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The Last Windrow: Life lessons learned on the farm

I learned certain things on that small Iowa farm that ensured I would reach the mellow age that I have now come to. Things that I did not learn from a textbook or in the school room. Things taught to me by my dad, mother and grandparents.

Each rural teaching experience has stuck with me.

As my wife and I detached potato bug larva from our potato crop a few days ago, one of those lessons came back to me. I've had a hard time fighting these little beasts over the past few years and have had trouble finding anything on a store shelf that kills the critters. I wondered whatever happened to lead arsenic?

When the beetles showed up on our small farm's garden, Dad would bring out a can of the stuff and I followed him down the potato rows while he "dusted" the plants. Almost instantly you could see the bugs choke up and within a day or two, no more beetles.

I asked my dad how that stuff worked. He replied, "I don't know what's in that can, but it works. Do you see that skull and crossbones on the label?" I nodded my 8-year-old tasseled head. "If you eat this stuff, it will kill you, so don't eat it," he stated flatly.

I had a slight metallic taste in my mouth after following him down the rows, which told me he knew what he was talking about. Lesson learned without a book. I never ate lead arsenic.

There were also lessons learned about the laws of physics. I was put to the task of "bucking hay" one summer day. Our hay buck was attached to a Model A John Deere tractor. To get the hay from the field to the hay shed, it was necessary to climb out of the hayfield and up an incline to get to the yard.

"Don't raise the buck too high when you come up that incline," Dad warned. "If you get the buck too high, you'll tip the tractor."

That was a simple enough instruction, and I assured Dad that I would be careful. Funny how instructions somehow leave you quickly when you're in your teens. I proceeded to load the buck as full of alfalfa as it would hold, raised the buck and headed up and out of the field. The buck was raised high enough so that I could see under its load. Two-thirds of the way up the incline I felt the front tire slide into a small gully to the right, and then the rear tire took the same track and over the rig went - buck, tractor and me.

I bailed off the seat and landed with a thump on the pasture grass. The tractor lay on its side, still running with one rear tire spinning in the Iowa breeze. It didn't take long for Dad and Mom to come running down the lane to see what happened. I was unhurt, but I learned a little about physics, which I never excelled in during my school years.

No scolding followed, which I expected, but the lesson was learned.

A knife can be a dangerous thing. Anticipating a fishing trip to the Big Sioux River, I purchased a couple of real cork bobbers from our local hardware store. The bobbers did not have a line slit cut through them. I knew the answer to this problem.

I found my grandfather sitting in the farm's garage that afternoon. I knew he kept a jackknife in his bib overall pocket and I asked him if I could borrow it to make the slit in my bobbers.

"Be careful with that knife, it's really sharp. It cuts deep," he warned.

I knew he kept it sharp for cutting a chew out of his plugs of tobacco. I promised him I'd be careful as he opened the shiny blade and handed me the knife. On my first cut, the knife slipped from my grip and I put a cut in my index finger down to the bone. Blood gushed from my slit finger as Gramps handed me his red bandanna handkerchief and told me to wrap my wound and head for the house.

I still wear the scar, and everytime I look at it I remember his warning. A sharp knife cuts deep.

My mother taught me a lot about how to handle personal situations that sprung up in the farmyard. If the livestock broke the fence and headed over the hill on a hot summer day, it was not a good time to talk to your father about taking the night off from milking to head for the drive-in theater. You needed to bide your time and be patient until the dust settled.

She also taught all her kids that showing up early for any appointment was a good thing. "Better to be 15 minutes early than one second late," was her theme.

I've found that to be true both when I worked for others and when I worked for myself. I attended no class in social studies to learn that lesson.

I thought about that stuff as I was pinching potato bugs off my spuds last week. Funny how doing that type of thing brings back proven lessons from the past.

See you next time. Okay?

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