I started cussing when I worked on Zietz’s farm.
Up until then, I had maybe said the word hell one time. Although my father was quite fluent in profanity, my mother cast a long, righteous shadow that kept me on track..
Picking rocks on Zietz’s farm was where things went off the rails.
Zietz’s farm is a picture postcard of red barns, rolling pastures dotted with Holsteins, and fine, fertile fields. Every Spring though, the plow would expose a fresh crop of rounded rocks, popping up in those fields like mushrooms. Every Spring they had to be picked up.
The farm had an old Farmall Cub tractor, and Bob Zietz would hook a flatbed trailer to it and head for the freshly tilled field. Riding on that wagon towards a day of picking rocks left me feeling a life-long solidarity towards the men on chain gangs.
A day spent picking rock requires only a strong back and a weak mind. Since we were working for only a dollar an hour, we were well qualified.
Once in the field, Bob would put the Cub into low gear, and putt-putt along while Piet and I trudged behind, picking up rocks. There were lots of rocks. There were rocks the size of softballs and grapefruits and even some cantaloup sized rocks. We would load them on the wagon, while the Cub putt-putted along relentlessly. Occasionally we would fall behind as we stooped and picked up rocks, and then have to hurry to catch up.
After several hours of this, I am sad to report that cuss words started dropping from my mouth like those first, random drops of rain from a passing shower. By the third day the back breaking monotony had turned those stray drops into a steady downpour.
Now, a man with no fiber would have blamed my buddy Pieter for this moral breakdown. Between Pieter and his older brother, the cuss jar in his mother’s kitchen was always full. I think she was able to buy eggs, butter, heck, even bacon and milk with the proceeds from her son’s transgressions.
In my defense, a good lawyer would have pointed to the poor influence of my friend Pieter, and the extreme, extenuating circumstances of working on Zietz’s farm, and made a strong case for leniency.
And there were plenty of extenuating circumstances on that farm.
Farm work has its seasons, and later that Summer we were extra busy hauling hay. The steep hills of an UpState New York farm require hay wagons with tall sides, so we had to throw the bales up, and over our heads just to get them in the wagon. Bob always hired extra help, and one of those poor blighters would have to ride inside the wagon, stacking 60 pound bales as they rained down from above. The sounds coming from inside the wagon were mostly grunts, thuds, yelps, and lots of profanity.
Along with the hay hauling, we had to attend to the regular duties of feeding cows, cleaning mangers, feeding pigs, and cleaning sow pens.
Cleaning sow pens is dicey business, especially if one has a new litter of piglets. One sow named Gertrude weighed 750 pounds! She was a mild mannered old girl, but a 600 pounder named Snowball was crazy mean even when she didn’t have piglets. One time, she came at me, huffing and snuffing with a snaggle toothed mouth so wide open she could have swallowed a basketball. As I vaulted the pen, those snaggled teeth caught me by my painter’s pants and turned them into painter’s shorts.
After cussing Snowball for a minute, I took a moment to reflect on whether or not a dollar an hour was adequate pay. Satisfied that it was(weak mind, strong back)I went back to work.
Below the sow barn, the poop wagon had not been emptied in two weeks because of the hay hauling. Now, there was a mountain of manure on it. I rolled that last wheelbarrow of manure from Snowball’s pen up a couple of planks, dumped it, and the wagon was now at terminal mass.
Pieter and I were also the chief manure spreaders, and that sweltering afternoon we found ourselves following the loaded wagon back out into the field.
Unbeknownst to us, a bad, bad thing had happened.
A couple of rains had softened that pile of poop up. Then, the July heat had baked a hard crust on top of the soupy manure. After sitting in the 95 degree heat, it turned into a pig poop pressure cooker.
Unaware of what awaited us, we balanced bravely on the rocking wagon and awaited Bob’s signal to start pitchforking poop. When the signal came, we stabbed through that hard baked crust and lifted our first forkful. The cloud of steam that billowed from that pile with a staggering stench-nearly blinded us with its intensity.
And every forkful was crawling with maggots.
Eyes watering, our bitter cries would have broken our mother’s hearts, but the stream of profanity that ensued would have embarrassed the devil himself. We retched and gagged and cried, gamely laboring on. Underneath it all, the boards of the wagon were now slick and slimy.
It was a sad, sad thing when Piet slipped and fell in the slime and got maggots all over him. Even sadder that I laughed.
Back at the barn we were told to hose the wagon off, so I grabbed the hose and started to do just that. Pieter grabbed a stiff push broom and we sort of worked together in the reek. As we were finishing up, Piet hopped down and I accidentally sprayed maggoty slime all over him. He shrieked.
It was probably wrong, but I laughed again.
Still, the cussing I received was just a little bit hurtful.
Looking back, I loved working at Zietz’s farm. I loved the animals, the barns, and the family we worked for. In my senior year book’s last will and testament, I left Pieter Staats “picking rocks at Zietz’s farm”. I laugh and shake my head when I think about the times we had there.
And 46 years later, I don’t cuss like that anymore. My mother’s godly influence has won out.
I do slip occasionally, though.