Tom Clyde: Fixing fence is a sworn, and swearing, duty
There is a time and a season for everything, and when it comes to patching the fences around the ranch, that season is early May. But you remember that month of incessant rain. I couldn’t find anybody to hire for the job, and when I did, we got rained out. Nothing happened. There are a lot of reasons for fencing in May. First off, the cows aren’t here. Also, the grass hasn’t grown up, so you can see what you are doing, and if you set a tool down on the ground, it doesn’t vanish into the brush. And then there’s the part about the cows patrolling the fence line of each new pasture they move into, leaving a solid layer of poop right where you would be working, if you were stupid enough to be doing your fencing in June.
But I am fencing in June, and from the condition of things, it will be well into July before it’s done. This winter was hell on fences. Trees blew over. Snow piled up and weighed down the branches, which in turn weighed down the wires until they broke. Moose or elk, who could have stepped over the fences, walked right through them, breaking all the wires and knocking out posts that have been there rotting away for 100 years or more.
I finally found a really good crew. Over the years I’ve hired ski patrollers who are in between their winter and summer jobs. That’s been great, and some of them have become friends. For the past several years, one of my sister’s grandsons and his pals have been the fencing crew. They are out of school early — college kids — and not quite ready to start their summer jobs. A week of fencing was a perfect deviation from economics or biochemistry, or whatever else they were studying. But they all graduated, and have fat incomes in the real world. Because we delayed doing the May work until June, another grandson was available. High schoolers.
He had just graduated high school and is soon shipping out on an LDS mission. Nobody would hire him for a month. He had a bunch of friends in the same boat, and we assembled a crew of four really great kids. Some of them knew which end of a hammer to hold, and another showed up with a pair of tin snips to deal with a willow thicket.
They learned the myriad of tricks that can be done with fencing pliers. The fencing pliers are a pair of pliers, wire cutter, hammer, crowbar, and all around lifesaver. I suspect there is a bottle opener in there somewhere. In a pinch, you could do an appendectomy with nothing else. Fencing pliers are the second most important tool for the job. The first, of course, is cussing. In my considerable experience, it is impossible to patch barbed wire fencing without cussing. My Grandfather was a master at it. He could have removed the lug nuts on a dump truck with nothing more than a Scottish Blessing. But I have to admit that nobody was more accomplished than our farm hand, Myrle. Myrle could sit in the truck and by the power of profanity alone, drive a fence post into the rockiest ground around. It was a thing of beauty. Sadly, after only 52 years on the job, he is no longer with us, cursing his way into heaven.
Anyway, while the pre-mission crew quickly took to the job, the lack of profanity was disturbing. “Scrud,” was about as strong as it got, and it took a mashed finger the get even that. They were not learning that essential skill. So we marched on, patching fence without profanity, at a surprisingly productive pace.
There is a wide variety of fencing technique around the ranch. There’s about 12 miles of fence with all the cross fencing and along the highway. So there have been a lot of contractors, hired hands, college kids, winos, and others involved in building and maintaining it. I can kind of tell who did what. It’s always in the back of my mind that at some point, before steel posts and drivers, somebody had to dig every posthole by hand. It’s hard to imagine a more miserable proposition. Though the early pioneers around here were a religious lot, by and large, nobody will ever convince me that this place got fenced without a strong dose of blasphemy.
At the end of the workday, we end up in the barn, mucking out the bed of the truck and the Ranger. There is a bird’s nest of old wire and scraps. One of my crew reached in to grab a handful of scrap wire and stuck a barb right into his thumb. He let loose with a string of profanity that was absolutely appropriate to the situation. These kids learn so fast. It gives me hope for the future.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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