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Kannenberg column: Lessons learned baling hay

I’ll never forget my first job. It was a summer job working for my grandfather baling hay on his farm in upstate New York. I couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 years old at the time. As far as I can remember, those were the most formative days in my entire life. I learned more about living the summer I spent on that farm than I did at any other time in my life.
Haying is hard work. There’s no doubt about that, and the pay is nothing to write home about. That year I made a whopping half cent a bale for every bale we put in the barn. The value of the time spent there could not be measured in dollars and cents, though. What I gained was measured by what I lost, and what filled the vacancy left behind.
My grandfather taught me how to be a man, and he did so by letting me watch him at work. I watched as he backed his John Deere to the mower and hooked up the PTO. He told me to always be careful around PTOs because they can “suck a man in and twist him up.” He taught me to keep my eyes open so as I wouldn’t harm the machinery (sheenery, as he called it) or hurt myself or others around me. I watched him take pride in what he did, make use of every minute of daylight, and sleep well at night.
I remember cutting the fields and waiting for the hay to dry. All I wanted to do was hook up the baler and start producing bales of hay. I dreamed of bales falling out behind, as my little mind calculated the earnings, a half cent, one cent, one and a half, two cents, two and a half, three . . .
I learned patience as he told me that putting green hay in the barn would start a fire. So we sat and waited, “Is it dry yet, grandpa?” “Not yet.”
The little boy inside me couldn’t quite understand, but I waited. “Patience, my boy, patience.”
A few days later we backed up the John Deere again, but this time it was to the rake. The rake was a big red piece of “sheenery” with large round wheels encircled with sharp tongs that moved the hay into rows as we rode along. I’ll never forget how careful my grandfather was to keep the rows straight; watching where he came from about as closely as he was watching where he was going. “It’s not about where you’re going, it’s about what you leave behind, my boy, it’s about what you leave behind.”
The day had finally come. We backed up to the baler and “hooked-er-up.” Off we went, following the rows we had left behind a day earlier. Out came the first bale. “Ka-ching!” I was a half cent richer! Then the tractor stopped. My grandfather climbed down, walked over, picked the bale up and threw it back down again right where it was. “Now you do it,” he said. I took my new gloves out of my back pocket just as he had done, placed my little fingers under the twine and pulled with every ounce of strength I had, but it wouldn’t budge.
Then I watched as grandpa walked over to the machine and made an adjustment. “Whatcha doin’?” I asked. “Making the bales smaller,” he replied. “Never bite off more than you can chew, my boy, never bite off more than you can chew.”
The next day we hooked up the wagon. Grandpa and I weren’t the only ones working that day. He had hired a man from down the road to help. I didn’t quite understand but kept my mouth shut (a technique that has proven to be quite effective over the years). Off we went. At first I walked alongside and threw the bales up on the wagon while the “hired hand” stacked. I was doing fine until we got to the third tier. Then we switched.
I must say I wasn’t very comfortable with my new position because it was quite high and I was (and still am) a little uncomfortable with heights. The fact that I was standing on a very unstable surface traveling through a field didn’t help the situation much. “Grandpa, don’t you think I’m a little too young to be in such a dangerous position?”
“Recognize the things you can’t do and don’t be afraid of the things you can do, my boy.”
In the barn, 10 tiers high, the hired hand and I started the off-loading process as fast as we could and threw the bales down on the ground below us. The fifth bale I threw landed a few inches from where my grandfather was standing.
“Young man,” he said. “Always look out for people below you.”
After the wagon was unloaded he cranked up the escalator that carried the bales to the loft. One by one we loaded them onto the escalator and watched as they slowly made their way up. Then it happened, the hired man who was now stacking in the loft, missed a bale which fell down a few feet from where I was standing.
My grandfather looked at me and smiled, “Remember to keep an eye on the people above, too.”
We were done, and boy was I tired. We jumped up on to the empty wagon and headed off to the house, or so I thought. As we passed by the old farm house, I asked the man beside me why we hadn’t stopped. He said, “The job ain’t done till the last bale is in the barn.”
I don’t know how many times we went through that process that hot, sweaty, itchy, summer. It seems like it lasted forever. I think it was the hardest I had ever worked. I know it was the least amount of money I had ever made. If I remember right, I had made just enough that summer to buy a baseball glove.
That summer, my grandfather worked the boy out of me and the vacancy left behind was filled with lessons that would serve as a model for the man I would become.
But, as I said earlier, the value of the time spent on that farm could not be measured in dollars and cents. What I gained was measured by what I lost, and what filled the vacancy left behind.
– – –
Keith Kannenberg is senior pastor of Blackwelder Park Baptist Church.

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