Many things about the approach of summer on the farm have stayed the same during the past five decades--brilliant sunsets cut through the hovering dust clouds farmers raise in the fields; lilac bushes send out short-lived, intoxicating scents; and varmints dig, crawl, and climb into newly planted gardens. But many aspects of rural life have changed, and one of the most obvious is teenage summer employment. Youngsters today have ways of staying busy, but their work routines are vastly different from the ones we had 50 years ago.
Gainful employment might also mean we could work with friends and maybe even meet some interesting characters. Whenever we'd weed fields or bale hay for old Clare down in Illinois Grove, we could count on stories about bootleg liquor and rum runners in Prohibition Days, or how he'd trap muskrats on a lake as a kid--skinning one he'd just caught while skating to the next trap site.
If you hired on to shell corn, some of the old boys might clue you in on their days of hopping freight trains or tippin' outhouses, but most of the time, we were either with friends or working solo. One of the easiest tasks was driving a tractor, usually to cultivate weeds out of corn and soybean fields. No luxury cabs back then, and certain hassles did arise--you'd need to unplug the weeds tangled in the cultivator shields, red-winged blackbirds might dive bomb your head if you came near their nests on the end rows, and if you drove along in a "Daydream Believer" trance as you thought about the upcoming school dance, you might look back to see that 30 feet of innocent, young corn stalks had been ripped up. That led to a mad scramble to replant them before the farmer drove out with some iced tea and cookies.
Most of the jobs we did have faded away as technology and precision farming take hold. Driverless tractors and drones are starting to invade the fields, and most of our old weed work is now done with chemicals. Roundup and other herbicides replaced soybean walkers, but for a few of our rebels-without-a-cause years, we had gangs that fought with cockleburs, buttonweeds, and bull thistles. Armed with gloves--and occasionally machetes--we trudged up and down the rows, pulling and cutting, sweating and swearing--but by the end of the day, we had a few bucks and a good tan.
I have nothing against livestock farmers, but jobs that involved animals often left a mark--a kick from a cranky milk cow, scratches from hooves as you held baby pigs to be vaccinated, or a hair ball lodged in your sinus cavity from the smell and dust you breathed in while cleaning the chicken coop. Seems to me we'd still be coughing out a feather or two the next day.
Some farm kids today still get stuck into "gritty jobs," but during this digital age, most would not relish performing the "dirty deeds done dirt cheap" that we did. But many of us look fondly back on an era when we were out in the elements, and none of our jobs involved a keyboard or monitor--and we never had to learn how to say, "You want fries with that?"
by dan gogerty (top pic from paul-julia.com, middle pic from shutterstock.com, and bottom pic from livinthecountrylife.com)