A time to make hay, and a time to check the time

The sun rose above Whitney Valley in northeastern Oregon. I walked in the back door of the cabin Jim used when we cut hay. Jim mumbled, "What time is it?"

"Five forty-two."

"What's that mean?"

"Eighteen minutes till six." I said. "It's this cheap digital watch. I just read what it says, and it says to the minute, not like the old round face, where you see what quadrant the long hand's in."

About 11 o'clock, we stopped cutting hay and ate lunch in the shade of one of the swathers. Jim asked me, "What happened to the band on that watch?"

"I took it off. It pulled my hair. I like pocket watches better, but as far as I know, they don't make cheap digital pocket watches."

"I wouldn't own a watch."

"I like to know what time it is."

"I know when the sun comes up. I know when I'm hungry."

I forgot to take that watch out of my pocket, and my wife ran it through a washing machine. That was the end of it.

Jim gave me a pocket watch for my birthday. It was too big for my watch pocket, but I tucked it into the backpack I take with me when I work.

Every day we cut hay. Jim and I pushed the swathers into tall grasses and stayed far enough ahead of the baling crew for the hay to dry. We cut hay till dark most days.

We jumped in the river at lunch time and sometimes again later in the afternoon. It's easier to run the hot, rough-riding, dusty swathers for a long day if we wash off the sweat and grit, and swim a little in summer's shallow river.

Sixteen days we cut hay. When the swathers broke down, we'd repair the hot, greasy machinery on wild mountain meadow, far from anything but elk, deer, coyotes, hawks, ravens, and sandhill cranes. Then we drove the swathers 20 miles down the winding dirt road beside the river, to the boss's home ranch and left them there.

Jim's grandfather gave him a silver pocket watch. A real pretty old-timer. Jim showed it to me when he came up to visit. I asked him, "What time is it?"


"Can't be. That thing must be off."

"I thought it was. I'll watch it and see how it does."

Jim's silver watch gained sometimes and lost sometimes. Minutes one time, hours another. He put it away. "It don't matter. I still don't want to carry a watch."

I repaired the fence that goes by Whitney spring. I put what was left of my lunch under the trailer I pulled behind the tractor, in the shade, with my pocket watch in the sack. I forgot it was there, ran over it when I started home, and reduced my watch to junk.

I could look at the sun and tell the time within a half-hour. I ate lunch when I was hungry. If I got home late for supper, the food was still good. If I was early, I quit for the day anyway. I was getting enough work done.

Jim got tired of ranch work and quit his job. He cut firewood from the dead lodgepole in my contract area. I joined him cutting wood whenever I could take a break from ranch work.

The first morning we drove out together to cut wood, we stopped above the river and watched a great blue heron wade into the water and stand still, looking for fish. Jim said, "I want to get my saw running before sunrise. What time you got?"

"I don't have it. We'll have time to cut some wood before sunrise."

"You don't have it? You don't have a watch?"

"No," I said. "I ruined that watch you gave me. I accidentally ran over it. I decided to quit thinking about the time."

"Huh. That kinda surprises me. You always used to know to the minute. Well, we'll be all right." He pulled his grandfather's silver watch from his pocket. "I got this one fixed."

I looked at him. He opened the engraved cover and exposed the face. The second hand was ticking its way around just right. He said, "Well, how often do you see a solid silver case like this? Jeweler I took it to said just the case is worth 50 bucks. It's worth a lot more if it's in good shape. What's the use of carrying around a watch if it don't work?"

I didn't say anything, I just looked at him. He said, "It's a half-hour till sunrise. Well, don't you ever want to know what time it is?" I thought about time and Jim and me all the way to the timber. Then I said, "I guess I do sometimes. I guess somebody has to carry a watch." Some days, it's cloudy all day, and you can't see where the sun is. Winter, I've cut wood when the snow came down so hard I had no idea where the sun was. I'll probably do that again sometime.

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