The undercooked thought and overbaked talk that endlessly paralyzes Washington would not have gone far on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth before someone, boss or hired hand alike, would have condemned the yak and urged all to “get to work.”
And everyone would have without another grumble or gripe because success — from the hired men’s next paycheck to the farm’s next milk check — hung on everyone doing their job and doing it on time. That often meant the hired men knew what do before my father, the farm’s manager, told them what to do.
For example, my father rarely told the hired men to unload the three or four loads of alfalfa hay parked in the barn lot most summer mornings. Jackie and Charlie or Al and Bobbie simply pulled the wagons into the hay barn and, as my father shared the morning milking with herdsman Howard, unloaded ‘em.
The only delay came between loads when Jackie found the shady side of the barn to roll, then smoke, a cigarette. A couple of minutes thereafter he and the burly crew attacked the next leafy load.
Likewise, no one had to tell Howard or my father or me or my brothers that the farm’s 100 Holsteins had to be milked twice each day. A schedule was agreed to and we just went to work — at 5 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day — without fail or question.
Nor did we wonder what to do next at any point in any day. If you saw a wagon of corn that needed unloaded, you unloaded it. A tractor and cultivator sitting idle because Uncle Honey had left early to attend the St. Louis Cardinal game meant you hopped on it and cultivated until at least 6 p.m. You stopped about that time to tend the livestock, to feed the small calves, the growing heifers and dry cows.
After that, you fed baled hay and corn silage to the milk cows to save Dad that hour of chores after milking. Then the both of you walked home in quiet satisfaction to a quiet supper.
No one told you to do it; you just did it. And, often as not, we chatted, chided and laughed with each other as we unloaded hay, made fence, hauled corn or bedded the loafing sheds.
Intellect wasn’t a requirement; honesty and honest work was. No one could fake either; you either worked or you walked. Oftentimes that meant that hired men who failed to measure up — to the task, not to my father who never fired anyone — simply failed to show up a morning or two after pay day.
The work, as Jackie might say, “disagreed with ‘em” so they drifted out of our lives as easily as they had drifted in. Later, maybe just days later, someone else showed up to try their hand and back and will at working on a dairy farm.
In the late 1960s, though, that began to change. Bigger, better equipment replaced muscle and my now-bigger brothers and I filled the gaps not covered by it. In a few short years only two non-family men remained, Howard at the dairy and his brother Jackie in the fields.
And still the farm hummed. Cows were milked, fields plowed, crops harvested and hay baled. We weren’t told to do it; we simply did it because it needed to be done so the farm, the family and everything down the line — our church, community, country — would succeed.
Too bad more of those preening Washington show horses didn’t grow up on a dairy farm. If they had they’d know what we learned at an early age: It takes a carpenter to build a barn, but any jackass can kick it down.