“Here are the classifieds, find a job. You aren’t spending your summer watching TV.” My mom tossed the newspaper in front of me, and her tone made it clear her command wasn’t simply a suggestion. It was my first summer in Oregon with my mom and stepdad, the result of my parents’ divorce five years earlier and due to the fact that mom had gotten a job in Gresham, Oregon. All my prior summers had been work-filled on the ranch, starting in the spring with branding and moving cattle to high country pasture at the top of MacDonald Pass. Once the cattle were gone, I was busy irrigating every day after school until summer break started. Once summer commenced, preparing equipment for haying season went into high gear. July was filled with weeks of putting up hay, and the rest of the summer was made up of fence repairs and other tasks necessary to maintain a ranch. It all came full circle when the cattle were brought back to the ranch. In Oregon there were no such demands on my time, much to my enjoyment, at least until the moment that newspaper landed in front of me like a prison sentence.
“There are a lot of restaurants looking for dishwashers or waiters,” Mom opined from the kitchen. I mumbled my disfavor at those possibilities and opened up the classified ads to see what options existed. Row after row of jobs, some with good pay, greeted me, but only one caught my eye. Buck bales, clean stalls and a number to call. Mom came over to check my progress.
“Find anything?” She asked as she dried her hands on a dish towel.
“Yeah, I’ll call this one tomorrow morning,” I said, pointing to the ad.
“Why that one? There have to be better jobs out there.”
“Because that one will be around animals and it’ll be out in the country. Why would I want to flip burgers if I could do ranch work instead?”
Mom shook her head and left. My stubborn nature had long been known to her so she chose not to fight my decision, content that I would at least be doing something that didn’t involve the TV or playing hoops with the neighborhood kids.
The phone call the next morning put me into contact with an elderly man named Kernel, who had a Simmental cattle and Appaloosa horse ranch south of town. Though a good five inches shorter than me, Kernel carried his nearly seventy-year-old frame as though he stood ten feet tall. I learned later that he was a retired school teacher and still taught driver’s education courses, which explained the calm but confident demeanor he projected. With a faded yellow ball cap tilted to one side, Kernel gave me a tour of his small spread while telling me what was expected for the job. The first duty would be to clean the six stalls in the barn each morning, followed by feeding and watering his prize Appaloosa horses. When that was complete I would be expected to help load forty-five-pound hay bales onto a trailer pulled by a Chevy truck that looked like it was one gear shift from the junkyard.
When he was done explaining the duties, he asked if I wanted the job.
“When can I start?” I answered.
“Right now if you want.” He pointed me to the barn. “You know you’re the first local kid to answer my ad. I usually only get the migrant workers. The kids around here would rather wait tables; seems it is cooler to do that than shovel manure and buck bales. Why you doing it?”
I shared that I had grown up on a ranch, so working around horses and cows was as comfortable to me as anything. Kernel nodded his head and the deal was done.
For three summers and a few Christmas breaks, I worked for Kernel. I don’t know how many tons of hay I bucked or how many wheelbarrows full of horse manure I mucked, but it was all good. After the first month, I apparently earned enough of Kernel’s trust that he asked if I would go with him to horse auctions around the state. Jumping at the chance, I said yes, though I later learned that Kernel just wanted me to tag along so he could have someone drive him home since the auctions ended late and he tended to doze off that far into the evening. Still, it was fun to be around cowboys, ranchers, and the simple, almost forgotten world of rural America. For summers away from my beloved Montana, I truly did enjoy my time working for Kernel.
One of my fondest memories of those summers were the battles that ensued between myself and Kernel’s horse, Rock. The big stud Appaloosa was a proud and mischievous cuss who challenged me the first time I dared enter his stall. Growing up with horses, I was never afraid but knew well enough to pick my battles and not become careless around the fifteen-hundred-pound equine attitude problem.
After several weeks, Rock accepted me, and we fell into a morning routine that, to this day, makes me smile when thinking about it. After cleaning stalls, I would toss a couple bales of hay down from the loft to feed all of the horses. They knew what was happening the moment I started to climb the ladder, so by the time I had climbed back down and was cutting bale strings, the whole herd was excited. Carrying armfuls of hay to each manger, I would go down the line until I came to Rock’s stall. Now, here is where things became interesting. You see, Rock was a little impatient and had a nasty habit of biting if his breakfast wasn’t served quickly enough. Rock’s bite wasn’t just a playful nibble; it was a full on bite that would leave one heck of a mark. After learning this painful lesson for the first time, the following day I waited for Rock to lean out to try and grab my arm. Then, with a quick flick, I slapped his nose. The slap wasn’t strong but it contained enough force to cause Rock to pull back and shake his head in annoyance. This would go on a few times before he would back off, allowing me to finish delivering his meal in peace.
As the daily battle between Rock and I occurred, and I realized that Rock was actually enjoying the game. He would try different approaches in his sneaky horse-like attempts at gaining the upper hand. Each time, I would insert my counterattack and the volley would be exchanged prior to me placing hay in the manger.
One day while feeding, I was unaware that Kernel was watching us. As I got to Rock’s stall, the game started in earnest and Rock was a bit more cantankerous than normal, though I now suspect it was because he knew his rider was present. After two attempted bites by the horse and my retaliatory slaps to his nose, I heard a voice boom behind me.
“What the hell are you doing picking on my horse?!”
I turned, wide-eyed, figuring I was about to be fired at best or have my butt kicked at worst. Yet, when I glanced at Kernel, I spied a glint in his eye that betrayed his false gruffness.
“He started it,” I said, pointing to Rock.
“Yeah, I don’t doubt it. Rock has a knack for that.” Kernel laughed.
It was in that moment I knew I had found my perfect summer job. Following the three summers I worked for Kernel, I had to say goodbye as I headed off to attend school at Montana State University. I never saw Kernel or Rock again, but I’m thankful I got to know both of them. Mostly, though, I’m thankful I went with my gut in choosing that job over what everyone else my age was doing. Perhaps that is the lesson in it all. Hard work, doing something you love, really isn’t hard work at all. In fact, it is a blessing compared to doing easy work that you hate.
My battles with Rock were an inspiration for the relationship between Jim and Comanche, characters in my second novel, Lost Horse Park. I’m currently finishing its final edits and will be soliciting publishing agents later this month. If you want to know more about my efforts as a writer, be sure to check out my Facebook and Twitter pages. You can also learn more about me at my website www.troykechely.com There you can also purchase my first novel, Stranger’s Dance.