by: Wes Ishmael

“Just a little over $620,000 is what I figure, or four percent of the Spruce Goose, and not an iota less,” said Hooter, punctuating the statement with a prolonged honk at someone in a sports car, who cut him off east of Dallas. He was carrying Peetie Womack to look at some lease ground near Tyler.

Peetie was checking the markets and news on his phone.

“I'm not saying you're wrong,” Peetie replied, without looking up from the screen. “It's a waste of time, though; no one will ever pay.”

Twice every year, though, as the day neared for the shift to or from Daylight Savings Time (DST), Hooter launched into a new rendition about the government filching an hour from him for about 210 days each year.

“You set the clock ahead one hour in the spring, then back the same hour in the fall,” cousin Charlie would reason, trying to be patient.

“If what was 6 o'clock yesterday is now 5'oclock today and every day until the time goes back, what happens to that hour every day?” Hooter would demand.

“But, if that was true, then the sun wouldn't match the time,” Charlie would try.

“So, you've noticed it, too?” There was never going to be a way to convince him otherwise.

Not counting the 3 cents per bale he and his buddies got when they were really little, Hooter got his first paycheck when he was 10, pushing cattle at a local roping arena. So, by his latest calculation, he figured he'd been working for pay the last 46 years.

“And that was after DTS,” Hooter explained to Peetie for the umpteenth time. “The Uniform Time Act became law in 1966; I've checked.”

“I know you have.”

“If time is your greatest asset, then it's also your greatest debt,” Hooter reckoned.

“So, you figure an hour a day for 210 days each year, times 46 years and that's 9,660 hours, or 402.5 days, to be exact. Now figure the average hourly wage is currently about $27, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. That's average, understand. So, conservatively, that's $260,820. Being generous, I figure three percent interest, or $359,931.60. That gives you a grand total of $620,751.60.” He thumped the steering wheel with the palm of his hand.

“I don't doubt the arithmetic, though the interest sounds high,” said Peetie, still scrolling on his phone.

“They didn't ask me if they could start stealing my time, so I've got license on the interest.”

“The Spruce Goose is a new wrinkle, too.”

“It's poetic is what it is,” said Hooter. “You know about the Spruce Goose, right?”

“Howard Hughes and whatnot?”

“Yep, the seaplane with a wingspan longer than a football field. It was the biggest wingspan of any aircraft that ever flew and was the largest flying boat ever built. Know who funded it?”

“Taxpayers, I'm guessing.”

“Yes sir, $18 million, depending on the document. You know how far that plane flew?”

“Enlighten me.”

“History tells us that Howard Hughes flew it exactly once, about 70 ft. off the water, for a mile. That was the first part of November in 1947, and that's mighty pricy freight. Besides which, by the time it was ready for a test flight, World War II was over.”

“And the four percent stake in the plane, in lieu of the money?”

“That's about how much ownership that $621,000 would buy, if you consider the original estimated price tag of $25 million. Somebody else owns it, but it puts things in perspective, don't you think?”

Peetie didn't answer right away. For the last bit of Hooter's monologue, he'd been scrolling back and forth a little faster on his phone.

“I don't know whether to be amused, encouraged. scared or plumb mad,” he said.

“All I'm saying…” Hooter tried.

“No, not that,” Peetie said, passing the phone to Hooter. “Look at this.”

It was a video of a remote-controlled robot of sorts that Cargill was using to move cattle from harvest pens into the plant. The contraption looked a lot like a tricycle-front riding lawn mower on steroids, complete with blowers, automated arms that wave back and forth—trash sacks tied to the ends making a racket— and speakers playing recordings of people shouting. A human controller standing on a catwalk overlooking the pens directed it.

“On the one hand, there's no doubt it could save on worker injuries, and labor is an issue unlikely to go away,” Peetie mused out loud, mostly to himself.

“On the other hand,” Peetie continued, “see where it says the robot reduces stress to the cattle by, ‘minimizing their proximity to human activity?' I don't get that.

“It seems to go against the grain of stockmanship—noise and fast movement—so, I don't know as it would create less stress on the cattle, unless it's replacing folks who know less than the machine about stockmanship and were creating more stress.”

Hooter was fixing to reply…

“Where's the ethic?” Peetie wondered. “We're the ethic in cattle welfare, all the stockmen and stockwomen who take care of them. Once you start taking them out of the equation, or distancing them from it, I've got concerns.”

Hooter tried again…

“On the third hand, you've got electronic tags and whatnot that are supposed to tell you before a calf gets sick, where cattle are grazing or when a cow's in heat. You've got robots milking cows, for crying out loud.”

“Yep, just a hop and a skip from the hydraulics on a squeeze chute,” said Hooter.

“Yep, a hop and a skip, but it makes you wonder where you're supposed to fit in, eventually.”

By the time the debate came to a lull, with no definitive opinion regarding the cattle-driving robot, Hooter was wheeling into the drive that led to some holding pens. They saw someone up ahead so they wandered that way. A hired hand was flaking some hay into a bunk for new calves, talking quietly with them all the while. The calves were as content as if their mamas were still near.

“See that, Peetie? Ain't no robot can do that, or ever will.”

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