If you grew up on a farm during the time when I did, of necessity, you learned many skills. I learned how to pound a nail in a board without bending the nail or hitting my thumb. I learned how to tell the difference between a pine board and an oak board and sometimes I learned the hard way when Pa said, “find a board and fix the broken one in the calf pen.” I grabbed the first board I could find from the board pile in the shed and discovered, when I tried to pound a nail in it, that it was an old dried oak board that would not accept a nail, no matter how skilled I was with a hammer.
I learned how to make a straight mark on a board with a metal carpenter’s square, and then saw on the mark with no wandering away from it. I listened to Pa’s advice to “measure twice and saw once.” As it turned out that is not only good advice for sawing a board, but it’s good advice for living one’s life — “think before acting,” especially “think before speaking.”
In addition to learning the proper way to use a hammer and handsaw, it was essential that I learned how to use several other common farms tools. High on the list was a three-tine fork, used for making hay, pitching oat bundles, forking hay from the haymow in winter, and feeding hay to the cattle and horses. I had my own three-tine fork, so did my dad. I also learned how to use a six-tine fork. This larger fork I used for handling manure, carrying straw from the straw stack to the barn, and digging potatoes and other root crops. One more commonly used tool on our farm was the garden hoe. I had my favorite hoe, so did Pa and did my brothers. We spent many a day hoeing everything from 20 acres of potatoes, to an acre of cucumbers, a half-acre of strawberries and the vegetable garden when Ma asked for help. Weeds were always the menace in our row crops and the hoe was the one sure way to control them.
Not to forget the various kinds of shovels that I commonly used: I used a gravel shovel for digging holes, digging around a stone we wanted to remove from the field and where ever digging was required. I used a scoop shovel for handling grain and shoveling snow.
Each of these tools, the three-tine and six-tine forks, the hoes, and the shovels required special skills that allowed me to do the work, quickly and well, and yet not break the handle on the tool. All had wooden handles, and using a fork or a shovel improperly often resulted in a broken handle and an unpleasant encounter with Pa who reminded me once more how to properly use the tool.
Much of the time the work with these tools was repetitive. Here is where learning the rhythm of the work became essential, so I could do the work well and not have to do much thinking about what I was doing. As weird as it may sound, I learned how to become one with the hoe, with the shovel or the fork. The implement became an extension of me.
Using an ax properly is a special skill. A well-sharpened ax is a dangerous tool; you can cut yourself badly with an ax. Pa instructed my brothers and me carefully in its use. We had two kinds of axes, a double-bitted ax, which had two cutting edges, and single-bitted ax, which had one cutting edge and the other edge could be used for pounding.
We used the axes for making wood, which we did each fall and often during the winter. We used them several ways. We notched an oak tree that was designated for firewood. The notch, about four inches high and as many wide, was cut into the side of the tree with the ax. The notch determined the direction the tree would fall — it fell toward the notch, when everything was done properly. Once Pa cut the notch, a special skill that I didn’t learn until I was in high school, we sawed down the tree with a two-person crosscut saw. When the tree was down, we sliced off the small branches with our axes, again being exceedingly careful that we always cut away from ourselves and were aware of who was working nearby so we wouldn’t harm them.
Using a two-person crosscut saw also took a considerable amount of skill, as I had to know what I were doing at my end of the saw, but I also needed to know what the person on the other end was doing.
We started the cut with the cross-cut saw on the side of the tree trunk opposite the notch, which meant we cut toward the notch. The basic skill, which Pa stressed again and again, “Let the saw do the work, don’t force it,” which meant don’t push the saw into the wood; let the saw’s teeth do that on their own. And never push on the saw, only pull. If each person pulls on the saw it works well, if one insists on both pushing and pulling, then the saw is likely to jam and all sawing ceases. A basic skill was learning how to work with a partner. Pull don’t push. This bit of learning has served me well over the years, as I have worked on many projects with a partner and sometimes with several people at the same time. I remembered to pull my share of the workload and avoid pushing. Pushing can get you into trouble, no matter what you are doing.
Excerpted from “Simple Things: Lessons From the Family Farm.” For more information about Jerry’s writing and TV work, visit www.jerryapps.com.