Hot Fun In The Summertime
Memorable Summer Jobs

No Mad Cows, But Exploding Cows

By Robert Dunlap

Having had my head filled from childhood with visions of the American west, I decided it was time to see it for myself, and got a job as ranch-hand outside of Big Timber, Montana.

Much of the job consisted of riding motorcycles to and from various large tracts of irrigated land and irrigating said. Water was a concern. A big one. The place was lousy with ditches and the little ponds that fed them.

One of the ponds turned out to be the final resting place of a dead cow. It was hot that summer, over 100F almost every day, and Clarabelle quickly swelled to elephantine proportions. One day, I chucked a rock at her, recording a dead-on hit. "Phhhttttpppppttttttt," said her carcass, mushily accommodating my rock and loudly releasing the noisome gases that had accumulated in her swelling interior. Oddly, her rapidly growing volume, seen from outside, seemed essentially unchanged.

There was, as it turned out, a problem with that pond. Shortly after I deflated the hapless Clarabelle, its waters began to rise, carving an impromptu channel through the heaped earth that held it. The culvert (Western for drainage outlet) was plugged. A massive water pump mounted on a trailer was borrowed from a neighboring rancher, and we drained the pond to gain access to the culvert. We removed the stoppage, a heap of rocks and slimy gunk.

This was a chapter in itself, entailing lowering the rancher’s reluctant but propitiously skinny ten-year-old into the hole, dangling head-down by the heels from a rope, to remove the offending debris. He nearly killed us afterwards when he fired a twenty-two caliber shot that ricocheted off the water and over our heads with a whang-ough-whoooooeee I had heard only in war films previously.

That accomplished, there was nothing left to do but return the pump. Since my car had a trailer hitch, the rancher asked if I would do it. No problem. I hooked up the trailer. I couldn’t get the safety catch to work, but f*** it, it was only a few miles. I set off with the other ranch hand and the aforementioned ten-year-old in tow. We rumbled down the dirt road towards the neighbor’s ranch. We made good time - I was used to driving fast on the curvy local dirt roads by that time. I glanced in the rear-view mirror at the trailer every now and then. It wobbled a bit - we laughed nervously.

We continued down the road. There was a sharp drop off to the right, maybe ten meters down to a little creek fed by water we missed when irrigating. After a couple miles, I glanced at the rear-view mirror, only to see something almost impossible to reconcile with my world-view: the trailer, now uncoupled from the car, careering along almost as fast as the car, rapidly decelerating and heading straight for the drop-off.

The memory of it is in slow-motion: an inchoate "oh f***," more in my heart than my brain; the huge pump flying into the ravine in a perfect Hollywood stunt arc; the tires skidding in the gravel as I braked; the silent backdrop of willows and mountains; the quiet, pensive miens of my companions as they searched their consciences for possible culpability and determined that it must be mine, all mine.

The rancher fired my ass. The next summer, I worked my father’s branch office in Pittsburgh.

NEXT: Workin' at Arby's

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