Smoke signals and carrier pigeons are just not my style. The cellular phone may be one of our greatest technological achievements of recent history. Some may consider it our greatest curse, too. I fall into both camps, partly because of other enhancements to the technology.
Driving a semi requires you to use a hands-free device for your cellular phone. When you’re in traffic with that size of a beast, making turns in the manner you need to in order to do them successfully, you don’t want to be fumbling around with your Johnny Quest walkie-talkie at the same time. You want to keep it safe and easy.
Instead of going all voice-activation like some people do, I went a different route. I got a Blue Parrot. That is completely different than my wife. She got a Blue & Gold Macaw. Hers sits on her shoulder and squawks at her. Mine rests gently on my head and communicates valuable information to me. Most days, the two are vastly different.
Then there are other days. One of the downsides to the Blue Parrot is that I can answer the phone without looking at the phone screen when I’m busy. That means I can’t screen my calls as easily as when I look at my phone first before answering. Yeah, yeah, I know. “But, Jeff, you can set it up to announce who the caller is and use all kinds of voice commands.”
Here’s why I don’t use voice commands. I work with livestock. The conversation can get active sometimes when you work with livestock. Things work in the right combination and suddenly your frustration with hogs or cattle results in your phone connecting you to a call that begins with the other person saying, “Hi, this is Reverend _______” before you can hang up . . . or get yourself edited for broadcast television and/or the church.
(If you knew my late friend, Reverend Dew, you'd know he got a chuckle out of it. "Working with hogs today, aren't you, Grillmaster?")
So I sometimes answer just by hitting the button on my Parrot. The most productive calls, from a column-writing perspective, always seem to begin with loaded questions.
“Hey, what are you up to?”
Very few people call me for an actual description of what I’m doing at the moment. They almost always have another motive. They’d really like to be part of what I’m doing at another moment very soon, and they’d like their activity or task to be part of it.
Two recent callers followed that pattern with very similar requests. The first one was my wife, Sherill. The background noise in her call was non-existent, so I was fairly confident we weren’t going Parrot-to-parrot in this conversation.
Turns out one of the staffers at Sherlock Shrimp brought his chainsaw to work with him. He trimmed the two trees in front of the school. It wasn’t a minor pruning where Sherill could put the twigs in the dumpster or the back of her truck. Nope, she was thinking Ranch Hand or maybe flatbed trailer for their harvest. Sherill felt this would be an excellent job for me, because she feels there’s nothing I love more than putting stuff on top of wheels and going mo-bile with it!
I would disagree if I could.
I don’t recall exactly what I was doing at the moment, but I didn’t drop it to rush to Ridgeway with a trailer. Instead, I drove there in a Buick a couple hours later to see what this adventure could potentially entail. Perhaps it was just a small pile of branches I could snag with the skid loader grapple fork and take them home in one bite of the jaws.
Nope. That would be too easy. It was a brush pile that you see along curb sides after a major storm rolls through a neighborhood and the city slickers don’t have their own equipment to get rid of it. Although, I only have stuff to grab and move piles. Thus far, I still don’t have my own wood chipper to quickly and effortlessly convert brush piles into smaller piles of eco-friendly and decorative mulch like the city crews do.
Give me time. If only The Hay Cannon could handle trees.
I decided to do some delegating and strategizing. The big screamin’ diesel was hooked onto the flatbed at the moment. If I took it to Ridgeway and parked it on the street next to the pile, I’d have the Sherlock staffers load the brush pile onto it. Then I’d haul it home and put it on my accumulating brush pile for an even bigger blaze at some later point.
It’s not that I’m lazy. I’m schedule-efficient. I could get in touch with the right seasoned citizens and have them give me a ride back home on their return from a coffee session in Ridgeway. My trailer would then be loaded by staff. I’d catch a ride back with someone, toss on a strap or two, and then make my way home with my cargo all safe and secure.
Think ahead a step or two in this chess game. You get yourself home and then you have to do something with this cargo. It would be a whole lot easier if you could push it off with the skid loader and grapple forks/ pallet forks. If the brush pile was placed lengthways on the trailer, it would be much easier to unload. If the brush was placed crossways, it would be much harder to load.
Get real. It’s all about me. Lengthways was the winner in this lottery drawing!
I got my straps put on and headed down the road. Three options were ahead of me. I could go straight on a blacktop for a few miles and then take a gravel road home, or I could go down a gravel road at the edge of town and take a slightly longer route, or I could take the major highway going through Ridgeway.
To keep the chess game interesting, we’d add another factor: road construction. The highway was getting a new coat of blacktop a few miles to the east. There would be one-lane traffic and a flag crew to control people. That meant there would be large gaps in traffic flow for several minutes for traffic heading where I wanted to go. I could fill that gap and hold up very, very few people’s plans if I played my cards right. It would all depend on how securely my brush pile was tied down.
I drove a few blocks down the street to see if anything shook loose. It didn’t, so I figured I was good to go at higher speeds. That’s when I made the turn and headed for the highway. Got myself to the intersection and saw nothing coming from either direction. Having been in the parade of cars post-construction, I knew that we almost always were paced by someone on their way to or from Walmart, so they wouldn’t be making record time, what with barely being able to see over the steering wheel and all.
With a clear path, I pulled onto the highway and cautiously moved over to the far side. My load seemed safe, so I chose a moderate speed as a test. Results were good. Confidence was gained. The gap between the accelerator and the floor narrowed. Short work was made of the trip. Those two other route options seemed barbaric. All gravel with hardly any traffic? Who’s got that kind of time to kill?
The unloading process went quite smoothly. I hooked the four-wheeler onto the back of the skid loader and drove to the timber. Then I drove the four-wheeler home and took my full load to the timber to unload. When I was finished, I did everything in reverse and got it done by myself, what with being An Army of One.
Then came another call a couple days later. Different caller. Same deal.
“Hey, Jeff, what’re you up to?”
Curse the Parrot!
It was a neighbor that I always get a kick out of whenever I see him.
Not much. How about you, Herman?
“Well, I’ve got some trees around my house I want to get rid of,” Herman informed me. “They’re just bushes.”
For you psychologists out there, this is probably called up-selling by minimizing the downside. Herman was trying to add some sugar to this rutabaga.
“I tried pulling them out with my tractor and I bent my loader. You can probably get ‘em out with your skid loader, can’t you?” he inquired.
Even though I don’t have my commodity broker’s license, this looked to me like an excellent time to hedge!
“Yeah, I probably can. Let me swing over and take a look at them,” I told Herman.
Actually, I wanted to survey the site before I said yes or no. Herman has a lot of trees at his place. It is an extremely well-kept acreage that Herman takes great care in maintaining. The yanking-out part wasn’t so much what I was worried about as the driving-across-his-lawn-to-get-to-the-job-site part was. Doing some demo work there isn’t the kind of thing you send any idiot to do. You send a very special idiot.
Oh, sorry. I thought we were doing roll call.
Once again, this would be a trailer and skid loader job. This time, the Ranch Hand was on the trailer. I decided I’d park the trailer on the road, because this acreage wasn’t designed for turning a semi around in the yard.
There were several bushes to be removed. A couple of them had died since last year. That meant they should be easy to yank out. Okay, easier to yank out. These weren’t exactly mature oak trees I was looking at. They were little bushes about four or five feet high and they were right next to the house. How bad could this be?
That’s when I looked at Herman’s loader. Yep, this could be bad. He had hooked onto one of the dead ones. I didn’t ask if the new curvature was from a live one or a dead one. They all needed to come out, so there was no point in dwelling on Herman’s loader issue. PS, his loader wouldn’t start now, either, so it was now a new lawn ornament to work around. Easy is for losers.
First, I’d work with the skid loader to see how easily these bushes would get divorced from the earth. The attachment of choice was one my cousin, Merlin The Metal Magician and the guys at The Steel Shop made me last year. I call it The Jaws of Death. It is a tree-puller/post-puller. There are two big pieces of steel with jagged jaws on them that clamp together with a hydraulic cylinder. You drive up to a tree or a post with the jaws opened up, place the object in the jaws and then close the cylinder to clamp on securely. Then you either lift up if it’s a post or a small tree, or you rock back and forth a little bit to loosen up the roots for bigger trees.
When we talk about bigger vs. smaller trees, we’re sometimes talking root structure and not height. A good-sized skid loader has a lot of hydraulic lifting capacity. A good-sized tree has a lot of in-ground-staying capacity. If you clamp your Jaws of Death a little higher to start, you can move your skid loader forward and back to rock the roots loose from the ground a little bit. That may be a foot or six of movement as you rock back and forth. By that point, you’ll know if your tree is coming out or staying put.
Herman’s bushes had a trunk that was only a couple inches high. Then it was straight to branches that seemed to go horizontal. My target area for the jaws was pretty tiny. Better yet, I was more or less right next to the house, so my rocking back and forth could very well either take off some siding or smash in a wall.
Who wants easy?
Start with a dead one, I figured. If I can get that, my confidence will be bolstered and then I’ll move to the live stuff. First, though, was the biggest hurdle. I had to drive my 8,500-pound skid loader across a guy’s beautiful front lawn.
That’s where past hay deliveries came into play. I learned early on that you need to leave the place looking like you found it when you showed up. One customer was a horse guy and wanted me to unload the bales with a skid loader. He had a yard similar to Herman’s. You don’t do doughnuts with a skid loader in those yards like you do elsewhere. You make broad turns and you do a lot of Driver’s Ed 37-point turns to completely change direction. My hay customer was impressed that his lawn still looked like a lawn when the load was put away.
I decided to assemble Herman’s bushes in a line where I could yank them out, then assemble them and later grab them to put on the trailer in separate moves. All the geometry told me it was going to make me dizzy to do that many Driver’s Ed moves and put the bushes on the trailer the minute I got them out. I could come in at an angle to yank the bush out, back up and make another broad turn to put it in a line, then lather-rinse-repeat a few times until finished. That line of bushes could then be loaded on the trailer at the road in the same manner without doing any 180’s with the skid loader and tearing up Herman’s lawn or his driveway.
It went quite well. A couple live bushes put up a really strong fight to stay in place, but I never touched the siding or the basement of Herman’s house. The place didn’t exactly look like the 18th green at Augusta by the time I finished, but it didn’t look like the aftermath of the county fair’s Skid Loader Rodeo, either.
Herman was kind of pumped as I climbed out of the skid loader cab when the last bush went on the trailer.
“That was slick! What do I owe you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I told him. “That’s what you get for having me as a neighbor. Besides, I sat in the cab the whole time!”
Herman reviewed how much it would have cost him to have someone from town come out with a skid loader or excavator and a dump truck to get everything done and hauled away, and how he’d have to be there in the middle of the week when they did it.
That’s true, I suppose. Almost any idiot could do it for the right money. Herman got it done for a very special price from a very special idiot.
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.
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