It was only my first day of high school and I was sticky with sweat, my brand new sneakers were ruined, and I smelled like manure. Not to mention that I had cried my eyes out no less than two times, my parents had left me to fend for myself, and my prospect of getting friends was dim, considering I smelled like manure. Home seemed too far away to dream about, and my sister was pretending not to know me. Yes, my high school career started off with a bit of a bang, you know, like most people’s. And I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was 23 years ago.
See, I went to a boarding school in mid-western Pennsylvania where they practiced what they preached. It was all about helping god help you, or something like that. Which meant that even thought the tuition to attend the school was larger than a golden goose egg, the school made sure all of its students worked to help lower that tuition. They were called on-campus and off-campus jobs, and they were not all created equal. Needless to say I got the worst possible job, in my opinion, working on the campus farm.
When we arrived at school on the Sunday before the first day of school, my parents had no idea what job I was going to picked to do, but I had high hopes. I wanted to work in the administration building, maybe answering phones or cleaning floors or something. I thought that job would be possibly even fun, but when we got up to the work assignment table in the gym I was hit with the truth. In the state of Pennsylvania, as a 13-year old there was only one on- or off-campus job that I could legally perform. You guessed it: the farm. As soon as they told us, I was so shell-shocked that I just stared down at my brand new white sneakers purchased specifically for a new school and a new attitude for me. I knew they were toast.
My mother promised to buy and send me some work boots, but the sneakers were all I had to wear besides my church shoes so at least for the first week I had to wear them. Now, keep in mind I was a city boy, born and raised in the city of brotherly love, and I hadn’t so much as seen a barn before then outside of television shows or the movies. The idea of a cow wasn’t the least bit intriguing to me, though, and nothing changed when I got my first glimpse of the farm that Monday afternoon after school. There were 100+ cows milling about in the field when I walked up, and two guys in overalls were in front of a large barn. I quickly found out they were farmers through and through, and they had my first task for me. Shoveling the barn floor.
I think I imagined a barn floor to be full of pretty, fluffy straw, and to be nice, neat and clean like I had seen in Mr. Ed, but that was as far from the truth as Tuscaloosa is from Des Moines. That is to say, very far. When I walked into that barn my shoes just about cringed. The floor was covered an inch thick in manure. Disgusting, brown, sticky manure. Mr. C handed me a barn shovel (very long and wide) and told me to go to town. The smell in that building was what I would imagine hell should smell like, and several cows in their stalls hadn’t gotten the memo that they weren’t supposed to add to the mess on the floor while I was in there shoveling. Yuck. That first day dragged on for what seemed like forever, and when I was done I reeked of manure, my sneakers were completely brown, and that floor didn’t look much different.
I worked on that farm for two and a half months (until my 14th birthday when I was allowed to transfer to a different on-campus job) and every single day of the experience haunts me up ’til now. I remember the first calf I helped to birth and all the blood and after-birth. I still think about those barn cats who would eat that after-birth. I will never forget the first still-born calf, or the death wagon that took away the cows who died and the dead still-born calves. It was hideous. There were also some halfway good times too, though, like during apple picking season, going into that orchard and seeing miles of apple trees. I actually enjoyed climbing those trees with that bucket and picking through the apples, searching for fresh ones that we would later use to make apple cider. But those experiences were few and far between.
There was one time that stood out above all the others, though, and it happened about two weeks before my birthday. The weather had gotten extremely bitter, as it will in mid-western PA, and there was a coating of snow on the ground. Mr. C had instructed me and Tony to go inside of the big silo and rake hay. Now, when I say “big silo” I mean one of those that goes up so high that when a light fog comes you can’t see the top of it. After being given the instructions, Mr. C left us to it. Well, I had to go to the bathroom so Tony said he would meet me inside the silo. When I got back out there it had begun to lightly snow again and the temperature was a bit nippy, and Tony was nowhere to be seen, so I figured he was inside the silo. That’s when I started to wonder how I was supposed to get inside. No one had told me, so I just looked at the structure, saw these rungs built onto the outside of it, and figured I would have to start climbing.
Now, I’m deathly afraid of heights, but this was my job, and I climbed on the tractor positioned directly under the rungs in order to reach the lowest one, hoisted myself up, and began to climb. One by one I conquered those rungs and the increasing wind that scared me enough from one moment to the next, until I made it all the way to the top. As I stuck my head inside the opening at the top and looked down at the nearly 20 foot drop a lump caught in my throat. Tony was down there raking, and he looked up at my approach. He asked me why I didn’t just use the ladder inside the silo, and he pointed to it on the other side of the large basin. Damn.
I didn’t jump for fear I would break my leg, so there was only one other option. I had to climb back down. So I did, hand over hand, foot over foot, one rung at a time until I finally made it back to the tractor, and then back to the ground. Once I got down there I was shaking so much that I had to sit down. Mr. C materialized from nowhere, saw the state I was in, and sent me back to the dorm for the rest of the afternoon. It was so traumatic it took me ages before I could even look at the silo again, much less climb up even the inside of it. Tony made fun of me for the next month straight. Oh well. I was only counting down the days until my birthday, until it finally arrived and I was free.
But my sneakers, there was no saving them. My mom eventually sent me new ones but until they arrived I wore my work boots to the farm and my church shoes everywhere else. And no matter how many times I took showers throughout the day I always smelled like manure. The only good thing to come from my whole time on the farm was that I struck up a friendship with Mr. C’s daughter, who was also in my class at school, and she comforted me muchly until the end of my sentence, er, the end of the semester. God bless farm girls.