My young 18-year-old life was not going as planned in the spring of 1970. Changing high schools in the middle of your senior year is a sure way to make the last semester less celebratory. Aside from leaving Germany, my girlfriend, my teammates, and a well planned course load designed to insure a fun final semester, I found myself in south Mississippi, a place familiar from previous short stays while my dad was in Vietnam, but following clearly a different cultural and philosophical trajectory. It was not so much that the former place was inherently better, the new place was just dramatically different. To be totally honest, I was depressed and lost as I began those last few months of high school.
Around late March or early April, Peanut and Mike, two of my new classmates, invited me to help them “load hay.” It turns out, you could get out of school to help do essential farm work. Peanut and Mike lived on dairy farms and loading bales of hay was a very important part of their family farm enterprise. Since I already had enough credits to graduate, getting out of school to do this hay thing seemed like a good idea. At the very least, it would take me away from the doldrums of despair I was suffering in classes. Of course, I had no idea what loading hay entailed. I imagined it was like pulling watermelons, but that is a story for another day.
For the uninformed, grass fields are cut for hay several times each year starting in early spring. The cut grass is mechanically raked into rows, left to dry for a few days, and then baled into bales weighing about 40 to 50 pounds each. As the baler drove through the field, we followed behind in a long bed pickup truck throwing the bales up to a stacker on the truck. Mike drove, Peanut stacked, and I was the thrower. The first row was not so bad. The hay would fit three across and three down the bed. The second tier would be stacked perpendicular to the first with a center row down the middle. This tier would hang over the side rails of the truck. These first two tiers were basically a grab and snatch, with an underhand swing up onto the truck. The third tier, arranged like the first was still grab and snatch, but now there was a little bit of a push to get it up to Peanut. From the fourth tier on, it was a grab, snatch, and a full press with energy to throw the bale high enough for Peanut to grab. It was not long before I realized I had the worst job on the team. We got paid 10 cents a bale as a team to do this. Our goal was to get 80 bales per load, which meant at least seven levels of hay on the truck. This meant I was throwing the last bales, from ground to stack, about 11-12 feet up to get it to Peanut.
Aside from the shock of coming face to face with the occasional snake or frog trying to wiggle its way out of the tightly compacted hay, the work was grueling but repetative. We would do six or eight runs from field to barn each afternoon. Stacking the hay at the barn was a bit easier and involved all three of us throwing the hay. Occasionally, we would swap jobs out in the field, but I was the tallest and we could load more with me throwing the hay. My body would work to exhaustion and my mind would be distracted just trying to keep the body pushing forward. Mike always had the radio blaring and the music of our time beat out a good rhythm for our work. It was good therapy and I actually got in pretty darn good shape walking along side the truck and throwing those bales up to Peanut.
On one afternoon, and I remember this as if it were just yesterday, Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman came on the truck’s radio. In that moment, everything for me seemed to pause. My melancholic journey, moving from one place and finding myself in another, alone, empty, and fearful, was real. For whatever reason, the pathos of the lineman in Campbell’s song reached into me and made me feel less alone, less despair, less fearful about my future. Things were not as I wanted or imagined; still, this was my life and I had to keep going forward. Like the lineman, I was “still on the line”. In that singular moment, I resolved to live forward, to prevail over the cloud of gloom and despair that seemed to surround me. That moment, that song, those days of throwing bales of hay altered my journey.
Campbell’s ballads are often incomplete and unresolved—like life. Rarely do his songs offer “happily ever after” lyrics or triumphant songs of celebration. Instead, he seemed most comfortable transforming a small slice of the human narrative into musical poetry and challenging us to imagine how the story (and maybe our own lives) moves forward. Sometimes he embraced the paradoxical complexities of life allowing him, even at the end of his productive life, to write a song like “I’m not gonna miss you” and make it a beautiful while tragic love song. No matter my thoughts on his art, for me, he is the person who wrote a song that reached through the airwaves in the spring of 1970 into the pained soul of an 18-year-old in a hay field in Mississippi and nudged him forward with hope. I haven’t forgotten.