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Tales of a Hay Hauler: The learning curve

Brad Nelson for Progressive Forage Published on 29 August 2018

Ron was new on the job, driving a semi. Sleeper team – he was the junior driver. He came to a stop sign, stopped and, when traffic was clear, he gave the truck a little throttle and eased off of the clutch.

Instead of moving forward smoothly, the truck lurched, shook – and then the engine died.

From the sleeper, without changing the cadence of snoring, came a gruff, “Push the button down.”

The common truck transmissions had high and low ranges. You started in low range, shifted through all the gears, then moved the range selector to the high-range position and went through the gears again. The usual novice, and occasional not-novice “oops,” was to leave the range selector in “high” after coming to a stop.

The seasoned driver in the sleeper had probably done it himself dozens of times and was able to correct the current novice “without even waking up.”

In the glory years of hauling hay bales, Leo had a succession of nephews who begged him to teach them how to drive the big trucks and offered to work as his helper throwing hay bales onto the hay conveyer while they learned.

The trucks we were both running were 10 to 15 years old and powerful enough to run with most freeway traffic. Neither of us had an air conditioner that worked, and both trucks needed varying amounts of TLC to stay reliable.

“Dang kids,” Leo would grumble when the two of us were alone. “They need to have started driving in an F-800 Ford grossing 80,000 pounds, like I did. Then they’d appreciate a good 350 Cummins diesel in a truck.”

A year or so ago, I helped some fellows with their welding skills. I used my AC stick welder, which was common to the farm shops where these guys worked.

An “aha” moment was when I realized I had to slow down and exaggerate what I was doing while striking an arc and then moving the running electric arc and molten metal to the spot being welded. With a lifetime of experience doing “spark idiot” stuff, I was moving the tip of my welding rod faster than they could watch. What they thought they saw was me both striking an arc and beginning welding in the same motion.

In slow motion, you must touch the metal being welded with the tip of the welding rod to get the current flowing, then move (drag) it just slightly off of the metal, letting the current arc, or jump, from the tip of the rod to the work piece.

Now with a stable arc, move the tip of the rod to the area you are welding and position the tip of the rod so the arc both melts into the work piece and adds metal from the rod. An experienced welder will do this in less than a second.

Methinks this is part of the learning curve in most areas of expertise. The person with 10,000 hours of experience will be able to perform an intricate movement so quickly the trainee won’t even see it or understand what just happened.

“Why” is just as important as “how.” As soon as they could strike an arc and control it, I had my guys each stand a piece of steel up on another and weld the two together. Then I proceeded to take a 4-pound sledgehammer and break their welds. I showed them the weak spots in their welds, which is why they broke.

Then I made a similar weld. Then I gave the hammer to the guys and asked them to break it. They could not. I now had their attention, and in short order they were all making welds that could not be broken.

If you’re learning, pay attention. If something isn’t clear to you, speak up and ask. If you’re teaching, first get the attention of your students.

Not all who can perform an intricate task can explain to another how to do it. So it would seem teaching is itself an intricate task.

An acquaintance from way back when picked up the nickname “Goofy.” Then I met him again working in the computer lab at college, and he was able to help me enough to pass my required Introduction to Computers course. (This was back when computers operated off of a stack of cards with varying patterns of tiny holes punched through them.)

He could make that archaic system sit up and talk for him, while all I could do was have it spit my stack of cards on the floor and ask me to please leave.

About that time, I realized “Goofy” wasn’t crazy. He just had a mind that worked different from the rest of the group.

It’s called aptitude. Some of us are mechanically inclined, and some are not. Some of us program computers. Some of us can barely follow the directions to make one run. Some of us faint at the sight of blood. Some of us end up in careers that include lots of blood – doctors, vets, EMTs.

No matter what our aptitude and interests are, we will face a learning curve to be proficient at anything. I once heard two experienced hands as one berated a novice for a typical novice error. The second said, “Give him a break. On your first day, you couldn’t even hit your mouth with an eating fork.”  end mark