“I will pay you 25 cents an hour if you feel like you can keep up with the men in the field”, Uncle Big Buddy offered his seven-year old nephew.
Thinking about how much 25 cents could buy in 1940, I told my stout uncle, “Yes sir, I can do the work and 25 cents an hour sounds fair to me.”
Twenty cents would gain me entrance to the Strand or Rialto picture shows on Saturday afternoons to see a double feature of cowboy shows–what my mother called horse operas. For another nickel, I could munch on a jaw breaker for the three hours of entertainment. After the show, my brother and I could walk across Trenton Street to Simmy’s cafe where Simmy himself would cook us giant hamburgers with greasy french fries. He would also serve us a Coca-a-Cola in a girl shaped bottle. The total meal would only cost us 20 cents each. Yes, that 25 cents and hour could go a long way to provide for my needs.
Warren McGee, who all my father’s family both young and old referred to as Big Buddy, was the oldest son. He assumed responsibility for the financial well being of the family after Granddaddy died. But make no mistake, he reported directly to Nanny, his mother, the matriarch of the family about any decisions he made.
The rotund Big Buddy stood about five foot eight inches. When I worked for him his girth pretty much equaled his height. I an certain he was not as large when he was a crew member on the small submarines of WW I. The next conflict, World War II, had yet to commence when I joined Uncle Big Buddy’s crew. His age precluded him from fighting in this conflict, which would start a year later.
The old family home sheltered five families of our clan from the ravages of the Great Depression. We called our refuge, located next to the levee that contained the Ouachita River, “The Big House”. It stood five feet above ground on red brick piers. The river flooded in 1927, causing devastation to Monroe and its sister mill town city, West Monroe. Seventy six acres of good farm land, which Grandaddy had acquired when times were good, stretched out behind the house.
Uncle Big Buddy decided that the most valuable cash crop the family could raise would be alfalfa hay. Essential food for all livestock that worked farms and forests producing food, milk, timber and cotton, alfalfa hay always had a market.
The war effort, already beginning, prevented us from acquiring modern machinery such as motorized tractors and mowers to harvest the alfalfa. We could not have afforded them anyway. The old mule powered implements would have to do. Mules pulled the tractor with a cutting blade on the side. Mules dragged the old iron rake that collected the loose hay. A mule walking in circles tethered to a wooden shaft transmitted energy to power the rusty old iron hay bailer. Mules then tugged wooden wagons with large iron clad wooden spoked wheels that carried the seventy-pound bales of hay to the red wooden barn behind “The Big House”.
The mules had names and were treated like family. Just like us humans, they had their own personalities. Fanny-the-Sweet-One never balked or brayed when asked to do work. She never tossed her head or tried to bite me when I placed the feed bag around her head. She never tried to kick her water pail over in protest. On the other hand, Mattie-The-Mule, named after one of my aunts, had a head of her own. She resented working in the fields. She especially disliked being harnessed together with Fanny to pull the wagon. When given the command to “gee”–go to the right–she would try to “haw”–go to the left. We all know children and adults like Mattie.
Uncle Marvin, the relative Big Buddy hired to actually bring in the crop, assigned me the chore of feeding and watering the hard working mules. I brought them water in a wooden pail from a wooden barrel we kept in the field. Uncle Marvin gave me other tasks such as dragging the bales of hay that were excreted from the bailer and loading them on the trailer. The hay bales equaled my own weight. Only with help could I lift the bales from the wagon to the loft of the barn.
I am not sure that “Uncle” Marvin was related to our family by blood. If he was, I never saw him at Sunday dinner or any funerals or weddings. Uncle Marvin and his sons, Marvin, Jr., who everybody just called, “Junior”, and a younger son we all called “Sonny Boy” remain a curious lot in my mind. They lived about five miles upriver from us on a patch of ground shaded by ancient hardwood trees. The resourceful uncle and his boys milled their own wood and built their unpainted wooden home. I imagine that on occasion the river flooded their property back in the hardwood forest because their house stood high above the ground on wooden foundations. In addition to running a saw mill, I heard Uncle Big Buddy tell someone once that Uncle Marvin and his boys produced some of the best corn liquor in North Louisiana.
Sonny Boy and I became friends. He treated me like a little brother and looked out for me when we were in the fields. At the end of a hard day we would climb up into the pear tree next to the barn and eat ripe pears and let the sweet sticky juice drip down on our sweaty, itchy arms. One day I ate too many green pears and came down with a belly ache that lasted all night. Later on Sonny boy would enlist in the Marines and fight in the Pacific–until his days came to an end at the battle of Iwo Jima.
But during hay harvest, Uncle Marvin and “his boys” came to get the job done. Uncle Marvin would announce each morning at sun-up, “You know boys, we have to make hay while the sun shines.”
He employed this traditional proverb to call us to a hard day’s work in hot Louisiana sun.
Better not have any allergies if you harvest alfalfa hay. The stuff attacks your eyes, nose and throat all at once. The hay dust clings to your sweaty skin, causing it to itch and turn the color of pink carnations. At the end of the day I would wash off with the garden hose under the shade of giant pecan trees before being allowed into the one bath tub we had in “The Big House”. Mother would then plaster pink calamine lotion all over my parched, itchy skin. The precious lotion hardened into a light pink chalky substance about the consistency of plaster. It would flake off in the bed as I tossed and tumbled in fretful sleep at night, then I would just wallow around on the gritty fragments. We must have made the calamine lotion people rich.
Uncle Marvin and his boys would not allow me to ride the tractor with the reciprocating side blade, but on occasion the they would allow me to ride with one of them on the hay rake while Fanny pulled the iron contraption. The hay rake had large iron wheels that extended above our seat. The rake itself, which consisted of a ten foot row of curved iron rods, was attached to the rear of the tractor. The operator could raise or lower the rake by using a lever at his side. Later in my life, while in the military learning to operate a gas chamber to train troops. I would learn that lucite gas smelled like the new mown hay we raked up all that summer in my youth.
The working part of the bailer itself was off limits to me. Let me describe this machine as best I can. It was all iron. It sat flat on the ground. On one end a vertical chute opened it wide mouth to receive loose hay that had been collected by the rake. Sonny Boy used a pitch fork to throw in the new mown hay into the bailer.
Uncle Marvin and Junior sat on opposite sides of the iron machine that compressed the hay into bales. Their job was to pass two bailing wires to one another through wooden blocks separating the compressed hay as it moved through the bailer. It seemed important that they get this timed just right to make consistent sized bales of hay. Using a special pair of pliers, Uncle Marvin would twist the wires together securing the bales. Mattie walked in circles driving the machinery that compressed the hay into the bale size iron channel where Uncle Marvin and Junior sat.
As the seventy-pound bales were excreted out my end of the bailer onto the ground, my job required me to grab them with hay hooks, drag them to the wagon and wrestle them aboard. Hay hooks are large iron hooks with wooden handles running perpendicular to the hook’s shaft which make them look like a printed capital J with a wooden handle across the top. One dare not grab the bale by the bailing wire and break it and have the hay spill out or Uncle Marvin would get considerably out of sorts.
By the end of the summer, I saved up a tidy sum for a seven-year-old kid. With an El Trelles Triangle cigar jutting from his teeth, Uncle Big Buddy asked me, “How did you like working in the fields this summer, Tom Pat?” In north Louisiana everybody went by two names when I grew up.
“It was hot and hard work, but I liked working with Uncle Marvin and his boys.” I told my businessman uncle.
The hefty uncle continued his inquiry, “Did it make you want to stay in school son?”
“Yes Sir” I replied. “As much fun as it was this summer, I don’t think I would like to spend the rest of my life making hay while the sun shines.”