I grew up on a farm in South Georgia during the middle part of the 20th Century. Unless you grew up on a farm in South Georgia, during the 1960s, you probably don’t have a clue what that means.
For one thing, farms were a lot different back then. They were smaller, more family oriented, and farmers lived off the things they raised. Oh, I don’t mean we survived on peanuts and cotton seed, or that we weaved the cloth to make our own clothes, but we had sheep and pigs and cattle and chickens and we all hunted and fished, so when supper hit the table, we all had fairly good idea where the entrée came from and usually what its name used to be.
Daddy only had one steer slaughtered every year, and one yearling barrow (that’s a male hog who’s been castrated), but the chicken was a different matter.
In 1961, my parents built a ‘hen house’ that would house ten thousand laying hens. A thousand feet long, forty-eight feet wide, and complete with automatic feeder, watering troughs, nesting boxes, roosting racks, cooling room and feed storage. The first five thousand hens arrived before I was three years old, and the next five thousand arrived eighteen months later.
Since the statute of limitations has expired and both of my parents have gone to their reward, as we say in the South, I feel safe in saying that not all the pullets destined for the nesting boxes survived long enough to start laying full sized eggs. No, usually about a hundred to a hundred and twenty-five pullets got wrung, plucked, dressed, and frozen before the trucks that delivered them had left the farm.
The good news was that we didn’t have time to name them or get attached to them before they hit the frying pan.
Back in those days, children worked on the farm. My Daddy didn’t believe in making children work too hard, so he let me have a free ride until I was six and started first grade. From then on, until we lost the farm in 1972, I got up and graded eggs for an hour before eating breakfast and going to school. When I got home in the afternoon, after I did my homework, I cleaned out the hog pens and then graded eggs until supper time.
Yes, I said ‘cleaned out the hog pens.’ My Daddy had some of the first concrete floored hog pens I ever saw and, as soon as I was big enough, which is to say, taller than the hogs, it was my job to scrape the manure out through the bottom end of the pen and hose the whole thing down. Strangely enough, nobody ever seemed to worry about how that affected me psychologically or if I even gave a crap about having, literally, the dirtiest job on the farm.
Back in those days, the lowest man on the totem pole got the worst jobs. I’m not sure kids today would even understand that sentence, except for the vaguely non-politically correct reference to a ‘totem pole’.
The thing that saved me from a lifetime of scraping hog manure was a sport called ‘basketball’. I wasn’t worth a crap at basketball and didn’t really care about the game, but my brother, who had few redeeming values, was fairly proficient at the sport and, as soon as the team was formed, was practicing every day.
Which meant that I got his job after school, too. The good news is that my brother had been in charge of looking after the cows. This included making sure they were all in the pasture, that none were sick, that the fence wasn’t broken, and fixing the fence if it needed repairing.
About this time, my Daddy hired a woman to grade and pack eggs in the afternoon, so that freed up a little time for me and all I had to do was clean up the hog pens and then check the cattle, which I did in an old army surplus jeep. Until, that is, Sugarfoot came on the farm.
Sugarfoot was, possibly, the sweetest pony I ever met. She was a little taller than a Shetland, but not tall enough to be considered a Welsh pony, but she was mine, all mine. After Sugarfoot came, my life changed drastically.
First of all, basketball season was over, and I convinced Daddy that, since the hogs and my brother were of similar temperament and since I really wanted to be a cowboy and since I already had the horse (more or less) and the saddle, he should let me look after the cattle full time and let my brother take care of the hogs. He agreed.
From that point on, I rushed through my homework. I even started trying to get it done at school. I wasn’t exactly making straight A’s, but that’s another story. As soon as I could, every day, I’d saddle Sugarfoot up and we’d hit the range, checking up and riding fence.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a real job, but with only seventy three head (that year) it wasn’t like I was driving a herd to Kansas City. That did not stop me from giving names to different sections of the pasture. The corner down by the creek was Abilene, the part next to the corral and loading chute was Texas, the eight acre north pasture was Montana, and so forth.
Which led to conversations along these lines:
Daddy: Son, how’re the cattle.
Clay: Pretty good. Most of them were in Abilene when I got home, but there was one that was limping, so I brought it back to Texas and locked it in the corral.
Daddy: Was that a steer or a heifer?
Clay: Big ol’ mama cow with a calf.
Daddy: You didn’t rope the calf did you?
Clay: No sir. Not after last time.
Needless to say riding herd, on 72 cows and a bull named Harold, on a pony involved a little more enthusiasm and imagination than it does on a full sized horse.
Ponies take shorter steps, so it takes longer to ride around a pasture, even one with twenty-two acres in it, on a pony than it does on a horse. It also turns out that cattle aren’t as intimidated by ponies as they are by horses. Therefore, riding a pony into a bunch of cattle could be more than a little nerve wracking, until my parents gave my brother a single action revolver for Christmas.
I don’t think they ever got the fact that my brother wasn’t interested in becoming a cowboy or that I would have strangled Santa Claus for a pistol like that. I had to wait until the new wore off and then traded the .22 rifle they gave me for that pistol.
Of course, loaded with rat-shot and in the hands of an 11 year old, it wasn’t much of a threat, but the first time that big Hereford cow charged me I stood my ground, drew and fired in one swift movement (just like they did in the movies) and shot that cow right in the nose, whereupon she turned inside out trying to get away from me and never bothered me or Sugarfoot again.
That was the summer that, while in Daytona Beach, I saved my ski-ball tickets until I had enough to cash them in for a shot glass that said, “Daytona Beach” on it in big yellow letters. After we got home, I nearly rubbed the skin off my knuckles getting the paint off that shot glass, but I did it. Then I rinsed out the syrup bottle and peeled off the label.
A quick raid to my Daddy’s tackle box and, sure enough, there was a cork just the right size and shape. I filled that syrup bottle up with tea (my parents didn’t drink, and frowned on those who did) and hid the bottle at the back of the refrigerator.
The next afternoon, after checking the cattle and riding fence, I rode Sugarfoot up into the back yard, tied her to the fence, and then clumped inside the house. I’d have given my left arm for a pair of spurs. I walked into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, set the syrup bottle and the shot glass on the counter, and then closed the refrigerator.
My mother was watching me with a look of frank amazement. Make that ‘wide eyed’ frank amazement. I grabbed bottle and glass (just like they do in the movies), and clumped into the dining room, where I hauled back Daddy’s chair and, putting the glass down right side up, poured myself a shot. I corked the bottle, set it on the table and then sat down.
I looked at my mother, then picked up the glass in a mock toast, and shot it down in the best cowboy fashion. Then I said, “How about some music in here?”
Friends and neighbors, I made quite an impression, but I daresay I overdid it just a trifle. You see, there was something else about the 1960s that’s not happening today. It’s a little thing called an ‘ass-whipping.’