(PAUL WHEELER is a Montana boy who now lives near Bonners' Ferry. This is his story.)
I don’t recall how I got my first haying job. It was hot, tiring work, but it produced a lot more income than picking up pop bottles for refund. I think most of my jobs came through the job service. It didn’t take long to realize that individual farmers had a tough time putting a haying crew together and then there was a transportation issue because we were all kids without licenses.
I don’t know exactly how it happened, I suspect my step-dad Lou pulled strings or something because I was able to get my drivers license at 14, I think. Then he sold me the old family car, a 1956 Chevy station wagon, on time. After that, all I had to do was pick a few kids from school and advertised us through the job service as a full service haying crew, capable of operating equipment and getting the job done on bids. We ended up doing all kinds of work after that, making all kinds of odd deals. Wish I could remember the names of some of those guys I worked with, because it’d be fun to track them down for their stories.
Seems we did that for about two years weekends and summers. Came to an end when I was driving us out through a hay field in the dark one morning and I high centered the station wagon on a big rock. We got out and decided we just needed to load everyone in back and give ‘er hell in reverse. Guys got in the back jump seat and others bounced up and down on the bumper while I gave it gas. Just as the car came off the rock there was a soft “whump” and the car overturned on it’s side. Guess we holed the gas tank and the rock provided spark. Guys inside were scrambling to get out the open windows and those on the outside were screaming that the car was on fire! No fire extinguishers in those days and the only water available was back at the farm yard. Everyone took off their shirts and tried beating the fire out. I don’t have a clue what possessed us, but for some reason we rolled the car back over on its tires where it promptly went tearing down the hill, spewing fire all though the field. Wasn’t much we could do by that time except run to the cut area and defend the huge pile of stacked hay we’d already worked up and wait for help.
People came from miles around to help put the fire out and we did manage to save the stack, but that was the end of our haying crew. Lou helped tow the car back to town but it was pretty bad. All the wiring, hoses and front tires were melted off and of course the gas tank was shot. Took me a long time to rebuild it and then it only lasted a few miles before the transmission quit and I gave up on it. Heh, I remember driving it back home in reverse.
The next year I got on a custom cutting crew out of Vaughn for a guy named Bill Clarke, I think. That was where I had to learn how to fake it, when he interviewed me by my having to demonstrate ability to drive an 18 wheeler. Heh, I think I’d driven one one time before, maybe 20’ to move it so we could work on something. Even though I ground a lot of gears, he hired me and sent me back home to pack for a trip to Kansas.
When I got back to his farm the rest of the crew was there and we loaded up two combines on the flat bed that I was supposed to drive, two grain trucks with the combine headers in back, Bill’s service truck and he and his wife’s trailer/office, and an old schoolbus/bunkhouse. I don’t recall what the rush was, maybe it had to do with the fact we were considered a convoy, but we had to drive straight through from Vaughn to Cheney, Kansas, only stopping for fuel.
Everyone but Bill and his wife were kids. Each rig had a CB radio in it and he somehow shepherded us down the road, sticking to Interstates as much as possible. I have no idea how I managed to keep that job. Every underpass we’d come to, Bill would study and direct me how to go under it, or tell me to just go for it, it was plenty high. Somewhere around Billings he told me to go for it and I heard a terrible noise when the brand new air conditioners on top of his combines got torn off. Whew, he was mad and threatened to put me on a bus right there until his wife reminded him that he was the one directing me.
After we got everything all loaded up and taped together, we headed out again. Somewhere on the outskirts of Denver we pulled over for his instruction on how to traverse the heavy traffic on the interstate. On the radio he’d tell us which lane we had to be in at any certain time, but didn’t give me enough warning, or the traffic wouldn’t let me change lanes quickly enough to take the right exit we needed. Everyone managed to get off but me, pulling a forty foot trailer and white-knuckle, scared to death.
I did finally manage to get over in time to take the next exit, but by then I was out of range of the CB radios and didn’t know what in heck to do. I sat frozen at the light at the end of the exit ramp through several changes of the lights. It was chaos and I’d have cried if I could. People honking, backed up everywhere. Finally a cop walked up and yelled at me to turn right. There just wasn’t room. Even with him standing in front of me directing me, the trailer came up against the turn signal post and we were truly stuck. We were both sure that if I tried to go forward or back I’d tear down the signal light. By that time the cops had tracked down Bill who had to abandon his service truck/trailer somewhere on the highway and hoof it to the rescue. Somehow he managed to inch it off the light and backed it all the way up the crowded exit ramp with everyone else crowding to the side and highly pissed. After that, I got demoted to driving the service truck and his wife while bill finished out the trip in the semi.
So, we finally made it to Cheney, Kansas. Turned out the big rush to get there was in vain because the wheat wasn’t quite ready to cut. We pulled into a trailer park at the edge of town, a really tiny town. All of us broke, Bill doled out a few bucks and as none of us were really bonded yet, we all split up in different directions to check things out.
I managed to find a place that would sell me a couple six packs of beer and they were carefully hidden away in a grocery sack when I got stopped by the local sheriff who didn’t even ask what was in the bag. He just explained that he kept tabs on newcomers in town and warned me to stay away from the town swimming pool at night. When we all got back to the bunkhouse and started comparing notes, it seems that he’d managed to track down every single one of us and warn us about the pool. You have to know what’s coming next...beer is gone, it’s really hot in Kansas in Summer, bored to death kids, wondering about the mystery of the forbidden pool. My first introduction to the interior of a jail. Bill had to come bail us all out the next morning and probably would have left us there if he could find another crew.
We packed up that day and moved to a wheat field in the middle of nowhere until we went to work. The life of a custom cutting crew could be pretty mundane if it wasn’t a bunch of kids out for the first time. Huge fields -- it was a struggle sometimes to stay awake on the combines. We all fought to take turns on the grain trucks hauling into the elevators because it seemed like every single elevator was run by cute girls that would sample our load for moisture content and direct us to dump. 14, 16, 18 hour days, we’d generally cut until the moisture content got too high at night.
Rare days off were because of rain. Kansas had some amazing lightning storms. Until getting down there I never had seen lightning cross overhead from one horizon to another. Other than Bill and his wife, none of us had ever seen a tornado either, but we sure wanted to and Bill would remind us what we were supposed to do if we ever spotted one. Bit by bit we zig-zagged our way back to Montana and on up into Alberta. One kid quit before we got to Colorado but Bill was able to get a replacement. I chuckle when I remember it, but we were driving between jobs and we all heard this little voice come over the CB radio. “Hey, do you guys see that big storm headed our way?” Bright sun-shiny day, all the Montanan’s scanning the skies for the storm. It was a long time until someone figured out that it was a flatlander kid that had never seen mountains on the horizon before.
Fourth of July caught us on the road and we were forbidden to travel for the four day weekend. We were going to have to spend four days at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Not me. One of my uncles lived in Denver, so I told Bill I’d be back, stuck my thumb out and almost immediately got a ride all the way to Denver. I still didn’t have any money, but maybe I should have tried looking up and calling the uncle before I left the convoy. I wanted to surprise my uncle and just show up at his door, envisioning a wonderful Fourth of July BBQ spread. I somehow convinced a phone operator of my plan and she finally took pity on me and gave up his address. I asked someone for directions and walked a long ways to find the place. Problem was, there was no such address on that street. I was tuckered out and despondent by then. I found a quiet bar and sat at a table for a long time drinking a Coors beer. It was all I could afford, so I kept refilling it in the can to make it look like I was still drinking while I tried over and over again to get my Uncle on the phone so he could come get me.
I didn’t know what to do then. All I had was a change of clothes. I finally left and wandered around in the middle of the night looking for a likely place to try and sleep. I finally settled on a Uhaul trailer in a gas station lot. At least there were a few moving blankets in there to wrap up in. Turns out those things are balanced really well! Every time I moved the damn thing would up end one way or the other. Thunk, thunk, all night long. Next day, still no answer on the phone.
Someone finally clued me in that there were two streets on opposite sides of town with the same name, so I did finally find my uncle’s place where I hung out on the porch until one of his neighbors told me that they’d left town for the long weekend. Arrgh. Nothing to do but head back to the bunkhouse. I caught a ride pretty quickly to the edge of town and the side road I had to take back to where the convoy was parked.
It was hotter’n hell and there was absolutely no traffic on that state highway. I started out walking... and walking...and walking. A farmer on a tractor slowed down long enough for me to catch a ride to his next field and best of all gave me some water to drink. More lonesome walking. It was irrigated farm land, so there were ditches full of the nastiest looking muddy water that they siphoned out of the ditch into the fields. I just could not bring myself to drink it. Somewhere along the way I saw a far off farm house and went there to beg a drink The lady gave me water and a glass jug so I could carry more and I happily tottered along to wait for someone to go by in my direction. I was just pooped. Spent a chilly night in a hay pile and back to trudging the next morning. Somewhere along there I dropped my water jug and nearly cried. I kept going and finally stopped to sit down next to a reflector post to rest.
That was my first introduction to fire ants. I was only there briefly when something bit me on the leg and I jumped up to find ants crawling ALL OVER me and the damn things had a horrid sting. I flailed and flailed, finally remembering a little ditch I’d crossed over a ways back and beat feet towards it. I just bailed right over the side into the water which turned out to only be a foot or so deep, but with thick, sticky mud on the bottom that threatened to swallow me whole. I didn’t care at that point, mad to get rid of the ants. I hunkered down as low as I could get in that mud and water until finally the stinging stopped. When I eventually came crawling out of there, I knew for a fact that even if someone were to come by, there was no way in hell they would let my filthy ass even in the back of their pickup. I was just defeated and knew I’d never get back to where the convoy was camped. I’d be stranded in nowhere Colorado forever.
Finally it was getting dark again. Hungry, really thirsty, and to top it off I could see a storm coming in. I started looking for a place to hole up for the night. Half way across a field, headed to an old dilapidated barn, I heard a car way off in the distance. I made a dash for the highway and started flailing my arms, because it was dark enough I was afraid they wouldn’t see me. The car went by without even slowing down, but then it stopped! I couldn’t believe it! I ran like hell and nearly begged the guy to give me a ride. He was a young guy too, but he finally heard enough of my woe, he threw open the passenger door and told me to hop in, he knew right where the rest of my crew was and would give a ride all the way there. He even reached into a cooler in the back seat and started to bring out beer after beer. I was so happy! He did indeed take me all the way to where we were camped and deposited me just a little drunk and sunburned, but oh so happy to see those ugly mugs. I didn’t even mind the chewing out I got from Bill and his wife.
Everything must have been relatively uneventful after that. Or maybe I’d just lost some of my taste for adventure and stayed close by work. It all seemed worth it when I got my wages in one lump sum, minus the few draws they’d allowed. That’s what got me started in college.