Working outdoors has its advantages
|The summer of ’75 was winding down. Preparing to leave the United States at the end of the year for a church mission in Argentina, I needed funds that only a full-time job could provide. But during my nine-month stay in the small college town of La Grande, attempts to find employment with the Forest Service, the railroad, and other businesses had come to naught. Nevertheless, desperation drove me to the State Employment center. It may have been blind faith I was exercising, but it was better than sitting around, wringing my hands. I sat at a formica-topped table and filled out forms, then turned them in began the wait in an uncomfortable chair. I was thinking about leaving when a woman called out, asking if anyone was interested in farm work. |
Borrowing a roommate’s 1954 Dodge pickup, I traveled ten miles out to the Royes farm, where I had the shortest interview ever. George, the owner showed me around plowed fields recently harvested, the land now an empty slate covered with bare soil. I answered the few questions put to me, fully expecting to be sent home with a “Thanks for stopping by,” when Mr. Royes instead told me the hours were 7 am to 6 pm, six days a week- and “Can you start today?” And though it only paid $2.50 an hour, I was elated to finally have landed a job in a place where I believed full-time work was reserved for the lucky or the connected. The fact that I’d be farming once more, after having sworn I’d never sit atop a tractor again, showed how desperate I was. I could finally pay my own way for things like rent, food, and dental work. Indigent no more.
Containing my excitement, I was assigned to pipe moving duty. Scores of sixteen-foot aluminum pipe sections had to be moved from one crop or field to another, on a regular basis. I’d lift one end of the pipe, allow it to drain, then either carry it to the next section or load it onto trailer. By the time the task was done, I was soaked, but uttered nary one complaint. I could tell that though Mr. Royes was impressed with my verbal resume, I was being tested.
I was asked to drag a spring-tooth harrow around and around and around a large field to rake out dead vegetation and other junk left over from the recent harvest. Bouncing along on a newer-model tractor, I gazed at a distant stand of pine trees guarding the base of some low hills, and drinking in the fresh autumn air, I again gave thanks for all those tractor hours I’d endured years earlier.
Test number 3 came in the form of wheel moves. Prior to this time, I’d only seen wheel moves from afar- giant, metallic, silver-colored, many-spoked wheels that carried irrigation pipe around farmland. I’d always wondered how the pipe was moved from place to place, my knowledge limited to stories about how far a section could travel across the open range when driven by a windstorm.
Armed with a wrench, I was told to ride George’s motorcycle from the tool shed to a field a mile away and locate the line to be moved. Ride a motorcycle at work? This was getting better all the time. From the pipeline, I rode to a tiny pump house, turned the water off, then went back and disconnected the ground connector. Afraid there might be residual pressure in the pipe, I flinched as the last few wrench turns on the coupler were made. As the standing water drained out of the pipe, I ran a good hundred feet to the center of the pipeline, pulled the starter rope, engaged the clutch, then stood back as the wheel move crawled slowly along to the next position. I was amazed at how the entire pipeline obeyed the motor, traveling in a straight line. But I had little time to gawk, as I needed to figure out when to shut off the motor so I could reconnect the line at the next connector- an exercise in guesswork that would take a few tries to perfect. That done, I rode back to the pump house and turned off the motor.
Michael Murphey’s “Carolina In the Pines” was on the radio as I drove home, blissed out. I’d had a good first day at work, outside in warm fall weather. The fresh air made me feel alive and useful. The views of the surrounding hills and mountains were exhilarating, and I felt blessed by their beauty. The preceding months of idleness and crappy, low-paying jobs had sapped my spirit, driving me to depression and anxiety. But now I was a working man. And for the moment, that was enough.
I was learning a lot of new things, including how to start a Cat. With regular-sized tractors, it was a matter of opening the fuel line, manually setting the choke knob, then turning a key to start the motor. Some mornings the tractor engine reluctantly turned over for twenty seconds before roaring to life, having been asleep for days or weeks at a stretch. But with the Caterpillar, the engine was much larger, its frame and motor easily tipping the scales at a ton, even more so with those three heavy rollers along for the ride. It took a tremendous amount of power to get the heavy flywheel, pistons, transmission and everything else moving. I’d start a smaller engine first. Once that was going, I’d pull a lever to kick the main motor into gear- and with a few noisy chugs it was on its way. A set of heavy, two-foot diameter rollers attached to the back hitch, I proceeded to roll an entire field as flat as the proverbial pancake. The pattern I followed was one similar to that I’d previously employed while mowing lawns- a squared off spiral. The rig was noisy as hell and I breathed exhaust all day, but I was having a blast. After moving more irrigation pipe, I received my first paycheck- $18.00. But it was a much more promising start than washing dishes for $100 a month.
It was a simple job, really. But on the 20th- after undoing the line and running over to start the motor- I stood back and watched the far end of the pipe rise up in the air, then settle back to earth. Something was wrong. I ran back to the motorcycle I’d forgotten to move out of the wheel move’s path. Now the cycle lay on the ground, the collision having torn off the kick stand, bending the front fender and headlight all to hell, for good measure. I rode the bike back to the shop, and confessed my sins to George. I was sure he’d fire me on the spot; instead he shrugged his shoulders. Evidently, he’d seen much worse during his tenure as a farmer, and told me not worry about it. He’d fix the damage and we’d all move on. The limits of Mr. Royce’s patience were further tested when I told him I wouldn’t be able to work the following Sunday due to church attendance. He looked at me for a moment, then shook his head. “Well, you can have Sunday off. I wouldn’t want you to go heathen on me.”
After months of unintended idleness, daily work had introduced a welcomed peace to my mind. Accordingly, when I had to miss work due to illness, life became a dark affair. During my second week on the job, I climbed on the Cat one morning, throat sore and the chills setting in. I was still trying to finish rolling the dirt field flat, but given its size, it seemed I’d never get done. So, there I sat, a cold-induced stupor settling in as I went around and around and around. Weird thoughts and snatches of music drifted through my head, the flapper on the vertical exhaust pipe bobbing up and down as I steered the Cat under gray, chilly skies. For four hours I gave it my best, but at noon I stumbled to the truck and somehow made it home without crashing into another vehicle. I went to bed and died for the rest of that day and the next. Since I’d one day taken off too fast with the Cat, thus snapping the hitch in two, I was on thin ice with my boss. I hoped George would be merciful and allow me back to work, once I recovered- which he did.
Some tasks were short-lived, such as field burning. I drove out to a distant wheat field, where all that was left of the harvest was stubble. Lighting a hand-held flame jet, I’d wave the wand across any dead vegetation taller than two inches and fry it. This had to be done so that subsequent plowing or soil treatment wouldn’t be fighting last year’s flora for space. But the trivial nature of the work was starting to bother me. Was George just giving me busy work, as an act of charity? Was the work running out?
For a few days I drove a grain truck to the mill. On the one hand, it was nice to get away from the farm for a while, as the drive involved a half-hour trip into town. But when the truck was fully-loaded, it became top-heavy, the situation occasionally sacring the hell out of me. I could see it now: “Uh, sorry, Mr. Royes. I tipped over one of your trucks.” Every corner and stop had to be taken with great care, if I didn’t want to flip the vehicle over on its side. More troubling than highway driving was the entrance to the mill. After leaving the main road, the last couple hundred feet of the journey was across a stream bed. As I made my way over the shallow waterway, the truck would start to lean one way, then recover long enough to lean the other direction. And if I slowed down, the truck still liked to tip a little, then a little more, giving a final slight sway before righting itself. After two or three rides like that, I was thankful to be done with grain truck driving, but wondered what other challenges lay in store.
Mid-October. The most grueling work on the farm was fence repair and metal fence post installation. Though already familiar with wooden post installation- which involved a post-hole digger mounted to the back of a tractor- I'd never seen metal posts being put in the ground. One day I was assigned to fence work with a heavy-set, middle-aged fellow and his son, Spud. Who’d name their son after a vegetable? I wondered. But the more I hung around them, the better I understood their background. They lived in a shack near George’s much nicer house, along with Spud’s wife, a cramped lifestyle they most likely brought with them from the Deep South, where they used to live. The other thing they carried was a strong accent. When Spud’s dad spoke, I had to strain my ears.
“Dreg thet wore ovah heah,” the man asked me, on this particular day.
“What? What’s a “wore”?
Frustrated, Spud’s father looked at me, strode over and shook his finger at a section of fencing.
“WORE! This wore.”
But Spud’s father wasn’t impressed with my epiphany, as he drug wore across the ground to a waiting fence line. For the rest of the day he treated me like a halfwit.
After helping father and son unload posts, they marked a line; then one of them stood a metal post in place while the other grabbed a two-foot-long iron cylinder sporting a hollow end and handles on either side, held it above the post top and brought it down as hard as he could, thus driving the post’s arrow-shaped blade end into the ground. This was done repeatedly, until fifteen inches of the post was underground.
After I watched my co-workers grunt and strain for a while, I started feeling like a wimp about not contributing. Eagerr to disabuse Spud’s father of the notion that I was a halfwit, I asked if I could try pounding in a few posts. Smirking, one of them handed me the pounder, and in an instant I saw why it was so much work. The damned thing had to weigh twenty pounds at least, and I struggled to hold it up. But not wanting to appear the wimpy halfwit, I hefted the pounder like it was no problem. I could tell the upper end of the tool was solid steel or iron- and since the lower end was hollow (to fit over the top of the target post), it was more than top-heavy. I brought the pounder into position above the post and let it fall. But mere gravity wasn't enough; the post end barely broke the surface of the turf. "Let 'er have it!" Spud’s dad yelled. So, I held the pounder up, then pulled down as hard as I could. Said effort having met with my coworkers’ approval, I pounded more and in earnest, making good progress. BAM! BAM! BAM! One post in the ground.
Emboldened, I kept on. But my arms were unaccustomed to such rigorous work, and I soon tired. I took a break, then began again. And it was during a careless moment that it happened. During the downward pull, I lost my grip on the pounder and it flipped sideways- which wouldn't have been a big deal, except that my right hand landed on top of the sharp metal post-top seconds ahead of the falling pounder, which smashed the back of my hand against the post. Screaming in pain, I jumped back, barely avoiding the pounder flattening my feet. Sure that I'd crushed all the bones in my hand, I held it aloft and began jumping around in frenzied panic. The first miracle was that for all the force my metacarpal bones had undergone, nothing was broken. In fact, the skin was barely cut, my only permanent reminder being part of the nail on my little finger that never grew back. The second miracle was that throughout the pain dance I performed in front of amazed co-workers, I never uttered a single recognizable expletive, instead spouting gibberish over and over, until the pain subsided. It was one of those times in life when I believe I was protected by unseen forces, while engaged in activity for which I was totally unqualified. Part of my preparation for service included cleaning up my act, which meant cultivating personal habits that did not include bad habits like swearing. I was proud of myself, for I'd found a way to refrain from cursing- and no one likes a foul-mouthed missionary. Well, most folks don't.
By late fall, the weather had turned from cold, crisp, sunny skies to icy drizzle. And with that change came a slowdown in work. To his credit, George tried to keep me busy. But some of the work was downright lousy. Digging an irrigation trench in steady 40-degree fall drizzle for hours on end in the yard outside the boss’s brother’s yard was one such activity. As I tried to keep mud from pouring back into the ditch I was digging, rainwater seeped into and through my coat, moistening shoulders and arms. Only steady digging kept hypothermia at bay, while I cursed what had once been a great job. I wondered if this my boss’s way of getting me to quit. Wishing I was anywhere else but that water-soaked yard, I daydreamed about the girls I liked in town, at church and school. I recalled what life had been like at the farm where I grew up. How much money would I make this week? Was I really comfortable with the eventuality of serving a mission? As the cold creeped through my jacket, I recalled with fondness the recently passed spring and summer months, when the cares of life didn’t intrude as much as they did now, with two months to go. Drives in the country with friends. Dances. Sunday evening firesides at the church in Pendleton, situated on a hill above summer-baked, yellowing wheat, feelings of peace and loneliness swirling around inside, both vying for the upper hand as I gazed off in the distance, even then in July and August feeling like I belonged elsewhere- that there would be no place like home for another couple years, on the other side of the mission experience.
By the end of the day, I was despondent. Though I knew that farm labor was not my destiny, it bothered me that this seemed like the best I could ever do. It pained me to think I was again willing to settle for less, when it came to employment. And though I was thankful for a job which helped pay the bills, I was looking forward to a change.
Change came briefly in mid-November, when I took a day off from my paying job to labor at a non-paying one- volunteer church work. Trying to raise funds to bolster the church budget, a group of us men traveled into snow-covered mountains, where we spent a few tough hours splitting and chopping ten cords of firewood: 1,280 cubic feet of the stuff. After helping load it onto several trucks, I was physically spent, but it was satisfying to work for a good cause, a surprising contrast to my farm job.
November 21st. My last day of work. The ground having hardened up due to a string of frozen November nights, wood cutting was only work left, until December snow would bring even that to a halt. I rode with Spud Sr. and Jr. up a winding, snowy road to a flat spot near the top of Mt. Harris, our goal being several cords of wood. At first, I was sure I’d freeze to death. After all, we were above 5,000 feet in elevation. But as cold as it was amidst sun-blocking trees, the constant cutting, loading and stacking- with only two or three real breaks all day- kept me toasty warm. It was the hardest day of labor I’d experienced all year, but I was able to keep up with the Spuds, while taking in a lot of beautiful scenery. And when we came down off the mountain at sunset, I could see the entire valley, the Grande Ronde River winding back and forth across it like a giant snake, farm lots arranged like a multi-colored checkerboard, our view as scenic as if we’d seen it from a plane. I drove home that evening grateful for a job that hadn’t been easy, but which had come at a time when I needed temporal and spiritual help. I guess you’d call that a blessing.