denis gullickson | talking titletown | aug. 2019
It's hay baling time at Sugar Moon Farm. Yay! Not!
When you are first “making hay" this late in the season, you are basically baling first and second crop together. Fields are tall and thick. The yield is great, but the work is twice as tough.
So is the “weather watch." The daily possibility of rain turns making good hay into a real guessing game.
Cutting, raking and baling hay means a lot of time on a field. You begin to think about the earth. A few times around the same field and you get to know every bump, rut and weed. You watch mice and toads dart between windrows. Seagulls gather to snack on the mice.
You also have lots of time to think.
My thoughts often turn to my father-in-law, Ambrose “Curly" Kropp, who farmed this land for 50 years or more. While we own 30+ acres of his 240-acre farm and the rest of the farm remains intact – this is still his farm. I am just the present steward.
Small of stature, my father-in-law was one of the best men I have ever known. Slow to burn, quiet, hard-working – “Curly" was loved and respected in the Seymour-Pulaski Area. He was true to his word – always. If he said it, you could hang your hat on it. His smile was as broad as his farm and he was as honest as June day.
He cared deeply about his God, his family, his neighbors, his animals and his chosen life as a farmer. That smile was nearly always present, unless he was deeply concerned about something like fixing a nearly impossible problem on farm equipment, some electrical wiring or some other task. Then, he got quiet – but never mean.
I heard him swear once. I was stunned. That never happened. The worst he ever said was “son of a biscuit" and even that was muttered in hopeful tones.
“Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch." He was banging a steel mallet on a piece of metal. The angry sounds echoed from his machine shed to the driveway where I'd climbed out of my car.
I thought I'd see if he needed a hand.
Looking in through the open door, I saw him hammering on a tire rim, trying to break the bead of a bad tire so he could pry it off.
“Son of a bit…" he was about to bring the hammer down when he saw me standing there.
“Son of a biscuit," he corrected himself, glancing my way. “Son of a biscuit."
I imagine Curly standing around a corner somewhere or another, chuckling to himself as he watched this city kid struggling to make sense of it all.
There was the time I got the manure spreader wedged against the loafing shed wall. Or the time I was racing the hay baler at 2000 rpm. Or the time I took up a corner of that machine shed thinking that I could drop the engine out of a Volkswagen and fix the thing by reading my way through a repair manual.
There were the times when he drove the baler and watched me stack a hay wagon like the amateur I was. “Keep the sides and front square," he said from his big Case tractor. I tried. And then the bales fell off the back.
These days, my instructions to kids stacking wagons is nearly an echo. “Keep the front and sides square. And don't get creative."
There were also the achievements as I began to learn by trial and error.
He was especially pleased by my training of horses, which seemed to be one thing I got good at quickly.
When I bought an old cutter and brought it home, he asked, “Who are you going to have pull that sleigh?"
“Thunder," I said, referring to my Appaloosa stallion.
“That stud ever pull anything before?" he asked.
“No," I said.
“That horse is going to kill you," he replied.
Of course, I'd shown Thunder in halter classes dozens of times and had trained him to ride. “I'll bet you a case of beer I'll have him pulling in a half-hour," I said – pretty sure that was true.
A few days later, an early-winter snowfall provided the perfect conditions. I harnessed Thunder, long-reined him for a bit, hooked him to sleigh, slapped him on the butt and climbed in. Like that, we were off around the hay field behind the houses.
I pulled Thunder to up alongside Curly's garage, went into the house and brought him outside.
“I just went for the nicest ride all around that hayfield," I told him.
“Well, I'll be jiggered," Curly said, with a wry grin. “I owe you a case of beer."
By the time Curly passed away in 2007, I had grown to love him as much as my own dad.
In later years, he often confided things in me that his own family didn't know. There was his secret, for instance, that even though some of them had banned him from driving, he still drove into Seymour at least once a week.
By then, I understood that my father-in-law knew himself and his limitations better than most people.
We often talked about politics as he shook his head at other farmers voting Republican. He was an FDR Democrat who'd been through the Great Depression as a young man. He teared-up when he told me, “It was such an honor to vote for that man." I teared up, too. FDR is/was my favorite president, too. Here was proof-positive that he'd been a hero to the common man.
Still a Presence
The autumn my mother-in-law broke her hip, he was 92. He took care of her without complaint, but I also knew she was driving him nuts with continuous demands for this and that.
Raking hay in that same field behind the houses one day, I spotted him in their back yard. He looked longingly at the raking and, maybe, getting out of the house. I pulled to stop. I had to pick up my daughter from school.
“I have to go get Rachel," I said. “Do you want to rake for a while?"
“Why, sure, Denis," he said anxiously. “I'd rake for a while if you need me to."
I helped him on the tractor and left. About fifteen minutes, I returned.
I walked out to the field and he pulled the hand-clutch back to stop.
“Rachel is doing homework," I said. “I can finish up."
He looked at me. He looked at the field. He looked at the house where he knew his wife would be waiting with some demand. He looked back at me. He looked back at the field.
“You don't mind if I rake a few more rounds?" he asked.
There was no need for explanation.
“No," I chuckled. “Let me know when you want to go in."
We “had words" just once. A needle valve in the carburetor on his Allis WD-45 stuck. Sometimes the tractor would run for an entire summer non-stop; sometimes it would run 10 feet before chugging, lurching and dying. There was a metal rod in the tool box for the sole purpose of tapping that carburetor to loosen that valve.
Finally, I'd had it. My wife, Kathy, towed me to the garage about 10 miles away. I paid for the repairs and that tractor ran like a champ.
“You know, Denis," he said one day, him on one side of the tractor, me on the other. “A good farmer doesn't take his equipment to the implement." (Repair shops and co-ops were “the implement.")
“No," I said, a bit peeved. “A good farmer has a metal rod that he bangs on the carburetor – sometimes once a summer; sometimes once every 10 damned feet. I'll never be a good farmer."
He turned his gaze toward the ground and that was the last we ever talked about it.
I miss him. I wish I could be more like him. I wish I had that kind of patience and humility and appreciation of things.
Maybe just a little bit of Curly rubbed off, though.
A few years ago, one of the big springs on the garage door at the cottage broke. My buddy, Paul, helped me replace it. Later, I put the broken spring in the trunk of my car.
“What are you going to do with that spring," Paul asked.
“Bring it home and hang it in the machine shed," I said. “You never know when a spring like that might come in handy."
“Oh my God," Paul teased. “You've turned into your father-in-law."
It's this time of year, driving in those fields – his fields – worrying about making hay that I think of him most. Often, I sense his calm presence nearby and it helps.
Author, educator, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson writes about history, horses, music, theater and other subjects close to his heart.