One of my earliest memories is of picking strawberries in a rocky patch east of our barn on Old Cleveland Road.
Later in the summer, when the mosquitos were thick, we picked red raspberries. If we had spare time, we cleaned cow manure out of the barn basement with pitchforks and grain shovels.
We did this for free. It was just part of being in the family.
My first paying job was baling hay at age 12. If my memory is correct, we were paid $1.50 an hour to help our neighbors – Ralph Matthews and Snip Wiggins – load bales onto wagons and unload them in their barns.
I never saw money from those jobs. My parents had savings accounts for us, and anything we earned was stored away for college. Other neighbors paid us to help them saw firewood, fix fences or collect eggs on a chicken farm. We were taught to never turn down a paying job of any sort.
By the time I was 13, I was working 10- to 12-hour days all summer. Dad had bought haymaking equipment, and we formed a small business called Bradford Brothers. If there was a hayfield in German Township or eastern Warren Township, it’s likely we had our balers there at some point.
An average summer day would go something like this: One of us would start the morning on a tractor, mowing a 40- to 100-acre field. Another Bradford would be on another tractor, pulling an implement we called a crimper over the field that we mowed the day before. The crimper crushed the stem to speed up the drying. A third Bradford would be on another tractor in a third field, pulling an implement that raked into rows the drying alfalfa plants that had been crimped the day before.
In the afternoon, if the alfalfa rows in Field No. 3 were ready, we baled. One Bradford drove the tractor that pulled the baler with a wagon trailing behind it. Bales would come up a chute, where a second Bradford would grab it and stack it on the wagon. If we did our work right, we could safely stack about 80 bales on each wagon.
When that wagon was full, we would unhitch it in the field and replace it with a second wagon so we could resume baling. The third Bradford would take the full wagon to a barn, where we would unload it with whatever help we could find. If we were lucky, we had help from one of the three Cuthbert brothers or the two Lakovits sisters. If they weren’t available, we Bradfords simply worked twice as hard ourselves.
None of this work was pleasant. On the tractors, we were constantly exposed to a searing sun, clouds of dust and the clattering or thumping noise of the implements. Still, the most difficult job was getting the bales, which weighed between 50 and 70 pounds, into the barn.
If we moved 1,000 bales in a day, it’s likely I lifted every one of them at least once and often three times. The twine dug into the joints of our fingers, and the hay stubble sent splinters into our knees. We ached, always.
If I was stacking inside a barn, temperatures often reached well over 110 degrees. Sometimes the dust would be so thick I could barely breathe. I would cough up clumps of black gunk. Streams of sweat from my forehead would carry scratchy residue into my eyes.
I swore I had the worst job in the world. My high school friends were mowing neighbors’ lawns or mixing paint at the Sears store. Their wages helped them buy their own cars and take girls to movies. My wallet was empty, except for the couple of bucks I got for a weekly allowance.
When the time came, I went off to college. Because of those hot, dirty summers, I had enough money to cover expenses, barely. On winter breaks, I would shovel dirt in my father’s foundry. When summer came, as soon as I got home from college, I was on the tractors and in the barns again.
My 21st birthday arrived a week before I started my senior year in college. I celebrated with 40-cent PBRs at a bar called Fat Wally’s and cursed the millionaires who could afford the 60-cent Michelobs.
After I graduated, I couldn’t find a job in the newspaper business. My only choice was to return to the hayfields. I felt defeated and wondered why I had moved all those bales to get me a college degree I couldn’t use.
We had a weeklong wet spell late that summer. Hay that we had mowed was rotting in the fields. There was no use trying to sell it. No cow or horse would eat it. Our best option was to haul the bales up to the Jolly Green Giant mushroom facility in Niles.
There we pitched the moldy bales off our wagons. As we did so, three human-shaped beings emerged from buildings that resembled caves. These folks, caked with filth so thick that I could not guess their genders or ethnicities, had the task of dragging the bales deep into the dark places where mushrooms grow.
No amount of money, I thought, would be enough to pay me to do that.
Somewhere from deep in Mushroom Land, I got the message. I didn’t have it so bad. I wasn’t saving for college anymore. I could find something better somewhere. And I could rejoice.