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The Butter
James Wagner

The first job I had was picking stones in a field for a farmer in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin. My brother and I did this probably for a week or two, usually in the late afternoon, after school, for a few hours. The farmer’s son was in charge of the day-to-day operations. It was he who my father contacted, I believe, at a weekend baseball game, or perhaps while he was at the bank, where my father worked.

My brother and I went to the farm on the first day, and walked around the open area between the barn and house. We could barely see the farmer in the field, as he was quite a distance from us.

We walked up a slight hill and into the uneven field. It was difficult walking because of the furrows and looseness of the soil. There were also stones and rocks, which we were hired to remove.

We continued watching the old farmer drive toward us. I think I was already wondering how hard this would be, and how hot I would become, how dirty, and how bored. I think these are pretty much the things I always think about whenever I start a job.

My brother and I were probably already making jokes at his expense, as well. I don’t remember the situation exactly, but I would think we were.

When the farmer was near to us, he said hello. We engaged in some brief, small talk, while he sat high on the open tractor. A wooden, flatbed trailer was hitched to the back of it. I had no idea what this was for.

The farmer said to get on the flatbed, as he was going to drive us out to the area where we were to start picking stones.

It was hot, as I remember it.

When we stopped at the designated place, he gave us brief, muttered instructions. I think he also told us which size stones to pick up and toss on the flatbed, and which to leave in the soil because they were small enough to not be bothersome.

Then he began slowly driving the tractor. And my brother and I would walk along on both sides of the tractor, our heads casting right and left and forward, searching for stones.

There was really very little said. The tractor’s engine was the one constant sound. The only thing the farmer would say would be, “There” or “Here”, and point to the rock we had missed. He would always have a cigarette in his mouth, and would usually not remove it to give us the instructional words, so it would sound more like a grunt than a word.

The farmer was a chain-smoker, and obviously had been for years. We would find a lot of tossed cigarettes in all parts of the fields, from other years.

There was one area that we passed that was considerably rocky, and the farmer told us that the train used to go through the field. The stones for the rail beds were still there.

There were times in the walking that I would become annoyed at the farmer, for just sitting on his tractor, smoking, and waiting for us. I grew irritated at him being able to sit. I never mentioned this to him.

One had to be careful about tossing the rocks on the flatbed, because it was, well, flat. If one tossed them on with too much speed they would roll off, or bounce off, to the other side. I didn’t understand why the trailer wasn’t deep, with high sides, like a truck bed.

This is how the job went. This is all we did. With the tractor humming and farting irregularly, and the farmer now and then saying something like, “Here”.


When we finished picking stones for the day, my brother and I were invited inside the farmer’s house for a meal that the farmer’s wife had prepared.

Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin, is largely a German-American community, and so the meals were typically German-American in origin. To explain quickly, this means: sausage. For the most part.

One night the farmer’s wife had prepared a plate of supplies to make cold sandwiches. There were very thick slices of sausage, well over an inch thick, slices of Colby and cheddar cheese, and homemade bread.

But before I could begin making my own sandwich, the farmer’s wife began making one for me. I didn’t protest too much, as I didn’t want to cause a fuss, and was appreciative of her making a meal.

The only problem was, I became caught up in a conversation with my brother, and I wasn’t watching her make my sandwich. When I bit into the sandwich, there was the expected thicknesses of the meat, cheese, and bread, but there was also about a half-inch of cold, solid butter wedges across the entire bread. It was quite difficult to chew, but I managed with the obligatory milk to wash it down.

When I spoke to my brother a few days ago about his experiences at the farm, picking stones, the one thing that initially stuck out to him were the excess stones in the part of the field where the railroad used to be. All I could remember was the butter.

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