In keeping with the travel motif I seem to be stuck in, the following is a reminiscence of 1965. After high school graduation, myself and a friend, Gene Miller, hit the road in my red Corvair, determined to see the world. I was 17, the draft and Vietnam war would nip at my heels the following year and I was determined to live a little bit before a died a lot. After a series of odd jobs–picking melons in the Mohave desert, picking cherries in Oregon, cutting timber in Canada–and after living on a diet of doughnuts and Dairy Queens, Gene and I one day bought a couple of cowboy hats and decided to become Wyoming cowboys. But first, even he-man cowboys gotta eat. As the folksinger, Joan Baez, sang so appropriately and raptly, “In the summer of ’65, when the hungry wuz just barely alive. . . . “
“Look at all those dead soldiers,” I said to Gene as we drove beside a pretty pasture wedged between the road and the hills. There were hundreds of hay bales just laying there.
“Alright! Let’s do it,” replied Gene.
We had reached a point about thirty miles southeast of Sheridan, Wyoming. Although the Bighorn Mountains still towered to the west, we were now surrounded by pure prairie near a “T” in the road called Ucross. Easing the Corvair off the highway and onto a gravel road, I entered the driveway and stopped outside an old, two-story home. With our dime store cowboy hats set low for business, Gene and I walked through the gate to the house. Before we could knock, we heard a “Can I help you?” shouted from off to our side. Walking over to the corral, we met a large man in coveralls. He had a massive head and his eyes bulged when he stared.
“What can I do for you two cowboys?” he asked
“Howdy,” I smiled in my best Marshal Dillon. “We saw all that hay out there. Do you need any help putting it up?”
The man looked at me for an instant, but by his quick response it was evident that he’d already given the matter due consideration.
“Well, yes I do, now that you mention it,” he stared. “How much do you work for?”
Happy just to have jobs, neither Gene or I could come up with any figure in the one second or less this man gave us to think.
“I’ll give you each five bucks a day,” he offered. “You can sleep in my hunting trailer back there behind that haystack…and you can eat at my table.”
With the contract set in stone, we all introduced ourselves. Oscar “Windy” Carlson was his name, a big, bursting Swede who laughed and raged equally, I reckoned, judging by his great bulging eyes. He ranched sheep and horses in the spring and summer and in the autumn and winter he led hunting expeditions into the Big Horns. Mrs. Carlson (“the old lady”) was in the house cleaning up after lunch, he said. Her sister and brother-in-law from California were visiting and would stay at least another week. Mr. Carlson wore a beat up cowboy hat.
“How do you like our hats?” Gene asked.
“Ha!” the big rancher laughed with a snort. “Those are dude hats. No real cowboy would be caught dead in them.”
Somewhat crestfallen by this comment, we asked if there were any extra work gloves around. These were in stock aplenty. Mr. Carlson also pulled out a very small pair of old cowboy boots. Who they came from we never did learn (perhaps a child), but they fit Gene almost perfectly and they were, as of that moment, officially his. Forget his idol, Frank Sinatra; with his new footwear adding inches to his height, my scrawny, Barney Fife buddy felt like Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey combined.
And now, without any further ado, we began the earning of our keep. Having already sized us up at a glance, our new boss selected the more muscular of the twosome to do the really hard work of stacking bales of hay; the punier of the litter seemed fit only for light construction and thus was given a hammer and nails and told to repair the corral. After taking my position atop an already high stack of bales, shortly Mr. Carlson returned driving a little Ford tractor. On the front was a fork with what seemed like a hundred bales of hay. After the load was dumped atop the stack, it was then my job to grab up each one and neatly stack it, much like a brick layer sets and interweaves a wall. From past experience, I estimated that these bales were some of the heaviest I had ever wrestled with and each must have weighed between eighty and ninety pounds. Hardly had I struggled one load into position, when I would look up and see the little gray tractor returning with another large installment. Had I not been fairly strong and experienced, I probably would have collapsed during the first hour under the broiling sun.
Meanwhile, at the corral, Gene was having a fine time. Through my grunts and groans, I could hear the tapping of his hammer occasionally, as well as his cheerful whistling. Every fifteen minutes, Gene’s addiction forced him to take a long cigarette break in which he would sit himself atop the fence like an old ranch hand. There, he would rest, reflect and admire the scenery. Once or twice an hour he would mosey over to the haystack in his authentic cowboy boots to chat and tell me how lucky we were to actually be working on a real Wyoming ranch.
“Man, this is great…just great,” he laughed. “Wait till we tell the chicks back home…they won’t believe it!”
Unfortunately, I was far too busy and exhausted to be of much company for Gene. Nor did I have the time or energy to ponder how lucky I was to be working and dying on a Wyoming ranch. Unperturbed, Gene would then saunter back to the corral with a carefree smile and begin his tapping and whistling again. Obviously, ranch work suited my friend to a tee.Unbeknownst to either of us, on his numerous trips back and forth from the pasture, our new boss took note of all this. Although there was a low rumble deep down below, for the time being Mr. Carlson kept his own counsel.
Around dusk, the old man brought in what seemed like the hundredth load of the day and dumped it on the stack.
“That’s it, Mike. Time to eat. Do this in the morning,” he boomed above the tractor.
As I eased my body down from the stack to the ground, every bone in my skeletal system seemed alive with pain and punishment. My hands were swollen and sore, my arms and shoulders were on fire, my legs felt like noodles, and my brain was thoroughly fried. Even the lucky parts of me that weren’t sore were harassed by sticking things that had fallen down my jeans. When I had finally washed the dirt and grime off and combed the hay from my hair, I joined everyone at the supper table. Gene was already there.
“What kept you?” he laughed. “We were going to start without you.”
Cheerful as always, fresh as a daisy, my friend was in high spirits as he joked and jested with the Carlson’s sister and brother-in-law. While Mrs. Carlson kept bringing out food, her husband sat at the head of the table, listening to the chatter, but perfectly silent.
As the various bowls and platters began moving around the table, I was unsure if I could even hold my head up long enough to eat. I tried to smile and act polite but I would have much preferred to simply crawl into bed. When the mashed potatoes came my way, I took a dab and passed the bowl to Gene. Still laughing and talking with the others, Gene took enough potatoes to make up for me, and then some. I didn’t bother with the gravy when it arrived but instead handed it on to Gene. My partner needed plenty of gravy for all his potatoes and poured it on thick. Mr. Carlson took note, but said nothing.
When the vegetables came, I took a little, Gene took a lot, and when the roast was passed, I simply handed it on to Gene. Perhaps it was the clean air and bright sunshine, or perhaps it was the great table conversation; whatever it was, Gene had worked up a cowboy-sized appetite and his eyes were already feasting on the meat.
“Man, that looks good!” he said with a big lip smack.
Grabbing a big chunk of roast, he flopped it down on his plate. At the head of the table, the boss’ eyes began to bulge.
There was hardly any room left on Gene’s heaping platter when the bread plate came around. I took a slice and passed it on. Gene grabbed two slices.
With eyes popping from his head, Mr. Carlson at last exploded.
“NOW WAIT JUST A GOD DAMN MINUTE!” he glared angrily at Gene. “NO MAN HAS EVER WALKED AWAY FROM MY TABLE HUNGRY. BUT NOBODY TAKES TWO SLICES OF BREAD!”
Everyone at the table was stunned by the sudden outburst. Gene, of course, was more startled than any. With disbelieving eyes, he stared at Mr. Carlson, a big grin still frozen on his lips.
“If a man works hard for me, he can eat all he wants at my table,” continued the red-faced boss loudly, “but YOU didn’t do a GOD DAMNED thing today!”
As can be imagined, by now I had forgotten my own misery and had straightened up in the chair. Poor Gene. I noticed that under Carlson’s bulging glare, he was slipping ever so slowly down in his chair, still wearing the ridiculous smile.
I do not remember who broke the icy silence following this rampage. Perhaps no one did. But I do recall that Gene meekly placed the two slices of bread back on the plate. And I do remember his reaction after we finished supper in silence and retreated to our little trailer behind the hay stack.
“GOD DAMN HIM!…THAT SON-OF-A-BITCH!!” yelled Gene. “He’s not going to get away with this. THAT DIRTY BASTARD!”
My friend was as hot and angry as I had ever seen him.
“I’m leaving….I’m leaving! THAT LOUSY SON-OF-A-BITCH! Take me back to Sheridan!” Gene demanded as he started snapping up his duds.
Had I not been so tired and sleepy I might have enjoyed a good laugh. The spectacle of that little squirt storming and raging about the trailer in his new hat and boots like some bantam cowboy was ludicrous, indeed.
“Gene,” I moaned, “I’m not going to drive you back to Sheridan. I’m dead. I got to get up in the morning and work.”
“TAKE ME BACK TO SHERIDAN. If you don’t take me back, I’m walking.”
“Man, you’re gonna have to, ‘cause I can’t make it,” I said while flopping down on the little bed.
After several minutes of thrashing about the trailer, searching for a sock, cursing Carlson with every breath, Gene stopped when he heard a loud rap. When I looked up, I saw that the door had opened and Mr. Carlson was stepping in. After a few words about how tiny the trailer was and other small talk, the big, smiling Swede sat down. I noticed that the grin had returned to Gene’s face as well.
“Now look, I’m sorry about that little blowup at the dinner table. I shouldn’t have went off like that. It was wrong,” said the boss patiently, all the terrible red in his face now drained and his eyes safely back in their sockets. “All I ask from any man who works for me is a day’s work. If a man gives me a day’s work, he can eat all the food at my table that he wants. Now Mike here, he worked his ass off today.”
Then, looking back at Gene once more, Carlson’s face started to flush.
“But YOU…,” pointed the old man, his eyes beginning to bulge. “Now you know God damn good and well you didn’t do a fuckin’ thing today! I’m sorry about tonight, but you deserved it.”
Gene’s smile suggested that he agreed.
“Now you two try to get some sleep. We’ve got a lot of work tomorrow,” concluded the boss as he rose to leave.
Hardly had Carlson closed the door behind him and left than Gene’s stiff grin dissolved into an ugly grimace.
“That son-of-a-bitch,” he hissed. “God dammit, I’m leaving! If you won’t take me back I’m walking.”
“Gene, you can’t walk back tonight. It’s thirty miles…and there’s wild animals out there,” I groaned while laying back down. “Let’s go to sleep. I’ll take you in the morning.”
Perhaps it was a combination of factors–not the least of which were “wild animals”–but after stalking about and cussing for an hour or more Gene did finally crawl into bed.
The following morning, after no mean amount of mighty persuasion, I coaxed Gene into the house and back to the dreaded dinner table. Surprisingly, everything went smoothly. Everyone acted as if nothing had happened at the last sitting and Mr. Carlson seemed in the best of spirits. Gene, of course, was noticeably less loquacious than on the previous eve and when the toast tray was passed around that morning, you better believe he took only ONE slice.