Floating the Creek

“One of the things that my brother and I looked forward to as boys was going fishing in the boat on the Coosa River with Dad.”

One of the things that my brother and I looked forward to as boys was going fishing in the boat on the Coosa River with Dad. I have never been much of a fisherman, but I still enjoyed going, I was just always ready to come home a lot sooner than Zach and Dad ever were. Dad would announce that we were going fishing on Monday to build anticipation for the week. Friday night Zach and Dad would bring all of the fishing tackle into the living room and waste their time by re-spooling their reels with fresh fishing line. I’d have to hold the spool of line on a pencil as Zach reeled it onto the reel. They would carefully select a lure and piddle around in the myriad of tackle boxes.  Saturday morning after we loaded the boat with all of our fishing rods and tackle boxes, was when the real preparation started. We would swing by the BP to fuel the boat, fill a cooler with ice, and more importantly make our snack selections. I’m not sure who made the rules of what is proper fishing fare, but we sure stuck to them as if they were handed down from Mt. Sinai by the Lord himself. Vienna Sausages, potted meat, and saltine crackers are the staple diet of avid fisherman. Vienna sausages is spelled just like the capitol of Austria but pronounced “Vie-Eena”. Saying it like the capitol of Austria will make you sound like a city slicker and destroy your credibility on the river. This fishing diet is best appreciated with a canned coke and a pack of saltine crackers. You could also pack some bologna sandwiches-again, not pronounced like the Italian city, but “baloney.” Chips are permissible, but real fisherman lean toward the standard saltine. I am not a real fisherman and would usually make a more flamboyant selection like Doritos, or Pizza flavored nacho chips. Dad’s drink of choice was Pepsi, while Zach would get Dr. Pepper. I got Dr. Pepper because Zach did.

My philosophy of fishing has always been pretty simple, catch one fish, and dig into the potted meat, Vienna sausages, and cold cokes. I was usually ready to go home about four hours before anyone else was.

The first boat Dad had was an old brown fiberglass boat with stick steering. We soon graduated to an aluminum boat with a steering wheel for steering. The aluminum boat was a much needed upgrade where many fond memories were made, but I guess the most memorable boat we had was an aluminum flat bottom boat that Dad had procured from my Uncle Johnny.  After a couple of tubes of calk we used that death trap to “float the creek”. Kelly Creek flows into the Coosa river a mile or so South of the Logan Martin Dam. Kelly Creek is only a couple of yards short of being a river, rivers being measured in length.

The biggest difference in going fishing in the River and floating the Creek is the logistics. In the river, you drive yourself to the boat landing, launch the boat, and then return to the same location and the comfort of your truck and boat trailer when you’re finished fishing. When you float the creek, you have to con someone into dropping you off at the crack of dawn at point A up the creek and then picking you up at point B later in the day. Sounds simple enough these days, but you should try it without a cell phone for a more realistic effect.

The first time we floated the creek, we manhandled the boat into the back of the truck and drove down a dead end road where the frame of an old steel bridge still spanned the creek. It would take the rest of the day for us to reach the boat launch on Kelly Creek which was five or seven miles away. The landing was about a mile from the river. This dead end road was the closest access to the creek, but not at all ideal for launching a boat. How bad you want to go fishing is reciprocal to your willingness to carry a flatbed aluminum boat half a mile through the bushes and down a cliff. The manufacturers were kind enough to put handles on the boat. It probably wasn’t as bad as I remember since my job was to carry the tackle boxes and cooler, and we were too excited to complain about paltry things like briars and torn clothes.

There are a number of marked differences between fishing in the river and fishing in the creek. For starters, the Coosa River was a good five hundred feet wide, whereas Kelly Creek might be fifty feet wide at the widest point, and much narrower in general, which meant that for the most part you were in the shade for the whole day on the creek. The river was a good deal deeper too, some places up to forty feet. We had to get out and carry the boat across rocks in some places on the creek and the deepest point might have been fifteen feet. I loved how quiet it was on the creek. You hardly hear any cars or engines it’s just you and the creek. It also helps if you are with people that you love. I do not consider myself a sportsman today, but this aspect of many outdoor activities is still incredibly appealing.

Floating the creek was more memorable than fishing in the river for a few reasons, the biggest being that you were committed to it, you couldn’t crank the outboard motor and go home. Even on the river when our motor died once, there was someone to tow you home. Not having a motor wasn’t a big deal since you were floating with the current, but if you needed a helping hand from a stranger you were out of luck. You hardly saw anyone on the creek until you were about a mile from the river.

The narrower and shallower creek was also more challenging. On our maiden voyage down the creek we had just rounded a bend when we encountered one of our first challenges, a huge oak tree had fallen across the creek and there was only about eighteen inches of clearance from the water. Zach and Dad stopped fishing. I stopped eating. We all stared at the tree across the river not saying a word.  A duck with four or five ducklings paddled under the tree.

“What are we going to do boys?” Dad asked.

“Let’s do what the ducks did.” I finally piped up since Zach was not offering any ideas.

We all laid down flat of our backs and slid under the oak tree. I remember Dad having to pull us through since we got wedged under there a couple of times. It’s a wonder a water moccasin didn’t drop down into the boat with us.

Being a shallow body of water, there are a number of places on Kelly Creek where there are white water rapids, which would be fun if you were in a kayak, but is a downright nuisance in a flat bottom boat. The first time we came upon the rapids we decided to “shoot” them rather than get out and carry the boat. Everything went fine. We zipped right through the rapids without so much as a bang and by the time we got to the next set of rapids, we had thrown caution to the wind and were hoping for the same outcome. We braced ourselves as Zach tried to steer us to what seemed like the best route, but the rapids sucked us in and the boat grounded on the rocks with a thump. We rocked the boat to try to free ourselves, but the boat wouldn’t budge. We decided the boat was too heavy so I got out in order to lighten it, but the boat still held fast. Zach got out, but the boat still wouldn’t budge. As Dad was standing up to step out, the boat lunged forward and he fell flat of his back in the stern, snapping a fishing rod as water rushed into the boat. He was soaking wet, but most concerned about his waterlogged wallet. When Zach and I recovered from laughter, we decided in might be time to have lunch. We were able to sail on smoothly for the rest of the day though it was a long four hours for Dad to sit in his sopping wet clothes.

As the day wore on we could hear voices from other fishermen who were coming up the creek from the landing, it’s pretty cool how far the water will carry a voice. When we finally met up with the other boat we got to witness one of the guys set the hook and fight a humongous fish for what seemed like an eternity. When he finally got the fish netted he realized that it wasn’t what he had hoped for, “It’s a drum.” He said, one of the least desirable species in the river. He used a more colorful adjective than I feel comfortable even writing, which was unnecessary since his voice carried the most disappointing emotion that I’d heard all day.

I hope my Dad wasn’t as disappointed when one day he woke me up to go fishing on a Saturday and I told him, “I don’t want to go fishing. I don’t like fishing. I don’t even like Dr. Pepper.” I imagine that this revelation stung him a bit as he and Zach loaded up the boat without me for the first of many fishing trips. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what you like and what you do just to be with the people you love. I’m going through the same thing with my boy now. Since he was about four minutes old, we could tell that he loved to be outside. He’s only been fishing about three times, but he already loves it. It looks like I’m going to have to endure a few more fishing trips just to spend time with my little outdoors man. That’ll be alright though, I’ll pack plenty of snacks.wesfish

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The Mysterious Magnetism of the Railroad

“Now you probably think I’m a bad person, but there’s not a more satisfying sound than hitting an empty boxcar with a rock.”

There is something inside every young boy that is drawn to the railroad tracks. This attraction is only made stronger by the boundaries set by Mothers and the signs that read “No Trespassing Violators Will Be Prosecuted”. Growing up about 100 yards from the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, neither my Mother’s warnings nor the mysterious signs deterred me from exploring the railroad tracks. Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. So anything you do on posted property is sweetened by the fact that you are not supposed to be there.

Some of my earliest memories of the railroad were rushing outside to see some of the last passenger trains pass by our house. My mom even took some pictures of those sleek silver trains. I also remember being petrified of the noise of the train at my great grandmother’s house. Her house was even closer to the railroad tracks than ours and also closer to a road crossing, which meant the train had to signal. I must have been two years old when the train came barreling by in front of the house blasting the whistle.  I was sitting on the front porch swing and I remember the noise of the whistle being painful. This was the only time that I remember being scared of a train. Somehow Grandmother’s train was meaner than ours.

I don’t ever remember being scared of the train at our house.  You kind of have to get used to the noise when you live so close to the rails. Our ancient house would shake whenever the train rolled by, and the Doppler Effect would cancel out any sound in the house so that it felt simultaneously loud and quiet, you could feel the compression of the air. We learned to suspend conversation as the train went by. The shaking was especially bad in the upstairs part of the house. We never really thought about how inconvenient this was, we had just learned to live with it. However, to a guest the train was quite disconcerting, especially in the middle of the night. My brother had a friend over that was awakened in a couple of ways by the midnight train. He thought with his whole heart that the rapture of the church was taking place as the train thundered by outside, sounding it’s trumpet and shaking every house on the street with fury and terror.

The railroad was my introduction to crime. Not only did I trespass, I destroyed government property by placing pennies on the track. Sometimes Honest Abe would look like a mule after he’d been stretched a good two inches and you were lucky enough to find your penny. This being an expensive hobby and too much like gambling since the odds were clearly in the trains favor, I quickly gave it up. I did not, however, give up on one of my first ventures into crime: Throwing rocks at trains. Now you probably think I’m a bad person, but there’s not a more satisfying sound than hitting an empty boxcar with a rock. I never felt comfortable throwing rocks at moving trains or tank cars. Even criminals have some morals.

The crime that we never really got over was trespassing, or as we called it, walking the tracks. One of our favorite haunts was an abandoned railroad steam platform by the creek about a mile North-West of my house. You had to slide down the steep embankment of the tracks right before the tracks crossed an old arched brick bridge. Directly under the bridge the bed of the creek was concrete and only about shin deep. The platform was about halfway up the embankment. If you were standing on the tracks it was about thirty five feet from the creek. The platform was made of concrete and had the remnant of a crane base which would hoist water to steam engines from the concrete box in the creek situated at the base of the concrete platform.finalfort.jpg Diesel Engines replaced steam long before my time, so this platform had been neglected for forty or so years and it was a veritable paradise for boys. We had a real fort shaded from the tracks with heavy foliage, a swimming and fishing hole, and the thrill of getting caught any moment. I remember falling headfirst from the platform into the concrete box once. It was winter and we were bundled up, perhaps I was a little clumsy from all the extra clothes. I was leaning over the edge of the platform to get a good look into the box, which was a good twelve feet down. It was interesting to watching the crystal clear water roll into the four feet square box and swirl. I lost my balance and fell headfirst, I must have hit my shoulder on the box and spun around because I landed flat of my back in the freezing water. It’s a miracle that I didn’t break my neck or anything else. I learned later that week that someone had been praying for me about the same time that I fell.

My friend and I had a brilliant idea of trying to ride our bicycles on the rail road. I do not recommend this. I also do not recommend modifying a go-cart so that it would sit on the rails.

We must have walked a hundred miles on those old railroad tracks, heading down to the platform to play, or on past it to the steel bridge where the water was deeper and the fishing was better, hiding in the brush if we heard a train coming. Most of the time in the sweltering heat. I can still see the heat waves rising up off the track and blurring the track like the reflection in the water after you throw in a rock. We spent hours on the track, seeing how long you could walk a rail, looking for stray rusty rail road spikes. I still have one on my bookshelf. Once we were going to try to collect railroad spikes and sell them for scrap metal. We got one five gallon bucket full and quit. Do you know how much a five gallon bucket full of rusty steel weighs? I also found a rusty hand held counter, probably dropped by some rail worker years ago. I used it to count cars after that, I still have it somewhere.

About a mile south of my childhood home the Norfolk Southern line crossed the CSX line. If you got on the CSX line at the crossing it was only two miles North East from the Coosa River. The Norfolk Southern line continues South and doesn’t cross the river for another six miles. From time to time we would walk to the river on the CSX to go fishing. We didn’t do that very often because six miles round trip is a long way to walk in order to fish for thirty minutes without a bite. We really weren’t going to fish, we were going to be going somewhere. Your feet get tired after walking on the railroad tracks for a mile or so. And none of us ever packed enough water either.

We would sometimes follow the creek through the woods to the river and then walk home on the CSX tracks. This way we wouldn’t have to backtrack the same way and the scenery would be different for the whole trip. Plus we had the added thrill of trespassing on Mr. Tom Bell’s land and not just the CSX and Norfolk Southern railway property. We had a red-haired friend named Chip that lived close to the crossing and he went with us once. Chip’s mom had a cell phone and he had talked her into letting him take it with us in case of emergency. We weren’t really worried about emergency, but it seemed more official to have a cell phone. In the late ’90s you might as well have said Chip had an airplane, since cell phones were still a relatively new novelty and expensive to operate. On the way back from the river we happened upon the carcass of a dog long since dead. If a dog ever gets in front of a train on the tracks it will try to outrun it instead of getting off the tracks. I’ve found more than one dead dog on the railroad. Ordinarily, we would have kept on trekking, because as I remember, it was late in the afternoon and the sun was scalding us and Chip’s fair skin was already burnt to a crisp. But this particular dead dog had a collar with a phone number on the tag. And we had a cell phone. This called for a council, so we sat down on the rails and began to deliberate. Was this warrant enough for us to use the cell phone? Wouldn’t you want to know what had happened to your beloved pet? We all decided that calling was the Christian thing to do. So Chip called. We all sat with rapt attention as Chip dialed the phone.

“It’s ringing.” Chip said. We all nodded gravely.

When the lady answered the phone Chip’s face lit up. The conversation went something like this.

“This is Chip. We found your dog on the railroad tracks. It’s dead. It’s been dead a looong time.”

There was a pause and then the lady said something.

“Just thought that you’d like to know.”

A shorter pause.

“Bye.”

This was one of my first lessons in diplomacy. Perhaps we could have elected a different spokesperson, but it was Chip’s cell phone. There’s the right thing to do and then there’s the right way to do it.

The track directly in front of my house was a double track and good bit of time there were empty boxcars parked on the side track. One of the coolest sounds you will ever hear is a mile long train taking off from a dead stop. There is slack in all of the couplings and when the train takes off the slack is let out one car at a time with a tremendous bang. The bang travels from car to car down the line. It’s an impressive musical piece that played heavily in the soundtrack of my childhood. With parked trains in front of my house more days than not, my curiosity soon overcame any fear I had of rail workers early on in life, and I must say that I’ve been in quite a few boxcars. One thing that you’ll notice about a boxcar when you get up close is how high they are off the ground. You can easily hunker down and walk under a boxcar. One thing your mom will notice after you’ve been playing in an empty boxcar is how filthy your clothes are.

As often as I played on the empty boxcars, I never was really tempted to ride a moving train. My Uncle Melvin once hopped on a slow moving train to save himself from having to walk so far to his hunting grounds. He told me, “It’s easy to get on when the train ain’t moving too fast, but you’ll be a couple a miles away in just a minute when it gets up to speed and It’s a little harder to get off when you’re going that fast. You don’t stop when you jump out, you just keep rolling and rolling.” Melvin was still laying on the ground in pain when my Dad, who did not jump on the train, finally walked to where Melvin had bailed off.

My friend Jared and I were walking to the platform one day when one of the rail riding pickup trucks crept up behind us. We had been caught.

“You boys know that you’re trespassing?” The driver asked.

“No.” We lied. I say we lied, but we never really thought that what we were doing was trespassing. We’d been playing on these tracks for years and sort of thought that we owned them. I always thought those signs were for bad guys and didn’t really apply to fun loving boys.

“You see how quietly we snuck up on you in this truck. We could have run over you. Y’all go on home and don’t let me catch you on these tracks again.”

We said yes sir and high tailed it back home.

From then on we took the service road out of town a few hundred feet to where the track wasn’t so visible from the main road, the grocery store, police department, town hall, and, well basically the whole town. This was the service road that the trucks used in order get onto the rails and it ran parallel to the tracks and was heavily shaded by trees which provided us plenty of cover. The service road took us right by the water tower. This water tower was probably built in the 1930’s and was the tallest structure in the town. It was painted a silvery grey and had a roof that covered the catwalk around the tank. This roof and the ten foot chain link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire gave the water tower a decidedly severe watchtower look. From time to time the tank would overflow and water would spill out of the tower. If this happened in the winter time there would be a frozen waterfall pouring out of the water tower.WaterTowerVin.jpg

One day a friend and I chanced to walk by the water tower on our way to the fort and noticed that a tree had fallen across the chain-link fence, which was too much for our curiosity. We decided it would be best to come back after dark and climb it rather than let the whole town see us climbing it in the middle of the day. On one of the four legs of the water tower there was a ladder that followed the angle of the leg all the way up to the tank where the ladder went from slanted to straight up to the platform. Now when you’ve been climbing a ladder in the dark for about a hundred feet it starts to feel like you’re climbing straight up, no matter what the angle, and by the time you get to the part of the ladder that is straight up, you feel like you start to climb backwards. I clung to the dew wet ladder at the point where the angle changed, looking up at the rusty platform, looking down into the darkness below, and then around me for miles. The bright moon lit up the quaint little town and I could see for miles. I was waiting for the last little bit of courage I needed to climb that last ten feet straight up to the catwalk. It never came. I hope that you’re not disappointed, but I would like to remind you that this is a story about rail roads and not water towers and if you have a better water tower story I would love to hear it.

I think one of the things that drew us to the rail road so much was that it was an escape. Not that we had bad families, or terrible lives, or even hated the town, all of which would make for great fiction writing. We just wanted to go, and the railroad took us. At my boring adult job my office window faces the railroad tracks. Whenever things get a bit dull I look out at the railroad track for inspiration. I’ve always wondered how far those tracks would take you, if you wanted to go.

Ghost Stories

“The true mark of success in ghost story telling is if someone’s mom has to come pick them up from a sleepover in the middle of the night.”

I’ve heard a good many ghost stories in my life, some of which kept me up all night. If you’re interested I’ll give you the tried and true formula for telling the perfect ghost story. This works 100% of the time, if you’re in the third grade. Once you know the formula, you can take turns making up ghost stories on the spot with your friends the next time you have someone “spending the night” with you. If you’re a grown up it’s probably too late since you lost most of your imagination somewhere before you started caring about the opposite sex and after you realized that using deodorant and brushing your teeth might not just be for the weekends.

Rule number one for telling a good ghost story is establishing when the story happened. You don’t want your audience to be so worried about when the story might have taken place that they miss major plot developments.  For a solid opening, I like to use “Once upon a time.” After vaguely establishing the time, it’s good to pause for a dramatic effect before coming in more intensely with where the story might have happened. I usually go for “In the deep dark woods.” I’m getting scared just writing this right now. Now that we’ve created the perfect spooky setting your audience should be sufficiently hooked and want to hear the rest of your story, now it’s time to real them in with the details. For our next line we need to establish who or what the story is about. A ghost story is only as good as it’s villain. You might try a line like “There lived a man.” You might even throw an adjective in for good measure, “There lived an old man.” The more time you spend on describing the villain the better your villain will be, but don’t spend too time with details, you want to make them wonder. We’ll give him long bushy eyebrows, a lazy eye and bad leg that causes him to limp. Now would be a good time to practice your onomatopoeia as you describe the sound made when he walked across the dirty floor in his decaying cabin. For extra credit you can describe how he received the bad leg, “In a gunfight”, or “on the railroad”, are always good choices if you get stumped. Our next step requires action, what did the old man do? Did he collect toenails, kidnap dogs and cut off their ears, or just knock on doors and run away? Whatever he did, it needs to be something that relates to all of your audience. We’ll go with “Turned off the lights whenever you went to the bathroom.” Now you can wrap up your story with, “And if you’ve ever been in the bathroom and the lights go out, you’ll know it was the old man!” Maybe throw in a little scream at the end for good measure. It helps if later during the sleepover you can cut off the lights while someone is going to the restroom.

It seems humorous writing about it as an adult, but I remember being genuinely scared of improvised ghost stories, even if I was the one telling them. It’s good to know when to stop telling ghost stories and go to bed so you won’t be too scared to sleep. My rule of thumb is to stop whenever I start getting scared at my own story telling. The true mark of success in ghost story telling is if someone’s mom has to come pick them up from a sleepover in the middle of the night.

I remember being quite upset by a ghost story on the 5th grade field trip to a camp in North Alabama. The camp counselor told us that the cabins we were sleeping in were built on Indian Burial mounds that had to be excavated before they were able to start building the campgrounds. During this excavation they found a skeleton that was missing a hand. No one knows for sure, but they think that this hand was lost during initial excavation when they discovered the burial mounds. The counselor told us that every once in a while they saw a skeleton hand, supposedly searching for the missing body. Every time that they had seen the hand they had also heard the Chickasaw Death Whisper. The counselor had been gradually lowering his voice and we were on the edge of our seat with anticipation. He said, “This is how the Chickasaw Death Whisper goes,” and after a slight pause he yelled at the top of his lungs.

A little unconventional, I know, because he deviated from the usual ghost story formula, but I was so scared that night that I eventually got in the bunk with my friend and I didn’t care what anybody said. Perhaps my imagination was a little over active from not having a television in our home. Many of the other students laughed harder than they had screamed once they got over their initial fright. Feel free to tell this one some place I’ve never been.

I remember telling ghost stories with our neighbors, Jared and Creed numerous times. Jared and Creed had a popup camper that they would take on vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains. I know they went to the Great Smoky Mountains because while they were gone I fed their Blue Tick hounds and I still have a pack of Great Smoky Mountain playing cards that Jared brought back as a thank you gesture. I’m sure Mr. McDaniel appreciated the break from his shift work for Alabama Power at the Logan Martin Dam. There was a leak in the dam and his job was to pump concrete into the hole. He’d been pumping concrete for about 30 years. Whenever they got ready to go on vacation, they would air out the popup camper in the basement and this was the perfect place to tell ghost stories. We all four piled into the camper and began the time honored swapping of improvised ghost stories. Zach told one and we all laughed, he was always to jolly of a story teller to be all that scary. Creed told one and it must have been pretty scary, because Jared moved to the back of the camper where Creed and Zach were, leaving me in the front. Now it was Jared’s turn to tell a story. I think he was still doing character development on his villain when I decided that it would be a little safer on the other side of the camper with the other three boys. As I crossed over to the other side the trailer tipped swiftly backwards and the tongue banged against the ceiling of the basement right beneath the living room where Mr. McDaniel was trying to catch up on his sleep in the recliner. Mr. McDaniel was jarred awake by the commotion in the basement and stormed downstairs. We were more afraid of Mr. McDaniel than any ghost story villain our imaginations could drum up, mainly because Mr. McDaniel was real, and at the moment, he was “real mad”. He looked at each of us in turn as we were piling out of the camper, then he said to Zach and Me, “Boys, it might be a good time for y’all to go on home.” We quickly obliged him. I hope his vacation brought his blood pressure down.

In the rural community that I grew up in legends were still very much alive. These legends spawned grown up ghost stories that were terrifying to children. What’s even scarier than that is that many adults still whole heartedly believed that they were true. One example that comes to mind was the legend of The White Thang. I’m sure I should spell it “Thing”, but that isn’t how I heard it spoken. The White Thang was a fantastic white creature that lived on the mountain and terrorized the community. Sort of. No one ever fully saw the White Thang, they just described it as a flash of white. What people were able to describe in detail was the ear splitting noise that the creature made. Some said is sounded like a woman screaming, or a panther. It was taken so seriously by the community that I remember it making the newspaper at least three times in my life. There isn’t much to tell, maybe that’s why it was so widely believed and what makes it so scary, the fear of the unknown. All of the stories about the White Thang were pretty similar. Someone was on the mountain hunting and they heard a scream like a woman and saw a flash of white, or someone was fetching wood late at night and heard a wild screech and saw a flash of white. It may have been an albino panther or mountain lion. There was never enough moon light for anyone to get a good glimpse of the creature. More likely there was too much moonshine. Whatever it was, many people of Sterrett, Alabama swore up and down that it was real and they had heard it and seen it, or at least a credible relative you had seen it. The White Thang might be more believable than some people’s credible relatives.

I haven’t told or heard a good ghost story since the last time I went camping as a teenager. I think I finally realized that I don’t like being frightened. These days I shy away from ghost stories in general because real life is scary enough.

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Hauling Hay, My Introduction to Work

“I haven’t found many things more disconcerting than picking up a bale of hay only to feel a snake crawl down your leg.”

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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