By Christine Tailer
Every morning we do the animal chores. I actually find it odd that I refer to this activity as “chores,” for it is really more like a greeting. I actually wake up looking forward to this part of our day. I also know that the many critters we tend look forward to this time as well. They step right up, nuzzling, clucking, or chortling and joyfully welcome my outstretched hand, not to mention their morning feed, and it is this daily ritual that brings me to the hook.
Greg and I used to bale our hay with an old square baler, and we occasionally still put it to use when we cannot squeeze any additional round bales under our hay shed’s roof, but as we grew older, we came to realize that square bales require a lot of hard physical labor. The bales need to first be stacked, just so, onto the hay wagon. If not done just right, they will topple off the sides. I know this from experience.
We stack the bales, five or six high, and then, when the wagon is completely full, we need to unstack the bales and toss them off the cart to be stacked under the shed roof, again, just so. By the end of square-baling days, my arms not only ache from physical exertion, but also burn and itch as the result of hundreds of prickly hay scratches. Accordingly, in our older years, we have upgraded and invested in an old round baler.
Hay days have now become far less taxing on our no longer young bodies. With the spear on the back of the tractor, we can easily transport the large round bales over to the shed roof, and neatly line them up under cover. No need for prickly hay to work its havoc on my arms, but alas, I do miss the square bales. They are really quite easy to distribute during morning chores. I simply load several bales into the back of our four-wheel drive green machine, and then, depending on the animal, deliver either half a bale, or a hand’s width leaf, over to the waiting critter’s feeder.
The first year that we used the round baler, we delivered whole bales out to the pasture, sometimes using the old 580D backhoe to dump the bales over the fence, and thus avoid rutting up the pasture with the tractor. When feeding the smaller animals, I would claw sections off an upended round bale with my gloved hand, but it was awkward clawing at best.
Then, one day as Greg and I were walking the aisles of one of our favorite antique haunts, I saw an iron hook. It had a single large claw, hand-forged, and a worn wooden cross handle. I picked it up, and instantly knew how to hold it in my hand, the iron hook passing between my pointer and middle fingers, the wooden handle held snugly against the palm of my hand. The hook and I instantly bonded, and it occurred to me that I really did need this hook. I knew that I could comfortably hold the handle in the palm of my hand and run the hook down the side of an upended round bale, and peel off a sheet of hay for my little livestock.
I wondered why I hadn’t thought of this sooner, for you see I am no stranger to hooks. I well knew that my father had been a longshoreman on the New York City docks, back in the early 1950s. His hook had his nickname Hollywood, etched into the wooden handle. From all I’ve been told, he really was quite handsome back in the day, but no matter his nickname, the hook was always one of prized possessions.
When my brother and I were wee children, I remember the hook, sitting on a shelf in our father’s office. When we would visit, he’d take it down, and let us hold it. He taught us how the curved iron spike should pass through our fingers and how the wooden handle would rest comfortably in the palms of our hands. The hook now sits proudly on a shelf in my brother’s sitting room.
I also remember how our household phone would ring, and on our parents’ bidding, either my brother or I would answer. I recall those times that a man’s voice would inquire, in a thick New York accent, “Pete there?” except that the “there” sounded more like “dare.” We well knew that the caller was one of Dad’s “boys,” and we’d quietly listen in as our father’s voice fell into the same thick accent of the docks.
Our dad told us stories of those hard-working, dangerous days, and how he had used his hook to loosen thick rope knots, heft-netted bales, and guide heavy pallets of goods into ships’ holds. I simply use my hook to peel off a layer of hay from a round bale, but no matter the difference, every single time I feel the worn wooden handle fit comfortably into the palm of my hand, I smile to know that I really am my father’s daughter.
Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in Ohio south-central Ohio. Visit them on the web at straightcreekvalleyfarm.com.