The hay bale came rushing toward me and I reached out to catch it. I knew better than to try and bring a hay bale in motion to a complete halt. Instead, I used the ongoing momentum of the bale and guided it to its landing. Once on the platform, my leather gloved hands grabbed the two pieces of twine holding the bale together, hefting it into the proper location. By the time I’d placed the bale and turned, Ed was tossing another bale my way.
It was hot, and Ed and I were both covered with sweat and grime, but we were smiling all the same. We’d found what felt like a perfect rhythm, and were stacking bales of hay as fast as we could. Ed showed no signs of slowing as we finished the third tier, even though he was throwing upward to me at that point, and I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of me not being able to keep up. As I pushed the final bale into the top tier, we both threw our hands up.
“Time!” Ed cried out. We both looked expectantly at Ed’s wife, Rayne. The beaming look on her face was all that we needed to know that we had reached our goal.
“One minute, fifty-four seconds!” She looked up from the old wristwatch. Giggles overcame her and she ran forward to the waiting arms of Ed, who had hopped down from his trailer to look at the time.
“OK, let’s see if we can’t shave off two more seconds.” Ed pulled back and headed to my now full trailer.
“That’s enough for today, man.” I was tired, and there are only so many times you can move stacks of hay from one trailer to another before it started to get old. “Besides, we’re two seconds faster than the Duchesne’s all-time best.”
“And do you think they’re sitting there, thinking that the same old time will do?” He patted my shoulder. “Come on. One more time.”
Just as I was about to give in, I saw my salvation walking toward me.
Smile as radiant as the sun, Jenny glided through the yard. I don’t know how a woman walking through a farmyard could ever be described as elegant, but that’s what Jenny was. She had a beauty that somehow shone through despite any dirt or old clothes. And today, she was made up and wearing a new dress. She was obviously modeling the one she had made for the upcoming harvest festival.
“Do you like my new dress?” She asked and turned for all to see.
“Honey, you would look beautiful in sack.” I moved forward and tried to hug her.
“No!” She giggled and backed up a step. “You’ll soil my new dress!”
“Yes ma’am?” He spoke with exaggerated politeness, bowing as if addressing a princess.
“Go home. I need to spend some time with my husband.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” There was no exaggeration in his tone this time, only obedience. Ed took Rayne’s hand in his, and they started off. As he was walking by, he whispered in my ear, “You got saved by the bell.”
“Wash up, Rock.” Jenny looked at me and smiled. “I have something to tell you.”
I took off my shirt and walked over to the horse tank. I wasn’t sure whether to be excited or apprehensive. Experience had taught me that when Jenny started anything by telling me she wanted to have a talk that it would go one way or the other - there was no in between.
For the moment though, I was exhilarated. The rush of having beaten the bale stacking record mixed with the feeling of the icy water on my skin as I washed my face and upper body had my heart racing. And seeing Jenny standing there holding a towel for me in her new dress, I couldn’t imagine this conversation being anything but the good kind.
I dried off and reached for her again. This time, after visually checking me to make sure I had gotten all of the day’s dirt off of me, she came into my arms and rested her head on my chest. This was perfect. I was now ready for her talk. I bent my head forward and kissed the top of her head. Her face turned upward to meet mine.
Fear filled the part of my heart that should have been experiencing joy at that moment. I smiled, more out of nervousness and wanting to show Jenny the happiness that I should be feeling. I wanted a child, of course I did. But our experience only three short years before had left me with a sadness I had not yet recovered from, and a fear of uncertainty when it came to raising a child on the money that we had now.
“Are you ok?” Jenny’s eyes looked at me, pleading with me to tell her that I was happy about this. And I was happy. There were just a lot of other emotions going along with it at that moment
Jenny and I had talked a lot about trying to have another child, but there had always been reasons why this year was not a good year for it. I was supposed to have been promoted at the farm last year, but that had been delayed. Even with just the two of us, this past year had been hard financially. I didn’t know how we would fare with an extra mouth to feed thrown into the mix.
“Of course, I’m happy.” I hugged her close so that she wouldn’t see the apprehension lingering in my eyes. I held her tight, waiting for the perfect words to come. “We’ve got to win that bale stacking contest,” was the best I could manage.
Sleep was hard to come by that night, but I forced myself. Jenny’s news had filled me with a greater need to win than I ever thought I could possess. I found myself wishing that I had done that one extra practice with Ed. But as I lay down beside her, my hand resting on her belly, imagining I could feel the life we had created, I knew that we had prepared enough. I drifted off into what would end up being my last dreamless sleep for quite some time and awoke the next morning confident and refreshed.
Skipping alongside me as I walked to the fairgrounds, Jenny was as confident as I. I’m not sure where the feeling came from, but I was optimistic about life for the first time in a long time. As I saw Ed smiling as he prepared for the first of two preliminary rounds, I knew that he felt the same. Not wanting to add any pressure to his morning, I decided not to tell him about the baby until after the contest.
Throwing was Ed’s specialty, so this leg of the contest was up to him. Each contestant had five bales to throw for distance. At the end the distances were tallied up, and whoever had the highest number won. It was pretty simple. But like my Grandmother used to say - It’s simple, not easy.
Watching Ed throw the bales inspired both awe and envy. He had a look of determination in his eyes, but also a look of joy. He loved working the farm and stacking hay with me. No matter how tired we were at the end of the day, I never once heard him complain.
He won the throwing contest by over a yard, and now it was up to me to win the stacking contest. This contest was also simple -simple, but not easy. You got a load of bales, and however many tiers high your stack was at the end, those were your points.
Some people would try to stack with a large base, and rely on the sturdiness of their stack, while others would go for height and hope that their stack didn’t fall over before time ran out. I was going for a middle-ground solution - I built my base with 4 bales and continued upward until it was as tall as I was at five tiers. Time wasn’t a huge issue, but at that point I could see some teams were stacked as high as eight.
I wasn’t too worried about the higher teams. There was still a lot of time left to go, and most of those towers would topple as they placed that ‘one last bale’ on top. As long as I placed in the top three teams, Ed and I would be fine.
Looking over, I saw that Jeff Duchesne had adopted a similar base strategy to my own. We were both moving forward with a sure but steady pace - practically guaranteed to beat out the teams who were stacking only one or two bales wide from the start. He happened to look over at me at the same time and nodded with what seemed like approval.
There were no ladders or steps used in the contest, but we were allowed to use the bales in any way we chose, so most people would build themselves a makeshift set of stairs. I did the same as I passed the sixth tier and moved onto the seventh. The only stack higher than mine was being built by a guy I barely knew named Mike Dendel, who worked at another farm. His stack was at ten, and it was starting to lean to one side. He had also seen the lean and decided that enough was enough. He stood next to his stack waiting for the last two minutes of the timer to run out.
Standing on bales, I had gotten my stack to eight bales high. I looked at the clock. There were only 30 seconds left. Scanning the yard, I could see that the ten stack was still standing, and that Jeff was at nine. There were one or two more teams at eight, and I if I was going to end up tied at a place, I wanted it to be second, and not third.
I knew that there was no time to grab another bale, so I took one of the end bales from my fifth tier, and hefted it to the top of my stack, dead center between the two bales on level eight. The stack protested for a moment, but did not lean or fall, and as time ran out, I had tied with Jeff for second place.
Angelic even as she rushed toward me giggling, Jenny jumped into my arms. I spun her around as she kissed my face in congratulations. My tie for second had guaranteed that Ed and I would be facing the Duchesne’s that afternoon. Jeff nodded at me, a sign of respect. Neither of us had gotten the highest stack. That distinction went to Pete Dendel’s little brother, Mike. But since Pete hadn’t placed very well in the throwing contest, they wouldn’t be competing in the finals. Mike didn’t seem to mind. He stood looking at his stack with pride for a few moments, pushed it over, and raised his fists in victory. You couldn’t help but feel happy for the kid.
“Let’s go for a walk.” Jenny whispered in my ear between kisses. “I want to show off my new dress while I can still fit in it.”
I walked with Jenny along the track that surrounded the football field. It was strange that we all still called it the football field, since I had never seen a game of football played here. The school didn’t have enough students to field a team, and most kids who were high school aged had to get home right after school to do chores. I can’t imagine who we would have played against, anyway.
The school had originally been built as a high school, but it now housed all grades, and they only really used half of the building. We hadn’t lost as many people in the attack and winter after as a lot of places, but according to Mom, the town used to be a lot bigger. I invited her to come along to the festival with us, but she said she was too busy with the house and garden to go see who could drink a gallon of milk the fastest. I hadn’t expected her to come. Ever since my father died, she hadn’t had much room for celebration or public gatherings.
If he’d still been alive, they would both have been there. My father loved the crowds and gatherings, and always had a few entries in the fair. But he died when I was ten. People in town would politely say that he’d worked himself to death, but Mom said different. We owned one of the bigger farms in town, and it was my father’s job to run it. Mom says the farm ran him, which sounds about right. He was always up and out of the door before I awoke in the mornings, coming home as I was getting ready for bed. He would open a bottle of whiskey and try to make sense of the books. Sometimes he would ask Mom for help, but he never seemed to like what she had to say.
Most nights would end with him putting his head down on the table, and my mother telling him it was time for bed. But one night there had been a knock on the door, and he left with some farmhands to go chase down some runaway cows. Mom had told him he was in no shape to go out, but he filled his flask with whiskey from the bottle and stumbled out the door into the cold night. They found him early the next morning, sitting by a fence with his flask in his hand and his coat hanging on a nearby fencepost.
There were bleachers lining one side of the field, and a stage had been set up front and center. That’s where I was headed. The hay bale competition would take place at the baseball diamond, but on stage they would announce various winners of the day’s competitions, and tell the crowds where to go to see the finals. There was a giant screen set up as the backdrop for the stage, and Captain Milton, who we all just called ‘The Captain’, was standing at a microphone in the center. The finalists from the competitions were called up on stage. I could see the Duchesne brothers, confidently smiling. Ed was looking out over the crowds trying to find me.
“Good luck.” Jenny kissed me on the cheek and headed for the bleachers as I turned and climbed the steps to the stage.
The final two teams lined up on stage. I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious next to the Duchesne brothers, who had won the contest for the past 3 years.
The Duchesnes were both wearing brand new bib overalls for the occasion. Both stood over six feet tall, and had the typical Duchesne red hair. Jeff was sporting a new moustache. We’re the same age, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at us. Hard work on the farms made both Ed and I look much older. You could tell by looking at the Duchesne brothers that they had lived a pretty sheltered life in the town. They worked hard, to be sure, but they never got stuck with the hardest or most dangerous jobs. They always had money for good food - even in winter, and they were always immaculately groomed.
One look at my callous covered hands would have made it pretty obvious to anybody looking at them that I grew up working on a farm. I have a pretty muscular build, but I always wished it was more athletic looking like some of the other guys in the contest. I looked like a worker, not a sportsman, strong - but not sculpted. I guess in the grand scheme of things, having what people call a ‘rugged’ look isn’t so bad, but I still wished that I were more handsome all the same.
At 5’11”, I tower over my wife and mother, but I had always hoped I’d reach six feet. I considered that just another in the long line of disappointments in my life. Ed stood a full 3 inches taller than me, but I definitely had him beat when it came to shoulders and chest. I guess height isn’t everything.
I brushed my brown hair away from my face. It needed cutting, but it always needed cutting. I have my mother’s brown eyes. I love those eyes - don’t get me wrong, but I always wished growing up that I had gotten my father’s green eyes instead. I guess I am pretty lucky how I turned out, considering my line of work. By my age, lots of guys were missing fingers, toes, or even arms or legs. I couldn’t imagine trying to work a farm with only one leg. But there I was, feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t like the way I stacked up against the Duchesnes.
“Good luck.” I nodded at Jeff.
“No luck needed, but thanks.” He half smiled and shook his head. “We’ve got this.”
“We might surprise you.” Despite my insecurities about how we looked, my confidence rivaled his. “I plan on tonight’s win being the start of a better life.”
“I plan on getting that promotion this year.”
“Look, Rock.” Jeff seemed to be at a loss for words. “No matter what he tells you to string you along, Dad doesn’t have any plans to promote you.”
“He promised.” I looked Jeff square in the face, sure he was just trying to psych me out before the competition, but all I could see in his eyes was a pained feeling that closely resembled pity. That job was promised to me years ago when my mother sold Duchesne the family farm.
“He promised,” I repeated coldly and turned forward as the captain walked on stage.
“Progress…” The captain looked out over the audience, “As I look at this town and see the growth that has happened over the past few years, I am pleased with the progress.”
I wasn’t sure what progress he thought he saw. Most people in the town were downwardly mobile if anything at all.
“It makes me proud to be an American when I see how you persevere through these trying times. There is no doubt that the American Dream is alive and well here in Wisconsin.”
These speeches were always pretty much the same. Thank you for breaking your backs for little to no pay so that we can use the fruit of your labor to rebuild the country. There were the typical tugs at the heartstrings for patriotism, duty, and hope.
As for me, despair filled my heart as much as hope. Even if we won the contest, the prize money wouldn’t be enough to pay for the right doctors for Jenny and the baby. If there were complications with this pregnancy as well, we would be burying another small coffin. I couldn’t help but feel resentment towards the Duchesnes and the other families in town who had somehow managed to stay financially viable.
I wondered at the fact that my own life seemed to be on such a dead-end track. When I was a little boy and my dad was still alive, things had seemed so promising. We had the farm and were doing well. But after he passed the bills started adding up, and it was costing my mom more to pay the farmhands than what we were making - even with our 96 acres, we couldn’t make ends meet.
So, the farm got sold off, piece by piece, until my mother now lived on the last one and a half acres. She was making do by doing much of her own gardening and raising chickens, but we were nowhere near the level we once were.
I was working farms owned by Duchesne, some of which had once been ours. When we sold the last forty acres, Jeff’s grandfather Pete had promised that he would see to it that I got brought along, and that I would have a high-ranking position on the farm. The only rank I ever ended up with was the smell when I had to muck out the stalls.
Jenny worked as a seamstress, and most of the time wouldn’t have much to show for her work at the end of the week. Occasionally she would get asked to make a dress for a soldier’s wife, or get an emergency repair from a citizen passing through on a train, but those were few and far between.
We were barely getting by. I didn’t know how we would cope with a baby, if there were no problems with childbirth.
“And now,” the speech was reaching its close, “a special message from the Vice President.”
Captain Montgomery stepped aside, and the wall behind him came alive with light from a projector that had been set up at the foot of the stage. A thirty-foot tall US flag flapped in the breeze as the national anthem played.
Those who had been sitting, stood. All caps and hats were removed, and everyone placed their hands over their hearts and sang along. The image of the flag faded away to the image of the Vice president, wearing his military dress uniform, and writing diligently at his desk.
“My fellow Americans,” he began. “Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to address your community.” He was a strong looking man. Not large or muscular, but fierce looking. He looked directly at the camera.
Piercing grey, with flecks of black here and there, you could have painted his eyes with the same paints and brush as his hair, which sat in a wavy, but controlled pompadour high on his forehead, almost as if it was trying to run away from those eyes.
“After the attack, many people said that this country would be gone within five years - either dissolved into warring factions or conquered. Now, thirty-five years later, I am here to tell you that this great nation is still intact. We were damaged, but we have shown our enemies that the steel of our resolve will not be broken, the bedrock of the American dream cannot be shaken, and that this country will always be great!”
The look of determination and resolve in his eyes was unmistakable. Even the crow’s feet that had started forming seemed to serve as arrows, forcing your attention to those eyes that seemed sharper than an eagle’s.
“America is still recovering,” his face softened somewhat, but still seemed so commanding, “and that means we need all of her citizens to do their part. We must refuse to let the enemies of this great nation win. We must continue to increase our food production and revitalize our industry. We need more able young men to join our nation’s great army and assist in the cleanup efforts. We need the help of your community to help rebuild The United states of America, not back to the country that it once was, but into the even greater country that it can become.”
“I wish you all the best on this wonderful occasion.” He smiled and waved. “God bless you. And God bless America.” The screen went dark as the audience clapped. It was obviously a canned video that could be played at any community during any celebration, but it didn’t matter. We all felt like the General was talking directly to us.
The video stopped, and The Captain stepped back up to the podium.
“OK, Now who’s ready to see some stacking?” He threw his hands up in the air as he shouted, and the crowd went wild. They motioned for us to take our positions, and Ed and I headed to our respective trailers. My heart was beating twice as fast as normal, and I was in a bit of a fog as I hopped up. The stage lights were suddenly overpowered by spotlights pointing at each of the four trailers. The time had come.