Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lesson from a barbed wire fence

It was my first job after high school, working for the government irrigating sheep pastures.

My friend, John, and I, along with an acquaintance whose name I forget, reported for work early one summer morning. Since there wasn't room in the shift rotation just yet, the foreman, Frank, drove us out to where a new barbed wire fence needed to be erected. He showed us the materials and where the fence needed to go, and drove off.

Though this was my first job outside the family farm, I had worked with my dad most of my life. The main cash crop was sugar beets, which need a three year rotation. The other crops were wheat and alfalfa. We sold the beets and wheat, but made hay from the alfalfa two or three times a year, and used it to feed a small herd of beef cattle.

Where there are cattle, you need good fences, and my father taught me all about putting up a good barbed wire fence.

With that experience and knowledge, I naturally led out as my two friends and I started in on the new fence for our summer job.

We worked at a steady pace, as I taught them tricks for digging the post holes, tamping* the dirt around the pole, stringing and stretching the wire, building strong corners, and so on.

My family had always enjoyed some laughter and jokes as we drove past government jobs, where, typically, one man was working for every two who were leaning on their shovels. With that in mind, I kept the work going at the pace that we used on the farm.

In a few hours, we were done, and looked back on our work with satisfaction and sore muscles. It was still a couple of hours before Frank would be back to pick us up, so we horsed around the prairie and had a good time. I felt a bit guilty, because my father had always taught me to work for my wages, but we had done the required work.

When Frank drove up and saw the fence, his jaw opened wide. After a moment, he mumbled something about how he'd allowed three days for that fence and didn't know what he was going to have us do the next two days. We were pretty proud.

The next morning we found out that we would spend two days picking up trash that had been blown by the wind into a line of small trees that stretched off for miles. As we did that work, in the heat, the wind and gritty dust, stabbed by twigs and poked by thistles, my friends reminded me of how hard I had pushed them the first day.

Suddenly I understood the men I had laughed at, leaning on their shovels. It doesn't pay to work harder than your employer expects.

*My father taught me how to tamp the dirt around the fence post. Use the handle of the shovel, with the shovel turned upside down, to tamp. You get it really tamped well at the very bottom for six inches or so. Then fill in to within about a foot of the top of hole, tamping every so often, but not so hard. The top of the hole, you tamp really well; use the heel of your shoe, too, and put your weight into it. A post put in this way won't wobble back and forth.