Curtis Dahlgren
"Born to Raise Hay: Back 40 tales and lessons" (chapter 1)
By Curtis Dahlgren
December 30, 2015

[IN LIEU OF a year-end brag letter, I decided to back up a few years. There are many good writers at Renew America, but how many of us do you know? Don't want to jinx myself by being TOO autobiographical, but at least I knew enough not to start this in my twenties. It would take 73 chapters to hit all the highlights, but as they say, if you don't know where to start, start at the beginning.]

FIRST OF ALL, I was born a boy who identified with being a boy – country boy, that is. I got my interest in academics from my mother; she was a good egg with a sense of humor, but I got my physical abilities from my dad's side – the swimmer. It was love of mathematics at first sight: division of cells, which led to addition – up to 15,000 new cells per minute. They were multiplying exponentially, and ultimately led to subtraction – deductive reasoning!

My parents married in 1928 and merely 14 years later, another miracle! My brother was over 10 years older, and as my niece once put it, "You had to wait a long time, didn't you?" I was conceived one month before Pearl Harbor, which may have ticked off the Nippon imperialists. The doctor didn't slap me on the back; I slapped the doctor for taking so long. Oh, and I came out of the womb pro-life – very pro-life. And very curious.

My first question was either "How do wars start?" or why men and women look different. You kind of figure out the latter for yourself on the farm. I don't remember the house, but I do remember the barn. Besides my mother's voice, one of the first sounds I noticed from the womb was the hum of a milking machine motor. I can still recognize that sound from a mile away.

Our parents didn't even try to get us to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, or the Tooth fairy. With me, it would have been useless anyway, but besides, on the farm there is no such thing as "free" (that's a 4-letter word on a dairy farm). There's no "lunch" or "brunch" at all, let alone a free one; you had to eat four square meals a day just to gain weight after a 15-hour work day. And you were old enough to walk, you looked for ways to make yourself useful.

The first farm I lived on had a back 40 and a front 40, divided by a road that ran to Rockford a few miles away. Today that front 40's a shopping mall, and the back 40 is the headquarters for the Sundstrand Corp. The first day I remember vividly was moving day at age 3 1/2. The day started with the dismantling of my bed (bummer) and ended with us moving lock, stock, and 32 Ford truck to Wisconsin (hallelujah).

That 80 in Illinois which is worth millions, could have been bought with $2,000 down, but my parents didn't want to borrow that much from relatives. God took care of us pretty well in the long run. The house in Jefferson County, Hebron Township was partly a log cabin that had been added on to.

One of the lessons of life back then is that there was no federalized day care or 4-year-old kindergarten, and kids weren't considered "children" to age 26! We only had six weeks of kindergarten so as to make us more available for farm work – and they taught us how to read in 6 weeks! I drove a tractor when I was 5, a truck at age 6, and learned how to ride a bicycle at seven. By age 8 or 9 I could drive a team of horses, and a tractor by myself in the field (drove a car on the road around age 10 or 11). That was all the norm where I came from, and we didn't wear helmets riding a bike or playing tackle football.

College snowflakes today just wouldn't understand. My dad saw Teddy Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill in person. Cody was a Pony Express rider at age 14. He once road 322 miles in less than 22 hours when a relief rider had been killed. Life on the farm was considered nothing compared to those times. No one ever complained about "child labor," least of all the child laborers who were factored into the productivity aspect of the family business. My dad bought a brand-new tractor the same year I was born to drive it.

I just didn't grow physically at the normal pace. Starting ninth grade, I wasn't even a 90-pound weakling (at 89 pounds), but I still got to play touch football with the city seniors at "lunch" time. But enough of this about that. When I talk about my parents, that's when I've said everything.

I can't imagine how they survived the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. My dad was a renter and had to cut thistles along the fence rows to help feed the cows. BTW, some people blame the "dust" on bad farming practices in the plains and on the prairie, but "Who stopped the rain?" Was it the Model T? Or the coming of the tractor? Too many people moving to the cities? I just jest, but it was so hot in 1931 that, according to Believe It Or Not, popcorn popped on the cob as far north as Seattle.

To complete the Back 40 part of the story though, in the 1970s I was in a toastmaster-type speech club, and the Rockford branch rented a room from Sundstrand for meetings. SO – I got to give a speech in their main office – directly over the site of my father's old barnyard! I'll resume the bio some other time, but I should skim over my "career thing":

I've done almost all those jobs "Americans won't do" (they say), from nuts to soup. I had an AAA-to-Z career. The "AAA" represents Apple grower, Arborist, and Author. My parents bought a small orchard in "retirement" and grew and sold produce for 20 MORE years. The apple trees were about one hundred years old. My dad did most of the picking, and I did most of the pruning as I was already a tree man by trade. I had decided that boys climbing trees was more fun than milking cows or college.


The main lesson for today, boys and girls, is that even a century-old tree can produce beautiful apples, and septuagenarians like me can also bear good fruit. Unto whom much is given – such as experiencemuch is required. Why? The example of the apple tree explains it:

The 2015 apple was borne on a twig that sprouted in 2014 – from the point at which you picked the 2013 apple. That means that all the apples every year are grown only on NEW GROWTH.

Have you produced any "new growth" in 2015? Will you produce any
new growth in 2016? This is a good time to think about that, a time for "choosing" and a time to make serious resolutions based on the "better angels of our nature." When you stop "growing," you stop bearing fruit.

P.S. Plants can teach us lots of other lessons. One is "no roots, no branches; reach down as well as up." Look back as well as forward – as in etc. I wish I could have lived up to every expectation my parents had for me, but at least I'm still in the game. And "better late than never" to start writing, eh?


© Curtis Dahlgren


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)


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