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Memories of mowing, daydreaming in the field

It's just about the time of year when we'd start cutting alfalfa back on the farm.

I tend to connect early June and haying season because when I was growing up, school ended about the time June arrived. No sooner had I put down the books than I climbed on a Ford tractor to mow the fields of blue-flowered alfalfa owned by the Woster Brothers farm partnership.

I recall especially the college days, because those first few days in the sun after a long, leisurely academic year were pretty brutal reminders of just how demanding the business of farming could be.

The memories from nearly half a century away are nearly always pleasant, though. The scent of freshly cut alfalfa carried on a light breeze along about sunset of an early June day is unforgettable -- and unmistakable.

So is the smell of blooming clover, and the tickle of the dusty pollen that rises from the plants as they fall to the scissoring sickle blade. So is the purple-tinted checkerboard of a newly mowed lakebed, which I was usually directed to cut after all the alfalfa was put up and all the grain was combined and hauled to bins or Shanard's elevator in Reliance, S.D.

That late-summer mowing I usually did by myself -- one kid, one Ford tractor, one seven-foot mower and one 15-foot dump rake bouncing across pasture and prairie in search of every last blade of standing grass, plant or weed to put into stacks that dotted the countryside -- sometimes for years -- until a string of dry, no-second-cutting-of-alfalfa years turned those stacks into cattle feed.

I didn't mind being alone. Sometimes, I preferred it. A guy can do a lot of reflecting, a whole bunch of daydreaming in the space between dawn and dusk all alone in the middle of a half-section of prairie.

The action of steering the tractor accurately, and of tripping the dump rake so the windrows grew straight and long, became almost as mechanical as the muttering engine of the little workhorse of a tractor I rode.

(Those little Fords didn't have the most power in the world, but they were about as practical a machine as man ever invented, and I spent a good share of my summer life on one or the other of the two we owned.)

No, I didn't mind the solitude much. Folks who knew me then, and a lot of people who know me today, will tell you I was always pretty much a loner, and the middle of a sweeping field of alfalfa or pasture was pretty much God's gift to me.

On the other hand, I didn't mind it so much when I teamed up with my cousin Leo to cut alfalfa. There seemed to be more urgency to getting the alfalfa fields cut and stacked than there was to whacking down the pastures and lakebeds. When they could, the Woster Brothers sent two of us to the fields to really make hay.

Leo was two years ahead of me in school but only a year older, which was just enough in the Woster Brothers operation to give him seniority over me -- just as my big brother, Jim, had seniority over Leo, and over me.

In the case of mowing alfalfa, seniority meant Leo got the Ford with the dump rake. I got the other Ford, with just a mower. I got to lead, though, because when I made my seven-foot pass with the mower, then Leo followed with his seven-foot pass, and we had exactly enough to pick up for the 15-foot dump rake -- which the Woster Brothers fastened to the second mower using angle iron and a welding torch.

We could cut a lot of hay in a good day. In a not-so-good day -- one that included a long stop to chase a badger or to wage a grease-gun fight -- we still cut plenty of hay, but not as much as on a good day.

We were awfully young when we started working out there on our own like that. Some days, we acted like it. Some days, though, we acted pretty grown up.

Either way, it was a pretty decent life.

Woster is a columnist with The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., which is owned by Forum Communications Co.