More than just a stinky pile

It’s nearly that time of year again, when stinky, rank piles of gold are to be created in rural Nebraska – it’ll soon be time to cut silage.

Silage time was of the upmost importance for our farm while I was growing up. Everything was about that silage, to feed our dairy cattle through the year.

A group of men would arrive . . . some we knew, because they came back every year. Some were new, because the older ones were “timing out.”

When it was time to cut silage, school took a back seat. The teacher understood — her husband also milked cows for a living and with the majority of our little country school being Muellers, there wasn’t much point in getting worked up.

The workflow consisted of an endless stream of wagons coming from the field filled to the brim with chopped stalks and leaves. For me, it was about food service.

I think that’s when the cooking bug first infected me — not because I chose it, but because I was forced into it. Something happens when silage cutting starts — suddenly, everyone has to eat fried chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner (that’s what we called the mid-day meal), bologna sandwiches and homemade cake for lunch (around 3 p.m.), and then a round of meatloaf and baked potatoes for supper (after it got dark).

Each morning, the regiment was the same — take meat out of the freezer, send one of the siblings to the cellar for canned corn and apples (for pies) and potatoes from the bin.

I baked pies with 4-H recipes and followed Mom’s instructions for the menus of the day. About 10 a.m., her tractor and wagon would fly into the yard so she could check everything.

My goal was to have everything under control by the time she arrived — have all the skinned knees bandaged, bikes off the sidewalk, pies sitting on the dishwasher and chicken ready to fry.

My mom, with tanned skin and dust in her hair, would tell me there was too much lard in the cast iron skillets. She’d remind us there were tomatoes that needed to come out of the garden. She’d say everything looked great and they’d be there at high noon.

I’d sweat over the task of making sure everything was ready — plates on the table, chairs in the living room and plenty of salt for the guy who smoked three Lucky Strikes from the pickup to the front step.

And we had to have root beer for a guy named Ed. He was told jokes I didn’t understand. He didn’t drink anything but root beer, so my mother kept a stash of Shasta in the broom closet.

The clock would turn 12. Some rode in the back of my dad’s old blue pickup, others were still on their tractors. The yard filled with hungry men.

They’d line up to wash their hands — that’s when I realized the perils of cutting silage. It didn’t take long for me to notice a number of them were missing fingers — a thumb here, a pointer there. Stubs all around.

With those stubs, they’d pass around my chicken, spill gravy and talk about the biggest tomato they ever saw while eating slices straight from the garden.

They’d argue about politics — I think Carter was the enemy during that particular season — and whether gas prices would go up. One guy (I called “The Critic”) would give me tips on how to keep my coleslaw from being so runny, and another named Joe would call him a name I’d never heard before and reassure me he’d never seen a 12-year-old who could even make coleslaw.

And when the destruction was over, they’d put on their John Deere hats and head back to the fields.

Everyone would leave and I’d survey the damage. There would be dishes everywhere and all that extra lard she warned me about was all over the stove. There was flour on the rug, gravy between the floor tiles and coleslaw on the handle of the tea pitcher.

The rest of the day was spent doing dishes, scrubbing the floor and making sure brownies were baked. That was followed by making dozens of bologna sandwiches. A bunch of tea jugs later, we’d go out for the best part of the day. This time, Mom arrived in the old blue pickup to take us to the cornfield.

Everyone would gather around the tailgate, to eat and talk. Then, the best thing would happen — Dad would ask who wanted to ride with him in the big tractor on top of the pile as he packed the silage. My mother always protested. Of course I wanted to go. That was my reward — a daring carnival ride, of sorts — to pay me back for all the chicken and runny coleslaw I could muster. And it was one of those special times I could be alone with my dad.

So I’d sit on the side of his seat and we’d march up that giant mountain which would eventually become stinky fuel for our black and white milk machines. He’d tell me my chicken was good and I’d tell him I didn’t like the guy who put down my coleslaw. And I’d ask him where all those fingers went.

When our time was up, I’d walk across the pasture to start working on Mom’s next menu.

Yes, those days were about much more than just a stinky pile of chopped up stalks. It was about growing up and getting to know those fascinating people around me . . . including myself.


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