Today is the 128th celebration of Labor Day in the United States, a day when we celebrate the spirit and strength and of the trade and labor groups and workers. It caused me to think about the idea of work and workers and one of the places that captures that spirit is just up the road called “Bob’s Barn”.
The little towns I know have their own version of Bob’s Barn. It’s an informal meeting place, often for local farmers. And while farmers are known to meet at coffee shops, it’s not always a cafe, restaurant, or coffee dive. Often, it’s a feed store, crawling with barn cats; a tire shop fragrant with grease and solvent; or a simple building where time has created a tradition. Many times’ is a few worn out chairs, a coffee pot, and a refrigerator stocked with pop (or soda) and candy bars. Everything is sold on the honor system.
Bob’s Barn is actually its second home. The first home I came to know was the building that housed the gas station when Bob was still selling gas and working as a mechanic. Saturday mornings, when I would go into town to buy gas for the truck and fill a few cans to get through the weekend’s work, I always noticed many of the same men, parked in chairs or standing in the service bay, passing the time in conversation.
Two year’s ago, when we had a spike in gasoline prices, Bob’s tanks ran out at the top of the market, so he bought very expensive gas. As prices fell at other station’s, Bob’s gas price remained high (around $3.50 a gallon) and everyone complained. Not everyone supports local businesses enough to keep them profitable in tough times. He owned a skid steer and dump truck at that point, and Bob, who was ready to move on, decided to sell off the remaining gas and close the station.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“Dirt work” he replied.
One of the local elderly women stopped by the station as the news spread and said , “Bob, I don’t know what we’re gonna do if you aren’t selling gas in town?”
To which Bob replied, “It won’t make a bit of difference to you, you haven’t bought gas from me in three years.”
So Bob, and the morning crew, moved down the road to a metal building Bob kept his projects in and around the corner from his house. They meet there nearly every morning, some of the guys even have their own key. I know many of them by name, and most by their faces. If I’d grown up here, I would know everything about them as they seem to know about each other.
I usually stop on Saturday mornings to spend an hour or so, catching up on the stories and sharing a few of my own. “Frosty” will usually greet me with “Well, it must be Saturday, Fritz is here.” The other men, too, have nick names.
If you want to celebrate Labor Day, spend time with these guys. Most are farmers, and most have learned the trades and skills in a combination of informal schooling and a few classes here and there. If there is something that needs to be done, chances are one or more of these guys has done it. And not just done it once, but many times, which means they can tell you the right way and the not-so-best practice. It seems each of these guys has a story about a time a trailer was too heavy, a hill to steep, and the pond or river at the bottom of the hill. Usually the story ended the same: is where their work-turned-roller-coaster-slide ended leaving their truck or tractor submerged.
Their successes far out number the failures, the failures just make better stories.
If Bob “holds court”, he is far from king on his throne. Much of the time, he is working, turning a wrench, cutting iron, or putting one of his skid steers, bull dozers, or trucks back together. The work he does takes a toll on equipment.
The others are taking time to stay connected as a community before continuing their morning work. One farmer, who now works with his adult son, usually stops in for a candy bar between 9:00 and 9:30. More often than not, as he’s talking with us, his cell phone will ring. It will be his son, wondering where is dad is and why he isn’t working. Usually, dad says, “I’m on my BREAK.” and the call ends there.
So for all the work we do, it’s important that we take a lesson from Bob’s Barn and celebrate Labor Day. Take your break with pride.
I don’t assign human feelings to animals.
Despite the Disney love affair with anthropomorphism, and my personal respect of the work of Dick King Smith, (The Water Horse and Babe, The Gallant Pig) animals are animals and humans are humans. If anything, humans are more likely to affect animal traits than vice-versa. That said, I do believe animals can offer us insight into the world we live, and one personal example is the Black Cayuga Duck I gave the name “Mocha”.
From the beginning, the ducks were a surprise addition to Two Mile Ranch. And while the drake “Gilbert” always regarded me with a compelling stare, “Mocha” was different, and special, from the get go. When they were just a few weeks old, as they grew in the tiny cage in the cabin, Mocha tended to lie down more than the other ducks, but Mocha also tolerated being held more, too.
During the early days of living in the pheasant fly pen, before they had a pen of their own, it was clear that Mocha had physical challenges: she was an awkward and clumsy runner. She manged on her own and became the leader of the ducks. I share with you the life lessons I think she had to share with me.
- Do the best with what you have and you will get where you are going. Mocha struggled on land to walk. I don’t know if she had a physical defect, a neurological defect, or a vision defect, but she walked in a very awkward way, often not in a straight line. Mocha always got where she was going. With or without the others, at Duck :30, or any time she felt like it, Mocha could easily find her way from the pen to the pond and back again.
- A leader doesn’t have to lead everywhere or all the time. Mocha was often the last duck to the pond. But on the water, Mocha was in charge. Mocha often led the others from feeding spot to feeding spot, and unlike the odd, non-straight line path on the ground, her water routes were straight. She was also the strongest swimmer. At the first sign of trouble, the other ducks would swim towards Mocha.
- Don’t be afraid to be different. Mocha was … Mocha. She would often lead the herd of the 4, then 3, now 10 ducks. But just as often, she would walk back to the pen on her own, or stay on the pond longer than the others. Just the other night, she stayed out nearly to dark, the others had returned, and I chased her off the pond and carried her back to the pen. I wrote an email to a friend about the duck’s reaction using inside jokes between us. It was funny….Mostly, Mocha was funny and made all my days better.
So here’s what happened today: The past few weeks, I’ve been letting the 1o ducks out each morning to free range all day. Days I was here, I would watch over them , days I was gone, they were on their own. Amazingly, like chickens, they had learned to put themselves to bed each night. Last night, for example, they were in their pen when I got back just before dark.
This morning, I woke, did chores, collected the duck eggs and discovered one of the younger runner ducks has begun laying.
I let the ducks out of the pen, and my last image of Mocha was her walking straight toward the tall grass, so she could feel her way along the edge to the pond. I left around 8 this morning and returned around 6 tonight. When I parked the truck, I saw the floating shape in the pond and knew one of the ducks was dead. I quickly looked over the duck and chicken pen. All the ducks, were gone, and 5 of the little chickens had escaped their pen. So first things first, I rounded up the eloped little chickens.
I walked to the pond to confirm the obvious news. What I saw was was inspiring and curious:
The other 9 ducks were standing guard at the pond edge. Mocha’s body was about 15 feet off the edge. The ducks stood there, almost at attention, until I put the rowboat into the water. Then, they walked back to their pen. I collected her body, examined her wounds, most likley from a snapping turtle. I felt the rigor in her body that suggested she had been dead, and the other ducks had been loyal, for hours, waiting for my return.
I buried Mocha next to Gilbert, where they can both watch over the little pond. It’s odd, but the ducks and chickens were usually quiet tonight.
My friend Lori and I were exchanging emails about another duck situation earlier today and tonight when I told her the news. She wrote back:
the ducks are so much more than the ”dumb birds” people think they are. The way they stand guard and stick together is really amazing. People could learn a lot from ducks. People could learn a lot from a lot of things if they took the time to pay attention.
I am sad tonight, if you don’t understand why, that is okay. There are life lessons we can learn from ducks. And I hope I can continue to follow Mocha. Even though she was a pet, and it was my responsibility to protect her, a life on a pond, where she could eat, swim, preen and bask in the sun was a greater life than a life in a pen. Even if it included the risk of being attacked by a predator. A caged duck is a prisoner, not a pet.
As humans, we too, have choices: to live in a safe cage as a prisoner, or to thrive free with risk……do we want to hide, or do we want to follow Mocha?
The Duck : 30 video is repeated below: