On the morning of March 24, a few hours before President Obama was asked by a reporter at a press conference what sacrifices he expected the American people to make, I got a better answer to that question from an unexpected source. It gave me faith in the President's optimism that we will emerge out of this crisis a better country.
Rancher and feed store owner Mike Rivas pulled up in his truck on a beautiful spring morning in the foothills of California's Sierras to deliver some bales of hay. When the soft spoken cowboy was finished stacking, I asked him casually how things were going for him. He shook his head and started talking about the price of beef and the loss he was definitely going to suffer this year. Just as I was about to say "sorry to hear about that," he launched into a larger story. He described the downcast conversation he had with his wife around the kitchen table, questioning whether everything he had worked so hard to build up had been worth it. Later that day, he had gotten a phone call from a friend, a 103 year old rancher who lived up the road in a small cabin. "He apparently got wind of what was happening. He told me he needed to see me right away and accepted no excuses. I came up to his house and he directed me to his kitchen table th at was covered with old photographs. 'Excuse me for a moment, but have a look at these while I'm gone'." After a few minutes, the old man returned, expecting Mike would understand the message. "I shook my head and told him that I had seen all these photos before. 'I don't get it.' 'Look at the photos more closely. Look at our clothes, full of holes. See my son. He isn't wearing any shoes. See that steer's head. We had to slaughter him to eat'." The pictures were from the dust bowl of the 1930s. Mike got the point.
A couple of nights later, Mike got a phone call at 2 in the morning from the police. Someone had broken into his store. Could he come down? The front window was broken and needed boarding up. When he arrived, they had the intruder in custody there as well. "You're from around here, aren't you," Mike asked the young man, who told him he was out of a job and money, in danger of losing his house and was planning to sell some of the stolen gear.
Two days later, Mike was driving and spotted the same man, now released and walking on the street. He parked and called the man over to the truck. "Remember me?" The young man nodded. "Get in the truck. Don't worry. I don't have a gun. I'm taking you to breakfast." Over coffee, Mike gave him a hundred dollar bill and told him to buy groceries for his wife and child.
"I can' t pay you much," Mike told him. The young man is now doing odd jobs around the ranch, helping out with those same cattle Mike will soon be selling at a loss. For a few weeks, Mike also didn't take a paycheck at the feed store so he wouldn't have to cut hours of his employees. "We got through a rough spot, but things are a little better now."
Follow Joel Brokaw on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dharmaranch