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Natural Ballets

Sheared and Unsheared Sheep on a Ranch near Leakey, Texas and San Antonio. Sheared Sheep Are Marked Either for Return to Pasture Or the Slaughter House
U.S. National Archives, May 1973
Sheared and Unsheared Sheep on a Ranch near Leakey, Texas and San Antonio. Sheared Sheep Are Marked Either for Return to Pasture Or the Slaughter House

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “The Time It Never Rained” by Elmer Kelton.

I just came back from George Clooney’s “The Boys in the Boat.” One of the best movies I’ve seen in a while because it really connects you with the characters.

The first scenes “The Boys in the Boat” reminded me of the starting scenes in “The Time It Never Rained.” We see the details in rowing crews, technical bit by bit. And as we see more and more of how the rowing shells are worked we also see more and more development with each of the characters and of their own internal relationships.

There are none of the all too fashionable super quick cuts, in long sequences of cut, cut cut. Each cut pushing you back from forming relationships with the characters. Instead, we stay with the scenes and let the actors do their job, giving us character and audience involvement – empathy, for each person portrayed in the movie. It also helps that this is a true story. Google away for the 1936 Olympic rowing crew from Washington State.

Every time an oar dipped into the water and every twist of the oar in all that water brought me right back into the work on the ground on Charlie Flagg’s place, drought, dust and all.

Elmer Kelton was a reporter on the San Angelo Standard-Times in the 1950’s when a long drought hit Texas and when Kelton chose to place his novel about a hard bitten rancher who takes on the dry times and keeps going.

When I was a kid visiting Uncle Bud’s farm, I always found his work fascinating but probably wouldn’t have thought it was the kind of thing you would write down in a novel.

Still, in 1975, working as a reporter in upstate New York for what was then (I say what was then a lot these days) - what was then the Geneva Times (now the Fingerlakes Times, emasculated by corporate buyouts), a number of train cars derailed on a rail line on the east shore of Seneca Lake.

I drove to the site from my usual beat in South Seneca wielding my beloved Leica M2 rangefinder cameras. What I saw when I got there was a more delicate choreography than any ballet. Two huge Caterpillar bulldozer “sidewinders” were lifting box cars between them. They were called sidewinders because they carried a side crane, one on the right side and the other on the left side. I got some nice pictures. Those massive bulldozers, the “sidewinders” were as big as the train cars.

I got even better prose describing the sensitive operation of the cranes to move those cars into position back on the tracks. It was one of many pieces I did about worker ballets (although I didn’t call them that).

Kelton gives us sheep shearing, and drops in tidbits of information such as “It took fully four acres in this country to feed a sheep, twenty for a cow.” He tells us that “Rosa Flores spoke only English in her house and demanded that her children learn to speak it with less accent even than hers. …”

We get introduced to Teofilo Garcia, who works for Charlie in charge of his own crew. Teofilo has become an “entrepreneur” we are told, “owning the truck and the shearing machine. He contracted the jobs, furnished equipment, tie-boys, cook and grub, and he took the first share of the gross receipts.” We learn that cowboys now handled sheep as well as cows. Economics, “hard economics.”

We get some inside baseball about shearing:

“If a ranchman wanted to cull his poorest-shearing sheep, he had only to follow the shearers and mark out the ones they picked to shear first. Invariably they sought the easiest, those with the shortest wool. The animal with the longest and the best wool was the hardest and the slowest to shear; therefore, it was usually the last to be flopped down on the shearing board. After all, the quicker a man sheared a sheep, the more money he made.

As an essential, practical matter, any shop or dance floor needs constant cleaning. I’ve got years’ worth of what I call sweeping pictures. You can’t dance on a dirty floor or wet floor or sticky floor. I started the pictures in 2001 at dance in the Park that year when the stage manager swept the outdoor stage after a rain. She got big applause. The teenage boys of Teofilo’s crew are kept busy sweeping the shearing floors to keep the wool clean. And they have a job of tromping the wool into bags, they are called “trompers.”

If you are a farmer or rancher, you probably don’t think of this as remarkable. Maybe. Likely as not you can appreciate each move though, the way a choreographer sees dance. Natural ballets.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.


The Great Plains, Second Edition, by Walter Prescott Webb, 1931

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