On Fatherhood

“God could have chosen to call himself anything, but he chose father.” -Bishop Nathaniel Wilson

A dear friend recently sent me a text message. “Got any advice for a soon to be father?”

I once heard someone say in jest, “One of the wonderful things about having kids of your own is that now you’ll be able to try out all those things you’ve been wanting to try out on other people’s kids.”

I did not give him this reply, but the casual nature of text messaging allowed me to give him a very brief answer. I told him the best advice I could give was to pray a lot. But I misspelled best because I was busy doing something else. Ordinarily, I would have been satisfied with this answer and moved on, but the question kept bugging me for quite a while.

I finally came up with something I liked a little bit better. “Being a father is one of the best things that ever happened to me. Enjoy every minute. Squeeze that baby every chance you get.”

This response made me feel better in a Hallmark Card sort of way, but I am still not satisfied. Perhaps in part because I want to know the answer myself. More likely though,  it is because I feel a very real weight of responsibility as a father. Fatherhood is not a role in which a man should casually enter. There are fewer roles with more grave responsibility, and it is something that I take very seriously.

 “God could have chosen to call himself anything, but he chose father.”

Bishop Nathaniel Wilson

What does it take to be a father? As simple as it sounds, the first requirement is you have to be a man. There is no substitution. Perhaps another day I will write about being a man.

Aside from being a man, there are quite a few other ingredients that come together to make a father: Love, protection, wisdom, provision, wit, discipline, humor, ingenuity, dedication, patience, knowledge, resolve, and fortitude. This is not an exhaustive list, and I have left out amounts because each father is unique, and learning to balance these elements is what fatherhood is all about. One of the key ingredients is faithfulness, which is what keeps the whole thing together.

Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find? Proverbs 20:6

Without faithfulness, there is no guarantee that the father, or even the family, will last.

Growing up, I had a healthy fear of my father. A cluttered, messy house never failed to frustrate my dad. Whenever the house was a wreck, he usually started with this speech. “Y’all are killing your momma. Just look at this house.” He would say in exasperation. 

“Let’s go outside so we can see it better.” I smarted off once.

It is only by the grace and mercy of God that I am alive today, because I thought my Dad was going to kill me. He talked to me like a man that day, which was far worse and scarier than the whipping that I received afterward. There are some things that only a father can say to a child. A hardheaded teenage boy may need some verbal encouragement from a father that would send a social worker into lockdown mode.

The role of a father demands hard love, and discipline. The Bible says it much plainer and with greater authority than I can.

He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes. Proverbs 13:24

Fathers must be willing and able to discipline their children. There are some aspects of fatherhood that frankly are not fun. I must confess that knowing when and how to discipline is a something that I have prayed earnestly for wisdom and understanding. I cannot say that it would be easier to not discipline my children. If I really love my children, I will discipline them.

I Corinthians 4:15 For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.

Fathers are a rare. Fathers are irreplaceable. With a scarcity of fathers in today’s postmodern society, I frequently hear the term Father Figure used by people who did not grow up with a father. Sometimes I hear it from parents who are raising children without a father, many times in reference to a teacher. Webster’s definition for Father Figure is, “A person often of particular power or influence who serves as an emotional substitute for a father.” I’m not certain that there is a substitute for a father. Without discounting the influence of a teacher, there is a role that only a father can fill. Although in context of faith, the scripture indicates that there is a ratio of 10,000 teachers to not many fathers.

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For better or for worse, parents are the greatest influences on a child’s life. Whether a father is actively fulfilling his role in a child’s life, or neglecting his duty, the child feels the influence, whether positive or negative. It is a sad reality that many people grow up without the presence of a father in their home. Perhaps even worse than a father being absent, is an abusive father being present.

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. James 1:27

The Bible uses language that grates the nerves and feelings of modern American culture. Fatherless. It is a sad word. There is an implication that there are two categories of children: sons and daughters, and fatherless. Furthermore, the fatherless are afflicted. Fathers are irreplaceable. Fortunately for the fatherless, there is the church.

I would like to revisit the original question: “Got any advice for a soon to be father?” I do not claim to be an authority on fatherhood, but God did bless me with one of the best fathers that ever lived. That may not be your story. You cannot choose your father, but you can decide what kind of father your children will have. Be the best father that you can be.

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Sorghum Syrup

My brother has asked me to write about the time we made sorghum syrup.

“I wasn’t there.” I told him.

“Yes you were,” He said, a little hurt.

“I know that I wasn’t there Zach.”

“You were too! You helped me load the cane in the mill. That mule almost kicked you in the head. We drank the juice straight from the tap.”

“That was you and someone else.”

“You was there Zane! We went with Pop. Twice!”

I wasn’t there, but I don’t think that discredits me from being able to take you there. After all, Mark wasn’t there and we count his book as Gospel. This is not a work of fiction, although I was not a firsthand witness. Either that or it was such a bad experience that I’ve suppressed it in my memory.

Most of the time when Pop picked us boys up we were going to work. There were a few occasions where Pop picked us up for an event that maybe he found entertaining, like a parade, or making syrup. No matter what mask of entertainment these activities donned, Zach and I had been around enough to see through the thin disguise and identify work. Alas, we hadn’t much say in the matter. So when Pop picked us up to make Sorghum Syrup, we were not under the illusion that we were going to merely observe the process of making syrup. We were going to be very much involved in that process.

Sorghum is a naturally growing plant in the South. If you cultivate enough of it, you can make sorghum syrup. I think it yields about three gallons to the acre. Sorghum syrup is a very thick and dark syrup with an acquired taste. There is a process for getting the syrup from the plants. First you need to gather the plants, or cane. Then you put the whole cane into a mill, which presses out the juice. You cook the juice which gives you syrup. As long as the syrup doesn’t burn, you can mix it with equal parts butter and put it on your biscuits and it’s delicious. Well I think it’s delicious, but I also eat Lengua and Cabeza at the Taco Truck. Zach thought it tasted like burnt motor oil.

The process sounds pretty straightforward, until you find out that you have to manually load the cane, or even worse be the mill engine. Fortunately, someone had already gathered the stalks into a trailer. All we had to do was feed it to the mill. Do you remember in Sunday School when you learned about the blinded Samson grinding at the mill? That’s what Zach had to do. At first there was a mule hitched to the mill walking in circles, but it almost kicked Zach’s brains out while he was feeding cane to the mill. In the end Zach ended up walking in circles to power the mill like a medieval serf. They did let him drink some of the pure sweet juice that was running out of a tap on the side of the mill.

This juice flowed through an open channel over a heated metal plate a few yards long. By the time it made it to the end of the line it was sufficiently cooked enough to be canned. They used what looked like old coffee cans to package the syrup. I’m sure it was great fun to Pop and all the old men that were sitting around at the end of the line talking and laughing while Zach worked like a borrowed mule. At the end of the day Zach was exhausted and grimy with sweat and dust after doing the work of a mule. As a token of their gratitude, the old men in charge gave him a can of syrup. I think I ate most of that syrup, but I know that I wasn’t there.

The Liar’s Bench

Does your local gas station have a bench out front?

Back when I was in the hay and fence building business with Pop, we would often stop for fuel and refreshments at Watson’s Grocery in Vandiver. There were a couple of good reasons for that. First, the base of operations, or “Barn”, was located half a mile from the store. Second, and perhaps more important, Watson’s Grocery was the only store in town.

We often frequented the store at the crack of dawn when working men filled trucks with diesel and filled cups with black coffee, and while old retired men sat on a bench outside to fill everyone’s ears with their good natured banter. My Dad told me that was called the Liar’s Bench. He said it in an official way, as if it were an elected office.

Anyone could sit on the bench, but not everyone could operate from the office of the bench. Similar to how having your picture taken sitting in your congressman’s big leather desk chair does not give you authority to lower taxes. In order to fill the office of Liar’s Bench, and not merely occupy a seat in front of a gas station, I believe that there were a set of unwritten requirements. It seemed like you needed to be an old man. You had more credibility (if indeed there was any credibility on the Liar’s Bench) if you were retired. It also didn’t hurt to have a nickname, like Jitter, or Buddy. If you couldn’t swing a nickname, an informal prefix like “Big” would do.

You also had duties, you couldn’t just sit and not talk. You had to be willing to engage every person you saw come to the store with a chiding remark about getting a late start or something like that, but not in a mean manner. You had to have a laugh rate of at least 90%. If the customers were clearly out of towners, it was ok to just nod your head at them. When people came out of the store you had to engage them again, this time with a heartfelt inquiry about their family, like “How’s ye mom’n’em?” This is when you found out who was in the hospital, who got fired, who got arrested, who had a heart attack and important things like that.

Above all, you had to be an entertaining talker to occupy a place on the bench. Some of the best hunting and fishing lies were told there along with ancient jokes. Every once in a while you meet people that can read the phone book in an entertaining way. Such were the men of the bench. As Jerry Clower said, “They didn’t tell funny stories, they told stories funny.” I found myself grinning and chuckling just overhearing these men talk.

I think they became great talkers because they didn’t sit on the bench to seek solitude, they sat on the bench because they wanted to talk to someone. Perhaps it was loneliness that got those old men up at the crack of dawn to sit in front of a convenience store and stare like puppies at the work trucks pulling in to fill up. They’d brag about being retired when they saw the weary looks of the working men on Mondays, but I think there was something in them that wished they could pile in the truck and go to work. Just like there was something in those working men that wished that could sit on the bench and waste the day away.

These worlds met briefly each morning and communed together at the Liar’s Bench. It was the Roman Forum of the community. A place where the local news and gossip were disseminated. I strongly doubt there were many original ideas, or great breakthroughs in ingenuity ever developed on the bench. But you might get a different answer if you drive out to Vandiver and ask one of the men who currently hold down a seat on the Liar’s Bench.

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Barbecue, Barbeque, BBQ

It’s that time of year. Barbecue season. I’ve always struggled with how to spell that, but WordPress autocorrect just informed me that the proper spelling was “Barbecue”. I bet they won’t tell that to Golden Rule Barbeque in Irondale, which has been around at least hundred years longer than autocorrect. They probably won’t tell Fat Man’s Bar B Que in Pell City either. Or Full Moon Bar-B-Que. Anyway, I’m still not sure how to spell it, because I “ain’t never eat no” BBQ that WordPress cooked. But even if I can’t spell it, I can define it. At least I’ll give it a try. Defining barbecue is like defining women. You’ll excite half the people and offend the rest.

First off, barbecue is a noun. I think it’s pork. Mainly Boston Butt’s, but if you want to throw some ribs on the grill while we’re waiting for the butts to get done I’ll still eat them and call it barbecue. I eat so many ribs one year when I was a boy that it was several years before I had another one. If you want to get deep and go to the root meaning of the word barbecue, it means “cooking a whole hog on a wood fired grill”. Which is where we get the term, “Whole Hog.” Which means that you go all out doing something. I’ll use it in a sentence so you’ll understand it better.

“Zane is taking this writing thing seriously, I heard he’s going whole hog and trying to write a book.”

Barbecue also has to have some sauce. My Uncle Johnny was always the self appointed grill master at all of our family get togethers in the summer. Not without good reason though, he is an excellent cook. He would crupper up his own sauce recipe using Kraft Original as a base. “Cattleman’s tastes too much like ketchup, don’t use it.” He would say. When the meat was done, he would pull it apart or chop it up, put it in a deep pan and pour enough sauce over it that it would  almost simmer and bubble as it sat on the grill. He always made two pans, one regular and one hot. He liked it hot. He didn’t have any teeth and chewed tobacco. I don’t think that affected his taste buds though. Once he ate breakfast with us and drank the tomato juice out of the serving plate. I watched him in wonder as he slurped the juice, set the plate down and lick his lips. He sat there a moment enjoying his draught. Then he said,”There was a bad tomato in there.”  Anyone with taste buds that sharp wouldn’t have been inhibited by tobacco juice. Anyway, Uncle Johnny liked his barbecue hot. He liked everything hot. He made gravy so hot one time that the cats wouldn’t eat it. As a kid, my mom would warn me about the hot pan of barbecue. “It’s hot baby, you won’t like it.” I grew up thinking that the hot pan of barbecue was going to burn through my esophagus. When I was finally old enough to fix my own plate, I tried some. It was delicious.

I’ve rambled a little bit here. We were defining Barbecue and I’ve already offended all the Texans and Carolinians. It’s probably just easier to tell you what barbecue ain’t, and that’s hamburger and hot dogs. You’re supposed to fry hamburgers in an iron skillet and roast weenies in the fall around a fire. If you get invited to a barbecue and they’re cooking hamburgers and hot dogs, I’m sorry, but those people have misled you. I’m sure they’re nice people and all, but I wouldn’t let them watch my kids if I were you, next thing you know they’ll have them playing soccer or something crazy like that. 

A Barbecue (see how I capitalized it) is also defined as a sacred feast for Southerners, where pork is cooked on a wood fired grill outside. This feast usually lasts about three days.

In general, we had about four or five Barbecues a year. We did have the official family reunion at my Great Uncle Freddie’s on the river, and sometimes we barbecued there. But all the same people came to the barbecues at my Aunt Edna’s, just up the hill from Pop’s, on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. And whenever Pop deemed it was angood time to have a Barbecue.  Since the location, menu, and people were the same each time, the only way that I could tell a difference in all of those holidays was that we shot bottle rockets on the Fourth of July. To me, these summer holidays were simply Barbecues.

The Barbecue would start on Friday night. “We’ll serve dinner on Sunday at noon.” Pop would say. Up until then, we feasted. We might have a fish fry while the barbecue was slow cooking. Somebody might through some Cornish game hens on the grill and eat them while we were waiting on the main course. One time my Uncle James put a Boston Butt on the grill and then left. He come back about six or five hours later and his meat was about half gone. He singled Uncle Johnny out, “You done eat all my barbecue Johnny.”

“I can’t eat t’at James, I ain’t got no teeth!” Uncle Johnny retorted.

“Yeah, but you kin bite a railroad rail in two with them gums of yores.”

Barbecuing a whole hog is a lot of work, but man is it worth it. There is nothing like slicing the meat off of a hog and eating it around the grill. All it needs is a little bit of salt.

This is the grill that Pop & Uncle Johnny used throughout my childhood. You can see the front peice is on the ground. You can cook whole hogs or just use the grill to cook Boston Butts and ribs. 

When Sunday finally rolled around, we would eat, not just barbecue, but we had a buffet of sides that was five tables long under Aunt Edna’s carport. It was also about fifty yards from the grill. I’m not writing about sides though, I’m writing about barbecue.

When I close my eyes and work up a hankering for barbecue, I still see my family sitting outside around a humongous oak tree. Many of them have passed on now.  I envision myself as a little boy with thick glasses walking to the grill down by the tree line. They were pine trees. Uncle Johnny pulls the front of the grill open to throw a couple of pieces of hickory wood on the fire. Sparks fly everywhere. I walk in front of all the old men sitting around the grill and ask Uncle Johnny to dip me out some of barbecue on my bun. “No sir, I’ll have the regular.” I say. I take a bite of that barbecue sandwich, and blink to get the smoke out of my eyes. That’s really how I define Barbecue.

That giant oak tree finally died and they had to cut it down before it fell on Aunt Edna’s house. I’m sure they used some of that wood for a barbecue. Uncle Johnny showed my brother how to barbecue a coon’s age ago. He wanted to pass it on to the next generation. Although Zach learned on the other grill, I feel like he mastered this one. I’m going to get one of these someday. 

Since I’ve moved to Virginia, I haven’t been to a proper Barbecue in over a decade. Perhaps that’s why I’ve expanded my definition of barbecue to include Brisket, chicken, and dry rub. I even like that old nasty vinegar stuff they try to pass as barbecue down in the Carolinas. No matter what barbecue I try, nothing is quite the same as those summer Barbecues of my childhood in the blazing Alabama heat. It’s hard to capture that whole experience in a restaurant. 

It seems like every year when the weather changes I get invited to someone’s place for a barbecue. I’ve learned to be polite and go, but I know it’s going to be hamburgers and hot dogs.

The Tinker Suit

We stopped at Smith’s and got some of that orange peanut candy that tastes like rubber.

I was two years old when Brant Douglas Reynolds, my Mom’s dad, died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day in 1989. My memories of him are few and a little vague. I remember riding in the back of his 1968 Ford Ranger that rotted to the ground from neglect after his death. I remember him bringing me Oreo cookies. I remember going to the cow sale with him. We stopped at Smith’s and got some of that orange peanut candy that tastes like rubber. I remember going into his work shed and seeing all of his power tools.  I remember his blue tractor. And I remember being at his viewing after he died. “Dan Dan is asleep.” I said to Mom as she held me on her hip so that I could peer into his casket.

Years later as a teenager, I changed the strings on his 1972 Martin D-18. Gram had bought it new for him from Fretted Instruments with the income tax return that year. You’d have thought that you bought him a brand new pickup truck. I could tell that he cared for the guitar because he had looped the strings through the hole in the tuning peg twice before winding it, a step that I always skip because it takes longer and isn’t really necessary, but it looks nice. That extra step said something about the thoroughness of his personality, as I took those old strings off it was almost like he was talking to me. I think he’d be happy to know that I play guitar, but he’d be happier to know that I preach the same Gospel that he and the Apostle Peter preached.

I heard that he had a 1959 Les Paul in the 1960’s. The Holy Grail of guitars. He had to trade it for a car. I’d like to at least see a picture of that guitar. Perhaps it wasn’t a 1959, and it’s better to just remember it that way. I use this story to convince my wife to let me have multiple guitars, I hope it pays off one day.

I don’t know how well he played guitar, or sang. I  don’t remember. I vaguely remember him at church preaching and playing guitar. But you do a lot of sleeping at church when you’re two years old, so these memories are sort of dreamy. He was taken away early in my life and looking back I can see how his absence impacted me. I’m sure things would have been different if he were still alive today, I can’t say that they would be better. Or worse. But they’d be different. 

Rev. Roger Lewis, a close friend to “Tinker” as my grandfather was known, was traveling for Thanksgiving when he heard news of my Tinker’s death. He didn’t have a suit with him and felt terrible about going to the viewing in casual clothes. Til this day, he keeps a suit of dress clothes in his vehicle whenever he is going out of town overnight, just in case of an emergency. He calls it his Tinker Suit. I hope that it doesn’t get much use.

Clearing Land

My Pop had a ring of keys that would make a janitor jealous.

My Pop had a ring of keys that would make a janitor jealous. He had so many keys that he just left his truck key in the ignition all the time, something I never have felt comfortable doing. Pop had the keys  to all the fences and codes to all the gates of the rich people’s property in our community, which wasn’t a lot of people, but most of the property in that part of the county. Pop was constantly doing work for these people. Which meant that Zach and I were constantly working on some of the most outlandish projects you could think of. Once, I built a cross shaped garden out of cross ties with specific instructions that the garden faced south. Rich people can be peculiar.

One of the biggest projects that I remember doing for one of these people involved clearing a large tract of forest for a horse farm. I want to say it was a good twenty five to thirty  acres, not a bad twenty five to thirty acres. After the timber had been cleared Pop secured the bid to clean the land, so it fell to Zach and me to pick up all of the rocks and sticks while Pop plowed the land. If that sounds like an easy task to you, then you’ve probably never cleared land. We picked up enough rocks to line the ditch on a three mile road, on both sides.

While Pop was pulling the disk on the tractor, Zach and I would walk in front of another tractor and load the rocks and sticks into the bucket. This all seems so easy since you are now reading this while sitting in your comfortable chair. In the air conditioning. But I assure you that it was no easy task. This was the closest I have been to doing prison labor. Dust was flying from the disk, the raging Alabama sun was beating us down. The rocks were not merely gravel size, but anywhere from softball size all the way up to Volkswagon size. Many times we would have to use the bucket or the box plow to dig out a five hundred pounder, and it was all we could do to get it in the bucket. We would have to do the same thing for stumps and roots. When you move something like a five hundred pound rock into a tractor bucket, you get a brief taste of triumph that quickly vanishes like the dusty wind when you realize that it is only 8:30 in the morning and you still have three and half hours till lunch,and seven or so hours until you get to go home. I do not exaggerate when I say that this was the hardest work that I have ever done, but $10 an hour is a lot of money for a twelve year old kid.

We did get to catch our breath for five minutes every time the tractor had to dump its load at the ever growing rock pile. Every once in a while we did get to drive the tractor. This happened if Pop couldn’t secure us a designated tractor driver, usually someone about fifty or sixty years our senior to keep us in line, because we had so much energy to get out of line. Pop was probably right in hiring an adult to drive, because we would ride in the bucket whenever one of us were driving. I remember once my cousin wanted to be lifted up in the bucket, my brother lifted him up about ten feet into the air and tilted the bucket dumping him out. I don’t know how, but my cousin hung on with his hands, his feet dangling. Zach, still trying to get a handle on the bucket controls, tried to right the bucket, but instead gave my dangling cousin a few rough shakes with the bucket until my he let go and fell to the pile of rocks below. All in good fun, although that cousin never helped us again after that day.

I say all in good fun. It’s amazing how even in the worst working conditions, we did indeed have fun. But it wasn’t fun all the time, this job was where I was introduced to workplace violence. One day Pop hired my two meanest cousins to help us. They were mean as snakes, and if that wasn’t enough they were lazy. I did not enjoy working with these cousins, at all. They would make fun of you for no reason then laugh at you when you got upset. Their first week on the job ended when one of them hit me in the head with a rock. Pop must have sacked them, because I don’t remember working with them again.

Dad also helped on this job occasionally. I remember one day we were slaving away, bent over trying to dig a humongous rock out of the ground, when Dad stood up abruptly with his rear end as far forward as possible, stiffening his body, trying hard not to move a muscle. He said gravely, “I ain’t gonna make it boys.”  He began to trot down towards the woods with his hands out to his sides and trying only to move from the knees down, being careful to not jar himself while running across the rough rocky ground. He hollered at me without turning his head, “Go get me some napkins from the truck!”  By this time Zach and I were laughing uncontrollably. He made it to the woods. Barely. I brought him two Sneaky Pete’s Hot Dogs napkins. He was not amused.

Pop ragged us all summer about not “getting after it”, as he termed it. I guess we were not only supposed to do labor camp type work for eight and ten hour days, but we were supposed to do it faster than anyone else, without cutting up. By the time fall rolled around, Pop had finished the disking and was able to start helping us load rocks. He worked with us one full day before he changed our shift, stating “Four hours is all a man can stand of this kind of work.” I guess the cold was getting to him.

I remember those paydays. Cold hard cash. Zach saved his money and bought a nice rod and reel that he still uses today. I bought the ugliest pair of shoes that Dr. Marten’s has ever made. They had thick platform soles and monk strap buckles and weren’t even boots. Sarah doesn’t drmartenslet me wear them out of the house. Every once in a while she will badger me about cleaning out my closet in hopes that I will get rid of those shoes. I worked harder to earn enough to buy those hideous shoes than I have worked for anything else in my life, and I’ll never get rid of them.

 

 

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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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