Leather Handshake

18/07/2011 § Leave a comment

I remember the first time I met Bill Hanson. I was a young man of sixteen years and needed a summer job. My dad told Bill as such, and so, one Sunday morning after church services were over, Bill came up to me and said he could use an extra hand at his ranch over the summer. I could bunk at his place during the week and he would bring me to church on Sunday. Pay was one hundred and fifty dollars a week.

Not knowing what to expect, I said yes to the deal and he extended his hand to seal the deal. When we shook hands, I remember thinking that his hand felt like leather. It wasn’t smooth like a leather wallet that’s been worn smooth by fifteen years of use; it was rough and gnarled like a leather knapsack that’s been abused and left out in the rain one too many times. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his leather handshake was an indicator of his depth of character.

After evening services, Bill helped me load my bags into the back of his truck, a 1957 Chevy. I sat by the passenger window; his wife of thirty-eight years sat in the middle seat between the two of us. Bill had his arm around her like it was their third date and they were, as he might say, going steady. Mary was and is a sweet lady. Bill certainly had someone special.

I remember the first morning of work, too, if you can call it morning. I remember him waking me up at four in the morning, before it was daylight, to begin work in the barn. Since he had five thousand head of cattle, he had plenty of work to do to make sure that they were fed and watered properly. Watering the cattle consisted of putting the water tank in the back of the truck and filling it with water, then driving around the pastures and filling up the various water stations Bill had set up. This wasn’t extraordinarily difficult work, but Bill expected me to do this by myself so he could handle feeding the cattle, so he showed me how to do the first one, and the rest of the stations were my responsibility. He left a map on the dash so I could find my way around.

After all the water stations were topped off, I was expected to go back to the house for breakfast, which was served promptly at seven. I showed up at seven-thirty because I was still getting the hang of using the water tank and I was having some difficulty finding my way around. After breakfast, I was expected to feed and water the chickens, as well as assist Mrs. Hanson in gathering eggs. This wasn’t difficult to do, but I was already pretty tired at that point in the day because I wasn’t used to waking up at four in the morning. The chicken coop, which housed nearly one hundred chickens, smelled horrible. People who say pigs are the dirtiest and smelliest farm animals have clearly never worked around chickens. They have a tendency to poop all over the place, which meant that I ended up cleaning out the coop every other day.

There were a handful of other chores that I was expected to do for Mrs. Hanson before lunch, and those tended to preoccupy the rest of my mornings. Lunch was always delicious, and served promptly at noon each day. Mrs. Hanson would clean up and Mr. Hanson and I would do afternoon inspections. This meant travelling along great lengths of fence ad looking for posts that had been torn down or damaged or destroyed. This usually meant taking the water tank out of the back of the truck and placing boards, posts, wire, and tools in the back of the truck, just in case. The cattle liked to press up against the wooden posts of the fence in order to scratch an itch, and occasionally an enterprising young calf would try his hand at escaping, so we always had to look for damage. Also, one side of his property bordered some woods, so there was a strong chance that falling limbs would damage the fence as well.

After inspecting the fence, we would go back to the barn and inspect the truck and other vehicles for potential problems. We would also inspect all equipment and tools for damage and signs of unnatural wear. The reason for this, according to Bill, was to head off problems before they began. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This was his philosophy and he swore by it. I’m believe in it too because all of his tools and equipment were purchased decades before I started working for him, and everything he had worked perfectly.

If inspections went smoothly, we would handle scheduled maintenance, which is how I learned to change all the filters and fluids that make things run. One day his truck broke down, so he hitched a ride into to town with his neighbor to pick up the part he needed for the repair. That was the night I learned how to rebuild a transmission.

Once afternoon inspections were completed, there was usually an hour of downtime before supper, which was served at six. This was a heavy meal most of the time, and Mrs. Hanson always served her world-famous biscuits. After supper, we head back to the barn to set things up for the next day. We would usually be down by eight, which meant I would have a couple of hours of free time before bedtime. However, I was so tired the first couple of weeks that I would generally go to bed right at eight. Even after that, I was usually too tired to stay up after nine.

This was the routine of my summer that year. Ranchers live by routine, so you pretty much know what you’re going to do every day. This might seem boring at first, but it is incredibly helpful because you don’t need to plan each and every day; it’s already done for you.

After a while, once I got over my fatigue, I would generally stay up and sit in the parlor, as Mrs. Hanson called it, and talk with them. Bill wasn’t much of a talker: his words were few and concise, like he wanted to avoid waste in all aspects of his life. But when he did talk, he usually had something profound to say.

Now, most people want to act like profundity is found in long, complicated words. The truth is just the opposite: profundity is simple and easily understood, at least when Bill was talking. His advice on woman was simple: just find a good woman and marry her. Don’t beat around the bush about it, and don’t be afraid to take a chance on it. He would know. He met his wife for the first time when he was seventeen and she was sixteen. They were married a year later.

He also had good advice on alcohol and drugs: don’t use them. He had good advice on work: work hard and you’ll always be able to find a job. He had good advice on everything and he didn’t mince words when dispensing it. I think it’s because he wanted it to be easy to remember.

Bill always asked me if I read my Bible. Not knowing better, I would lie and say yes, at least at first. He would then ask what I read, and I would make something up. He would then quiz me, from memory, about what I read, and what application could be drawn from what I read. And that’s when I was in trouble. I only tried this twice, and he caught and embarrassed me both times. After that, I made a point of reading my Bible every day, a habit that has stayed with me since.

He was also an excellent Bible student. In spite of being a layman, and never attending a seminary, he had a remarkable knowledge of the Bible. I suspect he must have memorized the entire New Testament, and a good portion of the Old. Bill was familiar with the original languages, due to his use of lingual lexicons. I remember when he showed me how to use one. He told me it would aid my study, and I can say with confidence that he was right.

I was never particularly good at ranching; I never had much of a knack for it. But Bill invited me back to help him every summer until I graduated from college.

I learned a lot from Bill, and have so much to thank him for. Once I graduated from college, he told me that I was welcome back anytime. I’ve taken him up on that offer time and again, especially after Mary and William were born. I wanted to introduce them to life on the ranch, and Bill was happy to acquiesce.

I know I’ve told him thank you on many occasions, but it never seems like it was ever enough. He gave me and my family so much, and I know I can never repay him. He lived a good life, and will be sorely missed, not just by his wife Mary and their three sons, but by me and my family as well. He was a good husband, a good father, and a good friend. And so, at this time, I propose that we take a minute to commemorate this man and his extraordinary life.


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