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Hay Crew

By Ron Flannery

It was an arranged deal. Not that I was shanghaied, but at the time I was the third party to an agreement I was not fully aware of. It started innocently enough. My parents and I were returning from a fishing trip to Gunnison, Colorado. We stopped for just a friendly visit at my Dad’s friend’s ranch outside of Saguache to say hello. It’s helpful to know that Saguache, located at the north end of the San Luis Valley, is not the garden spot of the west. Anyhow, I had no clue to ulterior motives on my Dad’s part. He may have felt my life as a sixteen-year old city boy in Pueblo was lacking some qualities.

I may have exhibited signs of juvenile delinquency – based on some other stories not told that could be a strong possibility. So, before we left, George, the ranch owner, said to my dad, “Sure, Flyn (the nickname my dad had at the ranch) we could use the help.” I must have agreed it was a swell idea. Officially, I had been hired for the Hay Crew the next summer. Little did I know.

As it turned out, I was the hay crew. Family members filled in the gaps. They included the boss, George; his father, “Dad”; sons Larry, Jerry and little George, all younger than my sixteen years; and a niece from Fort Collins who supposedly came to help with the kitchen, but liked the outdoor work better. Once in awhile, some neighboring cousins dropped by to help. In reality, I became an adoptive member of the family. This was significant in relation to the original deal. They called me Ronald.

The short of it is – I worked on a real ranch. My main job was indeed related to the hay crop. I mowed hay and bucked it to the overshot stacker. The younger boys did the raking. Most importantly I worked side by side with George erecting eighteen-foot high haystacks with pitchforks. Note that all the machinery, with the exception of one tractor, was horse powered. Secondarily, I was also part of the twice daily hand-milking of the milk cow herd, built barbed wire fence, killed and cleaned chickens, slopped the hogs, plowed the garden, cut trees, shoveled out the milk cow stable, and performed all sorts of related work. There were few ranch chores I missed. One blessed exception was the feeding and care of the chickens, which was the sole responsibility of Muriel, George’s wife.

The experience was hot, wet, cold, dry, dirty, scary, painful and tiring. But it was the ultimate, challenging, outdoor adventure and I loved it. I had close encounters with all kinds of animals and wildlife. I fished, hunted and saw the great outdoors up close and personal. Less obvious was the evolving acceptance of me as I was teased, kidded, yelled at and trusted.

The miracle in that adventure was my boss. He was one of those real men who worked the land his forefathers carved from the wilderness. He became the best, most patient, all knowing mentor and teacher in my life. On top of the haystacks with sweat washing streaks down our dusty faces and flying ants in our pants he shared his life’s stories along with hilarious anecdotes of ranch life. Lessons for living seeped into my soul. I never heard him complain.

Later in life I had one of those blinding insights as to the real significance of the hay crew deal. My father, wise beyond my wildest expectations, arranged a gift of love, richness and worth beyond any monetary value. The episode was one of profound learning and growth. At the time I had a lot of fun, developed confidence and self esteem, built some muscles to show off, and had some great stories to share with my city-bound friends. From that point forward, the lessons of hard work, diligence, dirty hands, humor and animal life became benchmarks on which I measured other experiences and people. And, of course, the related memories have sustained me in those times when life seemed a bit too complicated.

There are many stories to tell about that time, such as: the mare who lay down in harness and was beaten by a chain; castrations in the corral; the little wooden water cask; and snakes on the haystack.

Let me begin with the story that explains the scar on my chin. It happened…

Ron Flannery is a Colorado native. His nostalgic stories cover growing up in the Wild West.