These hot humid days of summer always take me back to when my summers were spent totally outdoors. As a kid, we were tramping through the woods playing war and hunting games and any other game we could think of. When it got too hot we headed to the headwaters of the Bon Secour River and took a plunge in its 45 degree spring waters. We fished this same river almost every day and even once brought home a snapping turtle my dad compared to a "Number 2" washtub. Dad wasn’t as enthusiastic as we were about the turtle when he discovered it had expired several days before we found it.
As I got older, summer fun gave way to summer football practice and to this day the smell of sweat mixed with the smell of grass reminds me of those days.
Time passed and I moved from the practice field to the hay field and cornfield.
This is where my story actually begins, it is not a hunting story but a tribute to one of the finest gentlemen I will ever have the honor and privilege of knowing. When I started college, I was facing the daunting aspect of only being able to afford the first quarter of school. It amazed me how fast three summers of hard work I had put in the bank got sucked out of the checking account when it came time to register at Auburn University.
I had enrolled in animal science and was trying to figure out how I was going to pay for the next two or three years when a double miracle happened.
The first miracle was I was told about a program where you could go to school and also work in your field-of-study. It was called the Cooperative Education Program and we were referred to as "co-op students." I checked into the program and the second miracle happened, I was told they had an opening on an Angus farm in the Wiregrass area. One thing led to another and I went to work on that farm.
I worked for the farm for three years, alternating between one quarter at school and the next quarter at the farm. I went to school fall and spring, and worked "punching cows" winter and summer. I was outside from sunup to sundown. I cut and baled hay, planted pasture, built fences, repaired fences, tore down fences and checked fences. During winter, I was in charge of tagging all new calves everyday (when you are tagging calves, "charge" takes on an entirely new meaning), helping to work cows, checking cows, breeding cows, working calves, feeding calves and generally everything involved in the production of purebred bulls and commercial feedlot steers.
The longest and hottest days were when it was time to fill both the upright silo and the pit silo. I can’t remember how many acres of silage we grew, but it filled up a 100-ton upright silo and a 3,000-ton pit silo, and every bit of it was harvested and chopped two rows at a time.
I learned a lot running that chopper. I learned there is a bug out there that must have to assemble his stinger when he lands on you because there is no way he can fly and tote a three-foot long stinger. I learned how good a cold jug of water is. I learned that if it is clean enough for a cow to drink, it’s clean enough to dive in to cool off. One time I overloaded a silage wagon and then had to unload its eight-ton load by hand because every chain in the thing broke when we hooked it up to the p.t.o. and tried to empty it.
All in all, working on this farm was a dream-come-true because I had wanted to be a cattleman since I sat in the mountains of Wyoming and watched a group of cowboys move a herd of black cattle from one pasture to the other. I remember watching from our car, but I don’t remember how old I was at the time.
The owner was a person who had helped to educate many a student just like me. His legacy still lives even though he has recently passed. I don’t know about my other "co-op students" who worked for him, but I would never have been able to pay for my education without the job he gave me. I was told by one of my professors I was lucky to be working for one of the absolute finest cattlemen in the country.
There are not enough pages in this paper or ink or time to write all that was learned by that 19-year-old kid who started work on that cold New Years Day in 1980. If there are words that can express the admiration I have for the man I worked for back then, I don’t know them and there is no limit to the heights at which praises can be stacked for him as well.
I do know when I walked across the stage in 1983 and received by diploma, I was able to hold my head high and know no one "put me through college," my wonderful parents helped as much as they could, but there was no blank check with my name on it.
I exited that stage debt-free and with a job in my pocket because of the three years I had worked.
I was proud the day my new-born daughter said her first word and even prouder her first word was "bull" but the absolute proudest was when she just recently asked who paid for my college and I told her, "Me."
Up until recently, I would tell folks I owed my college degree to a herd of black cows in the southeast corner of Alabama. Now I think about it, I owe both my college and my education to someone else, not the cattle....
Thanks Mr. Billy, you will be missed.
Ralph Ricks is the manager of Quality Cooperative, Inc. in Greenville.