Over Labor Day I spent some time thinking about the jobs I’ve done, skills I developed, and things I learned, including how much a body can endure.
I never considered a career in bale-hauling or rock-picking, but there was satisfaction when that last load of hay was hauled, the hay mound was packed, and the frustration of losing a load or two while navigating a cowpath with a wobbly flatbed, was forgotten. As for picking rocks on my Grandpa Spilloway’s farm in Gackle, ND, well, they just kept belching to the surface each spring. Satisfaction never entered into it.
I learned how to drive a tractor, build and fix fences, feed calves, and how to vault barbwire when an ornery bovine had me in its sights.
One summer I hired on with Tom Heis, who farmed north of Frederick, SD., and I became convinced that his new Case 1070 was about the most powerful tractor that could ever be built. Now, when I see one they just look small. I buried it once, and another time bent up the drag I was towing behind a disc because I turned too sharp. For that, I received a tongue lashing, merciless but deserved.
I discovered I liked cutting and raking hay and swathing barley despite the irritation of having to replace broken sections with a chisel before someone wised up and decided rivets were not the answer. It gave me time to think, and I still enjoy a long drive to clear my head. Plus, there was the satisfaction of finishing a field at dusk, looking back and seeing that my rows weren’t as crooked as the path of a decapitated chicken, something I witnessed when we butchered Grandma Bender’s springers on their Ashley, ND farm. I was the chief chicken-catcher and gizzard cleaner. It couldn’t have been too bad because I still like gizzards and livers.
I learned rudimentary mechanical skills as a grease monkey for the Frederick Cenex station, how to pack bearings, change gravel truck tires, and even that it was a good idea to replace the drain plug before filling the crankcase with oil. So I was able to replace the fuel pump, water pump and more on my ‘64 Chevy, however, these days I no longer recognize anything under the hood, so I outsource.
It was the camaraderie that made the hours fly by—folks like Johnny Mikkonen, Rick Bakeberg, and even grumpy Irv Louma whose sly smirk made him a likable curmudgeon. Johnny and Irv are gone, but I still grin when I see Rich.
The toughest job I ever had was tearing up the railroad tracks from Aberdeen, SD to Edgeley, ND. Our crew consisted of a truck driver, a man on the cherry-picker mounted to the flatbed, and four grunts—me, my buddy Jon Wiitala, a rock-n-roll guitarist; a grizzled guy in his mid-50’s with an unfiltered cigarette permanently affixed to his lips; and Randy, a Baptist preacher. I’ve since discovered that Baptist preachers often have a side hustle, apparently because the Baptists don’t like their preachers to get too cocky.
I remember the first hot half-day when we went out to test the system. We sorted the prime ties on one section of a wagon and the seconds on the other. Once we got 20 of them, we banded them and they were set aside to be picked up later. Hell can’t possibly be worse, but we survived and got as tough as the job was, scrambling down deep ravines to single-handedly drag errant ties to the wagon. By the end of the summer, we were walking muscles. Ah, to be that strong again.
We got efficient quickly—our record was 70 bundles in a day—so the boss, an old shyster from Colorado, cut our pay from 15 to 10 cents a tie (per grunt) after the first glorious paycheck. As I said, you learn some things along the way, about yourself, about people. Sometimes a deal’s not a deal.
I’ve forgotten his name, but if it ever comes back to me, I’m going to drive out to Evergreen, CO, and pee on his grave. The pay was still better than anything else out there in 1980, so we took it. I suppose I could reconcile things by telling myself I was paid to get into the best shape of my life, but I’ll still pee on his grave. I’ve learned a lot, but I haven’t perfected the art of forgiveness.