I see now that what I really need to thank my dad for is teaching me about privilege.
You know, privilege — according to the dictionary, a special advantage or benefit. Growing up I understood that I had only a few rights in life, and everything else was privilege. For her part, Mom taught the lesson of privilege well, too — for instance, only a few of the shiny items I admired in stores did we ever buy and take home (and only then with a hefty dose of guilt) as part of Mom’s goal to teach me the difference between needs and wants.
But it was Dad who really taught me the meaning of privilege, because only he could dole out what I truly wanted but didn’t deserve in life: time spent horseback, working with him and his cowboy crew.
He was a ranch manager. I was a little girl. More than anything I wanted to spend the days with my dad riding horses.
First came the privilege of age — I wasn’t allowed to go with him until I was old enough to take care of myself. Next came the privileges earned by following his rules: he taught me how to ride a circle and he taught me how to handle myself amongst cows, in order to keep myself safe and to be a help, rather than a hindrance, to the cowboy crew that was doing a very real, very important, job with me tagging along. A little part of me knew that if I messed up, I might not be welcomed back to his side.
As I grew, I rode and worked more and more with Dad, and I was very aware of his non-communicative way of communicating. He could remind me with one sharp, silent nod of his head that I was not there to talk, or to be silly, or to voice an opinion, or to form an idea; I was there to listen and to learn and to work hard. For years I was pained by his consistent way of squashing my wonderful ideas, but I see now that all along he was just maintaining the fragile pyramid of command that kept the ranch running; as a youngster, even though I was his daughter, I was a worker bee at the very bottom of the pyramid.
Summertimes, of course, were when I rode the most. And summer started with branding. He never taught me to rope — as far as he could tell there were too many ropers, replete with their varied issues and egos, in the world anyhow. What he really needed was a ground crew. And so I wrestled calves, I would guess close to half the calves on this place every year throughout my teens, and I was thrilled to do it. I was just so thankful to be a part of his crew. For the first few years I wasn’t even paid.
My sister he never taught to castrate, even though she wanted to learn how and even though she graduated from medical school when I was 13. She, too, was just a wrestler when she came home for brandings — and, like me, she was happy to have the job. He had trained us both consistently and thoroughly, and he had trained us well. The most vivid recollection I have from those years is that there was nothing about branding season for me to dislike: I just thought it was wonderful to be there, because Dad and Mom had taught me to consider my inclusion a privilege.
As I aged, I realized that not everyone we encountered was as sensitive to Dad’s approval as I was. Not everyone was glad just for the chance to unsaddle his horse at the end of a very long day. Yet his reputation for rock-like leadership at the front of the PV commanded respect: he was steady, silent, immovable, unshakably loyal to the brand. When folks came looking for work, something about him just relayed the message: You could get your horse in line and happily follow him wherever he was headed… or you could find another job somewhere else. He didn’t argue with anybody. He didn’t listen to anybody but his bosses. And he was effective. In a competitive industry, in a world filled with wannabe “ranch managers,” he kept his position for nearly 40 years.
Here we are at branding season 2017. The passage of time and the changing world around us have stolen Dad’s ability to whither others’ opinions with the power of example, to shut the mouth of a smart-ass mid-sentence with one steady gaze. A lifetime of ranching accidents started playing tricks with his memory and his clarity of thought a couple years ago; for a while he continued to lead the crew, but with some confusion and much less effectively than before. This year he watches, gently and with eyes clouded by memories, as my young husband struggles to find his footing amongst the ideas and opinions that float up from a crew without a time-tested and determined rock. Tradition is at stake here. Efficiency is in question. The struggle to stay on top of the heap is constant.
Beau and I have learned a thousand times already that this job in leadership at the PV is not a right but a privilege, and a privilege that must be earned over and over again; every day, it seems, comes another test. I know for a fact that even Dad’s position was not stable for many, many years, as he outlasted ornery competitors with names like Wayne and Mason to earn his place here as the ranch manager.
In lots of ways my dad has not been an easy guy for me to get along with in my adult life. But me being fiercely proud of him has never been the issue. I hold dear those bygone years when he stood, and was admired, like a proud and fireproof statue, at the head of the PV crew of cowboys. And now I see that I must thank him for shaping my heart, at an early age, to an attitude of privilege. Though it is now a part of my character that might make me seem naive or dim in this modern world, I have the feeling that it’s one that will withstand the test of time, and I vow to teach my own kids about privilege.
Thanks, Dad. It’s been a privilege to work with you.
© Tam Blake