by Emmett Smith
[YOUR Attention, please. The following text contains bad language. It is material not suitable for small children; nor, argumentative adolescents; nor, for persons of an either arbitrary or conservative, or simply decent, temperament. It is included here as a curiosity; and, as material of interest to linguistic scholars of dialect; and, of invective in LeRay twp, in old Blue Earth county, MN, in the 1950’s: caveat lector — BW]
by Emmett Smith
AS I recall, in 1958 gas was twenty-one or twenty-nine cents a gallon and hay conditioners were the bane of farming life in LeRay Township in Old Blue Earth County, in southern Minnesota. Then as now gas was regarded as too expensive, and hay conditioners not-inappositely were deemed just “another excuse” to get “these fool farmers to burn MORE damn gas driving around in their God-damned fields!” Or at least that is how my bachelor Uncle Emmett (d 1980 aetat 60) put it. He was thirty-eight in 1958, lived and worked with his father, and predictably “guess WHO the dumb sonofabitch is going to BE that will have to haul that damn thing around behind him!”
This all reflects the facts of a generation gap, although not the one meant by us overheated (and, now, fiscally and constitutionally busted, expensive!) 1946-64 Baby Boomers when we loll around in our SUV’s, in mis-remembrance of our misspent dope-smoking youth.
My mother’s father was, precisely, a man of the Henry Ford-generation.
Thus, Grandfather — even though he preserved a countryman’s healthy doubt about the intentions of town-dwelling farm equipment dealers — would look twice anyway at new ideas and innovations. Actually it was more like three or five times, Grandfather was a hard sell, and he was a tough man to convince.
AS I recall, the John Deere Company started to make lots of noises and “beller around to beat Hell” about hay conditioners in our parts in 1956 or so. In time they had their salesmen out in gangs and relays, “beating the God-damn bushes” and driving into sun blasted high noon farmyards by day and by night. This too was a first said Uncle Emmett. “The dirty bastards must be hard up!” And indeed there were the lingering effects of the 1957 Eisenhower recession. (“Eisenhowser” said Uncle Emmett and his cousin Leland.)
“Oh, Christ, Joe,” the salesman from town would say to Grandfather, trying to strike a vain farmerly note. “You’ll just find out that farming is IMPOSSIBLE without one of these sonofabitchs — they’re just handy’re’n Hell to have!”
Grandfather’s was, perhaps, the last American farming generation (he was born in 1886, in Cleveland’s first term) not to curse left and right in any and all cases and places, and so the drop-in salesmen to begin with never stood a chance. Grandfather did not like bad language, although he was known by me to let loose usually about once in a summer, under duress of some real provocation such as not being able to find a needed tool. (Then he would walk slowly all over the farm, looking and cursing with all the despair of Job in the Bible, mostly just under his breath and privately to himself, an afflicted man — hunting a shovel.)
For the rest he was really dubious of the idea that one couldn’t farm without some “indispensable” gimmick or other:
“We done fine wid’ horses you know, Bugs (my childhood nickname, after my collections of June bugs in jars), before they brought in all these tractors….”
My Uncle Emmett’s opinion of machinery drummers was a more finicky lay grammarian’s critique:
“The brain assholes can’t even say it RIGHT, for God’s sake,” he would complain to me. “It’s SONS OF BITCHES,” he enunciated carefully. “And NOT (here he screwed up his tone into a falsetto and no-doubt citified, dishonest, voice) ‘Sonofabitchs!’ Jesus Christ!”
AS I recall, Grandfather was too polite a man to reprove casual drop-in visitors for their syntax. Rather, this taciturn old Swedish man (his father had come from Taberg in Smaland, in the late 1870’s — my grandpa was his father’s oldest son) would let the salesman bang and rattle on for minutes at a time. Indian-like, Grandfather would wait for a lull. Then he would pose some low-voiced question:
“I see,” he’d begin and then pause:
“But — you know that teng runss awful close to the ground. How good are the bearings? That hay’ss awful wet and she can be real tough….”
“You know that hay can be awful heavy — doess that teng slug easy?” He wanted to know if the admittedly small machine could do the job.
It usually only took one question to run off the saleman, and he would leave after some last salvo about the wonders of “sealed” bearings or the joys of the dependable thrust of the power takeoff that ran the machine via a crankshaft from the tractor “no matter how heavy your damned hay!”
“Ya, I see,” Grandfather would wind up the interview. “Well…maybe. I’ll look at one in town myself one of these days.”
In no case would my grandpa accept excitable offers in high pitched and eager, Mankato-type, voices to “maybe drop off one of the little sonofabitchs one of these days for you to try out for yourself!” I of course thought the whole idea was categorically “neat” because I was nine and would have something else to brag about to my friends in Minneapolis in the fall, at Minnehaha Elementary — besides Uncle Emmett’s brand-new “John Deere” 45 self-propelled combine! But, Grandfather said to me:
“You ssee how that workss? If you get a ding or scrape in her, well, you’re done then — and you got a new hay conditioner to buy.” As to the salesmen — most of whom seem to have been in the Navy in World War II “so they wouldn’t have to walk like the other soldiers!” said my great-aunty Leona — my grandpa said, “Well, the world iss full of fellerss that didn’t want to stay to home and WORK.”
AS I recall, Grandfather finally — only partially though — was fetched by his friendship with the John Deere dealer in old Mankato, Chet Teeson (I think that is the right spelling.) It was a rain day. We had gone to town to get groceries, and while Leona shopped in the old National Tea store, downtown, I went with Grandfather to John Deere on North Front Street (long since mis-renamed “North Riverfront Drive,” by a 1980’s Mankato city councilwoman with misplaced and Minneapolis-like, big, ideas of the sort of sham sophistication dear to my largely not-significant generation.) Grandfather needed some leger plates and rivets for our hay mower, and his friend Teeson buttonholed him about the wet summer weather:
“You know, Joe, I’m in a Hell of a fix! It’s all these sales reports they’ve cooked up. I got to show some numbers in order to keep up the spare parts inventory here, and if you could just let me drop off one [a hay conditioner he meant] to try out it’d be a big help.”
“Why, ain’t they selling?” asked Grandfather.
“Well,” said Teeson. “It’s just another new idea and every so often a chicken hatches a duckling I guess! It seems like they should work — maybe YOU could get her to go right?”
This was just the right tone I think. Grandfather had toured the Ford plant in Saint Paul once, and he had at bottom a late-nineteenth century man’s confident liking for new ideas — providing they worked: “You know, that Henry Ford is yust a real smart feller — you can push a button and ANOTHER Ford yumpss out of there!” Also, there was in Teeson’s words an exact appeal, touching on my grandpa’s private vanity as a mechanically-minded man of his late-modern time and place. Maybe he COULD get one of these here new machines to go!
AS I recall, the John Deere flatbed hauled into our yard in another day or so after another night of heavy rain. They winched down a shiny green and yellow-lettered hay conditioner. It squatted low and purposeful like a small and sturdy-seeming turtle, by the machine shed. I was all excited as the sun came out hot and bright, and Grandfather said he (and not Uncle Emmett) would maybe try it in the morning after chores.
Rows of new-mown hay were to feed through it and notched rollers would crimp the alfalfa stems, allowing them to dry more quickly. Supposedly, then, one could rake the hay and get it baled at most in another day. It seemed a dandy to me as the radio that morning said we were in for just three days of sunshine — before more thunderstorms. So, naturally, I was disappointed when my grandpa said I could not ride along on the tractor:
“I don’t want you falling in that teng!”
I knew better than to fuss, but I privately decided to sneak out to the hay field and watch. So the next morning, after carrying three newly beheaded young roosters to the house (and evading my great-aunty Leona, who wanted me to stay with her and pluck the smelly feathers from freshly scalded carcasses — anyway, these roosters had all been my buddies!), I made off north through the elm grove just in time to see Grandfather start off out of sight down a long windrow. I waited, and that old man did not return up the far side of the field. I waited — and then there came his far figure stumping slowly toward me. “Plugged up,” he said by way of explanation.
This time I got to go along in the old 1949 Studebaker one-ton with Uncle Emmett who naturally was told to go look at “the damn business!” This was a rare example of my grandpa cussing, and so I was not surprised when Uncle Emmett really let loose at getting to the Fordson tractor and disabled hay conditioner:
“LYING Christ! The dirty sonofabitch! God-damned dirty-minded bastard anyway! Ain’t it a whore’s dream! Jesus Christ my ass! Pray! to a God like THAT….”
AS I recall, the mess was gorgeous. Not only was the hay conditioner well and truly slugged, the flimsy metal hover was bent and shoved upward, jammed with hay — thanks to the “dependable thrust” of the “heavy-duty” power takeoff — and, moreover, you could not crank it open as the salesmen all had said, and un-slug it by driving ahead in operating gear:
“The rotten God-damned dirty-jesuitical cock-knocker BUSTED the Jesus Christ shear pin for God’s sake!”
Not long after, the John Deere flatbed hauled away in the driver’s phrase “ANOTHER ONE the useless bastards!” and Uncle Emmett and neighbor Jerry Westphal resumed piling one hundred pound bales of steaming wet hay between the rain drops. Afterward a rumor went around Guy Compton’s Eagle Lake eating-restaurant that the whole problem was that the press rollers needed lots of frequent lubrication — even though this reportedly brought about a rash of burned-out and seized bearings….
AS I recall, some weeks later I rode along with Uncle Emmett to John Deere to get more leger plates and rivets–and this time a box of knives too!–for the mower. The wet summer was hard on all haymaking equipment, and we had to walk back into the repair shop, where more boxes of mower parts were tucked away in the storeroom. There was Teeson’s senior mechanic, an old German called Otto. Whether this was Otto’s first or last name I never knew. But it was clear what he thought of these “God-damned hair-up-their-asses” hay conditioners.
In the first place Otto had to assemble the things, which came knocked-down in boxes:
“God-damn unions don’t want to do WORK!” he snarled beerily (it was just after dinner.)
And then he had to deal with an endless litany of hopeless repairs:
“They go faster than Hell, they over grease the sonsofbitches–and then THEY BITCH!”
As Otto cussed the whole affair he was just finishing the assembly of yet another hay conditioner, lubricating all of the sealed bearings through the shiny new zerk fittings. Then before my wondering gaze and that of my Uncle Emmett, too, Otto from LeRay Township swarmed all over the assembly with a hammer and cold chisel, chopping away the bright metal greasers:
“NOW, By God, I’d like to see the brain sonsofbitches even TRY to pop them God-damn SEALS!”
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 31 May 2006]