By Pete Tucker
Part One – Knell’s Bells
Dave Knells had been at the farming game for nearly thirty years. By now, he had it down pretty well. So did his Dad before him. Then there was Grandpa. The four generation farm, a picturesque 260 acres in Warren County, N.J., was aptly named, Knells Bells. It was part of the jaw-dropping scenery of Pohatcong Mountain where Dave’s Charolais cattle speckled a large portion of the mountainside.
There was one “problem”. All of his one hundred cow bells were currently occupied. Knells had more cattle than bells. He thought it was a good problem to have! It wasn’t important that each bovine had a bell, anyway.
After all, what is the function of a cowbell in the first place? It’s really quite simple. They harken back to a time when the country was a little more “country”. Fences were few. Cattle just roamed to the next green meadow. When the farmer needed to locate his cattle, he simply kept his ears pealed.
Charolais is a French breed, as might well be guessed by the spelling. Knells loved them for their docility and their rich, creamy color that contrasted so beautifully when they grazed the verdant Spring grass. He knew that for most farmers those were superfluous reasons to like cattle, but he was OK with that. Dave was a fan of the aesthetic and was comfortable in his own farmer’s skin. He knew what he liked.
To boot, Knells was one erudite individual, very well-read from his days at Rutgers ag school years ago. Surely he could quote more verse than your average plowman. In fact, his penchant for cowbells was given rise by a Theodore Dreiser short story, The Lost Phoebe.
The blissful life of the story’s character, Henry Reifsnyder, was described by Dreiser when he wrote, “all of the rest of life was a far off, clamorous phantasmagoria, flickering like Northern lights in the night and sounding as faintly as cowbells tinkling in the distance.”
What a writer, Knells thought. Dreiser’s prose might just as well have been poetry! In fact, the “tinkling in the distance” was part of Dave Knell’s everyday life. Pohatcong Mountain was one peaceful place to hang his hat. The Charolais were the perfect complement.
Farming had aged Dave, perhaps prematurely. He hoped not, but thirty years was a long time to do anything. Dave was aged 59 years. Let’s just say that those years of toil had taken their toll. He knew that he was due for a change in his life. He was just starting to contemplate what path that change would follow.
His only son, August , was 17 years old with two daughters after him, all the prodigy of Dave’s second marriage.
Dave’s farm could boast a proud tradition. He had recently attended a ceremony honoring the Knells family for achieving a coveted benchmark. The Hundred Year Farm laid claim to ownership in the same family for a century.
If only Alice could have been there for this acknowledgement, Dave contemplated with melancholy. His wife, Alice Knells, had passed away five years ago. It was a heart wrenching travail for Dave, son August and daughters, Lisa and Laurie. Alice had lost her battle with cancer.
Dave knew only too well that life wasn’t fair. Alice’s fight with the disease quite obviated that point. She had fought valiantly while, at the same time, giving so much of herself to worthy causes. No one deserved such an early demise, certainly not Alice.
Dave often sat on the front porch and pondered her memory. Alice used to sit in the rocking chair next to him and delight in the distant “specs”.
Those specs were neighbor’s houses that were so far away that they appeared as tiny dots over in the next township. Alice would say to Dave, “pinch me!” She adored Knell’s Bells and the beauty of their location. It was Heaven on earth, Jersey dirt.
At times, Dave had fun with visitors from other parts of the state; for that matter, from other states. Folks could hardly believe that his place was in Jersey, the state being habitually pre-judged as a concrete jungle. Dave’s explanation was simple: Some of it is. Here’s the rest of it.
Farming was Dave’s life since childhood. He knew that it would soon come time to slow his life down. Whatever new phase was in the offing, he would ease into slowly . After thirty years of farming, he found no need to rush anything. That wasn’t the way he lived life.
Part Two – First Cutting
Dave held a leadership position with the local chapter of Farm Bureau, a nationwide agriculture advocacy organization. In a few days, the chapter’s annual membership meeting was to take place in Trenton. Between then and now, Dave had plenty to do in preparation for that meeting.
As bad luck often had it during haying season, the timing of Dave’s meeting exactly coincided with a stellar weather forecast. Why couldn’t obligations that took him off the farm dovetail with lousy weather? Then no opportunity to get field work done would be lost. Did it ever work out that way? It didn’t seem to.
“Ah well”, he mused. “The best laid plans”.
It was late in the month of May. The Timothy grass had already been headed out, but the weather still quite unsettled. If there was a forecast of three straight sunny days, it was time to mow, no questions asked! A forecast like that in May was almost an anomaly, but that was exactly what it called for, starting today.
Enter the angst that accompanied a scheduled meeting during hay season. Dave couldn’t be in two places at once. What else could he do?
The kids would have to make the hay while he was in Trenton. Surely they’d been sufficiently schooled in the art. The Cardinal Rule: Bale it when it’s cured, bone dry, that is. There are no short cuts.
So, what happens if the Cardinal Rule isn’t followed? Moisture in the hay causes it to mold. Mold also creates dust in the hay, further diminishing its quality. But, cattle tend to chomp on whatever is put in front of them, whether it’s perfect hay or not. Still, the good farmer cringes at the notion of feeding poor quality hay.
Be this as it was, on the very same morning that Dave was on his way to Trenton, he instructed August to mow about 40 acres of Timothy. If the weather stayed right, August would bale in two or three days with the help of his sisters and a couple of his neighborhood buddies.
A day prior, Dave had changed the blades on the discbine and checked hydraulic fluid. Mowing would then proceed easily for August.
Dave also greased the tedder, a sprawling contraption of tines pivotal to fluffing and drying hay. The farm couldn’t be better equipped to make hay. Three tractors, all John Deere, powered the process.
Interestingly, August was quite the farm boy when his Dad was away! Tractor work was now blissful. When the breeze blew across the Timothy heads, they swayed in unison, creating the illusion of a wave rolling over the acreage. It was nearly magical, especially when, as Dave Knells suspected, August was as high as a kite.
Dave knew something was going on with August. He’d never confronted him about it, but his son had become gradually less interested in farming; less engaged in general.
His mode of behavior was intermittently erratic, seeming at times to plainly defy common logic; hardly comforting to Dave when he had to leave the farming work to his son.
Over the years, Dave’s farming tutelage of August had always stressed safety. For all Dave knew, his son’s mental state may have cast that component to the wind. He could only hope that August kept his wits about him. This was dangerous work.
Dave wished that he could have a chat with Alice. The world of drugs, or whatever it was that August was doing, was something essentially foreign to Dave. He just knew that it spelled trouble.
The next day was hot, as in 89 degrees. Two full days of beating sun like this would render this hay sufficiently dry to bale. Today was the second day, but, as it will sometimes, the summer heat threw a curveball. They were quick, but evening thunderstorms exacted their temporary detriment to the hay crop.
August could hear his Dad’s veiled optimism, even though he was still in Trenton for a while.
“Nothing more than a heavy due,” Dave Knells would say of a moderate thunderstorm.
That didn’t mean that tedding the field at least twice tomorrow wouldn’t be necessary to dry the crop. August was OK with that. Another stoned day there in Paradise suited him just fine!
Hey, it was party time! The Old Man was away. His buddies would be there. Surely work awaited, but they’d have a rollickin’ good time doing it.
Low dose heroine, Budweiser and green tractors; did it get any better than this? His buddies loved it, too. His sisters looked the other way.
Today yielded a lesson to August. He actually had fun today! Could it be that farm work just boiled down to having a better attitude? Or, was it a matter of having good buddies there and other attitude- adjusting aids to make it fun ?
Either way, August had a bit of an epiphany in the field! Today he had warmed up a bit to farm work. Those spools of tines on the tedder were mesmerizing. August was on Cloud 9.
He went to bed that night with a soothing sense of accomplishment. Even though the crop was still in the field, he found himself visited by a farmer’s ageless phenom: optimism that tomorrow promised a successful outcome.
He’d earned it with today’s toil. August sensed cross currents that he’d never felt before about farm work. He slept soundly.
Part Three – Bale It
August was in the machine shed at 6:30 the next morning. The baler had more than sixty grease fittings that all needed a squirt. The knotter needed housekeeping. The tires needed air. New rolls of twine were a must install in the baler before it coughed up much hay today. Indeed, somewhere through his seventeen years, August had picked up how to tend to these details.
Even at this early hour, the sun was promising a good curing day. Of course, that’s the way yesterday had been before a damned thunderstorm. How many times had August heard his Dad say, “Hey, that’s farmin’.”
One thing was for sure. If August could get this hay well-dried and baled today, it would still be of decent quality. If it was rained on again, it was toast! He was tedding by 10:30.
At 1 o’clock he knelt to feel the hay, to gauge its moisture by hand. He was pleased. At 3 o’clock he estimated, would be the time to start baling. It would be bone dry by then. August alerted his sisters and phoned his buddies after he was done tedding to advise them of start time.
There was always one little exacting detail of this process that was a nemesis. Most any field was edged by trees. That meant that the first two or three swaths cut by the discbine were always more shaded than the balance of the field. That, of course, meant that those swaths dried less quickly.
To bale them at the same time as the rest of the field was often ill-advised. It was common to leave them on the field and come back the next day when they had had further chance to dry.
This extra step was annoying to August. It amounted to prudent caution, but August opted not to bother with it. He would just bale those rows as late in the day as possible.
We should back up for a moment. Note has already been made as to the drawbacks of baling hay that is insufficiently dry. We have noted the mold factor. We have noted the dust factor, but another consideration far outweighs any others. It is that of SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.
Today, August Knells failed to give this possibility it’s just due! What is it in the first place?
When hay is too wet and gets compacted in a bale, the result is a bale that is tied way too tightly and unable to “breathe.” The bale is far heavier and wetter than it should be.
Its inability to breathe predisposes it to an already warm haymow. Because the bale is packed so tightly, it cannot relieve itself of the accumulating heat within. Over time, sometimes days, sometimes months, the bale’s temperature slowly continues to rise to the point that it ignites by itself.
August was vaguely aware of this phenomenon, but dismissed it as something that would never happen in his barn. To avoid any immediate flack from Dad, he baled these “outside” rows and placed them first in the haymow. Then he stacked the balance of today’s hay on top, such to suggest that all hay was of the same status as the bales that were on top.
Dave Knells returned home from Trenton and was quite pleased with the new hay, neatly stacked in the barn. The foul stuff on the bottom tiers wouldn’t be discovered ‘til late winter, August guessed.
The month of May closed. June came and went. Each of the hayfields had given their all. A pleasant Summer waned.
Part Four – Honest Chat
To Dave’s chagrin, he had made no progress at convincing August to pursue any further education beyond high school.
His grades had been nothing to sneeze at, but he lacked any motivation to keep after the books. Dave resolved to sit and have a serious talk with his son as soon as a good moment for such availed itself.
Dave recognized that moment the next morning while they were both sipping a bit of coffee on the back porch. August’s sisters, Lisa and Laurie had already gone about their day. Not exactly practiced at this sort of counseling , Dave just decided to wing it.
“Ya know, Auggie, now that you’re out of high school, I’m thinking we should have a chat about what’s next for ya. We’ve casually touched on it before, but the rubber’s meeting the road now. It’s getting to be decision time. Going forward, what’s Auggie gonna do?”
August’s reply seemed borderline smart Alec.
“Hey, Dad, wasn’t it good enough that I made your hay the other day?”
“Yeah, that was fine, Auggie. You did a good job, but what I’m talking about here is a lot longer term than one field of hay. I’m talking the long haul. What do you want to be doing in a year or ten years from now? What do you see as your career path.”
“Hey, Dad, do I have to be thinking about that right now?”
Dave thought that he was posing his question reasonably, without any confrontational edge. August’s replies seemed a bit flippant. That annoyed Dave a little.
“Hey, son”, Dave countered, “You don’t have to do anything right now, but that’s not always going to be the case. I just thought we’d talk about your future for a minute.”
August pondered for a second. Maybe this wasn’t a good moment for him to have this conversation. The best he could do was a sort of nonchalant reply.
“You know what I’d really like to do right now, in my immediate future? I’m gonna go fishin’.”
Now that reply just plain pissed Dave off.
“You’re goin’ fishin’,eh? Maybe do some drugs and go fishin? Boy, you’re headed down the perfect path!”
August was taken by surprise with that answer. How the hell did Dad know about his drug use? His Dad’s reply was defensive and accusatory at the same time.
“Hey, don’t tell me that you didn’t have certain pleasures in your day!”
“In fact, I did,” Dave acquiesced. “More than I’d like to think, and that’s the reason that I mention it. What is your pleasure these days? I know you’re getting high.”
“Little of this. Little of that.” August skirted.
“That tells me nothing,” Dave challenged.
“ Well, what did you do in your day,?”, August volleyed.
“Whisky. Weed.” Dave countered. “And you, I’ll ask again”.
August had to think. The Old Man had just backed him into a corner quicker than he knew! Dad wasn’t going to like a straight answer. Well, here it goes anyway: “Smack”
August assumed that his Dad wouldn’t even know what that was.
“Good Christ, Auggie. That’s not even comparable to me!”
How the Hell did Dad even know what he was talking about, August wondered. The fact was, Dave had been doing some research with the expectation that he might have to have this very conversation with August some day.
“Well, this isn’t good news, Auggie. I knew something was up with you. But there’s a little good news here. I’ve been honest with you and you’ve been honest with me. Can we make an agreement here?”
“What would that be”, August responded.
“Can we agree to keep doing what we just did, to be one hundred percent honest with each other about this?
August’s reply didn’t come instantly, but after a few seconds he agreed.
Dave held out his hand and asked August if they could shake on that. With no hesitation, August shook hands with his Dad.
“So are you snorting or shooting?”
Dad’s question alarmed August! Much to his surprise, his Old Man knew far more than August ever imagined, but he’d just made a deal with Dad. He better shoot straight!
“Snorting”, August replied.
He couldn’t believe that he was suddenly having this discussion with his Father!
“How long you been using?”, Dave asked his son.
“About six or eight months”, August replied.
“Well, Auggie, I may not have convinced you to go to school, but we have some serious homework to do. We’re gonna learn the ugly facts about what this stuff does to ya whether you want to learn it or not.”
The homework wasn’t August’s idea of a good time. It was a bizarre subject to be studying with with the Old Man. Indeed, his Dad administered the study, albeit straight from Google searches.
Dave, the professor, was learning as he went. August, to his credit, was a compliant student. He didn’t have much choice!
There came two very positive results from Dave’s impromptu crash course. One: They both learned about the insidious grip that heroine has on so many people.
Next, they learned about how many people are killed by it.
Further, they both came to recognize that a bond had been established between them, a quizzical father/son nexus that was unexpectedly born of this conversation.
They went on to learn about what it was going to take to kick this nasty habit. Dave was unrelenting. He kept the hammer down on his son. It wasn’t easy for either of them.
Dave managed to convince August that he was on a profoundly wayward path. This was poison! This wasn’t good.
August, at his Dad’s insistence, became a patient in an opioid replacement program. The drug, “soboxone” relieved symptoms of opioid withdrawal by using a lesser opioid. That, at least, was the understanding of both Father and son.
“What the hell”, Dave joked with his son, “that’s like if a guy throws a left hook at you, ya lean into it!”
At least they managed a laugh now and then through an otherwise miserable ordeal. If nothing else, they both came to realize the insidious trap that August had walked into.
Dave Knells, to his great satisfaction, learned a little something about parenting that would have so pleased his lovely bride, Alice.
Many a parent would have come down pretty hard on young August Knells. Dave’s approach was deft and measured. That had made a world of difference, perhaps even saved Auggie’s life. They both realized that.
Part Five – One Dark Knight
One night in the month of August, Dave attended another farming/social event over in Belvidere. It got to be toward the wee hours. Dave wasn’t home yet when August’s older sister, Lisa, burst into his bedroom screaming,
“Auggie, Auggie, get up. Get up! The barn is on fire!”
Which came first? August opening his eyes or his gut wrenching? Either way, it was a ghastly wakening. Though he’d almost forgotten, he didn’t need to hear another thing to know what was happening.
“Did you call the fire company?”, he yelled.
“Laurie’s doing that right now,” Lisa shouted back.
“Don’t let her stop trying ‘til she’s gotten through to them”.
August got out from under the covers and leapt to the window. He opened it, stuck his head out and was immediately sickened by what he saw. The barn was engulfed with fire. Flames were darting fifteen to twenty feet into the pitch black night. August was fraught with guilt.
A hundred thoughts raced through his mind at once. How had he slept through this commotion ‘til now? Then a dreadful realization: Bellowing. He could hear a hideous bellowing of cattle . It then occurred to him how that was so.
This morning Dad had stalled two brood cows in the barn, both very close to calving. It was best that they be separated from the herd. August immediately resolved to go let them out. He yanked up his jeans and laced up his work boots faster than he ever had before. He yelled to his sisters just to verify that the fire company was coming.
He found them both standing at the front door. They indicated that four trucks were on their way. They could see that August was hustling toward the barn.
“Auggie, what are you doing?”, Lisa asked.
August explained so quickly that his sisters barely understood him.
“Auggie, are you crazy? You can’t go in there!”
“There’s two cows in there, locked in. I gotta see if there’s any chance to let them out.”
“Auggie, you gotta be careful.”
“I will, don’t worry.”
August got near the barn. He’d brought a flashlight with him, but there was no way he was going to get near the door. The heat was way too intense, and yet he could hear two obviously frenetic bovines inside.
August adjusted his position to change his view of the door. Maybe he could work another angle to get it open.
He found a spot, maybe ten or fifteen feet from the door. Maybe a long handle or piece of re-bar would allow him to manipulate the latch. August knew the spot to look for such a piece.
Near the burning barn, he fished an old length of bamboo that had sat on the floor of an empty corn crib for years. August already knew that on one end of the bamboo piece was affixed a bent nail that might be key to opening the door latch. With the bamboo in hand, he resumed the position where he would attempt the near impossible, but now it was near impossibly hot.
He opted to try anyway. Two attempts failed. A third was a near miss! The heat and smoke had tears and ash rolling down August’s cheeks, impairing his vision. He heard some timbers fall right behind the door that he was attempting to open.
With this, there came a powerful collision from the inside of that door, almost as though it had been dynamited. The door blew apart in a thousand splinters! What followed was a scene that August was not to ever forget. In a final act of desperation, it was the impact of one of the cow’s heads that demolished the door.
Both cows stampeded through the opening, both with their hair on fire head to toe and both making a hideous, indescribable noise that August had never heard before.
Standing right there on the other side of the door, August didn’t react quickly enough. Not maliciously, both animals trampled him to the ground and stepped on him a few times in their desperate effort to escape.
There he lay in the muck and the manure, half stunned, trying to assess if he was OK to get up.
“Auggie! Auggie, are you all right?”
August’s bell had been rung hard, but he knew that voice was his Dad’s. August was pretty sure that he had no serious injury.
In another instant, there was Dad kneeling by his head. He could hear that both his sisters were there, too.
“Are you all right, Auggie?”
August held his head up off the ground.
He said, “Well, I’m burning up and covered with cow shit. The barn is on fire. I’ve been better. Are the cows OK?”
“They’re gonna be,” Dave answered. “Now let’s get you up and away from this fire.”
August perceived the strobe of fire engine lights and the intermittent pelting of water being pumped on the fire.
Dave was so relieved. He had just arrived home. His kids were all safe. That was all he really cared about.
He and the girls all helped August arise from the muck and mire. That accomplished, they instinctively lapsed into joyous laughter, realizing that they were all Okay.
Their group hug by the burning barn, was one that none of them would ever forget!
At that point, torrents of water were drenching the fire, courtesy now of three local fire companies. The Fire Captains assured Dave that all was under control; that if he wanted to, he could “turn in” for the night. The fire crews would be there for the rest of the night anyway.
Dave and August were much too wired to heed that idea. While they had a little energy left, they both took flashlights and ventured to find the the two singed cows. They were both standing a little distant from the balance of the herd, as though they’d been shunned for the night. They were hairless and bawling, as though announcing to the world that they had been horribly wronged. In fact, they had!
“It’ll be a miracle if they survive this”, August said to his Dad.
“We’ll get a vet out here in the morning”, Dave replied. “We should tell him what he’s about to see before he even gets here. Maybe that’ll give him a chance to consult with his other vets. This is probably something that none of them have ever seen before.”
In short order the fire was just a smoldering heap of half-burned timbers.
Some silent moments went by as Father and Son stood there in the dark, punctuated only by intermittent lowing of cattle. Dave then perceived that August was crying.
“What’s the matter, Auggie”, Dave said.
August hung his head and remained silent for a few moments more. He sniffled.
“Dad”, he muttered. “ Do you remember the deal we made a few months back about only telling the truth?”
“Sure I do”.
“Well there’s something I have to tell you”.
“What’s that, Auggie?”
Dave could see from the peripheral light of his flashlight that August’s eyes were gushing tears.
“You know that fire that they’re still putting out?”
“You know that barn that’s completely destroyed , all that hay that’s toast?”
“You know those two cows that may or may not live through this?”
“That’s all on me, Dad. A hundred percent on me”.
“How do you figure that?”, Dave questioned.
August reminded his Dad of the time back in May when he baled a field of first cutting Timothy. He had baled some outside windrows that never should have been stacked in the mow.
“They weren’t near cured. Not even close. My buddies told me that those bales were packed tight as drums. I don’t know what I was thinking, Dad. I guess I wasn’t !”
“And now I stand here wondering how I can ever make it up to you.”
Dave placed his hand on his son’s shoulder, prompting him to stop talking.
“Auggie”, Dave said, “You just did.
And you know what? We’ll build another barn, bigger and better than the one that just burned.”
They both creased a slight smile, hugged and ambled back to the house. With any luck, they’d get a little sleep before dawn. Tomorrow there would be plenty to do.