J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher
Many good readers of the Fence Post may remember Jim Cheney. He lived on a 10-acre place west of LaPorte, Colo., with a menagerie of companion species that always included a few jackasses.
One day, I ventured to asked Jim why he kept jacks and jennys, given that most of his other creatures offered utilitarian benefits, such as milk, meat, and eggs, while the jackasses simply stood around braying, er uh, burning, hay.
“I need somebody reliable to talk to,” Jim said.
“Really?” I knew there was more to it than that, because Jim phoned me and several of our friends on a regular basis. Everyone I knew enjoyed talking with him, and whenever we were in the area, we made a point to stop and visit with him. Well into his 80s, Jim had worked every Blue Collar job on earth. He’d rough necked on oil rigs, mined with a pick ax, snigged logs on mountaintops, run heavy equipment, farmed, traded mules, mechaniked, and been a ranch hand back in the days of open range.
His work experience had given him a hard-earned, and often amusing, wisdom.
“The real reason I keep an jackasses or two around,” Jim explained, “is: there was a day, not so long ago, when long ears did the work of this nation. They carried ore to and from jigbacks at the mines, they pulled farm equipment in the field, they hauled goods across tricky terrain, and in a lot of the world they were the main means of transportation. Still are in some places. Besides that, remember your 10 Commandments? One of ’em is ‘Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Nor His Jackass.’ In those days, a person’s jackass was mobility, and valued right up there with conjugality. Where do you think the expression, Lost My Ass came from? It came from losing your jackass, meaning you were afoot.”
From Jim I learned that all jackasses are descended from the African Wild Jackass. Not unlike humans, jackasses vary in size, the larger being called donkeys, the mid-size called jacks, and the smaller ones becoming known as burros. Jackasses and zebras can cross breed, creating zonkeys, but more common is the cross of a donkey, or jack, with a mare, which yields a sterile mule. Crossing a stallion with a jenny results in a henny, which is fairly uncommon. There are also strains of miniature jackasses that are known to make great pets, but have some health and reproductive problems.
One day in the early 1970s I called Jim and told him I was having trouble with my new center pivot getting stuck. There were a few soft spots in the new field that needed gravel, but to take the material to the tracks with a tractor would destroy a lot of the crop.
“Come get a couple of my jacks,” Jim suggested. “I’ve got panniers that’ll hold a couple wheelbarrows fulla gravel.”
The jacks were led along the center pivot tracks into the problem spots and dropped in a enough gravel to keep the machine going the rest of the season.
“It’s good to see them ornery things earning their living again,” Jim said.
And so it was that my steel and electric center pivot was rescued by four legs with long ears.
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