It’s been thirty years but perhaps you remember me. I worked for you one summer. I was fourteen and in need of a challenge and some independence. My dad was the ranger at Ashland [Montana]. Somehow he heard that you might be willing to take on a kid in need of work. I don’t recall the details and perhaps I was never privy to them. In any event, I lived in the old house opposite your newer one, ate meals with your family, and worked. I still look back with a great deal of pleasure on that time.
It was surely something of a risk when you let me drive your truck, tractor, and swather. Maybe you had more confidence in me than I had in myself. I have to admit, I was nervous when I first climbed up into the cab of the swather. After a day or two you left me alone on a remote mountain pasture (without a cell phone!) to cut the hay, and when the teeth of the sheers broke off, I had to replace them on my own, for the day was passing and I knew you expected the work to be done. I look back now slightly amazed that you would trust such machinery to a fourteen-year-old kid. But at the same time, it was that kind of responsibility that forced me to grow up.
The day before I started working for you, my dad sat me in a Forest Service pick-up truck and explained to me how to drive a stick shift. Because it was a government vehicle, he couldn’t let me actually drive it, but he thought there was a chance I’d need to know how to operate a manual transmission, so he had me practice pushing down the clutch and changing gears. As luck would have it, the first day on the job, you asked me to drive your truck back to the ranch. Your six-year old daughter asked if she could ride with me. I was a little surprised when you said she could. As I climbed into the cab, and saw the stick shift, I knew that the time of trial was upon me. How I longed for a bit of practice unobserved by little Rochelle, who would no doubt carry a full report back to her daddy if the new kid struggled. Or what if I couldn’t even get the truck to move? It turned out my dad’s lessons paid off. With a couple of lurches, we started off, and though I don’t think I moved past second gear that trip, we made it safely home.
Three times a day we ate together in your home, unless of course, the work required that we pack a lunch. I don’t recall much about anything except the breakfasts. They were large and filling and eaten while the sky was just getting light. Sausage, bacon, or ham with eggs scrambled or fried. And biscuits, pancakes, or grain muffins that were always slathered in butter and dowsed in syrup. We never lingered over the breakfasts, but you would use those brief minutes to tell me what I would be doing for the day. Then you pushed back, rose with purpose that bordered on haste but never really was, and the day was underway.
I recall a long horse ride through the hills in search of a lost bull. We found a cow and her calf. The cow had a prolapsed uterus and I was impressed and amazed at how you cleaned her, stuffed the mass back in place, and stitched her up (I was holding the cow’s tail and consequently had a front row seat). I recall the solitude of walking what seemed like endless miles of fences, with a roll of barbed wire over my shoulder, a wire stretcher in hand, and pliers, a hammer, and fence tacks in my pockets. I recall spraying for, was it devil’s club? I nearly tipped the tractor over a couple of times as the tank on the back made things a bit unstable. I recall hitting a fence in the calf pasture with the boom of the swather. At lunch you merely asked me if anything had happened that morning—I assume you had noticed the fence. I was afraid you’d be upset, but you quietly said, “you’d better fix that after lunch.” I was relieved and grateful. I recall getting the conditioner of the swather clogged with thick stalks of mustard and laying on my belly cutting and pulling things clear. And I recall one Friday afternoon when you handed me a check and told me that you had been figuring my work at $10 per day. The check was in the amount of $190 and when I put that in my pocket, I think I would have done anything for you.
Today I have three boys of my own. The oldest will be 14 this summer—the same age I was when I worked for you. He’s got a job working for a neighbor, and it’s good for him. He’s tall and mature for his age. More mature than I was. His brothers are fine young men as well. I’m trying to raise them to appreciate the goodness of work and to develop a sense of responsibility for the work they do.
I look back to my formative years in Montana with affection and high regard. My time at your ranch looms large in my memory even though it was just one summer. I want to thank you for that. I hope that you and your family are well.
Happy New Year,