We've been suffering drought for months, getting just enough rain occasionally to shut down haying for an afternoon. But the other day we finally got enough moisture to do the grass and meadows some good, plus it made haying impossible for a day or two.
During the soft drizzle, I stopped by the local bar, expecting to find a half-dozen or so people who had decided to take the afternoon off and go to town for a visit.
In the days of large haying crews, they would have been three deep at the bar – hired men and owners, drinking shots and beers. There would have been a rustic euphoria, not only because of the day's respite from the hayfield, but because the pastures and meadows were finally getting some moisture.
The bar was empty – not a customer there. It didn't seem right to me, somehow. Of course we don't have the 10-man crews any more, but still I thought there would be a couple ranchers having a relaxing drink and enjoying the rain.
Alcohol used to be the axis on which most events turned – dances, weddings, funerals, rain or just general socializing. That has disappeared with the passing of the old-timers who thought nothing of stopping at the bar in the middle of a work day for a quick shot and a short visit with the bartender or another customer. It was a part of normal behavior and accepted by everyone. There was no stigma attached to having a drink at 2 in the afternoon, as long as you didn't stay all day.
Often, a rancher, maybe with a horse standing in the trailer, would buy a drink for himself and a few others who had stopped in for a quick one. He usually didn't linger long, maybe a half-hour at most, and then it was back to work. Television, the telephone and now the computer have supplanted the need for actual human contact, which in rural communities most often occurred at the local bar.
Another phenomenon, common years ago, was a whiskey bottle rattling around behind the seats of many pickups. In most cases the bottle would lie for months, but occasionally the owner would dig it out to share a drink.
An acquaintance of mine once told me a story about a time he was moving a bunch of yearling steers in snowy, windy weather. He'd been at it all day, and finally had them headed home. He said that he'd never been so cold and miserable in his life, when a pickup eased through the steers on the county road. Recognizing the rider, the pickup stopped.
He said that after a short exchange the driver fished around under the seat and pulled out a dusty bottle of cheap liquor. The cowboy told me that it was the best whiskey he ever tasted in his life, and it made the rest of the trip much easier.
My uncle related to me that one evening, years back, he was helping a neighbor move some cows. Just at dark, they headed home through a meadow. My uncle said the fellow he was riding with turned his horse toward a haystack, trotted up to it, felt around, and pulled out a half-full quart of whiskey. They each had a good “pull,” the bottle was returned to its place, and they continued their ride home. My uncle said that neither person spoke a word. It was just a quick drink to end the day.
That approach to alcohol is gone, now. These days people drink only at appropriate times, and the era of a quick shot and a beer are long gone with the passing of the generations.
Although alcohol has its negative aspects, an occasional shared drink straight from the bottle promoted a sense of camaraderie that is uncommon these days. The act of passing the bottle was a rite of bonding in itself. Usually one drink was sufficient to complete the ceremony, but occasionally two were warranted.
There was only one rule. If, after a drink or two, there was only a tiny sip left, the bottle was handed back to its owner. The standard response from him was, “Go ahead, you finish it.”
These exchanges of whiskey and conversation almost always occurred while leaning on the back of a pickup. Some of the best visits I've had were experienced with my elbows on a pickup bed, usually without a bottle, but sometimes with. Either way, it was always a pleasant interlude.
Now, with the time urgency that is always present in modern ranch life, conversations are held through open pickup windows, with both pickups running because we have to be somewhere, and don't have time to lean like we should.
Richard Geary is a rancher in Helmville. He can be reached at email@example.com.