Most boys look up to their fathers, and I am no exception. I worked side-by-side with my dad, Bill Frankenhoff, for almost a quarter-century, until I moved away to start my writing and editing career. As I looked through family photos earlier this year, I found a few that really showed how our father-son relationship formed and grew.
Dad was born June 1, 1936, and only lived in three places—all in Wisconsin—in his entire life. For the first couple of years, it was a farm outside Preston. Then, he lived for more than 60 years on the family farm between Fennimore and Boscobel. Finally, it was a home in Boscobel, when he and Mom “retired” from farming. I put “retired” in quotes, because he was always interested in what the renters of our farm—and the neighboring farmers—were doing in their fields. It wasn’t uncommon for him to drive around the neighborhood on any given weekend to see what was new. Dad and his father, Kenneth, worked together on the family farm for many years. Dad bought him out in the mid-1960s, shortly after my parents were married and before I was born in 1966.
I illustrated one of my earliest barn experiences in my first column for this blog, writing of when my parents put me in an infant seat in an unoccupied calf pen while they milked cows. It was only a few years later that Dad had his “partner” with him much of the time. It was a challenge keeping pace with his long legs, as he walked the fields or fence rows or crossed a street in town, but it was always fun being with him.
Dad was a big man, standing six feet tall with unusually large hands and feet, so he was happy to have a “helper” with much smaller hands that could reach into tight spaces to assist with items’ assembly. One of my earliest memories is of putting my hand between a battery and the outside engine casing of our John Deere riding mower to retrieve a lost nut or bolt. Even my skinny hand got scraped a little in that process, but I managed to get the piece of hardware.
When I was nearing the end of the fourth grade in the spring of 1976, Dad had recently traded his John Deere 530 tractor for a John Deere 2640 Utility tractor. He wanted me to have a safer tractor to learn to drive, so he began to teach me—first having me move a hay wagon filled with bags of fertilizer and seed corn from field to field while he planted, then moving on to other simple tasks.
The following summer, I graduated to the job of learning to rake hay with a five-bar rake behind the 2640. At the time, many of the fields on our hilly farm had specially made terraces to prevent soil erosion. They were a little steeper than the regular hillside, and, although there was little danger of tipping over, I was nervous about driving along the slope while raking. By the end of the lesson the day Dad taught me to rake hay on those terraces, my left ear was ringing from his repeated shouts of, “Get up the hill!” It wasn’t long before I overcame my fear and mastered raking. I took over, not only that job, but also the maintenance of the hay rake, greasing it and changing broken teeth—again, following Dad’s instruction.
Within a couple more years, I surprised Dad by mastering the Syncro-Range transmission on our John Deere 3020 Diesel tractor. At first, he was afraid my legs wouldn’t be long enough to reach the brake and clutch pedals, but a couple of seat adjustments solved that problem. It became pretty much my tractor of choice.
One dry spring, our corn fields needed to have a rotary hoe run between the emerging rows to break up the crusted top soil to allow the plants to grow more easily. Dad started me out on a field near our house, but we quickly discovered that I had to have my glasses on to see the little two- and three-leaf plants and not run over them with the tractor. (Previously, I had left my glasses in the house while working outside, since I didn’t want to damage or lose them.)
Whenever we acquired a new tractor or piece of equipment, Dad would spend hours reading the operator’s manual, and I would follow suit. I think it helped him to have someone else who had some knowledge of the equipment, so as to brainstorm problems when troubleshooting. I’ve written elsewhere about “helping” him order parts from our John Deere dealer from a very early age, and it’s still among my favorite memories.
Dad enjoyed all aspects of farming, but I think he liked working with the animals just a little better than working in the fields, as evidenced by his heading to the barn to milk each evening, while I continued to work in the field, only stopping to feed calves. We had really never discussed who would milk and who would stay in the field; it just worked out that way. (It could also be that he knew I liked the field work much better than the animal work.)
Dad was a terrific teacher, telling me all sorts of tricks and tips to get a job done more easily. He was also the main family member to ride with me, when I got my learner’s permit to drive on the highway. Most parents, when riding with their teen driver, tend to stay wide awake and alert to conditions around them so as to advise the youngster. After a few weeks, Dad grew so comfortable with my driving on back roads and highways that he would doze off and only wake up when we got back to the farm. And he liked it when I used his truck to go to social events, since it was washed up and cleaned out on the off-chance that I might have to give a young lady a ride home.
I’d intended this installment of Tales from the Back 40 as a birthday present to Dad on his 80th birthday. Unfortunately, he died on May 8, 2016, less than a month shy of that milestone. Since then, Mom and I—along with our family and friends—have understandably spent a lot of time lately remembering all the things Dad did, and this column contains only a few of the memories of my smart, skilled, hard-working, caring father.
Do you have special memories of working with your dad? Share them in the comments below.