I think I was eleven. I remember the incident with complete clarity, but not the date. I was sitting at the kitchen table; it was five in the afternoon and my dad was heading out to the dairy barn for the evening milking. As he passed my mother, he said, “I’m taking the boy with me,” and jerked his head at me. I got up and followed him out the door.
From that moment, I was a working man. I still am; retirement didn’t change anything. I’ll still be writing something, or building something, or fixing something while they’re nailing down the lid on my coffin.
This story isn’t about going back to cave life. We didn’t milk the cows by hand. There were mechanical milkers, two of them, which my dad shifted manually from cow to cow. That was exciting, because the cows were half wild and he never knew when one of them would try to kick his head off.
As each cow finished, my dad would pour the milk into a bucket, then move on to the next cow. It was my job to carry the milk into the next room and pour it into the strainer on top of a milk can – and not spill any on penalty of “the look”. Since the bucket weighted about half as much as I did, and the strainer was chin high, I got strong fast.
Work on the farm was very physical, not because we were poor, but because it was a long time ago and there weren’t many labor saving devices around. Before we got our first grain auger, I scooped tons of grain by hand. We counted it a major innovation when we switched from heavy steel scoops to light aluminum ones.
There were lazy times, too. At harvest, I drove the truck. That meant moving up next to the combine every fifteen minutes for offloading. Three minutes of driving followed by twelve minutes of waiting for the combine to go around the field again, repeated hour after hour for several weeks. I had a straw hat, a ice cooler of water, a truck seat to lounge on, and a stack of library books. It was heaven.
We were frequently broke, but never poor. My dad never balanced a checkbook in his life. During bad years, we borrowed from the bank when we ran out of money; during good years, we paid them back. As long as the good years outnumbered the bad, it all worked out in the end.
I didn’t leave the farm to get away from work. I liked the work. I left the farm so I could find a job that would utilize my brain as well as my body. I planned to be a scientist; I ended up a writer and a teacher, but I never stopped working.
So what lessons did I learn from all this? Work is its own reward, and it had better be, because its likely to be all the reward you get. There is no relationship between work and money. You work hard and carefully because you are supposed to; it’s what a man does. It doesn’t assure success.
You can see how useful all this had been for a writer.