Bill sits gingerly with more weight on one ass cheek than the other as he has just had a hip replacement. The lifetime of abuse evidenced by an almost completely fused joint. His face and hands are topographic map of crisscrossed canyons of flesh that tell the story of many years spent in the sun, cold, heat and abuse that comes along with the life of cowboy. I’ve always disliked that term, so sickeningly Hollywood and its misperceptions of the Western way of life. I might prefer to use the term cattleman for Bill, like most of the ever-aging “cowboys” I have met in my life; they were and are cattlemen. He had a spent a life where his face had been kicked by a horse, his body had been thrown off more than his fair share of bulls and broncs, and joints have deteriorated for untreated sprains, dislocations, and breaks.
I picked Bill up in Rigby, Idaho because he was just plain “too beat up” to drive the 3 hours to a reunion of rodeo buddies in Helena. Rigby, Idaho, the heart of Mormon country. Each town is marked by the sharp, white spire of a Mormon church and the lack of beer in most of the grocery stores. Bill tells me that he has always felt uneasy down here, everything seems to be foreign. “People aren’t like Montanans,” he says. It’s not that he has any problems with Mormons or the LDS. Rather, the unease seems to stem from the pervasiveness of the religion through the entire fabric of the region. He had made a life down here raising quarter horses despite not being in love with the place. This is the kind of endeavor that will never make you rich, and Bill is certainly on the short end of that ever-changing stick that defines wealth in this country. It is the calling of a person who has great passion for the animals. He always wanted to live back in Montana, his home, the opportunity just never materialized.
Bill was and is a friend of my father, his brothers, and my late grandfather. He began to tell stories about himself and my family with great enthusiasm. Guys like him always have a story or joke for you, and you might have heard it before, but you don’t mind. The story is important. It seemed as if he had been sitting on these tales for good, long while, and now was the time to release them. Each time he spoke I felt a connection between us, and another layer of understanding my father and grandfather to me that long been knowable but hidden was revealed.
I always liked to think about my tepid adventures has being some high-water marks of my life, those points of time where I had been tested and benefited from the experience. I won’t bore you with tales of leeches, bears, and pushy Latina prostitutes. I spend enough time delving into my own aggrandizement.
Strong Grandpa is what I called him through a gap-toothed grin. I was toe-headed kid with thick glasses, and he was my model of tough. Growing up in relative poverty and forced to travel between his mother, who had been widowed when he was still a toddler, and relatives, Grandpa had learned to be tough from the get-go. I remember reading a letter that he had written to his mother where he had purchased a “rather keen bike” and another where he had hopped a train that subsequently plowed it way through a raging forest fire. He stated that “it got a bit hot”. It was more like being fried alive as the flames licked the railroad cars.
As child, I spent several weeks with my grandparents one summer. We would wake every morning during the still dark hours. Grandma would have breakfast cooking for Grandpa and me. I remember that he though black pepper was “too damn spicy” on his eggs. I would snitch cookies from a drawer while she was turned, although she must have known as the supply of baked goods was always replenished. We were headed into the woods for post and pole timber as he owned and operated a small mill that specialized in jack-leg fences. Some these fences are still standing around Bozeman, the town where I now live. Even my four-year old mind can remember sitting on his lap as he let me drive the Caterpillar around a slash-pile of unusable branches. I can still see him swinging around a long chainsaw with ease. At the time, he seemed like the strongest human being on the planet.
Grandpa had always been an inventor. I’m the kind of guy that is I need a tool, I buy that tool. Grandpa would make his own tool. Bill tells me about the saddle bronc rigging that Grandpa had made for him after seeing him ride, or attempt to ride. Grandpa had noticed that the typical handle was throwing Bill off-balance, and that he needed an angled, off-set handle. He made one and gave it to Bill. “It worked like a charm.”
My father has always been pool of calm in an otherwise chaotic, unpredictable world. His happy manner has done a great deal to shape my behaviors and thoughts. He has always been exceptionally kind without becoming soft. A calm resolve is one his greatest attributes.
“We were down in Wyoming. Casper, Gillette? Well, it was Wyoming. Your Dad and I were at rodeo, and he was riding bareback. I wasn’t paying much attention, but he got bucked off over the horse’s neck. Once he hit the dirt, he starting flailing around. We went out there, and there he was with a broken leg.”
The leg had been whipped over the horse’s neck, and the thick bones of the animal do not give way.
“There wasn’t any ambulance or anything, so we used ACE bandages, which we carried around in those days, and couple of sticks to splint the leg.”
With much pride, Bill says, “I even set the leg myself.” They put Dad into the back of the station wagon that they were driving, poor kids barely making from one rodeo to the next. They wanted to take him to hospital, but he insisted that he would take care of the leg in Bozeman, only a mere 8 hours away. They finished the rodeo, and down the road they went.
“He was hurting pretty bad, so we gave him a bottle of whiskey. You know, for the pain,” he says with a knowing wink.
“Somewhere around Billings, we all got hungry, so we pulled off the highway.” They got Dad, who by now was quite drunk, in pain, and had a shabby, homemade splint running the entire length of his broken leg, out of the vehicle. They slipped him into a booth at some long forgotten diner. “She came over with coffee, and man, was she shocked.”
“You better got him to a hospital,” she said.
“We will…in Bozeman.” Then, they ordered dinner. I have broken my fair share of bones, and I never had the urge to eat before I got it taken care of.
“We got to the hospital in Bozeman. Your Dad was in a bad way.” They pulled him over the back of station wagon, and dragged him into the emergency room.
“The doc takes one look at him, says ‘Who the Hell set this leg, and who got him drunk!’ Well, I just shrugged my shoulders.”
It is somewhat strange to think of my father as wild, young man, but I am thankful to hear this story as I learned something about a man that I thought I had known everything about. This is intrinsic notion of every child, and it is never true.
The last story is actually a hodgepodge of the tales from the Dad, Bill, and my own vague recollections of the conversations of adults around a table the day after the Grandpa passed away from a long battle with the smoker’s curse. The smell of his pipe tobacco seemed so pleasant to me, and it still does to this day. I never saw with a cigarette, just the occasional pipe and the ever present pound of Redman Chewing Tobacco. There is this particular picture of him that fits the man perfectly. He is riding a bareback horse in mid-buck, one arm held high, his face hidden in the shadow of his hat, and the cigarette still dangling from his lips. Riding a bareback would seem to be a dangerous, adrenalin-filled activity to most folks, and here he was not even bothering to remove his smoke.
My father was a little kid, about 8 years old or so, and it was a bitter cold snap during a typically miserable Madison Valley winter. The stock tanks had frozen over with ice thick enough to prevent the cattle from getting a drink. Grandpa had rousted Dad into helping out. I still understand how much a kid would have been. He grabbed an axe and started to chop at the hardened ice. As a little guy, Dad quickly started to shivered and moaned as the cold seeped its way into his small frame. All of sudden, Grandpa stopped hacking away and turned to my Dad. “Ah Hell, it ain’t tough, yet!”
With this, Dad knew that he had better stiffen up and get tough. Grandpa needed to be tough to survive, and he knew Dad needed that discipline as well. Even though, the story is second hand, it has always struck a chord with me. Grandpa is still teaching me things, even though he has been gone for nearly thirty years.
The lesson of these men is not to be some masochist seeking adventure through pain, but rather, have a tolerance for it while living to fullest. I am too talking about a false bravado and chest puffing kind of existence. These men had gone through it and arrived at the other side. I am going to give my best try to emulate this view of the world.