Hay Day

     It finally is starting to feel like springtime. After a long cold winter it is a welcome feeling. Brighter days are ahead.

     I remember when I was a kid warmer weather meant that I could get out the baseball and bat and hit the ball around the pasture field. We didn’t have any kids that lived particularly close so if I wanted to play baseball it had to be by myself most of the time. It seems interesting that in the modern era if a team can’t field nine guys they are forced to forfeit the game. In my day I played alone, and the other team didn’t have anyone on it. My team usually won.

     In early March the weather would warm up and I’d get a bat and ball along with my glove and crawl over the yard fence. (You’re probably wondering why if I was alone did I need a glove? Well, you have to have a glove to play baseball. Everyone knows that.) I’d toss the ball up in the air and then hit it as far as I could, which sometimes was a high fly ball into centerfield (said in my best Curt-Gowdy-Saturday-afternoon-Game-of-the-Week-announcer voice) and sometimes it would be a weak grounder back to the pitcher. If I hit too many grounders back to the pitcher I would simply turn to the side slightly and declare it to be a foul ball.

     Of course, after I hit the ball I would have to go find it. If it was a weak grounder back to the pitcher (or sacrifice grounder, which has a better ring to it) finding the ball wouldn’t take long. But if it was a fly ball into the outfield the search-and-find period could be considerably longer, as in 10 minutes or more, depending on the height of the grass. I was convinced that I could have had major league scouts hounding me for my signature if I’d had a decent field and not spent so much time hunting fly balls.

     I would always envision that I was in a clutch situation in a game that decided the National League Eastern Division pennant (always the National League, the league of real men and patriots. The American League was made up of sissies who ate chocolate mousse and filed their fingernails with emery boards. But I digress.), a man on first and two outs, bottom of the ninth. I needed to hit for extra bases to keep our hopes alive. I’d wind up and swing and often miss, which I would tell myself I intended to do, taunting the opposing pitcher into a higher strike count. I mean, who can be a real hero if he hits a homer on his first pitch? Of course, eventually I would always hit a homer-quality ball and take off for the ball, waving to the imaginary stands as I went. Our heifers probably grew faster with this daily entertainment.

     My buddy lived a few miles down the road and he practiced the same way, except he had a smaller area to hit the ball and it was on the side of a formidable hill. Whenever he came to my house he marveled at my wide open pasture where there was plenty of room for line drives deep into center field without worry of hitting a window or losing your ball in the brush on the other side of the road. Whenever I went to his place I marveled at how easy we could find the ball because his dad kept the grass mowed short. By late April Dad would move the heifers out of the field and the grass would soon be knee deep, no good at all for playing baseball. If Dad hadn’t been so lackadaisical about managing the ballpark turf I may well  have become at least a minor leaguer.

     When I started Little League I was sure that I’d be the best hitter on the team, but I soon found out that they won’t let you toss the ball up into the air and hit it. Instead, they had a guy known as a pitcher who flung the ball inches from your head at a high rate of speed, and your only hope of not getting maimed was to swat at it with this bat in your hand. Meanwhile, a guy known as a catcher was crouched right behind you telling you bad things, like your Mom’s tapioca tasted like fish eggs, trying to unnerve you so the ball would hit you in the head.

     I understand in the major leagues they say even worse things. I don’t know what would taste worse than fish eggs.

     Another favorite springtime activity was fishing. We had a creek that went near our house, and we could fish there anytime we wanted to. The only problem with this was that there weren’t any fish in the creek. We used to fish several times a year and maybe catch a small fish or two, but never anything to get excited about. Then one year we happened to try fishing in early April and we saw some large suckers along the bank. This got us excited, and we immediately started fishing for suckers. What we didn’t know was that these suckers happened to be spawning, and when suckers spawn they don’t eat, which means they weren’t interested in the worm were dangling right in front of their downturned mouths. What we also didn’t know was what spawning was, which was still a few years in the future. This knowledge would have saved us hours of trying to catch them. I suppose that’s why Mom and Dad never got around to telling us.

     Eventually we did manage to catch a few suckers. We would lie on the bank holding the line in our hands  and dangle the worm literally right in front of their snoots, and a couple took the bait. Actually, I don’t know if the fish took the bait or if we just happened to snag them in the mouth.  This, of course, energized us and we resolved to spend all of our days fishing for suckers until the creek was depleted.

     We had a cousin with a few stocked farm ponds, so we would go visit him to fish. Our cousin was 8 years older than I was, my siblings were 5 and 7 years older, so I was sort of the odd man out. As such, they gave me the title of Bait Procurement Officer, which meant that I turned over cow pies looking for fishing worms while they fished. As I remember I didn’t really mind, because I had much more success getting worms than they had getting fish. I soon learned there was a trick to finding fishing worms under cow pies: find cow pies that are the correct age. If a cow pie was too new it wouldn’t hold together when you turned it over (this task was completed using my bare hands, so identifying too-fresh cow pies was critical) and if the cow pie was too old the ground underneath it would be too dry to attract fishing worms. I quickly became quite adept at worm procurement, and they had to tell me to stop or else there wouldn’t be any worms left for the next fishing trip. This started me down the road of being too good at my profession.

     Quite frankly I can’t remember if they caught many fish in the ponds or not. I was too engrossed in worm acquisition.

     Another way to procure worms was to follow my dad when he was plowing. I’d get a can from the trash in the woodshed, put some dirt in the bottom and then walk in the furrow behind the plow. There would be many worms visible and the trick was grabbing them before they disappeared back underground. The tractor went much faster than my little legs could carry me (this was before I started school), especially while picking up worms, so I would wait patiently until the tractor came around the field again when I would jump down in the furrow and begin frantically picking up worms. I could fill the can up with worms in only a few hours. I remember wishing that I had brought a Hi-C can, which was much larger than the fruit can I usually had. When my brother got home from school I would proudly tell him that we were rich with worms and the next time we went fishing little time would be wasted with bait procurement.

    A man who worked on the farm would tell tales of filling feed sacks with suckers from the river a few miles from home. One Sunday we went to watch him and learn his methods. He had a long bamboo pole with a piece of fine copper wire on the end made into a lasso. He got on the bank above a deep pool filled with suckers and slowly slipped the lasso over the head of the fish, and then jerked it out onto the bank. He was quite proficient at this acitvity, and soon he had a big pile of fish. I was especially intrigued since I had been rather frustrated trying to get a sucker to eat a worm, but I remember my Dad saying we probably shouldn’t hang around there too long. A few hours later the man would deliver a burlap bag of fish to our house, which we would help Dad clean and then Mom would can them in jars.

     I am assuming the statute of limitations has expired on this act of lawlessness. If not, I didn’t name any names and I actually probably just imagined the whole episode. That’s my story, anyway.

    Baseball and fishing eventually evolved into lawn-mowing and hay-making, which weren’t exciting enough to be memorialized on this page, but I am reminded of one story involving hay-making that was funny.

     I had my future grandmother-in-law for eighth grade math. Mrs. Cupp was in her final year of a long teaching career, and she tended to be rather old fashioned in her expectations of the class. One day we were having trouble settling down to get started, and a buddy named Norman was in the back of the class talking.

     Mrs. Cupp called out, “Norman, you’re carrying on like you’re having some kind of a hay-day back there!!”

     Norman, who was a big, strong, very rural country boy, replied, “Ma’am, I don’t know about your place, but at our place a hay day ain’t nothing we get real excited about.”

     She quickly turned the topic to arithmetic, but I expect Norman mentally stayed in the hayfield.

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