The glowing orange tops of two nearby maples are the first clear announcement that change, despite the day’s drilling heat and shirt-soaking humidity, is coming.
Their colorful blast is echoed in the growing number of yellowing leaves dancing about of my black walnut trees.
September can’t wait; it’s already captured part of August’s last week and most of my interest.
Silage wagons. I should have seen it coming days earlier when red silage wagons suddenly appeared in a neighbor’s farmlot. Silage wagons are a sure sign September is near. At least they were on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth.
Back then, silage chopping arrived in the sun and T-shirt days of mid-August and lasted well into the jacket days of September because our 18-by-40, 20-by-70 and 24-by-60 stave silos had to stuffed with winter feed.
Each day began the same. Uncle Honey arrived from town about 7. Hired man Jackie awaited, tractors fueled.
Dad had prepared the chopper the night before by changing and “setting” its many razor-sharp, plowshare-sized knives, usually under the farm’s sole pole light after the evening milking and his always late supper.
Every silage-making day was an adventure as Honey, whether standing still or running farm equipment, was an adventure. Through the years, though, he never killed or disabled anyone. The same can’t be said for most of our silage equipment. Honey killed one silo blower in the early 1970s and temporarily or permanently maimed a silage wagon or two every year.
My brothers and I were part of the silage corps; we ran wagons between Honey and Jackie.
The farm had three silage wagons: one being filled by Honey; one being emptied by Jackie; and one on the road, either full or empty, between the two.
Hustle. We boys had to hustle to keep up with the two men at either end of the feed chain – especially Honey, who did everything one gear too fast and with one eye too few on co-workers.
Jackie, naturally, did most things a gear too slow and with his rheumy blue eyes wide open – often on Honey.
Honey’s speed, combined with his machinery attention deficit disorder, promised two events every silage season.
Over-filling. The first was a pathological over-filling of the wagons. If the wagon held 10 tons, Honey would pour on 12. If he got 12 on the last one, he’d aim for 13 on the next one. Then 14. It was an annual Honey, I Shrunk the Wagons game.
And the wagons always lost. Busted tie rods, bent running gears and blown tires were part of every silage season on the farm. Some days Honey delivered all three to the same wagon either in series or, quite miraculously, simultaneously.
Disregard. The second inevitability was Honey’s complete disregard for my brothers and me when we exchanged wagons. The routine was simple and never varied.
It began when Honey finally looked back to note he had again overfilled a wagon. He’d stop briefly to pull a rope that looped from his tractor seat to the chopper’s spout then down to the trailing wagon’s hitch pin to unhook the groaning wagon.
We then would swing in behind Honey’s rig to deliver the empty. We waited, however, until he had pulled ahead – chopping silage onto the ground the whole way – to give us the necessary space to pull in front of the full wagon.
We’d unhitch our empty, then pull to the side, dismount, and walk over to the chopper to hook the empty to Honey’s rig. No sooner had we dropped the hitch pin to reform his silage-chopping train, however, Honey would slam that big Oliver into forward gear – he hadn’t throttled back or disengaged the chopper during the exchange – to send freshly chopped silage bullets at the speed of light on us as we ran.
Looking back. It was never intentional; Honey simply never looked back. Honey, as I’ve reported here before, never looked back.
I, however, often look back and when I do I usually find my wonderful Uncle Honey always looking straight ahead.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)