Branding: My Commencement Speech
A manure-filled moment on a cattle ranch prepared me for post-college life
BRANDING — Jerry Griswold
These remarks were given to graduates of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University’s Commencement, May 1998.
The summer after I graduated from college, I went to visit my family’s ranch in Montana. My great-grandparents were Irish immigrants. My grandparents homesteaded in the Bear Paw Mountains in northern Montana. After they died, my Uncle Jerry took over the ranch. I was named after him.
I used to visit the ranch in the summers, when I was a kid. But I hadn’t been back there in some nine or ten years. Now I was visiting again. And after my first night, my uncle came into my room and threw a pair of gloves at me. “Get up,” he said, “I’d like you to help out at branding.” So, after a quick breakfast, we piled into the pickups and went down to an area of the ranch known as the Mike’s Place.
It’s the custom, in that part of Montana, for all your neighbors to gather; you help out at their brandings, and they help out at yours. So, when we arrived, I got to see a lot of people I hadn’t seen for years. There was my second cousin Ambrose. There were a number of hired hands from various ranches. And there was Old Man Young and his two sons — who were inevitably called “the young Young’s.” They all wanted to know what the “college boy” had been doing.
After some time chatting, we saddled up to bring in the cows and the calves that had been born that spring, to bring them out of the bush and into the corral. I was a disaster in the saddle. Like I said, I hadn’t been back to the ranch in some nine or ten years, and I hadn’t been on horseback for all those years. As I bounced over hill and dale, I had to do my best just to stay in the saddle and keep my hat on. I felt like Woody Allen on a horse.
Moreover, what all the other cowboys could do unselfconsciously — waving and yelling, “Yah! Giddup there!” — made me self-conscious and embarrassed. I tried to reason with the cattle: “Come on, you guys,” I said timidly, “let’s get out of there.”
Finally, we got all the cattle into the corral. Then there was time to talk, since only few cowboys were needed to separate the cows from the calves so that only the calves were left inside the corral. Then, after awhile, someone sang out: “Jerry, your horse!”
I had been given a gentle nag and, after we had brought the cattle in, I had tied my horse up to the corral. Now, I looked over in that direction. There was my horse. On its back. With its legs straight up in the air, like some huge dog that wanted its belly scratched. I was embarrassed. After all, it was my horse.
I didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t some tow truck I could call to tip this huge beast back over. So, I went over and got my hands under the horse, and I struggled and lifted, and struggled and strained, until finally I got the horse back on its feet. Then I heard some muffled laughter. When I looked over to the other side of the corral, there were cowboys with tears in their eyes, trying to repress their laughter. They’d never seen someone try to right a horse in that fashion.
Fifteen minutes passed, and then someone sang out again: “Jerry, your horse!” I looked over and, sure enough, my horse was on its back again and with its legs straight up in the air. I shrugged. What was there to do? I started to walk over to lift the beast back up again when my second cousin Ambrose grabbed me by the shoulder. “It’s just cinched too tight,” he explained. He walked over, undid the cinch and the saddle fell off; then the horse got up and ambled off to graze.
By this time, there were only calves in the corral and the business began for all of us. The process works like this. One cowboy rides up and throws a lasso around the legs of a calf and tips it over. Then two “rasslers” run up and hold the calf down. Another person comes up and brands the calf. If need be, another cowboy castrates. Another gives an innoculation against Black Leg Disease. Another notches the ears, which is another form of identification. My uncle said, “Jerry, I’d like you to rassle the back end.”
So, this was my job. After the calf was roped, I and another fellow ran up, grabbed the calf, and held it down. He had the front end, and I had the back end. I soon learned I hadn’t been given the best position.
Imagine how a calf feels in these circumstances. Just a few months old, its suddenly manhandled for the first time: held down, seared with a hot branding iron, castrated, shot with a huge hypodermic needle, notched. That calf is scared. That calf is scared — let me find a polite way to say this — that calf is scared manure-less, and all over me.
After a dozen or so calves, my shirt and jeans were not a pretty sight. About this time, Old Man Young came up with a bit of advice: “Put your boot there,” he said and pointed, “and you won’t get any of It on you.” I couldn’t help but wish that I had been given that advice an hour earlier.
We worked all day and finished with the calves that had been born that spring. Then we all headed up to the ranch house. It’s the custom that the family that’s doing the branding, then offers supper to everyone who’s helped out. So, I sat around the ranch table with a dozen or so cowboys and consumed a huge meal of fried chicked, mashed potatoes, rolls, and all the fixin’s.
Afterwards, everyone sat back in their chairs and began to tell stories — funny stories about things that had happened that winter and about other folks who lived in the hills. There was some joshing and teasing. Finally, as everyone was getting ready to leave, the cowboy next to me indicated he had something to say. Pointing in my direction, he said, “These college boys don’t make such bad hands, but I do wish they would shower more often.”
I’m telling you all this to give you a glimpse of life after graduation. But I’m also telling you about this because it’s a story. And stories are what you’ve chosen to specialize in. They’re your path.
People are hungry for stories. What do your relatives do when they get together after dinner? They tell stories: “Remember the time your Uncle Jimmy decided to back the boat into the garage and . . . . ” What are people seeking when they fill up video stores on the weekend? They’re seeking stories. Even when people turn on the news, what they’re listening to are stories.
People are almost as hungry for stories as they are for food. In fact, stories are a kind of food and we can’t live without them. As literature majors, you know this. You’ve just been hungrier than most.
Now let’s get to the part you don’t know. It’s a custom of commencement speakers to send you off with some advice. Some speakers will tell you to “hitch your wagon to a star.” Others will tell you to “wear sunblock.” Here are my six tips.
1. Be humble. Your life after graduation will be like my experience at the ranch. You’re going to be the greenhorn. You’re going to be embarrassed. You’re going to look bad. But you have to be willing to be humble. And you have to be willing “to get some of It on you.”
2. Understand that your skills are portable. You haven’t learned a computer language which will be obsolete in a few years. You haven’t prepared yourself for a career that will disappear in the 21st Century. You’ve learned to read and write, think and analyze, understand and sympathize. Those talents will always be needed. And wherever those skills are welcomed, you will be welcome.
3. Recall that you got where you are by giving something up. A miser has no friends. A miser has a closed heart. But you have given something up. You’ve allowed yourself to be touched by the stories of others. You’ve cried. You’ve laughed. You’ve sympathized and understood. Remain vulnerable in the days to come. Listen to others, especially to their stories.
4. Wherever you go, keep on reading literature. Some of you may, of course, become teachers or writers. But let me tell you about two friends of mine who were also literature majors. One is a stockbroker in Massachusetts; when we last talked, he was reading the novels on Ann Beattie in the evenings. Another is a storeowner in Costa Rica; when I was last there, she was reading a biography of Oscar Wilde. My point is this. You don’t have to be a literature major to become a stockbroker or a storeowner or (even) a cowboy. But not all stockbrokers, storeowners, or cowboys read literature. Some do. So, wherever you go, keep on doing your own thing.
5. Know that the reason you were at the university was to awaken your mind and open your heart. I realize, of course, that you may not understand this now. When you declared your major, I’m sure you didn’t have such high ideals in your head. As you read book after book, wrote papers and took exams, I’m sure you weren’t constantly thinking: “I’m doing this to awaken my mind and open my heart.” But maybe some day you will realize that this was the ultimate purpose and the ultimate effect.
6. Realize that you’ve been branded. What has happened to you here at the university can never be undone. We, your teachers, are glad to have had some role in waking up your mind and opening up your heart. But it is your mind that has been awoken and your heart that has been opened. Whether you continue this process depends upon you. But you will never be asleep or closed in the same way again. There’s a Chinese saying that captures this very well: “A well forged sword / Never loses its golden color.”
Now I am going to give you your very last assignment before graduating; in fact, you won’t receive your diploma unless you do it. I want you to repeat that saying after me. Let’s say it together: “A well forged sword / Never loses its golden color.”
I gave another commencement speech some ten years later. Then I condensed my remarks to this piece of advice: “Follow your heart but get out of your pajamas.” There it is, in a nutshell.