For centuries, farms had a hired man or two who helped with milking, haying, and other chores. In the book Charlotte’s Web, Lurvy is the hired man; he is generally feeding Wilbur a pail of slops. Robert Frost wrote a poem called The Death of the Hired Man in 1915. (Though the entire poem isn’t as well known, the lines
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in
are famous. I’m sure many who quote them aren’t aware they are referring to a hired man.)
I’ve always hired men to help me, not only for the big projects but for various odd jobs. My friend Mike has been my reliable right hand for years, changing oil and flat tires, or stopping by to saw up a dead tree. However only this fall, with Allen working with me for most of two months, have I ever enjoyed a situation a bit like the old-time “hired man.”
It has been a cozy feeling, having someone on the farm day after day. Another set of muscles on the other end of a heavy board, another brain planning and problem-solving. Sometimes I’d come upon Allen fixing a sticky door or a dripping spigot for me, unasked, and I’d feel almost teary.
It’s also been fun to watch someone else enjoy the animals. Allen loves them all. I could often track where he was around the barn by listening for his voice talking to the sheep or the cows.
A few days ago it was unseasonably warm and we ate lunch sitting on the tailgate of his truck in the sunshine. (Actually, I ate my lunch; Allen ate his dinner from a modern insulated cooler bag that he nevertheless calls his dinner pail.) As we ate, we tossed our sandwich crusts to the chickens. The black hen had brought her two chicks — yes, out of sixteen eggs, only two chicks survived the barred rock hen’s maniacal enthusiasm unsquashed — outside the barn into the sun. The tiny black puffballs scurried under the hen’s feet, peeping and pecking at the ground. “The mama’s talkin’ to ’em and learnin’ ’em how to scratch!” Allen observed happily. His delight in the scene increased my own pleasure tenfold.
More than anything, in the midst of the hard work and long days, the cold and wind and dripping noses, Allen and I have shared a million laughs.
Every day brought new jokes about me being big, him being little (“I’m short,” he’d insist with dignity); him being old, me being nuts (“I know I’m a bit strange —” I’d say, or, “slightly eccentric—” or, “kind of odd —” “A bit?” he would tease. “Slightly?” “Kinda?”)
Perhaps my favorite memory is the day we broke through the concrete floor of the garage for the sewer and water pipes. We had to excavate a narrow hole six feet deep through the subsoil. About four feet down we hit a rock. Allen was too short to reach, so it was up to me. For over an hour I was head down inside the hole, hanging from my hips on the garage floor, scrabbling blindly at the subterranean rock with bleeding fingers. Finally I had its edges. “I’ve got it, Allen!”
Unfortunately the hole was so narrow I could not wiggle myself back up without letting go of the rock. I could feel Allen pulling on my boots, trying to drag me out. First one foot, then the other. No luck. I was jammed upside down in the hole like a cork in a bottle. My arms were pinned over my head, my hands clutching the rock. I was helpless. I felt my stomach bump against the dirt of the hole as I started to giggle.
“Don’t let go of the bastard!” Allen warned, wheezing and pulling.
Finally in desperation he grabbed the straps of my overalls behind my shoulders and heaved. I popped up out of the hole with grit in my hair, bleeding hands — and the rock! For a moment I lay sprawled on the garage floor in surprise. By the time I staggered to my feet, we were both laughing so hard we could only lean on each other, gasping.
The electricians were there that day and the head man was waiting to ask me a question. He said politely, “Before things get too crazy —” His assistant looked at Allen and me, smeared with dirt and laughing hysterically, and snorted: “Too late!” This made us laugh even harder.
So many fun times. Allen has become a dear friend.
Unfortunately the economy that allowed for hired men has gone the way of the Model T. I’m long since out of farm money and winter is closing in. Friday was our last day. The run-in shelter is finished and the mudroom doors are hung.
I will see Allen occasionally this winter — he will stop by for milk when he can, and he has said he will help me take Georgie to the butcher in December — but for now our working days are done.
I’m on my own again.