Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sweatin’, Smokin’, Drinkin’, and Cussin’

Lessons Learned
Sweatin’, Smokin’, Drinkin’, and Cussin’
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            The silks are off.
            It’s too hot to wear them. The comfort of wearing them in the morning is just not warranted. I’ll find something to do in the pickup if it is too cool.
            My grandfather wore his all year. At least, I think he did. Winter was a sure deal and I saw enough hints of them in the summer that it makes me think he wore them then, too. The difference in his and mine is the material. I like silk and I know he wore only cotton. His options were fewer, but he wouldn’t have bought the more expensive silk. He was wired to be thrifty in everything. His choice, though, was probably more practical. The difference in the two is the bulk created. I don’t care for it.
            In the winter, mine provide light weight warmth. His provided warmth in winter and cooling in summer. People who have never experienced the evaporative cooling that comes along with sweating don’t understand its practicality. I prefer to rely on my long sleeved shirts without all the bulk.
            You have to sweat profusely to get the evaporative cooling started, but you can withstand high temperatures. I look at people who think they have to shed clothes and expose skin to be cool and it makes me shudder. I already have enough exposed, sun damaged skin. Adding sunburn to reduced cooling, and … it is no longer a picnic I’ll join.
            It’s branding time.
            It is a time I look forward to and dread. I look forward to the immensity of tradition. It was basic in the formulation of childhood impressions. It was a wondrous time to ride with the adults and work cattle under whatever conditions the day brought. As kids, we were expected to not just fill a spot but perform. Those grand old horses we rode weren’t the plugs we viewed them as then, but old campaigners who had long before served their time in the toughest situations and perfected their craft. They remained because they were trust worthy and solid. They took much better care of us than we ever realized.
            When we left the corral, we were expected to keep up. Our spur rowels rang just like the rest of the cowboys. We opened gates if it was our duty, and we rimmed out if our position in the drive required it. Two or more works and we became a necessary and legitimate part of the crew. Our presence was important.
            We filled important spots in every drive even though that usually meant riding drag. Riding drag makes a horseman out of every kid if he or she has the natural aptitude to learn to feel the horse.
We learned the skill it takes to pen cattle and the methods of how individual brandings proceeded. To save time (which was common), we wouldn’t sort anything. We’d start the juniper and oak fire, and, when the irons were hot, Grampa’ would start roping. He’d never miss the early loops, and most of them he’d just dab down there into unsuspecting calves without prompting any alarm. We had no idea then what we were witnessing. What I know now is that it took a master to keep calves at the fire like he did. With prior experience flanking, we’d go down the rope and flank the calves grabbing a left ear with our left hand and the right flank with our stronger arm.      
What I didn’t like about those brandings was the constant vigil we had to maintain to keep those horned Hereford cows off us. We’d be exposed, and too many of them would come right up there with us and their calves pawing the ground and slinging snot around.
“You boys stay right there with that calf,” he’d say as he coiled his rope and turned back into the herd without a hint of a cue to the horse. “That ol’ cow’s not going to bother you.”
In the midst of the noise and the confusion, there would be the smoke.
It was a wonderful combination of wood smoke from the fire, hand rolled cigarettes dangling from the lips of cowboys, and the burning of hair under hot irons. From sweet to acrid with dust mingled in to add flavor, the mix would fill the air. When the wind was right, it was only a background. As the day got hotter, the air heavy and still with the smell of concentrated cattle, horses, and men working, the blend would penetrate everything.
Today, there are fewer and fewer smokers and oak fires are nearly absent in our country, but I still look forward … to the smoke.
Grampa’ Wilmeth had an unwritten policy.
            Nobody drank (or ate) unless the same was offered to the horses. They always got first consideration. Crowding around a water trough was special. It could be a tight squeeze. The ranch horses would not hesitate as they pushed in and drank deep with some of them plunging their noses deep into the water. Then there’d be the horse or two that would commence rubbing on a bridle or playing in the water. We’d be expected to take care of that.
            It was also a time for gear to be inspected and discussed. Saddles would be points of discussion. Young cowboys would be brought into the discussion, patted on the shoulder or have a hat reset for a more refined look. It was a time of sharing the moment and the event in terms of equality.
            It was our time to drink, too.
We were taught to force drink on days of physical demands. I believe it was a self prescribed decision. I don’t remember anybody actually telling me to do it. Learning the lesson of being thirsty first hand was pretty powerful. I can remember standing in front Nana’s sink and drinking glasses of her cold well water.
            There was never alcohol around those corrals. Seldom was there tea which was the second most common daylight hour beverage around that domain. The sports drinks were not even invented and soft drinks were something only experienced during a town visit or at some get together. Water was the drink, and it was largely from the source feeding the trough where the horses crowded.
            There were various community containers from which to drink. Cans, several cups, or straight out of the discharge from the windmill or the pump were the options. In rare occasions, perhaps a canvas water bag was available. They would be hung on the front of a pickup or under a shade, but what pleasurable experiences those were to drink water cooled by evaporation on hot days. There was a different odor to the water, but the coolness offset any suggestion of unpleasant odor.
            Seldom did my grandfather ever drink, but others would drink. They’d do so with long, deep drafts. We now know about hydrating, but in those times it was done on the basis of knowing the next drink might not be available for a long time.
            Iced tea, milk, and coffee might take precedence when meals were served, but water was the basis of working in the heat. I can remember as a child wondering if there were people who didn’t like water. There were lots of people who wouldn’t eat this or that, but … I had never met one that wouldn’t drink water.
            Too many words used today in conversation are appalling.
            Sure, there was color applied around cow work, but not the vulgarity we hear now. Grampa’ wouldn’t put up with it. In the Fred Ramsey book, These were my People, the continued reference to the “boss” was my grandfather. He was a stern taskmaster who accepted nothing out of sorts and that included cussin’.
There is a great story about him years ago at a rodeo in Silver City. There was a fellow in the crowd using foul language. The profanity continued with the crowd of families and elders becoming more embarrassed. Grampa’ never said a thing, but got up and made his way down to the man. He grabbed his straw hat and jammed it down breaking it around the crown and the brim and shoving the brim down around his shoulders. The force of the action stunned the fellow. Grampa’ then whispered something to the man who got up and staggered out of the grandstand. The crowd applauded.
            I didn’t see it since it took place before I came along, but I can imagine the look on my grandfather’s face. There was likely not a hint of anything just those blue eyes exploding. That was enough in itself to remind you of certain boundaries.
            We didn’t cuss … we learned to describe our surroundings in acceptable English.

            Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Proper lessons learned are more important today than ever.”

No comments: