn’t very long after that event that I was riding in the middle seat of the truck with Pop driving and Zach in the passenger seat, we were delivering a load of hay. I noticed that Pop’s right hand was shaking as he had firm grip on the steering wheel. I didn’t say anything about it, but a few weeks later Pop let us know that he had been to the doctor and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. From that day on I noticed a gradual decline in Pop’s range of motion and his face became more and more grave.
After I was grown I chanced to watch some old VHS tapes of Pop leading me around on one of his mules. I must have been about two years old in the video and Pop was as fit and peppy as I ever remembered him in the hayfield. It wasn’t for nothing that they called him Slim, he was around 6’1” and lean but muscular. In this video Pop was beaming with joy, you could tell that he was showing off his grandchildren. It’s hard to believe that he is the same man since Parkinson’s has taken a toll on him.
Now that I’m grown and work a sedentary office job, I often reminisce about working with Pop. I’m glad that he taught me about work and I hope that I am able to instill a work ethic into my children, although they may not have the opportunity to work on a farm. Work is more enjoyable when you love the people that you are working with. I remember one Sunday morning around 6:00am Pop, Dad, Zach and I were about to unload around 1,000 bales of hay before church for Mr. Terry LaDuke, the local blacksmith. Zach and I were still wiping the sleep out of our eyes and quietly grumbling about having to work on the Lord’s Day, although, I don’t remember us grumbling much while hunting after church on the Lord’s Day. Mr. LaDuke said in sarcastic manner, “Boys, this is quality time.” And it was.
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