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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Monday, June 27, 2016

Making Hay in the Depression

Chapter 9

Baling, Baptizing, and Sister Sandra

It was in the fall of 1934 when they started upgrading the road through Bona from Dadeville from a rocky little country road to a graveled farm-to-market road.  The work was done under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA program.
I knew that “WPA” stood for Works Progress Administration and was financed by the government to help recovery form the Depression, but my father had a different name for it.  He said it stood for “Whistle, Piss, and Argue” because that is what the lazybones who signed up for it mostly did while they leaned on a shovel instead of putting in an honest day’s work.
My father would not sign up for the WPA work at first because it was necessary to sign up for Relief before a man could get a WPA job and Dad was not about to take any charity.  He only wanted what he earned.
Dad was fond of telling a WPA joke about an old lady who wanted someone to come and mow her yard because she was a widow and a cripple.  The man she talked to asked her how many holes there were in her outhouse.  She said it was a two-holer so he sent eight men and two lawn mowers to do the job.  When the old lady asked the foreman that dropped the men off why so many, he said, “Well, you have a two-holer.  I had to bring enough men that we can have two coming, two going, two sitting, and two mowing!”
Hard Times were in full swing with money scarce to non-existent  but Dad held out for quite a while.  We got by the winter fairly well partly because the WPA rented a half acre beside the road by our barnlot on which to park their bulldozer and road grader equipment at night during the time they were working on the stretch of road south of Bona.
The bulldozer was a very primitive diesel machine that had no glow plugs or electric starter.  On cold mornings the operator had a hard time getting it going.  I sometimes would go down there and watch him start it before I left for school as I was always interested in anything in the way of machinery.
What the dozer drive had to do was to keep a blowtorch on hand.  He would heat the cylinder heads of the engine with the blowtorch then he had to crank the engine by inserting a steel bar in a big flywheel to turn the engine over.  Compared to that, starting our pump house putt-putt was a lead pipe cinch.
When that old engine finally started it made a heck of a racket.  I could hear it almost all the way to school—which was a mile and a quarter.
WPA farm-to-market roadwork

Grading, gravelling, and making ditches along the road was a great improvement.  It had been simply a little rocky land bordered by rusty barbed wire fence with overgrown fencerows of weeds and brush and vine-covered stubby poles supporting the single bare telephone wire.  It was dusty during the hot summers and in winter it became a quagmire of mud when it rained—which was not often during the drought years.  It was often full of ruts and pot holes—which we called “chug holes” because a wagon or car wheel would go “ker-chug” in them.
The crews graded new ditches, prepared the roadbed with river gravel, then surfaced it with crushed rock.  We called that “chat” because that was the sound it made when a shovel full was thrown onto the roadbed.  Up until then the road had been sort of maintained by the neighborhood men using an old horse-drawn road grader that sat rusting away on the edge of the ball field on the south edge of Bona.
It was the very depths of Hard Times in the Ozarks by the spring of 1935.  The drought went on seemingly endlessly.  Crops withered and pastures turned brown in the early summer except for the jimson weeds, polkberry, and Canadian thistles.  Wells and springs were low and the creeks and rivers ran slow and sluggish with dingy water that, as the saying went, was “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”
The price of eggs bottomed out at nine cents a dozen.  Gasoline was ten cents a gallon for low test and twelve cents for high test ethyl.  That sounds ridiculous now but in those days it was enough when the average farm hand made a dollar a day—fi he could find a job.
It was in 1935 that I got my first paying job.  One of the neighbors, Ben Long (father of pretty little Betty Lou), had a tractor-powered hay baler.  At haying time Ben would tour from farm to farm and bale hay for a share.  He had a crew of two for the baler and the farm owner would arrange for a crew to bring the hay to the stationary baler.  Ben was the loader at the baler and he had one man to tie the wires on the bales and one to buck the bales off the tailboard and into stacks for later transportation to the barn.
I had not yet reached my full height by six inches and was not very heavy but my muscles were farm tough.  When I hit Ben up for the job of bucking bales, he looked me over doubtfully and said, “You reckon you could keep up all day?  Timothy bales run sixty or seventy pounds and alfalfa will go seventy or eighty.”
“I can keep up.  I’ve plowed with a walking plow all day more than once.  Give me a change and I’ll show you.  How much you pay the bucker?”
“Fifty cents a day—that’s what I pay.  Some of them black boys  I get from around Dadeville ain’t worth half that.”  He eyed my small frame again and finally said, “All right, I’ll give you a try—but if you give out on me before quittin’ time, I’ll have to get me someone else.”
“Won’t give out—you’ll see.”

The job dang near killed me the first couple of days.  I used a hay hook in each hand to snag the square bales off the chute then had to carry and stack them away from the baling machine.  Between bales, I had to take the bale separation block back up to the loader then, on the way back, push the two wires for the next bale back through to the tier who sat on a stool on the other side.

The first day was the real killer.  I had not gotten into the swing of the routine.  To make matters worse, we were baling alfalfa for my Uncle Claud and I think Ben deliberately screwed the machine down to pack around eighty pounds into each bale.  They also seemed to get heavier as the day went on, especially when the stack got high enough that I had to swing the bales up as high as my head to the top course of the stack.
Ben kept that old rig going at a good clip all day with very few times out for a drink and a breather except for the lunch hour when Aunt Virge fed us a huge fried chicken dinner with all the trimmings and plenty of her fat light bread buns slathered with lots of hand churned butter.
At times during the day I would see Ben looking slyly at me sidewise with a half-smile on his tanned face and that made me more determined than ever to not holler “uncle” and give up.  My back ached and my hands blistered but I kept plugging away.
Ben killed the engine on the tractor just before sunset.  /by then my fanny was dragging so bad that it was wiping my tracks out behind me.  As I hung my hay hooks on the side of the baler, Ben came up and clapped a hand on my sagging shoulder.  “Well, boy—I didn’t think you would last more than an hour but you done it!”
As I was inspecting the blisters on my hands, some of which had broken, Ben handed me two quarters and said, “Better get you a pair of gloves, boy.  The job is yours.  It will be mite easier tomorrow.  We’ll be baling timothy over at Duane King’s place and the bales will be lighter.  See you in the mornin’.”
I drug my sore body the two miles home, aching all over; however, I was one proud young man when I displayed my two quarters at the supper table.  It was nearly the most money that I had ever had at one time.  I noticed that Richard eyed the two quarters then sat staring off into space thinking.
“Well,” Richard said later, “you get fifty cents for grunt work.  How much does the guy get that sits and ties the wires?”
“Seventy-five cents.”
“uh-huh—and he gets to sit down alongside the baler all day, too.”  There was a bemused expression on Richard’s freckled face when I left to go to Grandpa’s store and spend a quarter on a pair of canvas work gloves.
The next day, Richard went along with me when I hiked across the fields to the baler at Duane King’s place.  He spent part of the morning just wandering around watching the wire tier.  During a break, Richard told Ben that he could tie wires if Ben should nee someone.  A day or two later the tier did not show up and Richard had the job.  He had out-smarted me again. 
We spent the rest of the haying season on that baler crew, me bucking all those bales and Richard sitting in the shade of the baler making half again as much as I was getting.  Bending those wires made his hangs strong, but the muscle I put on meant that soon I could hold my own in a fight with him.

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