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HOME > Classical Novels > Being a Boy > VI THE GRINDSTONE OF LIFE
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If there is one thing more than another that hardens the lot of the farmer-boy it is the grindstone. Turning grindstones to grind scythes is one of those heroic but unobtrusive occupations for which one gets no credit. It is a hopeless kind of task, and, however faithfully the crank is turned, it is one that brings little reputation. There is a great deal of poetry about haying—I mean for those not engaged in it. One likes to hear the whetting of the scythes on a fresh morning and the response of the noisy bobolink, who always sits upon the fence and superintends the cutting of the dew-laden grass. There is a sort of music in the "swish" and a rhythm in the swing of the scythes in concert. The boy has not much time to attend to it, for it is lively business "spreading" after half a dozen [Pg 39] men who have only to walk along and lay the grass low, while the boy has the whole hayfield on his hands. He has little time for the poetry of haying, as he struggles along, filling the air with the wet mass which he shakes over his head, and picking his way with short legs and bare feet amid the short and freshly cut stubble.

But if the scythes cut well and swing merrily it is due to the boy who turned the grindstone. Oh, it was nothing to do, just turn the grindstone a few minutes for this and that one before breakfast; any "hired man" was authorized to order the boy to turn the grindstone. How they did bear on, those great strapping fellows! Turn, turn, turn, what a weary go it was. For my part, I used to like a grindstone that "wabbled" a good deal on its axis, for when I turned it fast, it put the grinder on a lively lookout for cutting his hands, and entirely satisfied his desire that I should "turn faster." It was some sport to make the water fly and wet the grinder, suddenly starting up quickly and surprising him when I was turning very slowly. I used to wish sometimes [Pg 40] that I could turn fast enough to make the stone fly into a dozen pieces. Steady turning is what the grinders like, and any boy who turns steadily, so as to give an even motion to the stone, will be much praised, and will be in demand. I advise any boy who desires to do this sort of work to turn steadily. If he does it by jerks and in a fitful manner, the "hired men" will be very apt to dispense with his services and turn the grindstone for each other.

This is one of the most disagreeable tasks of the boy farmer, and, hard as it is, I do not know why it is supposed to belong especially to childhood. But it is, and one of the certain marks that second childhood has come to a man on a farm is that he is asked to turn the grindstone as if he were a boy again. When the old man is good for nothing else, when he can neither mow nor pitch, and scarcely "rake after," he can turn grindstone, and it is in this way that he renews his youth. "Ain't you ashamed to have your granther turn the grindstone?" asks the hired man of the boy. So the boy takes hold and turns himself, till [Pg 41] his little back aches. When he gets older he wishes he had replied, "Ain't you ashamed to make either an old man or a little boy do such hard grinding work?"

Doing the regular work of this world is not much, the boy thinks, but the wearisome part is the waiting on the people who do the work. And the boy is not far wrong. This is what women and boys have to do on a farm,—wait upon everybody who "works." The trouble with the boy's life is that he has no time that he can call his own. He is, like a barrel of beer, always on draught. The men-folks, having worked in the regular hours, lie down and rest, stretch themselves idly in the shade at noon, or lounge about after supper. Then the boy, who has done nothing all day but turn grindstone, and spread hay, and rake after, and run his little legs off at everybody's beck and call, is sent on some errand or some household chore, in order that time shall not hang heavy on his hands. The boy comes nearer to perpetual motion than anything else in nature, only it is not altogether a voluntary motion. The time that [Pg 42] the farm-boy gets for his own is usually at the end of a stent. We used to be given a certain piece of corn to hoe, or a certain quantity of corn to husk in so many days. If we finished the task before the time set, we had the remainder to ourselves. In my day it used to take very sharp work to gain anything, but we were always anxious to take the chance. I think we enjoyed the holiday in anticipation quite as much as we did when we had won it. Unless it was training-day, or Fourth of July, or the circus was coming, it was a little difficult to find anything big enough to fill our anticipations of the fun we would have in the day or the two or three days we had earned. We did not want to waste the time on any common thing. Even going fishing in one of the wild mountain brooks was hardly up to the mark, for we could sometimes do that on a rainy day. Going down to the village store was not very exciting, and was on the whole a waste of our precious time. Unless we could get out our military company, life was apt to be a little blank, even on the holidays for which we [Pg 43] had worked so hard. If you went to see another boy, he was probably at work in the hayfield or the potato-patch, and his father looked at you askance. You sometimes took hold and helped him, so that he could go and play with you; but it was usually time to go for the cows before the task was done. There has been a change, but the amusements of a boy in the country were few then. Snaring "suckers" out of the deep meadow brook used to be about as good as any that I had. The North American sucker is not an engaging animal in all respects; his body is comely enough, but his mouth is puckered up like that of a purse. The mouth is not formed for the gentle angle-worm nor the delusive fly of the fishermen. It is necessary therefore to snare the fish if you want him. In the sunny days he lies in the deep pools, by some big stone or near the bank, poising himself quite still, or only stirring his fins a little now and then, as an elephant moves his ears. He will lie so for hours,—or rather float,—in perfect idleness and apparent bliss.

[Pg 44]

The boy who also has a holiday, but cannot keep still, comes along and peeps over the bank. "Golly, ain't he a big one!" Perhaps he is eighteen inches long, and weighs two or three pounds. He lies there among his friends, little fish and big ones, quite a school of them, perhaps a district school, that only keeps in warm days in the summer. The pupils seem to have little to learn, except to balance themselves and to turn gracefully with a flirt of the tail. Not much is taught but "deportment," and some of the old suckers are perfect Turveydrops in that. The boy is armed with a pole and a stout line, and on the end of it a brass wire bent into a hoop, which is a slipnoose, and slides together when anything is caught in it. The boy approaches the bank and looks over. There he lies, calm as a whale. The boy devours him with his eyes. He is almost too much excited to drop the snare into the water without making a noise. A puff of wind comes and ruffles the surface, so that he cannot see the fish. It is calm again, and there he still is, moving his fins in peaceful security. The boy lowers his [Pg 45] snare behind the fish and slips it along. He intends to get it around him just back of the gills and then elevate him with a sudden jerk. It is a delicate operation, for the snare will turn a little, and if it hits the fish he is off. However, it goes well, the wire is almost in place, when suddenly the fish, as if he had a warning in a dream, for he appears to see nothing, moves his tail just a little, glides out of the loop, and, with no seeming appearance of frustrating any one's plans, lounges over to the other side of the pool; and there he reposes just as if he was not spoiling the boy's holiday.

This slight change of base on the part of the fish requires the boy to reorganize his whole campaign, get a new position on the bank, a new line of approach, and patiently wait for the wind and sun before he can lower his line. This time, cunning and patience are rewarded. The hoop encircles the unsuspecting fish. The boy's eyes almost start from his head as he gives a tremendous jerk, and feels by the dead-weight that he has got him fast. Out he comes, [Pg 46] up he goes in the air, and the boy runs to look at him. In this transaction, however, no one can be more surprised than the sucker.

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