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A summer as a kitchen migrant
Farm & Food File
By Alan Guebert
Sometime in the early summer of 1965 I migrated from my mother’s hot kitchen and the family’s enormous garden to our farm’s sweltering hayfields and crowded milking parlor.

I did it the usual way. When my mother wasn’t looking, I went over the wall that separated the home’s dull domesticity from the farm’s agricultural adventure. On one side was potato peeling, on the other tractor driving.

I did it for another reason, too, money. My mother didn’t pay; my father did. Well, he paid a flinty 50-cents per hour but he paid faithfully on the 15th and final day of each month.

That first season of breaking away, however, often found me farmed out - returned - to the kitchen when Dad couldn’t keep five field hands (two were my older brothers Rich and David) fully employed. It was humiliating. There I was cutting cole slaw or slicing tomatoes while real men were cutting hay or stacking bales. They were cracking jokes and making money and I was making dinner with my sister or canning corn with my mother.

As that summer drifted toward the heat of wheat cutting and the season of straw baling, I got better at beating my mother at the cooking, canning and cleaning game. I developed a number of ruses to hit the road and, a week or two later, payday.

By far the most effective was to rise very early and walk the quarter mile to the dairy barn. There, at 6 each morning, the hired men would gather for two day-starters - a cup of bitter, instant coffee and their marching orders from my father.

Any summer’s day orders rarely varied: unload three or four wagons of hay from the previous day’s baling; return to the hayfield to pick up the two or three loads of bales “kicked out on the ground” by my brothers or Uncle Honey after the hired men’s 6 p.m. quitting time the day before; return to unload this second helping of alfalfa.

It was noon by the time those chores were completed. The farm’s sacred dinner hour followed, then the sweaty cycle began anew. I didn’t care because I was a couple of bucks richer and another morning removed from the kitchen.

Moreover, since each day promised endless heavy lifting, the hired men were only too glad to have a puny pup like me roll the bales either off the wagon or around the stack to save them steps and energy they’d surely need later.

Likewise, my father - who had to be on to my daily great escape - never sent me home. I guess he figured any labor I saved his well-muscled, muscled-headed crew was worth at least 50-cents an hour to him and the farm.

The plan wasn’t foolproof, though.

Rainy days, a blessing my father (and the hay-hating hired men) prayed for every hot, humid summer day, always washed me right back into the kitchen. If the rain didn’t strike until later in the day, however, I usually hid out in the hay shed with the creatively swearing, always bellyaching, cigarette-rolling hired men.

The following summer brought less sneaking away and more paychecks. By then I could reach the clutch on the old AC well enough to be the farm’s go-to hay-raker each morning. In the afternoon, I usually hooked bales from the heaving Oliver baler to drag back to my father or brothers stacking the load.

Then, finally, serendipity struck. One day a hired man quit (by simply failing to show up) and I moved into his spot. The promotion inspired me to ask my grandfather, the farm’s ultimate boss, for a raise from 50-cent per hour to $1.

“Well now,” my grandfather snorted, “a dollar-an-hour is a man’s wage and all I see standing in front of me is a boy.”

Yes, I replied sassily, but at least I’m not a kitchen boy.

“I can fix that,” he said dryly. The threat was so terrifying that I left without the raise or the urge to ever ask for another. And I never did.

This farm news was published in the June 7, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.