Albert Mast stood on the bumping hay wagon as if it were as stable as a kitchen floor.
“Is this your first time on one of these things?” he asked.
His wide straw hat didn’t move an inch, even as his two big draft horses dragged the steel cartwheels over rocks the size of softballs.
I had driven my car through the mist of early morning to a cornfield on Hyney Hill south of Glen. A half-dozen young Amish men were already hard at work. They agreed to let me help with the harvest and to feed me lunch.
“You have to bend your knees,” Albert said, grinning at my poor balance.
Albert is a scrappy 17-year-old with a quick smile and fluorescent yellow work gloves that clashed with his plain, home-made clothes.
While most guys his age were driving their parents’ car to high school Thursday morning, he drove his father’s team of draft horses from their family farm on Logtown Road to the neighbor’s field to bring in the harvest. When I arrived he was on his way out for a second load of corn.
Forty-pound bundles of cut corn lay thick over the rolling field. From my shaky spot on the wagon I could see five other carts piled high with corn, five other Amish straw hats and a few miles of valley to the north.
Albert demonstrated the corn stacking technique. He hefted each bundle to the far back corner of the wagon by the single twine loop that bound it. As we walked, tossing the bundles onto the wagon, they piled up layer by layer, back to front, until the stalks were jammed in vertically along the entire length of the cart. It was a sort of half mound that looked like a wall of jungle on one side and the side of a porcupine on the other.
“If you build it right, you can go over bumps as you please,” he said, through a thick accent.
Albert and the others shouted back and forth in high German, their first language, as wagon after wagon was filled.
His cousin Benny Mast, also 17, was the most talkative, filling me in on the milestones of an Amish life.
His education ended at eighth grade in a one-room schoolhouse just a few miles away. When he turns 21 he’ll be free to buy land, marry and settle down. Until then he works for his father, at his brother’s sawmill and for neighbors during harvest.
“This is our college,” he said. “We learn by working.”
If the field were a classroom, the Amish men were star students.
“Hey,” 15-year-old Andy Yerdon said to his horses, in a normal speaking voice. His calm draft team walked 10 feet. “Ho,” he said and they stopped.
He didn’t even have to touch the reins; just kept tossing bundles.
“The English ask horses to do things,” he said. “We Amish, we just tell them. They know their work.”
In the hours of cool morning it seemed easy. The workers were methodical. In a career of deadlines, the crisp air and steady physical labor seemed a welcome change from the usual desk shift.
Then the sun broke the tree line.
“It’s gotten powerful hot out here,” Benny said.
He balanced on his toes on a tiny section of wagon he kicked free of corn. I rode in on the back for water.
Back on the farmstead, Benny tossed each bundle into an ancient rusty shredder that blew the debris 50 feet up into a silo. The shredder was powered by a huge reeking diesel engine mounted to oak beams and wagon wheels at the end of a 30-foot drive belt — the sort of thing that looks like it could take a hand from the careless.
Farm owner Crist Troyer operated it with a few levers and an eagle eye. At noon he shut it down.
Anyone who’s picked up a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder knows the drill. Loose the horses. Wash up at the hand pump and basin. Pray over a giant meal served by barefoot daughters. The traditions remain untouched.
The men and boys talked of the harvest while efficiently putting away piles of mashed potatoes and meatloaf. Last season, tropical storms Irene and Lee soaked the fields, drowning out much of the corn. This year the corn is strong and the mood is light.
After four courses my stomach felt as taught as a punching bag.
Crist at the head of the table wiped his plate with a piece of bread. His 15-year-old daughter Edna came with a few butterscotch pies cut in thick wedges.
“You know why a pie is cut like this?” Crist said. “So when you’re full up at the end of a meal, you can still wedge it down there.”
As Edna cleared the plates and the men kicked back, I asked how I was doing helping with the harvest. They laughed.
“Well, I guess it’s a matter of how you grow up,” Benny said.
Back at the field in the baking sun, the hot smell of drying corn and horse rose into the air. Even Benny, his dark blue shirt sticking to his skin with sweat, admitted it was harder than usual.
“I suppose a combine would do this job faster,” he said, “but this is the way our forefathers did it, and this is how we would like it to stay.”
We put our heads down and worked. The conversation stopped and I could feel the skin under my gloves getting raw, the muscles in my lower back stretching against my spine with each bundle lifted.
Crist just smiled as the loads came in. The family livelihood is based entirely on the milk of their 18 dairy cows. Every one of the eight Troyer children milk every morning and every night. Their fields of corn, hay and oats feed the cows all winter.
Selling the milk brings in a relatively small income, much of which goes to paying back the loans Crist had to take out five years ago when the family moved to the community from Ohio.
Last winter he had to buy feed, which cut into that income. This year the corn grew well, nearly filling the silo from a six-acre field.
As the sun slanted down, the last bundle was tossed into the shredder.
Crist washed his hands and walked into the barn to milk his cows. His children were already there, making the steel buckets ring with hot milk.
“We don’t stop till it’s dark,” he said.
In all, we moved 42 wagon loads of corn, each with well over 100 bundles. Next year the same men will do the same task, as their forefathers did centuries ago. It’s a steady life.
As Benny pulled out of the driveway on his rattling wagon he took off his glove and leaned down to shake my hand.
“Pretty good for an English,” he said.