I never knew “hired man” was a derogatory term until my Southern lady of a mother-in-law chafed at my repeated use of the words. I asked what word they use in the South these days to refer to folks who work for landowners. Her reply? Employees.
But you know what? I bet that not so many years ago, folks who did the same sort of work we do here at the ol’ PV were called by a not-so-nice N-word down there.
Another Southerner proved this theory when asked to shovel out feed bunks here at the feedlot a few years back. The shovel ceased before long and the job — a backbreaking, discouraging, and seemingly endless one — was dismissed as “Ni—- work.”
I understand the sentiment, I truly do. “Hired man” is a colloquial expression from my youth, from the area, that simply refers to a person who works for another person. But what could the words actually imply? That a hired man is “owned”? Perhaps of a lower class? Maybe that he does the dirty work which a rich man (a better man?) pays another person to do?
It’s very true that there’s a lot of grimy work to be done at the PV, as on any ranch. (For instance, last month after several inches of rain, one guy spent weeks pumping watery manure out of the poorly-drained feedlot here, with sump pumps and hoses, not because the man who owns this place will ever know it was done but because it had to be done for the good of the cattle.) I can easily sympathize with the sometimes-demeaning and age-old frustration of work like that: why are we breaking our backs to make a few more bucks for a multi-gazillionaire who doesn’t know we’re alive?
Yet that multi-gazillionaire doesn’t know we’re alive because he seldom checks in on us here, pretty much just trusting to the PV employees his multi-million-dollar enterprise.
So — because there is pride in that responsibility (like the Biblical servants who were faithful in managing what their master entrusted to them),
and also because our consciences wouldn’t allow us to do otherwise,
and also because we all truly care about the cattle and the land here,
and of course because we realize what a blessing we have in this lifestyle (largely horseback, unbothered in our rural locale by the troubles and dangers of the rest of the world) —
we hired folks at the PV just keep on keepin’ on, taking care of the place like it’s our own. Like any good field slave would.
Still. When I sit down at my keyboard with a cup of tea in the wee hours of the morning and consider with seriousness the words “hired man” — I mean, really disassemble them — I realize that something about the title is a little hurtful. Not that the words in and of themselves are wrong. Just that they brazenly project what is so unfair about how this ol’ world of ours always has and always will work: money is power. People with money get to call the shots. The rest of us just do what we’re told.
(I had to repeat the “just do what we’re told” mantra to my own mother just yesterday, as she mourned the marketing decisions made concerning last year’s PV steers, calves which we labored over and loved until they shipped out of here at 12 months of age and into the control of other gazillionaire employees, and most of which — as far as she can tell from the paperwork the corporate office sends via FedEx — currently seem to be lost in Wyoming. Why haven’t those steers been sold yet? Mom would’ve sold them months ago, closing out last year’s books and proving that the PV worked hard and made the gazillionaire lots of money — which, as far as my folks have always been concerned, is the main goal of a ranch. But these big corporate ranches these days, they have goals other than making efficient money, which really grates on her. Actually, it hurts her heart; it really does.)
“Hired men” aren’t exactly slaves, because we are paid for our time here and because we are free to leave for another job should greener pastures present themselves. But we aren’t exactly valued either, and our ideas don’t exactly count. (My father has always driven these realities home with two hard lessons for employees under him: 1) unless you have money, keep your ideas to yourself; and 2) you’re welcome to leave at any time and you will be replaced by someone who will be very happy to have your job.) Hired men traditionally have been, throughout ranch country, viewed as mostly disposable. Will my generation be able to change that mindset?
I sure hope so.
Because I know what it’s like to carry a big ol’ red “hired man” birthmark across one’s face. From earliest memory I can remember feeling a part of a lower class. In my limited view of the world I saw in my childhood, a world contained mostly within the borders of the Yellowstone Valley, there were the landowners… and then the people working for them, like my family. Oh, how I longed to be part of that landowner class — not just because I wanted decision-making power, but also because I wore a “hired man” brand which I didn’t like and which I was sure was obvious to others via my awkward and uncouth behavior and appearance, both of which I just couldn’t seem to help. These inferiority issues were no doubt borne of my own insecurity; here at 34, I still feel insecure in many situations, as I’d guess most women do: when I’m with people who have more money than I do; when I’m amongst people more highly educated than I; when I’m with people who are beautiful and proper; and of course (am I the only one here?) I always feel like the giant in the room when I’m around tiny women.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of who I am. That’s not it. I’m just hyper-aware of the distinctions that exist in life and where I stand amongst others, maybe because I grew up imagining (or just respecting?) class boundaries in our rural community. But I’ve learned to force myself through insecurities by brazenly showing my big ol’ hypothetical red birthmark to the world with a dare-you-to-look attitude.
I come from hired folks, and I’m proud of our stay-ability. I’m proud of our toughness. Our family has done all right; maybe even better than all right. The child of a hired man and his devoted wife, my sister made it through med school. And I, well… I can put together a few sentences. And I’m a pretty good mama too.
I hereby submit that we hired folks fill a spot in the circle of life that no one else can fill.
You know, my main goal in life for years and years and years was to buy my own ranch someday. I cried over that dream for a long time, but these days I’ve mostly given up on it. (‘Tis a lie our culture tells our children, you know, that if you dream it you can be it. First I saw that state basketball tournament dream slip by, and now I’ve let the ranch-of-my own fantasy drift off too, just like smoke out the window of the feed truck.)
See, I’ve decided on this: I wouldn’t want a small ranch because, after working at the PV, small endeavors would seem insignificant to me. In the meantime, my life is speeding by much more quickly than I ever thought it would, and I’m afraid there’s not enough time left to save money to buy even a small place. Also, I’m not sure it makes much sense anymore to spend the years I have left working for something I won’t take with me when I die. You know why else I’ve stopped wishing to be somebody I’m not? I’ve noticed that people who have enough money to buy big ranches don’t even have the time or ability to enjoy them; instead, like our owner, they’re jetting to London to manage the pro athletes — or they’re buzzing in just to look at more land for sale — or they’re building another Wal-Mart warehouse somewhere.
See, Mom: good, bad, or ugly, it’s the way our world works. You just can’t have it all. People make trade-offs.
We, the hired men, do have much of what the gazillionaire does not have: like sunrises over cows nursing squeaky-clean calves in green pastures. And sunsets over snow-covered, goose-specked hay fields. Big laughs around the lunch table with the uncommonly crazy common people we work with. We hired men are familiar with the authentic warmth of a splat of fresh cow manure on a crisp white shirt. We know well the musical rasp of a bridle horse chewing his bit. We enjoy innumerable coffee-break tailgate-meetings at which the important matters of life are cussed and discussed. We hired men feel real cold. We feel real heat. We taste real blood and real horse sweat and real singed-hair smoke. We have neighbors who would race each other to bring homemade food if one of us fell ill. And our children — God bless our many children — they join us in our work.
We hired hands have much of all of what it means to be truly alive.
Another good thing? We hired men get a paycheck every month, no matter what… even if cattle prices are low.
And cattle prices are low this fall. Very low, especially compared to the highs enjoyed in recent years.
Here at the PV, most big-picture decisions are out of the hands of us hired folks. Genetics? Bulls show up by the truckload from our sister ranch on the Sun River. Marketing? Trucks show up in the spring to take our feedlot-fed yearlings to grass on a sister ranch in the Shirley Mountains, in a grand plan that connects all the ranches owned by the gazillionaire and makes use of oodles of grass in the Shirleys. Condition of the cattle? Even this category is somewhat out of our hands because we must make the best of pasture-stocking rates handed down from upper management, whether or not they make sense on the ground.
We hired men, like the aforementioned Biblical investors, can only take those coins they entrust us with and do our best.
And this year we have been successful. Weaning numbers this fall at the PV have been phenomenal, even record-breaking.
Pasture-bred mature cows have been coming through the chute this fall over 95% bred. In one bunch weaned at Horse Camp recently, a group of more than 400 head of cows that summered on Froze-to-Death tested 98% bred. Even the 2-year-olds, weaning their first calf and bred with their second, have tested at outstanding rates — up to 95% bred this fall. (That’s the age where we commonly struggle with re-breeds; it’s hard for those first-time mothers, still growing themselves, to raise a calf and keep their own conditions up enough to bounce back with another pregnancy.) And — one more pat on the back here — calves off of mature cows this year are the heaviest this place has ever weaned, averaging about 540 pounds mixed gender fresh off the truck.
I don’t share these numbers to brag, but to convey the simple joy of a bunch of hired men. We’ve surely had years of poor breed-ups here at the PV, and it’s true that this year we’re hearing reports from all across Eastern Montana that breed-ups have been excellent, but man oh man… what a great weaning year at the PV.
We hired hands take pride in it. Not because we’re going to get raises or bonuses because of it. But because we love it like it’s our own.
So are hired men (and women!) of a secondary class? Do we work here at the PV because we’re uneducated… or because we’re the giants in the room… or because there’s nothing else we could do?
Goodness no! That’s China you’re thinking of, where people are categorized and placed where the dictator wants them to be.
Nope, we’re still here in the good ol’ USA. It’s not the land of opportunity like it once was — we hired men will probably never have chances to stake out land and build our own ranches from the ground up. The rich are getting richer and land prices are prohibitive in our country; you’d either have to run into dumb luck to start a place these days OR inherit, but from what I understand it’s not so easy holding on even if you do inherit a place.
The good news is, we Americans do still have the opportunity to freely choose where we want to be every day. And if I had to guess, I’d say that every person who works here at the PV is getting paid to do what she or he would want to be doing if we lived in that perfect world where anyone who wanted to be in agriculture could have his or her own place.
This world isn’t perfect, and so we are indeed hired. But those up above us, they leave us alone for the most part. And so we PV employees pretend it’s our own. And maybe that’s as good as it’s going to get here in this life.
We hired men don’t own the place. But we do own the experience.
© Tami Blake