Whenever I attend church I’m likely to hear about flocks of sheep and good shepherds. The pastor will tell a noble story about a godly profession, but invariably I drift away into reminisces of cigarettes and polluted water that are my childhood memories of being a herder of sheep.
When I was nine years old my father bought several hundred sheep and immediately discovered that owning sheep in cattle country is not a good way to gain new friends or keep old ones. But that’s another story. My story is that my father hired me (bribed?) that summer to help herd the sheep for $1 a week (I could go home on weekends). This was a fortune to my nine-year-old eyes, for $1 in those days could buy 10 comic books or 20 ice cream cones -- assuming one could get to town, which I seldom did except on a school bus that made no stops for personal business.
Anyway, the deal was that I was to camp out with a wizened little old Mexican man (“as old as the hills” applied to him) and learn the responsibilities involved in being a shepherd and, according to my father’s instructions, to learn Spanish. Well, I lived for six weeks with that old Mexican and learned a little something about sheep but no Spanish because the talking was confined to occasional grunts. What I learned, to my father’s chagrin, was how to roll cigarettes. I am still adept at it. Those were the days of Bull Durham sacks with drawstrings you tightened with your teeth. I will always associate the thought of sheep with the memories of those cigarettes.
Another thing about the Mexican shepherd is that he ate canned sardines for lunch every day, and then would drink from the canteen and leave the stench of sardines in the water. I would just about gag when it was my turn to drink. For supper we ate from a pot of pinto beans heated over a campfire and sour dough bread baked in a Dutch oven.
Well, the summer ended and school started. Dad didn’t keep the sheepherder, as it was expensive, the coyote menace was diminished, and the sheep seemed to get along on their own. Except that they needed to be in the corral at night, and that became my job. As soon as I got off the school bus I had to saddle a horse and go get the sheep, who usually grazed on a mesa about two miles from the house. In the winter it was apt to be sundown or dusk by the time I reached the sheep, and it was a very cold and slow ride home. Sheep are the slowest creatures in the world! I learned that once I got the sheep started toward home they would finish on their own, so I would leave them and take off at a gallop for home and a place in front of the stove.
One evening the sheep didn’t show up at the corral. It got dark and supper was finished. My father asked me where the sheep were. All I could do was stammer that they were headed home last time I saw them. My father simply stared at me, didn’t say anything. I wanted to shrink down into the floorboards and disappear. He went out and brought the sheep in himself, and never said anything more about it.
From that day forward I made sure the sheep were home before I was.
Later that year, to my monumental relief, my dad sold the sheep and ended my days as a member of a noble profession.