Cleaning out the hay wagons was one of the earliest chores I remember helping my older sister with. This happened after the large, four-wheeled trailers had had their wooden sides attached and had been rented out for something called a “hayride.”
Later I’d come to understand the allure of these evening rides to a country picnic and bonfire and an even later and much more quiet ride snuggled in the hay on the ride home. At the time I only knew to be careful with the pitch fork, which was longer than I was tall, while climbing over what to me were the towering sides of the trailers.
My sister made sure I would give the forkful of dry straw a good shake before tossing it over the side of the wagon. The goal was to toss the straw with enough gumption so it landed in the property’s barrow pit instead of right next to the trailer.
Dad, and later we kids, would always push the wagon next to a borrow pit before cleaning it out. Later, when conditions were right, Dad would burn the straw, cleaned the pit while ridding ourselves of the leftovers of satisfied customers.
And just why had my sister made sure I gave the pitchfork full of straw a good shake before tossing it over the side of the trailer? Now that you’ve asked, I’ll tell you the anticipated joy we kids felt when someone had rented the trailer for a “hayride.”
It seems there were folks on those hayrides who did not pay attention to what was in their pockets. As I said, I would eventually learn about those distractions. But when we were armed with pitchforks we kids discovered there was always some change falling out of that straw—sometimes even a whole dollar’s worth!
Our folks never had to coax us into cleaning up after someone else’s hayride.
My folk’s rental business included two large hay wagons. Because they were four-wheeled trailers the front tires were articulated, so they turned as the tongue of the trailers were pulled into a turn. First by hand-pushing the trailers with my sisters and later by backing them with a tractor or car I got quite proficient at the reverse- of a reverse- steering it takes to maneuver eight wheels, with four of them able to turn, into a parking space.
To my boyhood mind another fascination with these trailers was the wire that came from each wheel. Each wire attached to a cable that ran along the center post of the trailers’ undercarriage to the tongue of the trailer. On the tongue of the trailer this cable was anchored to a second part of the tongue that slid an inch or so back and forth over the section of tongue that was attached to the trailer’s undercarriage. This second part of the tongue attached to the vehicle pulling the trailer.
Dad told me these wires and the sliding tongue controlled brakes for the hay wagons. Even after helping dad replace the break shoes I never really believed those flimsy wires and little bit of a sliding tongue would make any difference in controlling a trailer.
My dad died in 1977, when I was 32, and that summer we were getting the property ready for an estate auction. Among other collections were five large stacks of wood. My dad always liked big roaring fires in our home’s brick fireplace and our cabin’s cast iron Franklin stove, so he had plenty of justification for an ever expanding accumulation of wood. Previous woodpiles had made great forts when we were kids.
In 1977 I had no fantasy of cutting all that wood and moving it to the mountain cabin but there were two randomly piled mounds that had already been cut down to the sizes that were useful at the cabin. It seemed practical and an honer to Dad to load up one of our big hay wagons and get a last load of wood to the cabin, so I recruited my friend Andy Venn to help out.
We attached one trailer’s high sides around the flat bed of the wagon and began pitching in chunks of wood. I don’t remember it taking long at all on a pleasant spring day. Getting in the trailer, tossing them down and stacking them beside the cabin’s porch was just as rewarding.
The thing I remember being completely surprised by was the trailer’s breaks. I expected the big V-8 engine of my 1962 Mercury Monterey to pull the grade from Lucky Peak Dam to Highland Valley Summit, a climb of 922 feet in 4.4 miles. No problem there. It was the even steeper grade down to the Mores Creek Bridge, 527 feet in 2.6 miles, that I had been dreading. All that weight pushing against the car, and all that weight pushing the trailer to the side and around the brakes of the car if the tongue were ever so slightly out of true was a disaster in the making. It worried my mind.
It turned out I would never have known that trailer was following me down that hill if I had not attached the tongue to the car myself — and, of course, if I had been able to see anything but a wall of trailer in my rear view mirror. There was never the least bit of the trailer pushing on the car. Nor were there any lunges back and forth because the brakes were setting too strong, holding the trailer back until the car pulled the brakes off and the trailer ran forward pushing the tongue of the trailer into the car. Rather, that steep descent was as smooth as pulling a trailer on a level road.
Hay wagons get heavy, dear reader. Whether loaded with alfalfa, furniture, kids on a hay ride or stacks of wood. I had never thought about the need to break heavy trailers. Nor had I appreciated the clever and perfectly adept way those old timers had mechanically solved a serious problem.
When working on a tractor there is always a need to use a tool. Usually a simple plier or screwdriver or piece of baling wire can patch a problem enough to keep from having to run to the shop.
As I got older it came time for Dad to keep me entertained, even when he was working with one of the two tractors we rented out. And it was evident that, with the clutching and braking and wrestling the unpowered steering wheel of a Ford N series tractor, there was no holding me on his lap.
And that is why one of my first memories is perching my scrawny butt on a narrow tool box on a big fender that kept my little ass from scraping on the big left rear tire of dad’s tractor.
There was an ever-present odor of grease and oil and gasoline and hot engine up there. To this day I think of those aromas as the smell of my dad.
The tool box was the highest I had ever ridden, atop that big tire looking out at the moving world with just air around me. It was nothing like being shut up in a car. The road or ground was right there moving beneath us. And when Dad was plowing or mowing or leveling or disking, the action was churning just under my feet. It was endlessly fascinating to see what Dad was doing to the dirt or the grass. And more than once I terrorized myself thinking how that plow or mower or leveler or those disks would maul my bones into the scenery should I fall off that bit of a tool box as the tractor bounced and tugged and struggled at its tasks.
Which I suppose is why I absolutely always had to have my arm as far as I could reach around my dad’s sweaty chest. No being cool and hanging on to the top edge of the fender, my body arched back and my hair blowing in the summer wind like a carefree movie star sitting atop the back seat of a convertible.
Not that I minded hanging on, even as I got older. It was never a solid ride up there and I was glad for the hand hold. And I’m sure my arm around him made my dad confident he’d know to stop the tractor before any mauling in case my hinny suddenly slip off that bit of a fender perch.
When Dad got his first Ford tractor he spent one afternoon driving it out to my mother’s grandparent’s farm south of Ustic, Idaho. My mother’s aunt Ellen had been raising her three children on that land since her husband died some thirteen years earlier at the age of forty.
Ellen led a hard life, scraping together enough egg and milk money to feed her growing kids. Her daughter Dona tells me Ellen made their clothes out of feed sacks, the unworn edges of sheets, and what good scraps could be salvaged from ragged adult clothes. Her mother was so good at combining the different patterns that Dona considered her dresses to be the prettiest in the school.
The farm had a large garden to grow the food the family would eat through the coming year. Every spring the garden needed to be turned over, raked level and prepared for planting. Dona’s older brother and sister pushed a wheeled hand plow through the dirt to break it up and the whole family got busy raking and leveling the ground for planting. It was days of back-breaking work.
And that was why my dad drove his new tractor mounted with a plow way way out in the country. The rest of us arrived in our Frazier Manhattan automobile pulling a trailer with a disking implement on it.
Dad sat on his tractor pulling the plow through the garden. It dug deep, breaking up the soil and turning it over so the remains of last year’s crop were turned under to compost into the land. Then he sat on the tractor dragging the disc, a series of circular blades that broke up the clumps of dirt left by the plow and leveled the deep ruts the plow had left behind. The job was easily done in an hour.
Years later Dona told me she and her sister and brother had watched that man they did not know sitting on his tractor. “We knew he was showing off. BUT WE WERE SURE GLAD TO HAVE ALL THAT DIRT TURNED OVER!!!!!!”
(A note: My mother’s grandparents on her dad’s side were Eric and Johanna Dahlberg. Their daughter Ellen married Earle Officer in 1925. Their daughter Dona married James Saad in 1956.)
My folks started renting trailers during World War II. They added two Ford N series tractors to their home rental business after the war.
Once I got old enough to be trusted with such transactions I was on the phone letting men know that, yes, “They are full-sized tractors and we have the implements you need to get your job done.” If they needed more than one implement (perhaps a plow to turn soil, a disk to break it up, and a blade to level it off) we had a heavy-duty flat bed trailer that tilted and had a winch for loading the tools. They could pull the loaded trailer to their job site with the tractor.
We rented the tractors, including implements, by the gallons of gas they burnt. “That way if you get called away from the job you are not paying for the use of the tractor.” We always gave the example that perhaps they’d have to take a phone call. And yes, kids, we had to go in the house to use the land-line phones in those Barbaric times.
The rate for our tractors was $5 for the first gallon of gas, $4 for the second gallon and $3 for every gallon thereafter. Gas was going for 20¢ a gallon at the time so this was when questions really started to fly!
I had heard the answers from my dad many times and repeated them: “How much gas the tractor burns depends on what you are doing. Plowing is a lot harder work than leveling. The tractor will burn more than a gallon an hour when plowing, depending on how hard the dirt is. You get over an hour per gallon when disking. And yes, you drive the tractor to your work site. The tractors have an overdrive for highway use and they get around 16 miles per gallon.” Our customers considered that good gas milage back in the 1950s, when cars were built like tanks and had big, inefficient V8 engines.
Usually the customer would show up as soon as he could get to us. But sometimes the man on the other end of phone let us know he could rent a garden tractor for $1.25 an hour. We’d mention we were renting full-sized Ford tractors and, of course, we certainly respected his knowing what was right for his project.
Sometimes a man would show up the next day saying he had tried a garden tractor and had barely begun his project when it got dark. Two to four hours later he’d swing our Ford tractor back into our driveway, pay somewhere between five and ten dollars, and let us know he’d be telling his friends about using a “real tractor.”
The grownups had no sense at all come Christmas Eve. Or was it they just loved to torture little kids?
I well remember the huge dinners at our house. Uncle Jake always brought the special full-sized Hershey’s candy bars that had to be frozen before eating so they went right in the top part of the refrigerator. Obscure aunts and uncles gathered. Cousins we barely knew showed up and it was fun to get under everyone’s feet chasing and screaming with them. Tall people with strange odors milled about chatting as if they owned the place.
Then we were all called to dinner.
I was old enough to know the big dinner table had been extended with extra “leaves,” although to me they looked like boards that matched the table. Even so we kids often got shuffled to card tables. But there were times we would sit with the adults. I loved seeing all the colors and shapes of the food and the glasses and the plates and knives and spoons and forks. I remember the clinks of metal on china and the big plates and bowls of smelly food that passed from right to left and sometimes from left to right. It was taken for granted, listening to odd stories from near strangers who did different things than I had ever imagined—stories from farms and construction sites and offices. And it was a thrill to see these people listen when I worked up an interesting adventure to blurt out.
It never seemed long before the platters of food had stopped being passed around for refills. Chewing slowed and more of Mom’s silverware that came from the special box with soft lining was laid on empty plates. The magic time was near, when somehow everyone stood up at the same time. Then, as soon as that magic coordinated exit from the table had been executed, the torture began.
It was, after all, Christmas Eve. Presents had been under the tree for days, each pawed and shaken and dreamt about. Each bright box had been checked and checked again to see that our name was on the tag. And even more gifts had been brought by folks who had come by for dinner. It was time at last! It was fine some of the older folks were slow finding a place to sit but it was time and we kids knew the bright paper was screaming for us to liberate it from whatever burden it was carrying.
In past years our sensible pleas and arguments had been denied but surely this year the grownups would listen to the voice of reason.
But no. Every year it was the same. Why be so crazy? It was obviously just to torture us!
We knew why adults sometimes talked about how resilient kids are—we had to be resilient to survive the horrors we suffered, dealing with unreasonable adults. The lame excuse to put off opening the presents was always the same. The moms and aunts couldn’t relax and enjoy opening presents until the dishes were done.
The agony. Did they have to laugh and talk so much instead of just getting the dishes done? Why take the time to wipe off the table and put away the leaves? Why can’t all that be done after the presents?
Well. The agony and the torture were soon forgotten. And soon after that so were the toys. The underwear, though used for months after the agony, was forgotten before Santa got down the chimney that night.
It’s been some seventy years since we waited so impatiently. During those seventy years I’ve never found any of those special Hershey’s candy bars that need to be frozen. Could it have been Mom was saving our appetites? No way. Uncle Jake found those bars special for us and we loved them snapping from the cold.
I am writing this on Christmas Day, 2020, the Christmas of Covid19. Between the pandemic and those seventy years my sister is not hosting the large Christmas gathering I’ve enjoyed the last several decades so I am sitting alone, finding myself writing about memories.
I’ve always been a bachelor and don’t mind the solitude. For one thing, it has let me reflect and come to realize the greatest gift of those youthful agonies and forgotten gifts—the greatest gift is the echo of those beloved women’s laughter rising above the clattering of washed plates.
A note to start: My thanks to Paul of Paul’s 16mm Film Collecting Pages for the photograph of a Bell & Howell 185 advertisement photo. For an education in 16mm films or to have some fun checking out equipment and titles, click on his site. What a great resource!
During the glory days of Halloween, about the time my sisters and I were cast out to knock on doors without a parent trailing us, our home became a candy-night event for the neighborhood kids.
My Dad had talked himself into the fun of a Kodak movie camera and, of course, a projector to watch the 16mm films. Being a man he could not be reasonable and get a simple home projector made for our simple, silent, and short recordings of swinging on swings and falling on skis. Instead we ended up with a commercial-grade Bell and Howell projector with a separate large speaker box to put under the screen for sound. These were exactly what schools used to show movies to assemblies during the 1950s and ’60s.
Our place was on 29th Street, not far from downtown Boise, but it was south of State Street and not far from the quarry ponds along the river. The City did not consider the neighborhood fancy enough to annex so we kids took dirt streets and modest housing to be home. We kids were plentiful since every house in the neighborhood was home to several of us. Being in the County rather than the City accommodated my parent’s tractor and trailer rental business, which is why I was raised in a large cinderblock structure that was half machine shop and half house.
With Dad’s new ability to show movies and Mom’s home being large enough to hold a crowd of kids, my folks decided to treat the 1950 tricksters to something special. I went with Dad to a mysterious place called the State Library where Dad picked up some round cans of different sizes that turned out to hold films.
On the big night trick-or-treaters came to our door demanding payola OR ELSE! Mom explained to them we were doing something different. “Go to all the other houses and get your candy, then come back after dark and we’ll show movies while you sit on the floor and eat as much of your candy as you want.”
By the second year the kids didn’t bother coming to our house until it was good and dark and their snack sacks were bulging. Then we all sat yelling, stuffing our faces, and having a great sugar high while leaving small colorful papers all over the floor. Dad threaded the films and turned off the lights and flipped the switch on cartoons and cowboy shoot-em-ups. I think he snuck in a bit of moving education about Idaho wonders as well.
I can still smell the chemical aroma of the screen as it was unrolled and the hot odor of vacuum tubes and a bright projection bulb heating the vinyl and plastics in the projector and speaker. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the sound of 16mm film being snapped over a bright beam of light.
The Halloween treat of watching movies did not last long. I was seven when TV came to Boise, so it would have been 1952. Giant neon “TV” signs sprung into the windows of every furniture store, radio shop, and hotel in town, not to mention a few tire shops. Chimneys sprouted antennas like spring fields sprout corn.
That year we had a few kids come early and say they’d rather get candy. “We have TV. We can watch movies anytime.” The next year, with the saturation of television complete, my folks bought a big bowlful of candy.
Mountain Home Air Force Base was built in the early 1940s to train World War II bomber pilots. It was located forty miles east of Boise, Idaho—far enough inland from the Oregon coast to provide protection from light bombers launched from aircraft carriers yet within range for our heavy aircraft to reach islands in the Pacific, where they could refuel. After the war large formations of transport planes left Mountain Home to supply the food and materials to rebuild the decimated lands where the war had been fought.
One of those formations of planes is one of my earliest memories. Perhaps I was three. It was a warm afternoon and my two sisters and I were on the lawn being watched over by our mother. We were sitting in the grass when a distant rumble grew to a deep, droning roar and the clear sky became thick with planes, all flying a fixed distance from one another, their four mighty engines powering propellers that pulled them forward. Behind each hard working engine dark trails of smoke blended together to turn the sky gray. It took some ten minutes for them all to pass.
Years later Mother told me that when we had been sitting on the grass that day she had been convinced she was dying of tuberculosis.
Barely thirty years old. An infant daughter. A three-year-old son. A five-year-old daughter. Feeling the cool grass of a new home. Breathing the spring air and playing with her children. Every possible future being cut short.
The winter before my parents had managed to get hold of a used Model A Ford. In those days ammonia was used as an antifreeze. Ammonia lowers the boiling point of water which is exactly not what a summer radiator needs, so regular maintenance meant flushing the antifreeze and replacing it with water. My dad was diligent about mechanical maintenance and performed his first flushing of the Model A’s radiator once there was no danger of an overnight freeze.
When ammonia quit escaping the radiator, Mother’s lungs cleared up.
I can only imagine the relief and joy my mother felt, knowing her life with her children and husband was hers to enjoy. I know for sure that tears well up when I think she may not have been around to be my Mom.