FIRST THOUGHTS UPON AWAKENING: Cold linoleum, #3 galvanized wash tub, warm breakfast -- all are warm memories of the mountain ranch
The year was 1955, the place: grandma’s cattle ranch in the mountains near Weed, New Mexico.
The memories now, almost seven decades later, are sharp. I can feel the cold air on my face upon waking up in our main ranch house at the Bluewater Ranch. I remember scooting down deeper under the blankets, not eager to escape my warm spot in bed. From the other room, I could hear the laughter and voices of my grandmother, Dola Middleton, and my mom, as they rattled around the kitchen. The smell of their cooking, ham, bacon and eggs, drifted to my room, and even my cold nose picked up the aromas.
I was just 7 years old, and not much on baths because our ranch didn’t yet have running water, except for an old tank that Papaw had put on a stand outside the kitchen sink window. It caught water from the roof and provided cold water to the kitchen. But it was cold that morning, and I wanted a bath, but baths then were different, too. Grandma had to heat the water with an old kettle pot, and it took a bit of time to do so.
Our "bath tub" was an old #3 galvanized wash pan, and the system required that Grandma heat water on the old iron stove, carry the kettle into the “wash room,” and as I squatted in the wash pan, pour down the hot water. It was a bit crowded in that old pan, but we managed. Even my dad stood in it for his baths.
The bath was 24” x 24” and 11 inches deep. I still wonder how did we manage to get into it.
The old pan held about 17 gallons, and it took a long time to get a bath, but I recall Grandma laughing as she poured that steaming hot water over my shoulders. The process took over an hour, and that explained why we didn’t take hot baths very often at the ranch. I contemplated the cold morning air, and the hot steaming water and determined that I would avoid a bath this morning at all costs!
So I stayed in my little warm spot under the covers of the bed as long as I could, until grandma said, “Ben, breakfast is ready. Hot biscuits, butter and Grandma’s Molasses. They won’t stay warm long!”
With that I jumped out of bed and my feet instantly were shocked by the cold linoleum floor. Temperatures in those mountains dropped in the early morning hours, and our ranch house was not very well insulated. It tended to cause a rush to get dressed. No casual and slow dressing happened at the ranch, that cold morning air could chill a body in a matter of moments, so I was jerking socks, denim jeans and two layers of shirts on as fast as I could. Shoes were necessary, because I had to get to the outhouse, about 50 feet from the ranch house, to do my morning “necessities” over rocky and weedy ranch land. The outhouse was wooden with a little moon on the door to let light in and fumes out, and I always worried about that spider. The bench had two round holes for “sitting” and there was always a spider web, and I imagined a huge spider about 6 inches below the “hole." I had many a vision about the viewpoint of the spider when I was sitting atop his web, and never to this day have lost the dread of a spider deciding to take a bite out of whoever was bombing him from time to time.
Then my job was to go to the screened-in back porch. There we had an indoor well, or cistern. It collected water from the rooftop, and had a pulley, rope and bucket.
There was an old wash pan nearby with soap and a towel. My my job was to fill the wash pan by lowering the bucket and filling it with cold water. That cold water was a brisk “refresher” and everyone washed their hands and faces, brushed their teeth, and then we threw the water out to the backyard. All of this was done in a hurry, because the aroma of those hot biscuits, bacon and eggs was calling.
Grandma’s old iron skillets kept the food warm, I grew to love those old skillets, because she cooked everything in them. Cakes, stews, steaks, fried chicken, and fresh bread, and those old skillets gave the food a certain texture and taste never to be forgotten. The bottom of the biscuits would become nicely crispy with a slightly crunchy texture, and Grandma put a brush of butter to the top of the biscuits that seemed to glaze them. They were special.
Recently, I purchased an entire set of those iron skillets. My wife said, “We have every modern pan made, why bring those old black things into our kitchen?” And I could not answer her, but any of you who had a grandmother like mine who knew how to use those pans will understand.
After breakfast I pulled more water out of the well, and grandma heated some for washing dishes. While she washed, I contemplated the day. Our ranch was about 22 miles (22 sections) of mountains forested with valleys for grazing. We had a running stream the length of the ranch, which we used to irrigate the alfalfa fields. I had to make serious decisions: whether to ride the old Ferguson Ford Tractor, saddle old Kino (my gentle horse) and ride, take my 22 rifle and go hunting for turkey, or just hike and explore the ranch and its many ponds and valleys. Those were decisions of import for a 7-year-old kid, and the rule was: “Be careful, don’t ‘run’ the horse, or drive the tractor too fast, and when lunch is ready I will bang a pan so you can hear it.”
It seemed to me that in those days on the ranch with my horse, gun and tractor I was a "King." Plus, being there with my grandmother and mom, was idyllic. Those days are lifetime memory makers. I often have thought that most of my life I have lived and worked in some of the world’s most exotic cities.
I have stayed in some of the most luxurious hotels. But always, deep in my heart, are the experiences at the Bluewater Ranch. They patterned my behavior, my ability to be self reliant, my "hard wired" character of overcoming inconveniences and making them fun. I learned that even something as simple as an iron pan, or a sip of cold water pulled up in a bucket from a well, can bring joy and pleasure. I learned the love of a grandmother and how she could laugh at the hardships. I learned how to train my ears to hear her banging on the pan, even when I was at the top of a mountain, knowing it meant that loving hands were cooking and caring.
Thirty years later, when I was a bank president, I observed that my own children were “city kids.” We had a swimming pool, a room with recreational games and a ping pong table. We had running water, a hot tub and yes, indoor bathrooms. It all seemed too much.
I determined to take my kids to the mountains, take them camping and try to instill some of the traits that my mother and grandparents passed to me. We as a family agreed to build a log cabin high on a mountain one summer. That old rustic log cabin has been a source of great family experiences.
We have enjoyed those experiences, memories and waking up to a cold cabin until someone put wood in the fireplace. I have passed this on to my kids, and know they will pass it on to theirs. It is an essential part of our heritage -- one valuable and not to be forgotten.