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Growing Up Ranch Chapter 7 My Parents

Meet my parents

            Growing Up Ranch Chapter 7 My Parents

“Growing Up Ranch” or growing up period isn’t possible without parents. Because of the ranch, however, my relationship with these two special people was unusual. I was blessed with a full set of two and a stable home compared to many, but our special circumstances did make for big differences.

Because the ranch was by western standards a micro-ranch, my Dad was often absent working outside jobs to bring in much-needed income. At first, this was just the local Douglas weekly newspaper as a reporter. He was home quite often since the forty mile trip was a long but possible commute. I would wait anxiously for the sound of dad’s pickup coming down the hill. Racing wildly down the driveway, I jumped up onto his running board and rode on into the house with him.

Despite dad’s absence, he was my hero. He could fix almost anything, broken toys, broken bridles or other riding tack, damaged fences, dead tractors. In my eyes, he was totally cool! He was quiet, not a yeller. When he said something it wasn’t some beat around the bush hint, it was straight up. I learned this the hard way.

In March one year, we had a terrific spring blizzard. There were about four feet of snow on the level with more in drifts. After the snow had stopped, Dad and Granddad turned to caring for the livestock. The cattle were fine as they were in along the meadows and in reach of hay. However, the winter horse herd was isolated on a high ridge in The Burn about a mile from either house.

Dad and Granddad got together via CB radio and agreed to pack hay out to them on skis. I was absolutely determined to go with him despite no skis, and being only six years old. I pleaded and begged until at last Dad relented enough to allow me to go as far as the trees at the beaver dam sawmill set.

We set out, and I found that I could easily walk in Dad’s ski tracks where the snow was packed. We reached the tree line, and Dad told me to go back. I pleaded and begged and cried but to no avail. Dad watched as I turned and walked verrry slowly back to the house.

Now as soon as I thought Dad was out of sight, I turned around and started following him. At first, it was easy. The ski tracks made following him simple, and I could stand on the packed tracks easily too. In places, the snow had even blown off enough to walk unassisted under the trees. I followed Dad all the way up Roaring Fork Creek where he turned and crossed over Roaring Fork Creek into the Burn.

Up to now, this journey had been on the level. Across the creek, a long climb began up to where the horses were trapped. This was also less sheltered, and the snow was blown into drifts that covered and obliterated all landmarks. I became disoriented. I would bump into boulders; fall over logs; stumble into deep holes. Dad and Granddad had also been switch backing to climb and then sliding down, so a maze of ski tracks prevented me from knowing which way to go.

As the sun began to sink, I knew I had to turn around and go home. I followed the lay of the land downhill until I found the creek. Disaster! The warm sun had dropped the snow into the creek and the morning’s snow bridges were gone. I knew that the cold water spelled death, so I began to work along the bank looking for a dry way across. Roaring Fork joins Horseshoe Creek about a half mile below where I began looking, and there was no place to cross before I came to the forks. Hopeless! I started to realize how much trouble I was in and began crying “I Wanna Go HOME!” over and over again.

At last, I knew that I would have to take my best shot and try to jump across Horseshoe Creek. Just below a beaver dam, the creek narrowed a bit, not enough, but better than anywhere else. I held onto some willow bushes stretching out as far as possible. Bawling at the top of my lungs, I prepared to make my desperate leap. Suddenly dad swooped down the hill behind me and scooped me up!

I have no idea how long he had been watching me, or if he had just found me, but when I needed him most, he was there! Dad hugged me, checked to see if I was OK and carried me home. He never raised his voice; brow beat me, or in any way “punished” me for this. In fact, when Mom wanted him to, he just said, “He’s already had enough.”

I learned that day that when Dad said something, he meant it. The fact that I didn’t understand or agree was not unimportant, but it was beside the point. He still meant it and should be obeyed unless I was prepared for severe consequences. I also learned that my Dad loved me unconditionally and would come for me if I needed him. I learned what real respect was, and how you earned it.

Dad wasn’t perfect. He was mighty slow to anger but when he reached enough; it wasn’t always pretty. We were moving cattle from our lower spring pasture to the summer range in the Back Country. All was going well, all cattle rounded up and accounted for and we were moving along pretty well except for one problem.

One cow had calved a bit late, and this led to what I call “cute calf syndrome.” The undersized calf was cute as a button and terribly pampered by his over-protective mother. He got tired and wanted to lie down. He wanted to stop and nurse, etc. Every little bleat would bring his mother charging over to threaten and bluster, protecting her “precious.”

Dad finally had enough. He found the biggest pitch-pine knot he could and wound up like Babe Ruth getting ready to knock one out. As the cow charged, Dad swung and POW, right between the eyes! That heifer dropped to her knees, and I thought “He killed her! She’ll never get up!” That cow just shook her head, jumped up and ran back to the herd. No more “little precious” just nice docile follow the leader with the herd!

Dad was highly intelligent, as witnessed to by his standing as a straight-A student in college. His work was good enough to earn a number of special awards. His major included journalism and he became the editor of the campus newspaper, “The Branding Iron.” His work garnered him a number of competitive awards among campus publications across the mid-west as well as Honor Society awards from the University of Wyoming.
 
He was privileged to attend college with a number of other men who became prominent community leaders. Several became US Senator’s or Representatives. At least one even became Governor. These were his peers, and he shared this relationship by allowing me to not only meet them but to sit in on meetings, provided the topic wasn’t a closed session.

These connections and his run for the office of State Representative earned him entry into “Who’s Who In The West” Despite the circles he circulated in, I recall him as being a humble man who stood for good morals and would not compromise his own word. He did have one flaw, a habit of over promising and under delivering to us kids.

As we became better skiers, the yen for a visit to one of the truly big ski areas was strong in the whole family. Year after year dad promised a trip to Jackson Hole, but it never materialized. At last a chance came to do a feature article for the newspaper. This would feature Jackson Hole in the winter and especially the skiing scene. We actually did get to go, and it turned into a school field trip as well. We would have to act as photo models and write some reports, but it was well worth it.

I remember the awesome view from the top of the mountain with its deceptively gentle trail-head. Dropping over the edge into “Rendezvous Bowl” shock set in. The slope was so steep that as I stood sidewise to survey this obstacle, one pole was barely in reach above me; the other pole barely in reach below. Dad was encouraging, “You can do it!” At last, I pointed my ski tips downhill. Swoop, swish, swoop, stop. Pant, Pant, Pant! Three turns and I couldn’t even tell I had gone anywhere.

The slopes were challenging enough but to “earn” our trip we had to do the old; “OK now ski right to left and turn about there.” Meanwhile, dad was taking the photo’s to illustrate his story. He didn’t let this consume the whole time, but it wasn’t really “A trip to Jackson Hole.”

Finally, when I had left the ranch and joined the Navy, dad realized this was the last chance. We did make a real trip to Grand Targhee that was purely a pleasure trip. Still, ten years or more is a long time to wait for a promise to be kept.

Dad was someone who worked so hard it would kill most people (and nearly did him). He played just as hard or harder. It was him that introduced us to backpacking and fishing. He was the one that taught us marksmanship. He let me tag along on hunting trips to learn the ropes. When I turned the magic age of fourteen, it was him that took me out on my first deer hunt. He led the way horseback riding and exploring the Back Country just for fun. He was the one who got us into white water canoeing. In many ways, it is thanks to him I am so willing to just plunge into something new and learn by doing today.

I was taught to fish very early when I was only four or five years old. Dad got a small spinning rod that would let me bait fish in our little creeks and streams. We had mostly Rainbow trout, but an occasional Brown trout would appear late in the summer. Dad patiently baited my hook once or twice and then it as up to me. He showed me just where to cast above the riffle beside a big rock and let my bait float by. In the summer this was almost a guaranteed score. While I fished the spot he had me set up for, Dad took his fly rod and went up and/or downstream to catch our supper. He was patient enough to stop fishing and come re-bait my hook. Once. After that is was made clear I was on my own.

Hunting season was always a big deal. We took hunters from all over, and these guided hunts were pretty much off-limits to youngsters wanting to tag-along. However, kind of late in the season, a special hunt for elk by some hunters who were more on vacation than a serious hunt came up. We departed dark and early for the Squaw Peaks the next morning.

Well, elk were pretty scarce in those days, and not easy to find. As the day wore on and no elk; eight year old me became progressively more bored. By afternoon I was tagging along, but hunting was definitely not my prime focus.

We, at last, came to a small rock face that my more experienced self now knows was a bedding place complete with a shallow wallow. I was paying no attention to any of this and started playing with some small rocks and pebbles while Dad stepped forward to survey the small aspen grove below.
Quietly, Dad jacked a shell into the chamber and started to sight on the elk below. That, of course, did grab my attention! Not thinking at all about elk I chimed out “Daddy, Is it an elk!?” The crash, crash, crash of the departing elk answered that question!

Dad didn’t explode or yell, but I knew he was angry. “Yes son, that was an elk,” was all he said. I never got the “You know better than to holler like that!”, but I did get told I couldn’t go on the hunt the next day because I had to learn how to be quiet on the hunt.

Paul and I were never allowed to have BB Guns. “They’re just as dangerous as a rifle, but people won’t respect them.” That was the reason given when we begged for one. Finally, when we got large enough bodies and became strong and mature enough to handle a real .22 rifle, Dad taught us how to target shoot. But first, he had an important lesson for us to learn.
He gathered up three one gallon tin syrup cans. One was left empty, the second got filled half full of water, and the third was filled up within about a half-inch of the top.

We paced off fifty yards, and Dad took down his hunting rifle. Bam! He shot the first can. It just sat on its stump. “Safeing” the rifle we all went down to look at the results. Dead center in the can was a small hole in and a similar one out. “This is what targets do when you shoot them. It just makes a small hole all the way through it. This is what most people think will happen if they shoot someone.” Back we went to the shooting end of our range.

“Now what you have to remember is that our bodies are mostly water. So say you shoot someone in the leg to “Just hurt them.” He then fired one round at the second can. Bam, Poing! The can top blew off and went twenty feet in the air! We “safed” the rifle and went to see what had happened. The whole can was bowed out on all sides, and the water was gone being blown out the ripped seams. The front of the can had a small hole in, but the back had a hole almost boy fist size going out. “Think what that would do to your leg.” We walked solemnly back to the firing line.

“Now we are actually ninety-five percent water overall. Here’s what happens when you hit someone dead center.” Bam! Kerplow! The whole can blew up! The top and bottom where the only recognizable pieces. The rest was small chunks of jagged shrapnel scattered over a twenty-foot radius. “Pretty bad isn’t it? Don’t ever point a gun at anyone or anything that you don’t intend to kill. OK?”
We got the message.

Only once in a while were we able to find something that neither he nor Granddad Art knew about. Rock Mountain or as our family called it Valhalla was rooted in our backyard. Its bare granite face defied climbing. I had been reading a book called “Annapurna” which told of the first ascent of the second highest peak after Everest.

I had learned to look for a certain rock formation which could allow you to avoid scaling sheer rock. Using binoculars, I found what I felt was one of those “Cols,” and it would allow me to ascend straight up to the top even without rope or other equipment. Enlisting Paul’s help, we set out one fine spring day. We could ride up to the base of the rock face where we tied up the horses in the cool shade of an Aspen patch.

At first glance, the route up wasn’t encouraging. It began as a typical slide rock spill; to be avoided as they could cascade out from under you without warning. We skirted the edges but found this rubble to be larger and more stable than it looked.

Climbing higher the small rubble became huge boulders lodged into a wide crack. It turned out to be a near vertical climb but no more difficult than a playground jungle gym. About forty-five minutes to an hour later, we arrived at the top having conquered the peak.

What neither Paul nor I realized was that this route was totally unknown to both Dad and Granddad. This was highly unusual as both of them spent hours and days combing this country for wildlife and stray cattle. They had even been involved with a survey of Turkey Vulture nests on this very peak but had not found our route up.

Money and family conflicts drove Dad to work more outside jobs. He eventually became editor of “The Wyoming Stockman Farmer” to my knowledge the only in-state farm and ranch newspaper in Wyoming. It was a bi-weekly, so he had to spend at least half of every month three hundred and fifty miles away in Cheyenne.

In the summer it was even worse because there was a special feature story magazine which became dad’s personal baby. It required him to travel the entire state for at least two months of our short three-month long summer. This left the whole load of the ranch on Granddad and two young boys. When deadline time came, it was normal for him to stay up till one or two A.M. editing, jump into the pickup, and drive three hundred fifty miles home, maybe catch a half-hour nap; then go out and work a sixteen hour day on the ranch.

No one can do this for long, but he was able to for over five years before stress induced health issues led to his doctor telling him “Change your life or die! It’s your choice. All work and no play is making Russ a dead man.” This introduced new turbulence into my life as Dad began to force himself to change modes.

My mother Miriam had to wear many hats. With Dad gone so much, she was dad and mom most of the time. She was a gardener and raised enough vegetables to ease the financial burden of feeding our family of four. Mom even helped some with the horses and feeding. During school days, she added teacher and all the other supplemental jobs of running a school.
With the exception of the school jobs, this was not unusual in a ranch family. Having Mom as the one and only authority figure twenty-four hours a day made for a certain tension on my part. Paul was more sanguine concerning this probably because she provided needed protection from my bullying. Unlike Dad, Mom was a screamer.

Normally we knew the routine tasks well enough to do them on our own. That didn’t mean we would execute them in a timely manner. It was often like raising the dead to get us up and moving in the morning. She always tried to be patient, but eventually, we did give up and go due to being unable to sleep over the tirade she was handing out.

We didn’t have any trouble bringing up water or chopping wood; those were paying jobs. Once started we always carried out the task to the end. The entire time dad was gone there was this continual tension. Mom also had the added stress of trying to make ends meet on a very small income. We were blessed with a large fertile garden. Mom came from a long tradition of talented gardeners, so the garden flourished under her care. However, this meant many long hours in the blazing sun caring for our winter’s food in addition to all her other duties.

Dad did help on the meat side. One side benefit of running a hunting camp was that trophy hunters rarely wanted anything but the choicest cuts of meat from their kill. For certain they didn’t want the liver or heart. During the month long hunting season, it was liver and onions for supper every night. It was years before I could enjoy liver of any sort.

Mom was always was a giving person. Ranchers were highly independent, so neighbors usually handled their own problems. Mom was always ready to come when called; She would gladly lend a hand if asked. I suppose some of that came from her church background. She was the volunteer cleaner of the Esterbrook chapel before each Sunday service. She also made sure that there were flowers on the altar every Sunday morning. Most important of all she was also the organist. Because of the isolation of the ranch, much of her natural desire to be a helper was frustrated.

I was blessed to have a mother who was God fearing and in general practiced what she read. She just wasn’t preachy. She read her Guide Post devotional each day, and though I never saw it, I am sure she also prayed daily.

Miriam loved to read. It wasn’t uncommon for her to read until after midnight. She would have reading times at school to introduce us to the joy of this pastime. She read books such as “Little Women,” or “Little House on the Prairie” to us regularly. Reading out loud was so relaxing that eventually, she began to nod off. We two boys would wait until she stopped talking and her eyes closed. Then one of us prompted her with whatever the line she had faded out on was; something like “and then the rabbit” rather loudly. Startling awake she would locate her place and begin reading again until the next prompt was needed.

Mom maintained a sort of split life. While she was a devoted and loving wife, her Nauman family ties were always close. We couldn’t make trips to town just any old time, so direct contact was often sparse. When we did get to town, we always stopped by for a nice long visit with her parents Grandma Mary and Grandpa Vernon. Mom kept some special things in storage there and would help in the garden as she visited with Grandma. This “town” house was the second focal point of her life.

There were family conflicts between my ranch and my town grandparents so extreme; it came to blows once. Mom sort of took it upon herself to be the go-between peacemaker. Obviously, this made for some awkwardness in my life too. I never saw some of my Nauman cousins until years after I left the ranch.

On the ranch, mom worked hard at what she could, but most ranch work was actually too heavy and became men’s work. She put her whole heart into making our home a special sanctuary from the elements.

Mom just didn’t have the same all or nothing will to play/work that Dad, Paul and I had. She rode horseback but very seldom as we often accidentally left her in the dust. She supervised our swimming pool activities but was no dam builder, or foam board paddler. She tried snow skiing and as long as Dad held us, boys, back it was OK. However, she wasn’t going to do anything crazy like drift bombing.

Each winter there were certain dips, swales, and draws, which would blow full with huge snowdrifts. These pristine strips of white were so tempting we couldn’t avoid trying to ski down them. Drift Bombing was born. It wasn’t easy. You had to climb a steep hill usually six hundred feet high or more while carrying skis and poles. You had the choice of climbing in your ski boots or work boots. Ski boots were not built for hill climbing and wore you out. Work boots had to be changed and somehow carried down. Most often we opted for ski boots.

The reward for this exhausting climb was a screaming fast descent down hard pack snow with hidden rocks and trees waiting to ambush you. That didn’t diminish the pure adrenaline thrill of bombing down a virgin slope, risking life and limb. Mom wasn’t up to the climb let alone the intimidating near vertical slope. She generally rode along and watched from the safety of the pickup truck.

White water tubing was definitely too much adventure. We did coax her into making a nice gentle float trip down the Platte River through Wendover Canyon. Most of this voyage was like the river’s name in French, flat, but in the canyon, there were three or four rapids worth running.
All went well, as we looked at deer and antelope along the river banks, ate lunch on the water and generally enjoyed the peaceful float. As the canyon approached, we prepared for the brief thrill of shooting the rapids.

The first rapid was small and easily navigated, but the major rapid was yet to come. This was a typical river bend turn and back eddy rapid with four or five large roller waves hugging the right-hand side. A direct run of the rollers wasn’t advisable since you would take on enough water over the gunnels to maybe swamp the canoe. The far left wasn’t advisable either as the shallows had many rocks waiting to snag the canoe and upset it in mid-rapid.

I decided to take a conservative route, splitting the middle, to the left but not too shallow and try to shoot into the backwater thus avoiding the rollers. All went well as I lined up the canoe for our run. I hit my spot perfectly, and we began the run.

CRUNCH! A huge boulder snagged the bow of the canoe and held the bow fast as the stern came around to starboard hard and the port gunwale dipped into the upstream side. BRUNCH! The stern suddenly grounded on a second boulder! There we were, pinned on two boulders; gunwales tilted upstream, so we had the whole river coming in the canoe. Mom was obviously completely lost as to what to do next. I was deciding just what to do when she asked for direction.
    “What do we do now?!”
    To which I answered calmly, “We get out.”
    “HERE?!”
    “Yes.”
I assisted her to the left-hand bank where she helped me find a long pole. Using it as a pry bar, we freed the canoe from the clutches of the boulders. The canoe immediately swept into the main current and headed down river. I jumped in and swam after it. Catching up to it, I guided it into the shallows, where I emptied out the water. The rocks had left a huge dent in the bottom that bulged up halfway to the gunnels. I jumped on the dent which obligingly popped out. I paddled back upstream to dry out, and after reloading the canoe, we resumed our interrupted trip. Mom never agreed to go “floating” with us again.

In more domestic areas Mom taught me among other things basic sewing. Mostly this was to avoid having to repair my doll Floppy. Yes. I said “MY DOLL” what about it?” Floppy started life as one of those sock monkey dolls but gradually mutated into a curly haired rag doll. She had been stuffed with nylon socks, so she was almost rock hard. But I was a boy, and she got pretty rough treatment. Ripped clothes were the least of her problems, quite often whole arms got torn off.

These “medical emergencies” became a time-consuming nuisance to mom. Remembering the old saw “Teach a boy to fish and he …” She taught me enough to darn a rip or re-attach a ripped arm or leg. As holes got bigger, I had to sew on cloth patches over the larger holes. Soon Floppy looked more like a clown than anything. These skills did come in real handy later when I needed blue jeans or socks repaired.

Now you have met my parents. Without them, I would of course not exist, but because they were part of my growing up ranch, my relationship to each had some extreme stresses placed on it. I idolized Dad and placed him on an undeserved pedestal. Mom and I had so many frictional conflicts I sort of tolerated her. Neither of these attitudes was correct. Growing up ranch skewed my perceptions enough that I often read things into situations which didn’t exist. As we shall see, there were similar issues with my Grandparents.

 

 

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Copyright © Copyright © 2016 by Vernon Fawcett

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the copyright owner, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.

Vern Fawcett
710 Charter Place
Charlotte NC. 28211

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