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Summer fun can be back-breaking

Date: 7/11/2011

By G. Michael Dobbs, Managing Editor

My mind is wandering to a multitude of subjects this week. I chalk it up to the summer now in full bloom.

Although I always enjoyed the season, as a kid the only thing more odious than picking strawberries — a back-breaking labor that involved making sure you were not stepping on any vines — was baling hay on our small farm.

For those of you city slickers who have never had the pleasure, the routine is to cut the tall grass in a hay field, rake it into rows, allow it to dry and pray for no rain. When it has dried, you run it through a device that spits out 65-pound bales of grass.

Our job was either to pick up the bales and put them on a truck to carry back to the barn or ride in a large trailer behind the baler and stack the bales accordingly as the machine shot them out.

Yes, “shot them” as the standard hay baler was part cannon and you soon learned what could happen if you turned your head away from the business end of it: a flying bale would crease your noggin.

Naturally, all of this activity would take place on the hottest days of the summer. I used to take a long-sleeved shirt, drench it in water and wear it soaking wet, knowing full well in a little while it would be dry again.

Ah, the salad days.

As a kid on a farm, you developed a hierarchy of least preferred chores. I much preferred shoveling out the barn even in summer heat than baling hay. I even preferred plucking chickens — an activity that took up much of my summer vacation between junior and senior years of high school — to baling hay.

And if you ever spent hours dunking a chicken carcass in warm water and pulling out the feathers, you’ll understand how much I hated baling hay.

This is why if I hear someone yak about the price of food, especially local grown produce, I wince. There is an amazing amount of hard labor that goes into the production of food and I’m of the opinion that every kid in America ought to work on a farm at some point to get an understanding of what agriculture demands.

The summer is also the time an art — or magic — practiced by my dad comes into play.

I know there are a few readers who knew my dad as a dedicated teacher but did he ever teach you the art of watermelon thumping? A summer ritual for us was the Old Man — using caps, as it is a proper noun — rapping on whole watermelons to ascertain ripeness. Whether or not this was just something he did or came from his father is unknown to me, but I carry on the tradition.

The rule of thumb was to pick the watermelon, that when tapped with your thumb that produces the deepest tone. Reject those fruits that sound like tenors and go for the baritones.

It seems to work, although I do cheat sometimes and simply buy a slice of melon that has a deep red color.

The other day, I found a can of succotash in the market and broke out in a big smile. Here was another summer favorite although it came later than July. Succotash, other than being part of Sylvester the Cat’s favorite exclamation, is one of the best vegetarian meals you can serve.

A combination of lima beans and corn, the dish is simple and sublime when topped with melted butter and a little salt.

Often maligned due to the widespread prejudice against lima beans, this is one of the true tastes of summer for me. Try it and don’t tell your kids there are lima beans in it. They may like it.

Looking out into my back yard the other night, realizing once again that the trees that provided shade and privacy for my wife and I will never come back, I was heartened by one summer occurrence. There among the broken branches I haven’t yet sawed up and dragged to the sidewalk were fireflies at play.

In a world obsessed with celebrity drunks and debating the outcome of murder trials, it is the little things such as a display of dancing light that reverberates with true meaning for me.

Hey, agree with me? Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.

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