“You don’t wanna mess with West Virginia — it’s all rocks,” advised our Iowa landlord, Dr. Dave North.

This was 1978. It had been announced that wife Stephanie, toddler Jessica and I were moving back east.

Since Jessica was their only grandaughter, our folks insisted that we move closer to them, thus bringing Jessica into effective spoiling range.

No, Dave’s advice wasn’t based on some Hawkeye State prejudice against any place with an excess of 1,670 feet in elevation. Dave grew up near Weston, about 100 miles from where I’m sitting right now.

In Iowa, a large-animal veterinary degree and a beef cattle operation situated Dave and his family in a comfortable in-town residence in Centerville. Dave placed his aging mother, Virginia Dare North, in a fine old Victorian in just-far-enough-away Corydon near the 2,000 acres that he just happened to own.

This property was leased out to the Kellog-Lew Cattle Company. We rented the old farmhouse there. Dave’s cattle operation was yet elsewhere.

I brushed aside Dave’s advice. I could “farm between the rocks” as long as the land was cheap. (Due to recent over-population and expense, our folks’state of residence, New Jersey, was out of the question.)

Well, this approach has seen widely varying degrees of success. The term “to farm” has seen a wide stretch in definition as well. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the “gentle land.”

“I’m a poet and don’t know it, but my feet show it — they’re Longfellows.” Yes, I’m one of the size 15-wides consigned to a life of uncomfortable ill-fitting shoes.

I’ve discovered, over the last few years, that the land surrounding the J.D. Beavers Farmall tractor collection near Middleburg, Va., is every bit as gentle as Iowa and even the softly rolling piedmont of central New Jersey that nurtured me. Thus the clompy ol’ steel-toe boots come off and go back on the Old Black Truck when I’m working on tractors there.

Those who share my affliction likely understand what a treat this can be; imprisoned feet suddenly liberated to stretch and flex in every direction all alone on 300 twig- and rock-free acres.

It was, of course, customary to wear some kind of footgear in the Jersey farm days, but it really wasn’t necessary. What few stones there might have been had been smoothed zillions of years ago by a receding ocean.

If you went barefoot it was because you were poor. The only thing worse was mismatched shoes, a shoe and a boot, or sneakers that didn’t match. But that was mostly Great Depression stuff, long before my time.

You could turn a kid loose, provided that he could swim, and not worry about his safety. There were no snakes other than garters and blacksnakes.

We did have giant centenarian snapper turtles that often stopped roadway traffic. Still, the only way a boy could be bitten was by annoying these creatures, meaning that he likely deserved what he got.

The only clear and present danger was going ankle-deep in those ever-present renderings of that prosperous New Jersey dairy herd.

Getting lost? Sure, in a countryside where the network of tractor paths could connect three counties, getting lost was a common occurrence.

When a boy would find an electric fence charger with its familiar 3 caps on a “tar top” 6-volt battery, he knew that he would soon emerge at another farm. (The aforementioned principle regarding being bitten applied to these devices as well as snakes and turtles.)

There, he would hear directions home-often in the broken English of the immigrant generation — or his parents might be summoned by phone. The parents saw this as an opportunity to visit and perhaps exchange produce.

If they shared a nationality, they might switch to the language of the old country.

I can more or less accurately date my earliest memories of making hay.

Possibly because they shared a first name, Uncle John thought that he possessed a certain ability to impersonate our President. This talent often showed itself during bale-throwing banter. It wasn’t all that good.

I would like to be able to say that the President was Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge — no such luck. A John F. Kennedy impersonation by a Polish carpenter from New Jersey is to “moida da language” in no uncertain terms. The un-muffled Wisconsin V-4 engine on the New Holland horsehead” baler and the Allis-Chalmers WF with its hunting governor (Oh well … oh well …) were a blessing.

The hay baler had a knotter, but the bench attached to the side of the machine to seat manual bale tyers was retained. Here is where we children often rode, babysat by a baler.

Just as often, though, I would ride standing on the running board of the 1949 Studebaker pickup as it moved between bale loading stops. I discovered that if I jumped from the running board while the truck was still moving at a lively 2 mph, my landing would be completely uncontrolled.

I would tumble and roll on the soft ground and hay stubble from the force of the truck’s movement. What fun.

Recently, while working on one of the 3 Farmall M’s of the J.D. Beavers Collection, I happened to stumble and fall — probably because I still had my big, clompy boots on, My uncontrolled fall was made less fearsome when I saw that I was clear of any machinery.

This reassurance was further enhanced by my efficient Gaelic Scot wife having supplied me with a wallet full of medical insurance cards. Another customer, a paramedic lives nearby.

Recalling an older co-worker’s experience, I reasoned that at my age to extend an arm to break my fall was to risk a fracture. All these thoughts flashed through my mind in an instant; then I remembered my childhood hay truck riding days and simply let myself fall onto the fluffy ·topsoil and lush green grass.

Had this been parts of West Virginia, after rolling to the bottom of the hill, I might have risen from the rocky ground bruised and bleeding — if I could get up at all.

1 Instead, I landed laughing and unharmed. Oh that good ol’ gentle land.

First published in Of Grease and Chaff, May/June 2021 issue

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