There are certain (often painful) lessons learned by being a member of the close-knit farming community. The benefits of growing up on a country homestead far outweigh the bumps, bruises, smashed appendages, cuts, scrapes, gouges, fearful animal encounters, dust filled lungs, sore muscles, sun burnt skin, electrical shocks, chemical burns, near miss chainsaw accidents, and those funny, snap buckle overshoes that took forever to stretch on, yet never really kept anything off your regular footwear.
Foggy memories such as these are both the reason I no longer reside on a farm, and the cause of my longing for the simpler days of being trampled by cattle, saturated with oil from broken hydraulic lines, or tumbling from the hay mound due to heat exhaustion, soaked with sweat and covered from wrist to elbow in paper cut-like scratches.
I may write a book someday, examining in great detail the vast learning universe of “The Farm,” but for now will present only this incomplete list of knowledge gleaned from my rural upbringing.
I learned the hard way that a scrawny, 78-pound weakling cannot hold up an aluminum panel gate with several thousand pounds of jittery bovine crowding against it. Any sentence containing the word castration certainly eliminates all thoughts you entertained for a large, over indulgent lunch. Unless you are seeking a career as a handler in a traveling menagerie, and feel that hands-on experience will provide you a decided edge during the interview process, most non-domestic wildlife events (often accompanied with girly shrieks of terror) are to be avoided. Barbwire is extremely sharp, even when dull. Those horseweeds you fed to the hogs, which made them lethargic and hungry, weren’t really horseweeds. This knowledge came later in life, after witnessing the lethargic and hungry friends of your best friends’ older brother smoking something very much resembling horseweeds.
Yet, as I reminisce on those days, the most painful (and perhaps the most entertaining) artifact of learning I absorbed was this: I can not, even with the passing of time, believe how fast my dad could run.
I’m not talking about the puddle hopping trot from barn to house in the midst of a spring gully washer, or the ninja-like quickness it took to corral an errant hog. Nope, we’re dealing with a flat out, world class, Olympic medal-winning sprint. I only witnessed this event once, but the awe inspiring impression it left on me has lasted a lifetime.
You see, during the hay harvest back in the day, there was always that chance of finding a rabbit or quail or snake protruding from a bale; most often chewed up by the machinery ... yet on occasion, intact and still twitching. And so it was, on a sweltering day, standing on the edge of the hayrack, staring at the horizon, my dad decided to take a break ... oblivious to my forthcoming dastardly behavior. Before I could consider the repercussions of my actions, I had yanked a flimsy, damp, green milkweed stalk from a bale, yelled “SNAKE” at the top of my lungs, and casually tossed it across his shoulders.
Like a pale Jesse Owens exiting the starting blocks in Berlin, he was off ... in mid stride, bringing to life the FTD florist logo, the DeKalb winged ear of corn on his hat replacing Mercury’s winged helmet. But for a hawk circling overhead, time stood still as we watched.
Two hundred yards later, upon realizing it wasn’t a snake, his return was even quicker. Everything after that is a blur ... but yes, an invaluable lesson was learned on that long ago summer afternoon.
Chuck Mason, a self-described opinionated wiseguy, resides in Princeton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.