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Growing Up Ranch Chapter 8

Acontrast of town and ranch

I was fortunate to have both sets of Grandparents alive while I was growing up. My Dad’s parents were “ranch” and lived just over the hill about a mile away. My Mom’s parents were “town” and lived in Douglas, the full forty mile drive away. Naturally, I was much closer to my “ranch” grandparents than my “town” grandparents.

Grandma Ruth and Granddad Art were my ranch grandparents. Grandma Ruth was one of my special people. She was originally from Maine and still retained some of her Down Easter accent. She was a woman of many talents. Registered Nurse, gardener, egg gatherer, jelly maker, plus all the other normal housewife duties. I got special treatment like most grandchildren did.

She made special fruit filled cookies, but even better were her chewy chocolate chippers. Besides sweets, she also made drop biscuits which were valued even more. Grandma never failed to wonder why we weren’t eating her nice fresh biscuits. The secret was we were waiting for them to get good and hard first. Why? Simple, when we went on long trail rides or were going to be out too far to be back for lunch, these hard tack goodies held us over until we got home.

Grandma Ruth was always kind but totally no nonsense. She kept a clean house especially the kitchen. Paul and I were frequently kept as “day care” or we just plain came over to be at Grandma’s. A favorite activity was playing in the willows down along the creek.

Time after time we came home with wet, muddy shoes from falling into the creek. Ruining good shoes was bad enough, but it tracked mud in onto her clean floors. Finally, she got fed up and said, “DON'T fall into the creek again!” We could tell there was something different and she really meant it. Boy did she mean it!

As usual, we slipped and fell in. Our wet shoes caked up with dirt which rapidly became mud. Grandma met us at the door. “I told you not to fall in! Go get me a willow switch.” Well, I knew better than to bring back some dead stick, so I made a good switch complete with a single leaf on the tip. Nice and thin and limber.

“Turn around, and pull your pant legs up.” Somewhat puzzled we complied. She began to lightly but smartly lay that switch across our bare calves! Naturally, we danced as the switch stung. “Hold still!” Swish, swish. “Hold still!” Swish, swish. Finally, we quit dancing, bit our lips, and took our lickings. She only gave three swipes once we were still. No permanent damage, just a fierce sting, and slight reddening, both of which soon faded. We never had a problem with falling in again.

I had one other lesson to learn. We had summer guests that year, and the five kids had never seen much if any discipline. What the infraction was I never knew, but there they were, pants legs up dancing away.

Not being the brightest bulb in the socket, I sniggered as I walked by. You guessed it. I joined the line for my three swipes for enjoying someone else’s punishment. Grandma was all business when it came to keeping things straight.

On the other hand, she was the best boo-boo fixer around. She washed out the wound with good old Lava soap; (Ouch) poured some rubbing alcohol on; (OUCH) then bandaged it with black salve ointment (AH!). Black salve was the miracle cure we used for most of our bumps, bangs, and cuts. The proper name was Raleigh’s Veterinary Ointment, and it smells of black coal tar. It soothed almost any hurt even deep bone bruises. To this day it is a most pleasant odor that I associate with Grandma Ruth’s gentle but firm healing hands.

Grandma Ruth and Granddad Art ran the dairy for both our families. She kept somewhere around fifty free roaming Rhode Island Red hens, and there were three milk cows who provided all the milk and cream we could possibly use. The eggs were gathered twice daily while the cows were being milked. It was a special treat to get to take the egg bucket and gently place each light tan egg into it.

Each year the old non-laying hens became roasting chickens, so Grandma bought a hundred new chicks to raise each spring. These pullets as they are known, were terrific egg layers but liked to hide their nests. Some would go up under the porch or some other building. Every hole had to get boarded up hen proof. Most would find a spot deep in the tall grass, or a willow bush thicket. Grandma gladly accepted the help of snoopy little boys who would ferret out each stolen nest. I once found a nest with over two dozen eggs in it.

Grandma Ruth never rode on horseback. I found out much later she had a heart condition which prevented her from riding. However, she was a wonderful judge of horse flesh. You could drive forty head of half-wild near Mustangs past her, and she could pick out the one horse worth having. As an RN she doubled up as Veterinarian when needed. Most often she just offered advice, while Granddad did the actual work.

We always had to be very snake aware since we lived in Rattle Snake country. Grandma was able somehow to actually smell them. We would be out picking berries, and she would warn “There’s a snake over in those bushes. Just leave them alone, and we’ll pick them tomorrow.” Out of curiosity one time, I tore up a driftwood pile until I found the snake she had sniffed out. It was true; she could smell out rattlesnakes.

She was also one of those rare people who had total immunity to poison ivy. Pulling it up bare-handed, she would take the pile and prepare it for burning. “Don’t go over by the Red Roof House for a while. I’m going to be burning this poison ivy.” For an ordinary person, this was near suicide. Poison ivy smoke when inhaled destroys most people’s lungs with that itchy rash but inside your lungs.

For Grandma, her kitchen was her office, and she wanted it to be the best looking room possible. Regular linoleum wore out too fast and curled up too much. There was no money in the family budget for the tile floor she wanted. That started her jam and jelly business.

We had a number of fine fruits for making jam or jelly. Wild Raspberries, Goose Berries, Choke Cherries, and Serviceberries grew within easy walking distance. Wild grapes, Oregon Grapes, and Wild Plums grew down Horseshoe Canyon an hour’s drive or less away. From town, Grandma got fresh Strawberries and Crab Apples from Grandma Mary.

From mid-summer through fall Grandma’s kitchen was awash in the odor of fresh made jellies. In the fall she sold her sweet treasure to our hunting guests or anyone else who asked. It took a few years but she collected enough to buy the tiles, and the men folk leveled the floor and laid them.

In spite of very limited finances, Grandma always had some special Christmas gift for all her grandchildren. She handmade each gift with love and care, mostly knitted mittens with our names knitted into the cuff. Occasionally she would do a major project such as a quilt or a sweater, but these were rare and special gifts.

For me especially Grandma seemed to have a special place in her heart. She taught me how to play double deck Canasta. Of an evening we would play for an hour or two. She also taught me basic knitting. It was her that taught me how to find where the chickens had stolen their nests. She showed me how to find and pick the juicy but thorny raspberries. Since she had to bring in the milk cows on foot, she showed me their favorite hiding places.

To me she was like a second mother, who didn’t take my temper and outbursts personally, she just enforced the rules because they were there. Most of her rules were plain common sense. The other rules were accepted because Grandma had my total respect.

Granddad Art was a very intense and sometimes arbitrary leader. His rule was law, and he always meant what he said even if it contradicted something he had just said. Never an easy man to work for, it was sometimes like pulling teeth, just to get a work assignment.

A common summer morning might go something like this. Breakfast over, chores were done, all hands gathered around the kitchen table waiting for Art to name today’s task list. Tension grows as silence goes on and on. Granddad is obviously getting more and more frustrated. At last one ranch hand speaks up, “We might need to get that down timber to the mill.” Total silence. A frown begins to build furrows across Art’s forehead. Another ranch hand offers this, “We ought to get that back fence on the corral fixed.” More silence pursed lips, and Granddad starts getting fidgety. Finally in an outburst of near anger “Well that fence up the canyon isn’t going to fix itself!” All hands hop up and head out to collect tools, load the pickup, and head out to fix fence. This only burned over an hour’s worth of daylight, got Granddad Art wound tight, and started the day out on the wrong foot. I called this routine Job Poker.

This wasn’t in anyway unusual when you were around Granddad. He also had a practical joker streak a mile wide. Having fallen for so many, I can’t even remember a specific example. In general, they bordered on funny through dangerous. He didn’t particularly target someone; anybody was fair game.

I guess a minor example would be the time I got bucked off Judy AGAIN at the big gate near Sorenson’s. As I was collecting my wits and planning how to capture Judy so I wouldn’t have to walk home, I hear, “Get up and close the gate. Catch up with us; we’re going on.” By the time I caught Judy, closed the gate, and mounted up, there was no one in sight. I knew we were going to check cattle in the Back Country. However, there were three routes from that point so now I had to either read minds or be a real good tracker. This could have been just rudeness on his part or not but knowing him I’m sure he got a chuckle out of it.

I do remember that people and their behavior were an endless source of amusement. We had family members visiting from somewhere back east. They drove out to the ranch and received our usual warm welcome. As we went through the nickel tour, I noticed our guests kept getting more and more uncomfortable. They kept looking off into the distance or glancing up at the sky. Finally, after about three hours they said hasty goodbye’s, piled into the station wagon and took off in a cloud of dust. Granddad Art chuckled and said “Too wide open, too much sky. They just couldn’t take it!”

Not all of Granddad’s incidents were quite so funny. He could get into arguments that led to extreme trouble. He was off checking the summer Back Country herd alone one day. For rough country riding Chalky was his preferred mount. As sundown approached and no Art, we got concerned and began to plan for a search and rescue.

About that time here came Granddad hobbling in on foot, sort of holding his side, carrying his saddle. After “Are you ok?” was affirmed, the next question was “Where’s Chalky?” Gradually the story came out; He and Chalky came to a cliff. Granddad Art tried to get the horse to go down the cliff. Chaulky balked, reared and then fell over the cliff with Granddad still onboard. They both tumbled down the rocky embankment ending up in a heap at the bottom. Art was banged up some but not badly hurt. Not so for Chalky, he had hit his head at some point and was only semi-conscious.

Granddad headed out early in the morning with a halter and a bucket, on foot. Late that afternoon he and Chalky appeared. Granddad was patiently coaxing him along as Chalky slowly stumbled and shuffled along to the corral. Art literally hand fed and watered him back to health. Both horse and rider recovered, though Chalky was always just a little loopy after that.

This same kind of argument could happen among between him and people too. My Aunt Ethel married Larry Nauman. I understand from the family, there were rumors of problems between them, so Art went to straighten him out. Granddad came home with two or three dollars worth of nickel knuckle bumps and a warning “Don’t ever show your face again or I’ll make sure you don’t come back!” Consequently, as a boy, I never saw my Nauman cousins for the next twenty years.

While Granddad Art could be pushed over the edge, he was not by nature violent or contrary. He was originally the Forest Ranger for the area. He was instrumental in getting the county line moved so that Esterbrook became part of Converse County. He persuaded all the area residents, two state Senators, and a state representative to get the line changed. He was acquainted with people from the southern edge of the Laramie Plains, to the farmland around Wheatland Wyoming. Generally, he was on good enough terms that he could simply drive in to go hunting.

Next to his county line change, Granddad’s best accomplishment was saving the Back Country from being clear-cut logged. Doing so required the involvement of our Congressional representatives and senators, our governor, and numerous conservation organizations. A cranky and volatile person would never have been able to diplomatically persuade such a diverse group of people to get the area declared a primitive area.

One of the tools he used was to create a photographic herbarium and scenic views of the entire region. The herbarium alone has over a thousand slides. Art was frequently asked to attend various meetings. They wanted him to bring his slides and give them a show and tell.

His skills in photography still amaze me as they did then. He never used a meter, just looked up at the sun, squinted at his subject a little, set the camera, and shot. The wait for new slides was always one of agony for me. I couldn’t wait to see what he had captured this time. How I wanted to be able to do that too.

Once, I did get in big trouble over those slides. Granddad had a big roll top desk. It sat in the back room and was sort of his office for everything. One task was culling out slides. He was good enough even his culls were great to us. Since he shot those large square frame slides a viewer wasn’t needed, you just looked at it as it was. On one occasion Art was preparing a show on the left side of the desk, and culling on the right, not that I would have known then, slides were slides. We boys were allowed to keep the culls we found in the trash to play with. Apparently, some slides got knocked off onto the floor, some culls, some good, for the show. Floor? Trashcan? Somebody just missed the can so off they went all together. Granddad came back, and he was livid! Those KIDS had taken his good slides, and now his show was ruined! Apparently, Grandma Ruth lit into him, something to the effect that, “You let them in the room and told them they could have the culls. It’s your fault for being careless!”

Despite this one misstep, Granddad Art did do some special things with me. I was an information sponge, and he was a walking encyclopedia who loved to show off. It was a perfect match. He taught me the names of all the flowers, where to find them, when they bloomed and everything. I drank it all in and being the “Little Professor” who would tell all about it to anyone I could get to listen.

Granddad also taught me how to read a topographical map. He used the map for our ranch area and rolled out the map on the ground. He next pointed to a hill or mountain or stream and had me try to find it on the map. Streams weren’t too bad, but until he showed me how the curly lines showed the steeps and flats, I could make no sense of them.

Having taught me map reading, he then set out to teach me the lay of the land and many trails in the wilderness. There was a dual purpose for this. First, it made me more useful to help with herding cattle. Secondly, it gave the knowledge required to be a guide to some of the many people who wanted to see the landscape in person. Later I will show how this process of play-to-work functioned.

Even though Granddad Art had arbitrary rules, played pranks and was often just plain grouchy, I loved him. He knew so much and when he listened he really listened. As we grew older, we became ranch hands and worked even closer with him. He taught me there was more to the world than just our little ranch and I have never forgotten that.

These two people Grandma Ruth and Granddad Art were my “ranch” grandparents. I saw one or both of them almost daily, so we were very close. Now let’s meet my “town” grandparents, Grandma Mary and Grandpa Vernon.

Grandma Mary was natured very much like my mother. She was a marvelous gardener, raising vegetables, but her real specialty was her flower garden. She also was full of information, but it was much harder to soak up her knowledge. For one thing, she was so organized and had many rules. When she was gardening, it had to be just so, her way. This left little room for a small boy who didn’t know what to do and stepped all over her plants.

Grandma Mary did have a beautiful yard. The grass was luxurious Kentucky Bluegrass mowed high to use less water. It was a joy to just lay in it and feel its gentle cushiness, like lying on a carpet of green velvet. There was also a small bank down to the sidewalk in front. Any of us kids who were visiting always spent time rolling down the hill. I usually only made only one or two rolls before I got dizzy sick.

That wasn’t the only fun thing to do at Grandma’s house. Grandpa Vernon had put up a rope swing in the big Silver Poplar tree beside the house. The board was removable to keep neighborhood kids from running through the yard and swinging without permission. We had to ask permission in order to get her to take down the swing board and hand it out.

It was clearly understood that there would be no arguing over taking turns. Any squabbling and the swing board came back and got put up. It was also understood that under no circumstances would we scuff our feet on the ground since it dug ruts in the grass under the swing. Even with the strict rules, the swing was great fun.

Grandma also had a crabapple tree which was very climbable. Once more, no squabbling and you had to ask first. Even before the apples were ready, we would sneak one or two despite the extreme pucker factor. After the apples had ripened, we tree climbers were enlisted as apple pickers. When we were small, all but the very top branches were in reach. As we grew, a ladder became necessary, to reach the outermost limbs.

This tree was a bi-annual producer. Every other year, it was loaded with so many apples, it needed to be harvested, or branches would break under the weight. When the determined day for picking came, we would fill up gallon containers which went indoors immediately. There they became crabapple jelly as Grandma Mary, and her help processed the fruit.

Other than some minor supervision Grandma wasn’t very involved in outside play activities. It was indoors that you really got to know her. Indoors was full of rules. Grandma’s house was nothing like child-proof, so her rules were there instead. Only toys from the toy box were allowed. Taking turns was a must. No wild play or loud noises. In other words, almost no fun allowed.

Notice, that to this point all I have spoken of is what I did at Grandma’s. That is because I was very young but also because there was a defining incident that put distance between the two of us.

When I was pretty young, about four or five years old, we were visiting Grandma Mary. I was always a very strong-willed child, and Grandma felt my mother wasn’t being strict enough about something. She decided to put me in time out, in the bathroom. Needless to say, I HATED this! As soon as I discovered the door was locked, and no one would come let me out, I took matters into my own hands. First, I tried to get out the window over the bathtub. No good: The window was made of those bubbly glass bricks, too solid even to break. So BAM, down came the window curtains. In full blown temper tantrum now, I climbed up on the sink and opened the medicine cabinet. CRASH, I tore all the shelves down, and everything hit the floor. Somehow this still didn’t bring any adults, so I moved on.

I climbed up and started dumping the linen cupboards one at a time. The continued crashes and bangs finally brought Grandma, who opened the door. Like a caged animal I shot out the door and was gone! I have later regretted this incident because Grandma Mary never treated me the same after that. I guess she had never met a truly hard headed, temper tantrum prone, child before. It was a certainty she didn’t know what to make of this wild mountain boy.

Grandma was a gentle person. Using a timeout instead of a spanking was typical of her choice to use the gentle but firm method, rather than the quick and hard. Her house was always neat as a pin, just like her flower beds and lawn. In reality, she knew how to relate to regular kids fine, as she was a fifth-grade teacher for years. Having grown up ranch, I didn’t fit the normal patterns and presented an unsolvable puzzle for her.

Grandpa Vernon was a very distant person to me. He was very smart, but as an electrician, he couldn’t safely share much with a young, adventurous boy. I do recall that he had a strange sense of humor. At some time he had lost the tip of his right thumb. This left him with a boney stub but no lack of strength. Any boy caught lying on his wedge pillow or playing so intently the world didn’t exist, was a target. Granddad would sneak up and pinch the living daylights out of you with that boney old thumb.

In general Grandpa Vernon was very quiet but never involved himself in play. He loved to watch TV in the evenings when the Western’s and Lawrence Welk Show were on. If it got too noisy, he would quietly disappear into his shop, or down into the basement shop.

He wasn’t too sociable and would go to church only if he had to. Every Thanksgiving we had a big family gathering in Douglas. When meal time rolled around, without fail Grandma would ask him, “Will you give thanks?” Reluctantly Grandpa lowered his head and mumbled a prayer which always included the phrase “Blessitchewaruse…”

Grandpa Vernon had bad knee’s which got worse over the years. When I was quite young, he and Grandma would drive out to the ranch sometimes. Grandpa would get and stretch his legs some. As the years went by the visits were fewer, and he would just open the car door and talk while seated. Finally, the trips just stopped. I suppose this was partly because of the issue between Granddad Art and Uncle Larry. At the time I just knew that it was expected that we would visit them in town only.

As you can see, there was a tremendous difference between my “town” grandparents and my “ranch” grandparents. I knew what would and wouldn’t please either set. What I didn’t receive from Grandma Mary and Grandpa Vernon was any bond of closeness beyond that of being one of the family offspring. Grandma Ruth and Granddad Art were close enough to make their house feel as much like home as our own cabin. At Grandma Mary’s I had a good time but always felt like a special case visitor, welcome, but just a visitor.

I always felt sort of sorry for town kids. They had so little compared to me. It wasn’t safe to even go wading in the “creek.” There was just too much glass, rusty metal and other junk hidden under the water and mud. There were no willow patches where the sticks to make willow whistles from grew. Everything was fenced, and you couldn’t just go anywhere you wanted. No piles of old lumber or other scrap, you could have for free, to do projects with. Lots of times adults wouldn’t even let you yell or holler.

The issues I felt between the town kids and me were similar to the differences I felt between my two sets of grandparents. In town, there were rules everywhere. I had to stay strictly on the yellow brick road, or I was in the dog house. The rules at the ranch were just as strict, but there were obvious reasons. Rules like, not scaring the horses. Have you ever tried to ride a horse that has been scared frequently? Not too good.

My ranch grandparents were approachable and treated me more as an equal growing up. My town grandparents treated me more like a small child just barely above baby who might someday become a human. Please realize I was fiercely independent and virtually demanded to have my say, if not my way. Given the need to “be seen and not heard” in order to do something, I could and would. When that was the expected norm, I had problems with it.

The whole situation was made worse by a falling out between the two families. It had nothing to do with me, but it did mean that Granddad Art didn’t visit Grandma Mary and Grandpa Vernon. Since I was named for both grand’s (Vernon Arthur) just my name was enough to bring to mind unpleasant thoughts on both sides. Add in my personality, and I made a better ranch grandson than a town grandson.

 

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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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