Mike Giulitto 1963-1997
Not a day goes by that Jack Giulitto doesn’t think about his brother.
Mike was just walking across the front yard to the milkhouse. I ran out of the barn. I asked him where he’s been all these years. I asked how we were going to explain to people he was still alive.
Dreams. They claim they only last for seconds, but after that, I don’t know … It just seemed so real.
November 2, 1997. It’s a Sunday – which usually means a couple hours of rest for farmers. But it’s been a wet season. It’s already November, corn still needs chopped, the pressure is on.
It’s overcast and chilly, and most people would rather be inside taking a nap, but there’s only 10 feet left to go in a 70-foot silo.
The field is wet and tacky, and the forage wagons are hard to pull, complains Mike.
Just give her hell and let her go, says Mike’s older brother Jack.
It’s an 80-horsepower machine. Plenty good for the job, but Mike just wants an excuse for his brother to buy him a bigger, better tractor.
Jack laughs as his little brother tears off through the field toward home.
Making of a farm
Jack and Mike’s father Vito Giulitto bought the farm in Ravenna, Ohio, in 1955. Vito wanted to milk but the barn wasn’t set up for dairy, so he raised hogs for a couple years. That got old, though, and soon he had two semi loads of registered Holsteins trucked in from Wisconsin.
The hours and workload in dairy farming didn’t scare Vito. He grew up on his father’s muck farm growing celery. He was used to hard work.
In 1964, he added to the load. Vito and his wife, Amy, bought an old Save 4 store on the edge of town and turned it into a market. Jack, just 12 at the time, started milking. Mike was a newborn.
Several years later, Vito and Amy bought an old house downtown, bulldozed the property and built a new home for their market.
It was a hot spot in town, complete with produce, deli, drive-through and catering.
Even with the market and farm, good help wasn’t hard to come by. Jack, Nancy, Vito, Paul, Cindy, Mike and Joe – seven kids, all about two years apart – helped with the family businesses.
A lot of maybes
Another loop around the field and Mike still isn’t back with the wagon.
Something has to be wrong.
Jack’s mind starts churning in a million different directions. He jumps off the tractor and into the pickup, flooring it the short drive to the farm.
As he gets closer, he sees Mike’s forage wagon still sitting in front of the silo.
Maybe he’s having problems. Maybe something broke down. Maybe something’s plugged up. Maybe.
Jack rounds a corner into the farm’s drive. Facing the tractor head on, he doesn’t see anything at first. But as his eyes drop to the ground, his heart plummets, his breath catches, he goes numb.
Mike’s boots. Empty. Two tall rubber boots lying on their sides.
It can’t be good if he doesn’t have his shoes on.
Twenty-some years ago, Mike’s big sister rushed through the house, pulling on her shoes and dress clothes. She had a big date in a few minutes and her chores weren’t done. She was frantic.
Mike stepped in. He would finish her barn chores and the laundry.
Even as a kid, he’d help anyone. Always going above and beyond what anyone asked of him.
When he was about 3, he had an inner ear infection and no one knew about until it was too late. A dangerously high temperature followed. The child who wasn’t even old enough to read had a stroke – leaving him to overcome physical challenges in the years to come.
But it didn’t stop him. It pushed him along.
He baled, fed calves, joined 4-H, washed animals, took cows to the county fair – staying with his brothers in the barn, sleeping next to the cows.
Earlier that fall in 1997, Jack and Mike heard about a man who was killed after straddling a PTO. The brothers knew the man’s son and couldn’t get the death out of their minds.
Power takeoffs, better known as PTOs, transfer power from the tractor to whatever implement is hooked behind it, whether it’s a baler, auger or silage blower.
The thin, rotating shaft can spin up to 16 times in one second, easily grabbing a piece of clothing and not letting go until it is wound so tightly that escape is impossible and death is certain – all in a matter of seconds. It can easily grab a shoelace, shirttail or even hair.
The brothers talked about the man’s death several times, in the pickup and in the parlor, warning each other.
We need to be careful around this equipment. We need to be careful, it’s harvest season.
But when it comes right down to it and time is tight and the corn is still standing in the ground and the rain finally holds off, getting work done comes first.
The brothers didn’t have anything to worry about anyway. Their PTO shaft had a shield, protecting them from the deadly, spinning rod.
But the last week of October, the pin keeping the PTO in place snapped. Each time Mike used the wagon, he shoved a screwdriver in the hole in place of the pin.
Saturday, November 1. Mike spotted an old junk wagon in the back of the barn. It had a good PTO shaft pin, meaning Mike could get rid of the screwdriver. But the front part of the PTO didn’t have a shield, just the back.
Sunday, November 2. Mike put the shaft on his wagon for the first time.
Passion for pulls
Jack’s first experience pulling a little Ford 2000 at the county fair jump-started a passion in both brothers. The duo liked tractor pulls even better than farming.
They tinkered incessantly with their 1256 International, better known as The Homewrecker.
Mike did the mechanical work and Jack did the pulling. They stayed up late in the garage – painting, cleaning, fussing, planning how to beat the competition.
When it came time for a pull, Mike’s competitive streak peaked. He gave Jack reminders and held his breath on the sidelines.
If an employee called in sick the night of a pull, a nervous Mike stayed behind to milk. Just win, he coached his brother.
Before Jack even had a chance to get home, Mike called to find out how the tractor pulled.
Finally, Mike put his foot down. If we’re going to spend so much time and money pulling, we need to do it right, he said.
They started looking for another tractor.
Jack furiously saws and saws, dulling his pocket knife.
Nothing can be done for his brother now, but he can’t stand seeing Mike suspended in the air. The PTO had pulled his clothing so tight that his waist and chest are the size of a coffee can, and his pants are pulled through his groin.
The power takeoff wound so tight with Mike’s clothing, the shaft snapped off at the wagon. The clothes wound so tight it’s like sawing through steel.
Jack runs to the parlor to call 9-1-1. He tries to stay coherent enough for them to understand.
There’s been an accident, my brother is already dead.
The operator wants him to stay on the line until help arrives, but he just can’t leave his brother out there. Despite the protests, he hangs up.
He goes back to sawing.
The right track
Jack and Mike wanted a cheap, beat-up tractor they could strip and then rebuild.
They found it in East Canton. A guy bought the 996 International at an auction and used it to clear his property, then left it as a pile of junk. It wouldn’t start, the paint was chipped, it looked a wreck.
It was perfect.
The brothers paid $3,000 for the tractor, dragged it onto a trailer and hauled it home.
It took them a year to finally rebuild the motor. A year of making adjustments and late nights out in the garage. Mike was known to pull all-nighters, just so he could keep working on the tractor.
They started calling it the Binder – naming it after International, which made one of the first corn binders.
Binder, binder, binder. What goes with Binder?, they thought during those late nights in the garage. Soon it came to them: Buckeye Binder.
They took it to their first pull in 1996. It still needed work and it didn’t even have a coat of paint, but the pull was at their hometown county fair and they couldn’t resist.
They did lousy.
Mike came home upset, but immediately tackled the clutch problems and changed transmission gears.
The following year, at a Fourth of July pull in Ashland, Buckeye Binder stole the show. The brothers were thrilled. This was exactly what Mike had wanted.
Emergency workers hold up a thin, white sheet. They don’t want the family to see Mike still hanging on the PTO. They’re also having trouble sawing through his clothing.
Jack is sitting on an overturned pail by the parlor door. He sees the sheet, but that’s all.
His face is in his hands, covering his wet cheeks. His mind is blank, he’s in shock. Seeing his mother arrive, seeing her face when she heard the news about her son, is the worst part of all.
As the ambulance finally pulls away, a grieving firefighter asks if there’s anything he can do.
Yes, you can bring my brother back.
Jack thinks how just an hour ago his brother was asking for a new tractor, how he spun off through the field toward home, how Jack laughed.
Still sitting on the pail, he talks absently with a neighbor.
How am I going to keep this farm going without Mike?
Jack bought the cows and equipment from his dad in 1985.
The other Giulitto siblings weren’t farming, so Jack and Mike were on their own. They pledged to farm in a bigger, better way and soon increased their milking herd from 30 cows to 80.
Jack owned the business. Mike’s name wasn’t on the loan and he wasn’t a partner. In fact, he didn’t even get a paycheck. He farmed because he loved it, it was what he’d always done.
Mike made his money working off the farm for a mason contractor. He spent long days carrying bricks and mixing mortar. Saving money to maybe buy some property, to maybe build a home.
But he never grew out of being a farmboy. Within 20 minutes of getting home from work, he was already in the barn. He milked nights with Jack’s wife, Jackie. He spent summers in the field. On weekends he beat Jack out to the barn.
He never called it a day until all the work was done.
But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t drop everything if the neighbor kids came to the farm and wanted to see a calf drink from a bottle. Even if it meant pulling him away from working on his beloved brown GMC.
Hours after the ambulance pulled out of the farm’s drive with Mike’s body, Jack is back in the barn. With neighbors pitching in, he’s milking. The farm must go on. Just because someone died doesn’t mean the cows stop producing milk.
The Holsteins trudge into the parlor same as ever, stand patiently with milkers attached to their udders, trudge back out to the barn, oblivious to tragedy. It’s their routine, what he’s spent a lifetime teaching them to do.
Jack also has a routine. He wakes up each morning to the same thing – dread smothering him like a lead blanket. He still has to go the barn. He walks by that place eight times a day. He still uses the tractor.
Everything is a reminder.
It rains the next two weeks. The corn sits in the field. No more silos are filled that fall.
All in a day’s work
Early one morning after Christmas, Jack calls Weaver Farms in Wooster. He asks for help, he talks about his brother. He can’t ignore chopping corn anymore.
Their chopper is already cleaned for the season. It’s put away. They tell him to call back in the afternoon with the ground conditions. They’ll see what they can do.
Jack waits and calls again. They’ve already left, they’re on their way. No questions asked, there’s a farmer in need and they’ll be there ASAP.
They arrive after nightfall, chopper in tow.
The next morning, farmers start pulling in with their wagons, their tractors, their solemn expressions, and most precious of all, their unconditional time.
They chop and chop, sometimes with two or three wagons waiting in line to be unloaded.
Even with snow blowing in at 3 p.m. and the ground turning into thick, frozen mud, the 20-by-70-foot silo is filled in one day.
Barely getting by
It’s 1998 and it’s been a year.
Buckeye Binder sits in the garage, untouched since Mike last worked on it. Still unpainted. Rejected after its big July Fourth win. The trophy is in Mike’s casket.
My heart just isn’t in it anymore.
The farm suffers and Jack is stressed. His days get longer and longer as he hires and rehires employees. They don’t show up, they don’t do the work, they slack off, they want to punch out at 5 o’clock.
I can’t find anyone like him as hard as I try. Things that used to get done, don’t get done now because no one works as hard as Mike did.
He can’t just simply grieve the loss of his brother, he also suffers the loss of his most dedicated worker.
But it wasn’t just Jack’s loss.
It’s a big family and some of them blame their brother for not making sure Mike was safe.
It’s a hard subject. The 11-year age difference between the brothers changed their relationship. Not only was Jack an older brother, he also felt like a father-figure.
The accusations are tough on him and he just keeps thinking, hindsight is 20/20 vision.
And the family is left with endless questions Jack can’t answer. Did Mike trip and fall into the PTO? Did it grab the back of his flannel jacket? Was that split-second enough for him to know what was happening?
Jack asks himself the same questions.
Pulling a memory
Subtle changes mark the years.
Jack’s brother-in-law offers to help get Buckeye Binder going again.
It would mean so much to Mike, they agree.
They paint it fiery red with aluminum wheels. They go to more pulls. They join the National Tractor Pullers Association. They emblazon “In Remembrance of Brother Mike” across the tractor. They install a roll cage. They win and win and win.
Jack pounds down the track in Mike’s memory.
The sixth anniversary of Mike’s death passes without incident. He would be 40.
Take a closer look at how that gate is tied. What if a cow gets loose and runs across the road and a woman and her children are in a car and hit it and die because of your carelessness?, Jack asks his employees.
Even after what happened, he still gets stressed and in a hurry and safety is pushed aside. He just keeps reminding himself, slow down, be careful, it’s not worth it.
He doesn’t chop anymore, he’s scared someone will get hurt. He hires custom work, and he uses bunkers instead of silos.
Employee problems stay the same.
He knows someday soon he’ll have to decide whether to keep farming.
I can’t handle the work like I used to. I’m slowing down.
He still walks by that spot eight times a day, still uses the tractor and the wagon (not the PTO). He still dreams about his brother walking across the front yard of the milkhouse.
Mike and I said we’d farm together forever but I don’t know if I can do it without him much longer.
Mike Giulitto 1963-1997