Thursday, July 19, 2012

DON'T FENCE ME IN ...

Journal Junction in June suggests writing about my father.
See the Friend magazine June 2012

One of the first things that comes to mind is Dad singing, "I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences, gaze at the moon until I lose my senses, ..." We did a lot of riding at the Community Pasture where he managed the cattle, horses and 7 sections of grasslands from May to October each year. A picture gallery, on the web, from the nearby McIntyre Ranch showcases the scenery, and creatures of the land and sky that we saw and heard regularly.

Dad usually took a bunch of kids with him. We often stayed at the two room 'shack' near the main gate for several days at a time. There was a wood burning cook stove in the kitchen, no electricity, an outdoor privy, lots of corrals nearby and the only 'running' water was from a spring a mile or two away. There was a well and if you primed it, usually with water you got by jumping on a horse and riding down to the spring, you could pump out some usable water - eventually.

Basic staple food supplies were brought with us, usually some canned non perishable goods and pancake mix (supplemented by a few berries in season). By the time I was 8ish I knew how to lay and light a fire in the stove and how to adjust the dampers and bank the coals and even how to 'flip flapjacks' baked directly on the round lids of the firebox. One of the few times I remember getting in trouble was when several of us opened and ate most of the cans of fruit, and ALL of the cans of pork and beans - in one sitting. He had ridden out to check on a cow just before we left for the day and had taken longer than planned.

One of my most treasured feelings is the tranquility and peace I felt, no where else ever so greatly as when seated on one of those 'ridges' in the warm sun cooled by an occasional breeze or while astraddle a horse, headed 'to the ridge' where expanses of changeable sky and rolling hills formed a distant horizon. It was a great emptiness free of all other considerations and concerns.

We rode all day, most days, dawn to dusk - sometimes alone, sometimes in groups that dissolved and reformed casually. We all knew our way 'home' to the shack and main gate and if we didn't our horse did. We rode to see the land, grass, water, stock, wildlife, and fences.

That song is titled, 'Don't Fence Me In'. It is an old cowboy song that may epitomize many things about dad. He was a cowboy at heart. He said once that rather than walk a block he would catch a horse. He did many other jobs to support the family but he loved horses and cattle.

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don't fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don't fence me in

Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don't fence me in

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the Western skies
On my Cayuse, let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountains rise

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences
Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
Can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences
Don't fence me in

 He often sang in snatches and phrases. The lyrics and melodies from the last refrain were voiced or hummed often enough that they pop to mind whenever I stand on an expanse of prairie. I seldom saw him hobble a horse. He said a good horse would come when called and a hobbled horse couldn't protect itself or be useful in a hurry. Besides a 'good' horse would not run away when dismounted and didn't need hobbles. If reins were dropped good horses stood still. He rode and trained many horses for many people.

Once of my earliest memories is being scooped up under my arm and swung onto the saddle in front of my father. My head was at about the same level as his boot in the stirrup. We learned to adjust stirrups and girths, bridles and saddles as soon as we were tall enough to reach them.

Dad knew fences. One of his responsibilities was to ensure Pasture fences were in good repair. Stock management depended on it: horses in the horse pasture, bulls in the bull pasture (about the only place we were NOT allowed to ride - ever), cows and calves in the calf pastures and steers most everywhere else. And stock had to be moved to protect the range or if water was scarce. Cows with calves needed almost twice the water of other stock. We also placed salt blocks at the licks. Salt encourages the cattle to consume a variety of native grasses and is fortified with specific nutrients.

Fences kept order, and were kept in good order. We always kept a few multipurpose tools with us and fixed minor problems as we rode. Some days were devoted exclusively to fencing. Dad could drive a pickup load of posts and wire over the prairie hills to almost anywhere. When the summer sun blazed down we were grateful for the shade of the truck or even the dark line from a post.

We dug post holes into the rocky soil by hand, set the posts solidly plumb by returning and tamping in the gravely soil with all but the biggest rocks, ran the wires a strand at a time on foot between gates, corners or braces, half stapled each wire to the posts (by hand) and then snugged up the slack with a 'stretcher bar' before pounding the staples completely in. It was quite an assembly line when we all worked together.

Dad sang that song and many other songs. He often sang: while he worked, drove the truck, pounded nails, rode a horse, milked a cow, baled hay, fed lambs or piglets or calves, cleaned the barn, carried water and when he was swimming or skating - really just about anytime and anywhere. He was, and is, a hard worker of good cheer and attitudes. He was seldom still for long. There was too much to do and he was busily engaged in getting it done as efficiently as possible.

One of the first songs I ever learned to sing was
                      'Home On the Range'.
             Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

How often at night when the heavens are bright
With the light from the glittering stars
Have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed
If their glory exceeds that of ours

Dad had keen eyesight and could read cattle brands from a long ways off. He could discern deer from calves and horses from cows when I could only see specks and blobs. He taught me to look and really see things - it was mostly observation and comparison.

Dad showed us the moon and the stars and shared his love of such things with us. He loved the land and the sky, day or night, winter or summer. He loved most animals and birds, he loved us and he loved God. There were in fact few things he didn't love. And he made sure we knew about the things he loved.

When I see the sweep of foothills and prairie, herds of horse or cattle, and even sometimes the moon and stars at night emotion chokes me. I remember ...


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