HEAVY QUILTS AT THE RANCH
I awoke to the feel of heavy quilts. Heavy yet comforting because Granpa's (we called him “Papah”) mountain ranch home was chilly in the mornings. When he built it of board and bat wood planks and metal roof they put scarce little insulation. I pulled the covers back a little and noticed cloudy puffs as I exhaled, quickly the covers came up tightly around my neck. Getting up early in the mountains on a cold day was something I needed to think about, better done under the heavy pile of bed covers. Sounds of my grandma (we called her “Mamah”) laughing as she cooked breakfast in her kitchen echoed off of the wooden walls. She loved to laugh and laugh well she did. Giggles built into a crescendo of deep joyful laughter and it was contagious. I found myself smiling under the covers, just at the sound of her laughter. She could tell a story, and start laughing and everyone would be laughing, with her, regardless of the story line. The clinking and clacking of pots, bowls and pans in the kitchen blended with her laughter and the smell of frying bacon provided motivational strength to put a leg out of the covers. When my bare feet touched the cold linoleum floor I pulled back until the sound of her voice giggling with my mom warmed me enough to hit the floor with both feet.
At my ripe old age of 7 years old, the "ranch house" seemed large with a huge screened in back porch the full length of the house, that accommodated a table, 2 beds, 2 cistern wells and several chairs. It had a full view of the mountains across the valley straight ahead, the barns and corrals about 1/2 miles up the valley to the right and the alfalfa fields in the valley downstream which is where we grew crops for cattle grazing (although Uncle Benny complained that we fed more deer than cattle).
Indeed a majority of ranch house time was spent on the back porch. The living room with the custom ranch oak furniture built in Fort Worth, Texas was only used when company came. With no running water we relied on volunteers to draw water out of the well cistern, which stored water from rainfall pouring off of the metal roof. The well was built into the screened back porch with a bucket on a long rope looped around a pulley. I normally got that job, and there was always a bucket of water, with a drinking ladle hung on it, on the kitchen counter. Cooking and dish-washing required several gallon buckets. Baths even more. Water was heated on the propane stove top, for baths and cleaning. Our commode was not porcelain or ceramic but rather a wooden outhouse with a metal roof (matching the ranch house) a little half moon carved through the outhouse door, which had a 3” section of rope hanging out of a hole to pull it open and a wooden bench to sit on inside. Ours was a luxury outhouse as it was a double-wide “two holer.”
As I sat there, I figured this must mean that we were “upper class” people, for the “lower class” poor people only had one hole in their outhouse. I often wondered why no one ever used both “holes seats” at the same time, but figured it must have something to do with odor or privacy. This always gave me pause to think of what person I would ever want to share the two holer with. That question perplexes me even now over half a century later. It taught me that often people who built and own big places often find that they rarely use all that they have.
Often I would look down the outhouse hole and see spider webs in there, just inches below my seat. That thought kept me from sitting long and reading the old magazines in the outhouse. If not for those spiders, it would have been tempting to tarry and read. There is nothing as effective as an image of a spider biting your bottom side to motivate quick bowel action. Later I learned that the magazines were there for reading, but also as a last resort for toilet paper. That also brought material for reflection. Just what page, what picture of what famous person, in the magazine would one select for “clean up duty” in an outhouse? I determined that anyone famous enough to get their photo in a magazine, should also be ready for a few people smearing stuff on photos of their faces. This proved to be an accurate metaphoric prophecy, when I ran for U.S Congress, some 40 years later.
The ranch house didn't have a running water bath or shower. When layers of dust and odor reached Grandma's limit a bath was ordered. It consisted of her first heating up the house or the bathroom, and then boiling/heating water over the big cast iron stove (which later was replaced by a propane stove oven) in big spouted enameled kettles, while I sat in a number two wash bucket bath. She poured the warm water over my head and shoulders as I soaped down the body. In retrospect it was rather fun and sort of luxurious…hand drawn water from a well, hand boiled and hand poured over my head, by my Grandmother, who laughed and giggled throughout the process. She made fun of the goosebumps on my skin, the steam that came off of the water, and how dirty the water seemed to get during my bath. No doubt, expensive resorts probably charge a fortune for such service today. Today they put hot rocks on your body to sooth you, my Grandmother, tended to smack me with her "rock hard" knuckles to make me sit still. But in retrospect, she did it with a smile and yes, in a way it was soothing.
Sometimes we had "bath day" for mom, me, dad and my brother, and that became a 2 or 3 hour project. Mountain living was harder but oh so wonderful. After breakfast and bath the family would sit around the table in the chairs of the back porch as we watched mountain light paint the ranch with ever changing hues and tints of color. The valley changed from pre-sunrise grey, to golden, then settled into a beige, with green grass and flowers scattered throughout. The mountains seemed black, then dark green with shining tips of light reflecting off of the pine trees, which as the sun rose became a verdant glowing green. We watched hawks, and eagles, buzzards as they circled rabbits on the ground, and an occasional deer or elk. There we discussed the day. Usually Grandpa or my dad or uncle Benny had already had coffee before daybreak and already had checked the cattle. They would come back in for breakfast of ham, home made biscuits, milk gravy, eggs (fresh from the hens at the barn) , and coffee, lots of coffee. Uncle Benny needed to do things such as treat skin sores on a mama cow and repair the fence where a bear had broken through. My dad was going to repair an irrigation ditch that was leaking. My brother and I assumed the job of climbing the 25 ft high stack of alfalfa hay bales to find fresh eggs. After the eggs we were promised a day of fishing in the clear “Blue Water Spring” pool. That implied finding sticks and string to make fishing poles, borrowing some safety pins from Grandma for hooks, and digging for worms. This we engaged in with glee. Nothing like fishing in a mountain spring where the water was so clear you could watch the fish as they ignored or teased at our hooks.
When we walked the pasture road down past the cattle corrals and barn, we occasionally saw tracks of skunks, raccoons and coyotes. We learned that we were more likely to run across them at night. One night a skunk actually charged me, with his tail high. I learned that I could outrun a skunk that night. Later my Grandmother told me that the skunk probably had her babies with her, and she was acting as mothers do.
“No matter what the animal, including humans, never get between a mother and her babies, that space Is the most dangerous place on earth.”
The pool then was about 30 feet in diameter and perfectly clear. There were Indian arrowheads and pottery shards all around it because it had been an ancient source of camping and water for centuries. We built irrigation ditches and watered the entire ranch valley and alfalfa fields from it for decades. One day, we learned the meaning of greed in a hard way. A neighboring rancher, up the road, drilled wells, tapped the underground spring, and our blessed "Blue Water Spring" went dry. Our family then was to charitable to sue for damages, but it did great harm to our "Blue Water Ranch". Every time we drove by and saw their sprinkler systems watering their fields and wasting water on lush green crops, with "our" spring water, we had sad and frustrated feelings. It impressed me so much as a child that years later I thought passionately about water laws, water rights and how that people needed to learn to be fair, or pay damages when they hurt others. In our case, the historic Blue Water Ranch, suddenly had no spring, which was it's value. We eventually had to drill wells to go down to a deeper aquifer, to keep the ranch viable.
The ranch had an old Ferguson Ford tractor with wheels trimmed in red, parked near the ranch house. It was probably a 1947 vintage, older than me, but I loved to sit on any adult's lap and ride it as it "put putted" along. Grandpa, and later Grandma even let me drive it sometimes. After Grandpa died, I begged my mother and grandmother to let me drive it, and my dad set the throttle lever so that it would only go on the lowest speed and in low gear. That was a speed slower than a walk. As they started it and put me on the seat I was the happiest "cowboy rancher" in New Mexico. I drove that old tractor for 2 hours solid as the "put....put" sound echoed up and down our valley. Atop that tractor I felt like a king.
But the tractor, even at a slow pace, taught me that life can be dangerous. Approaching the back pasture was a “barbed wire entry gate” of wooden poles and planks providing entry through the barbed wire fence. It didn’t occur to me, that there was a top wire about 5 feet high that served as the tension wire to hold the fence taunt. As I put putted the old tractor through the gate opening, at the last moment I saw the barbed wire about 2 feet in front of my neck. I managed to duck just in time, as the rusty barbed wire brushed through hair on my head.
This is the first time I have ever told anyone about that, because it scared me and I knew I would never get to drive the tractor again if my mom or grandma knew about it. So please don’t tell my mom, or Uncle Benny, because even now, I have a little red tractor, that I love to drive around. It makes me as happy today as it did when I was 7 or 8. My Grandkids, wife and dog all like to pile onto my little tractor and “put put” around. Little do they know that I am also reliving memories of that old Ferguson Ford at my Grandfather’s ranch, over half a century ago.
When in life, I feel that some guardian angel has saved me from yet another disaster, I remember that old ranch tractor, and that wire approaching my neck. In that case, I probably scared my first guardian angel to death, no doubt I have used up 9 or 10 angels, otherwise, I would not have made it thus far. Often when I look at the stars high in the New Mexico sky, I breathe a little thanks for all of the work those angels have done for me. No doubt one day in some heavenly realm, perhaps another dimension, we will sit and drink star spiced wine and laugh about some of the crazy stunts they saved me from.
There was an Indian grave yard, just across the valley, from our main ranch house in a dry mountain river gully at the foot of the mountain. It was situated just where the water from the mountain would have entered the valley. Grandpa and Grandma always told me that they considered that spot sacred, and although it "Is ok to play and hike nearby, don't dig or disturb the old graveyard". So I exercised some caution when near the old graveyard, but in the flat valley beyond, after a hard rain, we would all go out and walk the alfalfa fields. There we saw hundreds of old arrowheads, broken pottery, and other things we could not identify. For years some of them decorated our ranch house. I have often wondered what ever happened to those. Then it was as exciting as finding a gold nugget, to find and touch a piece of painted clay pottery that was perhaps 300 years old, that was made and even served as kitchen utensils for our ancestors long before us. Even today, when I visit some historic area and see a piece of old Indian pottery, my heart beats faster, and as I touch these relics, try to image the touch of the woman who so long ago made this with care for her family.
At the age of eight I was given something more precious than the gift of driving the old Ferguson Ford tractor. I was given a Remington, 22 automatic rifle, which my dad taught me how to handle with care. And I was given the reins of “Old Keno”. Keno was the oldest, smartest horse on the ranch. Even then he had to be 40+ years old. You could take a nap under Keno and he would never move, never step on you. And at the end of the day, when the sun hit the horizon, wherever you were, Keno would turn around and slowly walk back home to the house and then the barn. I abandoned the tractor for Keno and my 22. I rarely missed my target with that old open site 22. I was certainly a combination of Davy Crockett, John Wayne, and Roy Rogers. Keno and I climbed mountains, hunted for birds that watered at mountain ponds, searched for rabbits and arrowheads, shot at buzzards, killed a skunk or two, shot a porcupine and learned signs and how to track animals. Many times I tracked and quietly caught up to turkey and deer. I learned the power of silence, of being still, and listening for long periods.
Strangely, I never shot any of the deer I saw. They were just too beautiful and elegant. Just watching them move was fascinating.
I never shot a turkey, because they were so shy and hard to get close to, it was always magic just to watch them. But many times I shot at buzzards. I would lay on a mountain for an hour, till the buzzards started circling, there I would wait perfectly still until they got within range, only then would I shoot. Many times I could hear my bullets hitting the feathers of their wings…but now thinking about it, I don’t think I managed to ever kill one. Those moments, I imagined myself as Gary Cooper, lost and hungry in the wilderness, willing to eat even a buzzard to avoid starvation.
I also loved to watch the trees, as I lay on my back, seeing them reach for the heavens. It seemed to me that the trees were speaking to me, alive and encouraging me to reach higher, and upward in my life. To reach for the clouds above.
For all of my life, I have loved and respected trees. Perhaps that is why I have made a practice to plant them in thanks for all that I have consumed of their blessings. I learned to touch and hug trees and feel their life.
I leaned that while an oak is solid and almost warm to the touch, an aspen is smooth and cold to the touch. The pine trees always seem to speak to me most.
At lunchtime and at supper time, Mamah would clang a pan from the ranch house porch, the sound flew even to the mountain tops where I would often be hiking. Often I would be a mile or two away, high on some mountain, or deep in a valley. Old Keno and I were always happy to hear that sound, as we knew that she had fresh cornbread, red beans, homemade chow-chow relish and hopefully a fresh apple or coconut pie steaming on the kitchen counter. Oh, the joy of having a ranch, a horse, a gun and a tractor at the age of 8. I decided that I was the most fortunate kid in the world. Mamah told me again and again, that I had the mountains and the land in my blood. She told me of our Cherokee ancestors and said: “You got that love of the land honestly.”
Repeatedly she told me: “One day, you will be a farmer and a rancher. You will have land. This ranch will be yours.” Of course, when the drought of the 1950’s hit, and Uncle Benny couldn’t feed the cattle, he told her to sell “my” ranch, and I never got to own it. But yet, in a way, I do own it, in my memories and visions of the place.
After that for years, my Mamah said: “Well you will get a section of the farm, it was bought with the ranch sale”. Not the ranch, but, I did inherit Grandpa’s Hat, and I own his cattle brand. To this day, I sometimes wonder, when I will have that ranch and farm of my own. Perhaps Papah and Mamah have it waiting for me in that “other dimension”. Perhaps my ranch is in the clouds somewhere. I have yet to figure how those clouds will support that old Ferguson Ford tractor. That place will be a pleasure to explore again one day.