What’s “old school?” Being able to make a barbwire gate ranks high on my list of capabilities that might put one in the esteemed character level I refer to as “old school.” One doesn’t need to be old to be old-school – and Bubba was proof of that. That’s right, Bubba. And I’m not lying when I say I met Bubba at Bubba’s.

Bubba’s was a bar in northwest Georgia frequented by agricultural students from a nearby private college. I was fresh out of college myself, with my first herdsman job at the college’s 100-cow dairy farm. In spite of being a lifelong Yankee I was fast becoming indoctrinated in all things south of the Mason-Dixon Line. One of those things was biscuits and sausage gravy with a shot of hot sauce. I had a crush on the girl who ladled it on my plate in the school’s cafeteria.

I admit to being caught up in the atmosphere in Bubba’s on a particular 25-cent tap-beer night. The young ag students, Bubba being one of them, were bedecked in cowboy hats, boots and International-Harvester-belt-buckled Wranglers. They would sit together, crooning and swaying to the likes of George Jones and Conway Twitty on the jukebox while waiting a turn with a pool cue. I was smitten and ready to trade in my winter aviator for a cowboy hat. I chose gray with a turquoise embellishment.

Bubba worked on the college dairy. During my first day at work we were sent to put a barbwire gate in a fence line where the yearlings grazed. It was a large permanent pasture surrounded by barbwire, with the Appalachian foothills in the background. It didn’t take Bubba long to realize I knew little to nothing about working with barbed wire – and even less about using fencing pliers. I was not shy about admitting he was right. He took a fresh dip of Copenhagen and we began the task.

Bubba and I worked together, learning about each other while he taught me the ways of a fencing pliers. Because of him I’ve come to love the engineered beauty of that simple hand tool. The way the staple claw is curved like the beak of a raven makes prying a fencing staple out of an old rotted cedar post an experience of bliss. And the lobster-like quality of the staple puller makes the final removal of rusted timeworn u-shaped fencing staples as easy as falling off a log. Then there’s the shear-type wire-cutter portion of the tool, which mimics the jaws of a snapping turtle. It’s designed to cut two pieces of wound barbed wire in a single smooth closing motion.

The hammer end is opposite the staple claw; it’s used for, yep, hammering. Below it where the two plier handles meet is the fence-wire gripper. Its steel ridges allow one to grip barbed wire like a bullhead’s jaw taking a dead Red Horse Sucker off the muck bottom of an unknown northern lake the day before freeze-up. Bubba showed me how to brace the pliers against the post to lever several inches of sag out of a run of barbwire fence. Our gate worked like a charm to allow easy entry and exit to the Bermuda-grass pasture.

I didn’t fully appreciate Bubba’s lesson in everything barbwire and fencing pliers until years later. The farm I eventually purchased had each field surrounded with dilapidated barbed wire held up by cedar posts whose tapered ends had long heaved out of the ground. They were disposed of on the many stone piles that also bordered my farm, as I graduated to using high-tensile electric fence wire and non-conductive fiberglass posts.

In the end Bubba’s schooling was only possible because I was willing to admit I didn’t know everything. When one is able to do that the opportunities for discovery are endless. If you’re not careful you just might learn something.

Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.