June 19, 2020
As a kid, I used to dread this time of year. By now, we usually had all of the corn hoed, the second cutting of alfalfa hay was in the barn, and the summer heat would begin to create little wavy patterns in the creek bottom air — enough to make one think they were looking at a mirage in the desert.
Just when I would begin to think we were ‘‘caught up’’ on the farm work, Dad would bring out the sling blade, look at me and say, “Those fencerows are starting to look like a sharecropper’s farm. We need to get them cleaned up.” And by “we” he meant “me.”
The sling blade that I used is referred to with different names by different people, but I looked up pictures of the device I toiled with, and saw it identified as a “hand-held sickle scythe.” It had a blade approximately 2½ feet long that my father would whet to the point of razor-sharpness. The handle was fashioned out of a curved piece of hickory, with two handholds attached to the handle with metal straps. Until all of the fencerows were cleared of ironweed, poke stalks, milkweed and mullen, the scythe would be like a third appendage to my upper body.
Each morning, after regular farm chores, I’d put on my straw hat, grab the water thermos (a gallon jug filled with ice and water wrapped in an old denim jumper) and head to the fencerow. By midmorning, one or two of my friends would ride by on their bicycles and stop to talk. The first day of the summer task, I could usually pull a Tom Sawyer and convince them how much fun it was, but they would usually ride on after about 10 feet or so of fun. The second day, they would just wave as they passed.
The brown jersey gloves that I wore did little to slow the blisters that appeared in that delicate part of skin between my thumb and index finger, but Dad assured me they would transform to calluses by the time I had finished. They did.
I can also remember him sharpening the blade every afternoon when I came in to do evening chores, usually with a comment such as, “You’re supposed to be cutting weeds — not fence posts and rocks.” I always assured him that I’d be more careful the next day. I wasn’t.
In a normal summer, I usually had all the fencerows cleared by the time the third cutting of hay came around. If I was lucky, the heat and dry weather made this task a once-a-year job, but with ample rainfall, I might have to do it all over again in the fall. Dad said clean fencerows were evidence of a good farmer.
The other day, when I put the battery-powered sprayer in my UTV and filled it up with herbicide to begin the much easier task of spraying my fencerows, I saw the same old scythe I used as a kid hanging on a peg on the inside of my shop. It still has a broken handle because one of my sons destroyed it on his first day of “fencerow” assignment. He said it was an accident, but he said it with a slight grin.
Crownover farms in Missouri.
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