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Fire in the Field
by Jack Brahlek
(c)1997 All Rights Reserved
A hay fire is no laughing matter-well, maybe one was! And a good life-lesson, too.
Following World War II many farm boys returned home both older and wiser. One such man was my employer the summer I was sixteen. He was a farmer by birth and a farmer by choice, and like many returning soldiers, he was our silent hero: without medals or decorations, but with a certain ability to survive.
It was on his farm that I learned to use the combination hand clutch and brake on a John Deere and how to make sure the grain drill didn't leave gaps on right angle turns when planting wheat. It was also on his farm that I learned about Case balers and poking and tying.
For those of you who don't immediately recognize those terms, they explain how the bales came to be wrapped tightly in wire as the Case bounced its way across the field belching dust and exhaust fumes as it went. You could always tell where the baler was by looking for the biggest cloud of dust on the horizon. In fact, sometimes the cloud of dust was all that you could see!
The poker sat down the line from the large square ram, which repeatedly jammed mouthfuls of hay into the machine while squirting out dust and chaff for the poker to breathe. The poker pushed both ends of two wires through the compressed hay passing in front of him. I say him because most farm girls knew better than to demand equality under these circumstances!
The tier sat on the opposite side, grabbed the ends of these wires, passed one end through the loop on its other end, and tied them with a simple twist. He had less dust to breathe being farther from the belching ram, but he got his share. Equality prevailed.
Lucky baling crews had a fourth person, who rode an attached wagon, grabbed each ejected bale with his hook, and stacked it carefully with a binder row on top to keep the finished load steady on the way back to the barn. The unlucky crews later picked them up by hand and threw them up onto the wagon. The reward for this hard work was often chaff in the face or down the back of your shirt!
But this story is about a fire in the field and how one brave ex-soldier-well, I'll get to that in a moment.
The heart of the Case baler was a Wisconsin, air-cooled, V4 engine (if my memory is still in tact) that was hand-started with a crank. It was always a welcome sound to hear the magneto click a few times and shock the engine into roaring life. That sound meant that it was time to begin a day's work, usually about ten in the morning after the dew had dried. Each of us had our day's pay spent several times before lunch.
Since this V4 engine was air rather than water-cooled, the designers had put a sheet metal jacket around it to channel moving air over every part to prevent overheating. But making hay meant dust and chaff, either down your back, in your face, or drawn through the engine's shroud where some of it took up residence close to the exhaust manifold.
Now, when hot exhaust, sometimes containing a spark or two, gets close to chaff with all that moving air present, a thing called fire can happen and did on this hot summer afternoon in the late '40s. I think the first person to see a tiny lick of flame was a chap named Rich, who yelled to the baler owner driving the tractor. The brakes were set even before the tractor skidded to a halt, and he hit the ground running. I had never seen a man look this scared before, but I had never been to war, either.
Smoke began to curl upward as the V4 roared on in total ignorance. Should we try to unhook the baler, a two-man job, and drive the tractor free, or should we drive both from the field to let them burn away from the wheat in the next field? But the fire would surely spread more quickly if the baler were moving, and if the gas tank exploded-
Well, I will never know what went through everyone else's mind at that terrible moment, but suddenly it was plain to see who stood to lose the most, because he acted! He did the only thing he could with what he had.
This veteran, home from the war and beginning a new life for his wife and himself, stepped over to the smoking V4, took a deep breath-and blew into the flame that was sprouting from the engine.
Well, after just one mighty puff, the flames actually disappeared leaving only the smoke! He grabbed our near-empty jug, opened its tiny spigot, and began frantically shaking lemonade into the cooling jacket of the engine. Two miracles in one afternoon? You bet! The smoke withered and disappeared as the last drop of our refreshment dribbled out.
No one complained about being thirsty. In fact no one said a word for quite a while. What was there to say?
He released the belt tightener and shut the V4 down. The old Case stopped jigging backward and forward to the rhythm of the ram, and in the silence that followed, only the quite idle of the baler tractor, a large green Oliver, could be heard until the boss broke the silence with a long and very relieved fit of laughter. Ours followed.
If I learned anything from this experience, it was that when you really believe in something, you give it all you have no matter how foolish it seems.
Thanks to John Marko, who compared the mechanical details with his very good memory of baling days. Comments are always welcome. You may reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org