Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together
SUMMER ON THE FARM
While I was learning to drive the big rigs on the farm, I was also learning how to ride a horse and herd cows.
A cowboy. Me, a spectacled high school kid who spent weekends covering sports for both the high school and the local daily newspaper. I was on the high school golf team, not the rodeo circuit, for crying out loud: A cowboy, me, geez, I didn’t think I would ever live it down.
That summer job on the Curtis farm, deep in the heart of the Palouse district just south of Spokane, Washington, had a lot of firsts for me. Experiences of new things discovered and tried, to be accepted into life or rejected. Driving big grain trucks turned out to be both hard work and enjoyable, and came in handy in years ahead. Herding cows on horseback on the other hand, while romanticized by the Western movies, wasn’t so much fun and was never repeated again in my life.
The Curtis farm, first and foremost, produced gain in the summer and peas in the spring. Wet winters and springs, and warm, dry summers were perfect for growing these crops. This was Palouse country, with 40 to 80-feet of rich black volcanic soil, just 100 miles downwind from the Cascade Range volcanoes.
I had never been on a farm in my life, at least never for more than about an hour. This was all new to me. When I heard that I was going to work with the grain harvest team as a driver, and do other chores before the harvest started in July, I said “Sign me up!” I didn’t know I was about to experience life as a cowboy. But wait, I thought, cowboy life couldn’t be all bad: The Long Ranger and Tonto, the Bonanza boys, Gunsmoke, and Will Rogers. Yes sirree, I was ready to be a cowboy!
Life as a cowboy was a bit of disappointment. Well ok, it sucked.
Cowboy life in the 1960’s was a lot more than herding cows.
The day started in the dingy, dirty bunk house that I shared with a college kid, the other “hired hand” prior to the harvest crew coming in. It was home for the summer. A shack, really, with a bathroom and shower carved out under the building.
After a big breakfast at the farm house, prepared by the lovely Mrs. Curtis each day, my cowboy day started by moving irrigation pipe. There was some pasture land down on the river bottom that was irrigated using sprinklers pumping water out of the Palouse River. These sprinklers were mounted on long pipelines, pipelines as long as the pasture was wide, that had to be moved once every 24 hours, all summer long. Moving those pipes, each section maybe 25 feet long, was this cowboy’s job on the farm.
I hated that job. I’d wear fishing waders to keep dry in the waist - high pasture grass or alfalfa that had just gotten a good 24 hour soak. I’d have to pick up those pipes and hold them over my head like bar bells, 25-foot long bar bells, then squish through the mud for maybe 150 feet to lay the line in a new location. The job would take three or four hours every day.
Ah, the life of a cowboy: That alfalfa I irrigated all summer was cut a couple of times using a tractor and mower. Formed and tied into bales, it was used to feed the cows all winter. Mowing and bundling was the easy part. The cowboy part was picking those bales off the ground and throwing them up onto the bed of a truck. Then tossing those 100 pound bales from the truck up into the loft of the barn. I built up muscles that summer I never knew I had. This was not a job for sissies!
Then Mr. Curtis, terrific guy that he was (he’s still alive today, living in Pullman, WA, and must be pushing 90 years old), decided that a part of my cowboy life was to be spent as a painter. I spent weeks – it felt like years -- painting fences, wooden boarded fences, at least two or three miles worth, painting sides, three boards tall, and all very white. There was and old barn I painted, too, red of course, standing on scaffolding 20 to 30 feet in the air. I didn’t mind the painting, I had KRJ Radio from Spokane playing 1960’s summer rock & roll to keep me company through those long, warm afternoons, it was the rickety scaffolding on that barn that I didn’t like, swaying in breeze.
Oh, yes, the cowboy part of the story: Curtis had a hundred cows or so on the farm, mostly in the pastures I was irrigating each day. We would move the cows from one pasture to the next, sometimes a couple of miles apart, riding horses and using a couple of the farm dogs to help herd those little doggies along. We would follow farm roads linking the pastures. It was actually kind of pleasant, once I figured out how to aim the horses and how to command the dogs. Nothing very exciting happened with those cows, they just kind of walked slowly up the road to the next pasture, with us cowboys bringing up the rear on the horses. And as long as nothing happened, if I just had to follow along, I did fine. When a cow strayed off and I had to be chased back to the herd by maneuvering the horse in front of it, cutting off its escape, well, let’s say it was a learning experience for me.
Do you know how stupid cows really are? Very. Do they following instructions or directions? No. Do they do anything more than sit in the grass and chew cud? No. Do they go their own way when you move them to the next pasture? Of course, I didn’t even need to be there for all the good I did. Do your hip joints hurt like the dickens after a few hours in the saddle? Yes. Was herding cows really a cowboy’s job? I guess it was, certainly a hell of a lot more fun than repairing barbed wire or bucking bales or painting miles of wood fence. Really, I decided, the cowboy life was not really my idea of a good career path.
Let me mention Mr. Curtis. Bob Curtis was well-known as the “Voice of the Vandals” in the region and through the state of Idaho as the radio broadcast voice for 47 years of University of Idaho football and basketball games. I had been listening to him, often with my father on Saturday afternoons, for years before I ended up on his farm. He had a booming voice that was backed up by a razor sharp mind. I was in awe of him, and I still admire him years later.
Below is Bob Curtis (right) along with my cousin Gene Hamblin (left), my father (middle) on their way to a football game in Houston. The Idaho football team lost, as I recall, by a score of about 77-0, maybe their biggest loss in history. Cousin Gene was the “color” man to Curtis for many years, and Dad was often in attendance too.
(you can click on this picture to make it easier to see)
Finally the grain harvest came to the farm in late July. I drove a gasoline powered grain truck (not the big diesel rig) that would come along side of the combine in the field. The combine driver would unload its wheat into the trunk bed and I would drive it then to a small elevator on the farm. Usually the combined operator would stop his giant John Deere combine to unload, but not always, sometimes the unloading operation was occur as both truck and combine were moving across the fields.
We harvested for weeks in that area, first the Curtis farm, then others nearby. From early morning until dark, the race was always on to get the wheat in while it was perfectly ripe. When the harvest was done in that area, we drove 60 miles north and harvested another group of farms. They were long days, warm days, the grain dust got into every crevice of your clothes, it itched your skin and your eyes, and that shower late in the day before a big farm diner was the most welcomed relief.
There were two items we were very careful about during the harvest: The exhaust systems of the grain trucks ran very hot, and catching tinder dry grain on fire was always a concern. We always kept the trucks onto the cut side of the combines and out of the tall grain.
Grain dust is very explosive particularly when compressed. Grain elevators were blowing up and burning down constantly in those years, through-out grain country. When the wheat is dumped out of trucks, it creates a thick dust that comes from the husk of the kernel. A cigarette, a spark, anything can set it off. That was another constant concern.
But I escape calamity that summer, there were no grain fires or exploding elevators while I was on the farm. The very good news about the harvest for me was that I was relieved of moving the hated irrigation pipe each morning as it was finally someone else’s turn to have all that fun.
For a high school kid’s first and only year on the farm, the harvest was the highlight. It was long, it was tiring, it was hot, it was dirty, and it was rewarding work. Playing cowboy on the farm, well, that wasn’t quite so much. Did a future career path for me include farming? Nope, I can say, it did not. Any regrets that it did not? Nope, I can say, not a one.
(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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