A graduation of a different sort

Haymaking depends on the weather. One sunny, breezy morning a few weeks ago, my husband, John, said: "A good hay-drying day. What's the extended forecast?"

"Three clear days," I said. I'm the family member who listens to the weather on the radio.

John trotted off to grease his haybine, and that afternoon, I heard the rhythmic clatter as the teeth sliced alfalfa and clover. Neat swaths, like green noodles, swirled around the field. Swallows darted after insects escaping from the roar of the tractor, and heat waves shimmered over the landscape.

During the 30 years we have farmed, I've often driven one of our smaller tractors attached to the hay wagon after John baled. Sometimes friends would join us, and then I could follow the baler as they helped stack the wagon. Our young sons ran from bale to bale, romping through the maze.

As the boys grew older, they learned all the jobs - cutting, baling, stacking, and unloading in the barn. During the last years the lads were at home, I was demoted to lemonade-and-cookie delivery person, a job I contently assumed. I was never keen on all that hay chaff sifting down my neck. When our sons left, John and I hired a few teenage friends to help out during haymaking.

But two days after cutting the hay, my husband watched thin clouds smother the blue. John shook his head when he saw that the barometer's needle had dipped. "Better rake the upper half," he said. "We can at least bale that section. Maybe Tony can bring his cousin over tonight."

I phoned. Tony and his cousin were not available because the high school seniors graduated that night. Other young people were occupied with end-of-school activities.

"I could try driving the big tractor," I offered, "and run the baler."

Years ago, I had tried running this piece of equipment for a short moment. Because our new-to-us baler spits the bales onto the trailer, as few as two people can handle the job.

John looked out at the darkening sky. He knew that it took every ounce of me to stomp on the clutch of our largest tractor, which is small compared to the monster rigs that rumble through nearby cornfields.

"Here we go. You take the pick-up." John hopped onto the big tractor and drove off. I followed, inhaling that spicy sweet fragrance of dried alfalfa. Red-winged blackbirds flitted across the windrows while a crow stood sentinel at the field's edge. Warmth rose from the sandy soil that needed a soaking rain - but not while the hay was still down.

John pointed out which gear I should use, the correct setting, and how to run the baler. With all my weight, I pushed the lever, and the baler churned. I stood on the clutch, and we jerked to a start. The tractor rocked forward, dust rose, and the baler chewed grass, mashing and packing it into bales. We wove beside the windrows as I calculated how close I needed to drive so that the grass fed into the center of the baler. My eyes never rested, but darted from the baler to gauges to the path ahead.

Steadily John stacked the bales, building a fortress that consumed the wagon. I regretted that no small sons would ride on top. I relinquished the driver's seat so that John could pull the trailer into the hay barn. Wind whooshed through the open ends, cooling us as we arranged the bales on the wide floorboards. After a drink of cold water, we rolled back to the field.

"Watch out for that big groundhog hole up near the top of the rise," John said when I climbed back onto the tractor. "You're doing fine."

For a second, I thought of the black-robed high school seniors receiving praises and diplomas for a job well done. If Tony had been able to help us, I never would have earned the satisfaction of running the baler. I stood on the clutch, the tractor roared, and we commenced finishing that field.

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