My Heroes have Always Been Cowboys

Lopin’ along the trail
Lopin’ along the dusty trail
I’m a rollin’ stone that gathers no moss
Lopin’ along the trail, and my feet are getting’ weary
Cause I’m lopin’ along without a hoss

That sentimental old cowboy classic by Abe Burrows came to me yesterday as I was driving our cattle to pasture. It was a stormy day, the kind of day that can spook the herd and send them stampeding like a tsunami of horns and hooves, and woe betide anybody or anything that gets in their way. Many a brave cowboy has been buried on the lone prairie sent to his maker by a crazed herd thundering out of control.

I watched the cattle warily for signs they were ready to bolt, hoping I could head them. That’s the only way to stop a stampede, circle the leaders and make the herd start milling among themselves until they come to their senses. It’s dangerous business, and one stumble can turn a man into human hamburger beneath those plunging hooves.

The clouds hovered dark and ominous, but they spared me the sheet lightening and rolling thunder that can ignite the herd and trigger a cowboy’s last roundup. Fortunately the cattle mulled about and stomped, but stopped short of erupting. Fortunately for me too, the herd I was driving only had two cows in it, and they were technically calves, but big for their age.

Like Willy Nelson, “my heroes have always been cowboys.” I love to sing that song. I cleaned up the lyrics for my use. The cowboys Willy sings about were not my heroes. I was a Roy Rogers fan. Never fight if you can sing instead. But if you are backed into a corner, come out swinging with both fists, and then edit the film footage so that the good guys always win over the black hats.

I drove my parents bonkers growing up asking to have a horse. On our city lot it wasn’t a practical idea but when you are a kid, practical is way second place to idea.

The fates have a sense of humor. Several decades later two of our sons came to me with a proposal. “We want to raise grass fed cattle on the Salem land.” The Salem land is a five acre piece we bought when the children were young. It took us years to scrape together the coins, but we felt it was worth the sacrifice to help our family learn good work habits, and the lessons that the law of the harvest can teach; as ye sow so shall ye reap (so long as you water, weed, control the insects, fertilize, and fence out the varmints.)

On one acre we have a fruit cocktail orchard, and a big garden. On the other four acres we have raised horse and goat feed over the years. Our spread is big enough to keep us off the street and out of trouble, but not practical for grazing a herd of cattle. But our sons’ idea trumped my practicality, and we are now cattlemen. I got to wear my cowboy hat to the auction two days ago, and we went up against the big boys from the packing houses and ranches. Some of them were actually wearing black hats, but I don’t think they were the Hollywood variety. Seemed like nice fellers. Well, just like a Roy Rogers movie the underdogs come out on top sometimes. We won a couple of the bidding contests, and ended up with two fine looking yearlings.

We turned them out to pasture that night, and they immediately found a hole in the fence. The boys rounded them up, and I tended them yesterday while we watered the garden.
We gave away our Arabian horse when Sharon and I left to serve a mission for our Church five years ago so I was on foot, but four acres isn’t exactly the Old Chisholm Trail, and I kept up with the herd.

I have to tell you being a cowboy is even better than I thought. I like being with the cows, but even more I like being with the boys.

My heroes have always been cowboys
And they still are it seems
Sadly in search of, and one step in back of
Themselves and their slow movin’ dreams.

In a family, smile your way to success

“Keep your sunny side up, up.
Hide the side that gets blue.
If you have nine sons in a row,
Baseball teams make money you know…

I’ve hummed and strummed that cheery old song for decades. We were blessed to have enough sons for a team plus a pinch hitter, and daughters for a squad of five cheerleaders. Of course, on a family team everybody plays and everybody cheers. But we never made any big or little money out of baseball. We do have a rich mother load of memories, and a pep club of grand children. Not a bad score for starting out as a two player team just learning to pitch and catch.

Some experts say that siblings in a family fill roles sort of like players on a sports team. The oldest child is more often serious and responsible. The last child is the darling, and the middle children have to negotiate between their younger and older peers.

Christy Haggard was the fourth of five children. According to the research, this would make her a negotiator and peace maker. According to her older sister Christy filled her role with gusto, maybe more. “Christy is the most violent peacemaker I’ve ever known,” her sister said.

Sitting across the table from Sharon and me last night, Christy didn’t look violent, nor did she look Haggard. In fact she was beaming smiles at us, and everyone who stopped to talk to her, but especially at her brand new husband Matt Haggard next to her, and he was returning the beams. I thought, “Those smiles will be more important than money in this great marriage adventure you are beginning.”

A few years ago I was asked to interview LeGrand Richards and script a television program on his life. Elder Richards was a member of the Counsel of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Father of ten, grand, and great grandfather, he was well into his nineties when I talked with him. Still he warmed our conversation with his keen wit, good humor, love of life and his fellow humans.

One of his great contributions to his heavy duties in the Church was the insight he brought from decades of living. No matter what crisis came up, he had seen the world survive something worse.

He was an optimist who not only saw the glass as half full not half empty, but worked to fill up the empty half. One of his favorite poems was. “For Every worry under the sun there is a remedy or there is none; if there is a remedy, hurry and find it; if there is none, never mind it.”

Good advice whether we are starting out like Matt and Christy winding it up like Elder Richards, or anywhere in between.

LeGrand Richards was unsinkable to the last. A while after I talked with him his circulation slowed down so much they had to amputate one of his feet. His many friends often asked him, “ Elder Richards, how are you doing?”

His reply, “I’m just glad the doctors started on that end.”

“Stand upon your legs.
Be like two fried eggs
Keep your sunny side up.”

Best Feet Forward

When you want to leap forward, lean back. That doesn’t make sense unless you’re riding a horse. In the saddle your intuition says lean forward to spur the horse from a walk to a gallop. But leaning forward puts more weight on the horse’s front legs which are weaker. The horse struggles for a few steps to catch its balance and get its rhythm, literally starting off on the wrong foot. The rear haunches are the power pistons that launch you and the horse forward. Once you feel the rhythm of it, it is so natural, comfortable and enjoyable for you and the horse, it is obviously the right way to do it.

This rhythm of gathering and collecting before we leap is a powerful model for many things we do in life large and small. I find that when I am making an important phone call, I do better if I take a moment to rehearse the information I want to give or get. The names, times, and approach I will use. It only takes a few seconds, but seems to make the difference between stumbling into my message, or smoothly flowing into the direction I want the conversation to go.

There are a few geniuses who can spontaneously launch golden platitudes and witty retorts off the tops of their heads. But most of us, whether on stage at the podium, pulpit, or in conversation do better when we gather our wits and even rehearse what we plan to present.

The same holds true in athletics. My Friend Frank Santiago enjoyed one of the great moments of his life when his son hit a long shot at the buzzer to give his team the state championship in basketball. It was so smooth and easy that people told Frank, “The kid has a natural shot.” Frank told me, “I’ve tossed that ball back to him at least 10,000 times since he was a kid. That’s how you get a natural shot.” Gather then launch, horses, basketball stars, and us everyday folks.

In longer range projects the principle is the same. Get your resources together, then make your move. I was shooting a video production a few years ago. Lunch time came and I hustled across the street from the studio to a small, very small fast food place. I glanced at the menu and ordered the chicken. I didn’t realize how specific was the “the” in my order.

“I’m sorry sir, we already sold it,” the young man behind the counter said.

“It?” I asked.

“Every morning we buy a chicken for the menu, but somebody already ordered it,” he explained.

I didn’t want to run them short on anything else, so I went to a little bigger establishment. I submit that their operation was a little undercapitalized. They needed to collect a few more edibles before they opened for business.

Riding horses, making conversation, starting a business, launching your life’s direction; not a bad idea to gather your resources first, then rare back, then leap off your best foot.

Improbable Dream

I love the song “The Quest,” from the musical Man of Lamancha. It’s better known as The Impossible Dream. Sung by the title character, an old man who takes upon himself the name Don Quixote de Lamancha. He also shoulders the quest to right all wrongs, lift up the downtrodden, and punish the wicked. He is considered insane the others, and that is the point of the original Spanish book written centuries ago, by Miguel Cervantes and second in popularity only to the Bible in Spain.

One of the evidences that he is crazy is that he is old. Dreams are for the young and impetuous. By that reasoning, I am certifiably loony. I had an, if not impossible, at least highly improbable dream in high school, and in a quieter form it has never left me. I dreamed of a custom car, the only one of its kind in the world. It would be built from a 1939 Mercury coup I had purchased from my brother. The little car was way cute enough in its original state to justify restoring it, but I could see crouched inside its form a sports car waiting to spring forth.

I bought a hack saw, a pair of tin snips, later a small welder and a few more tools and commenced the liberation of the car within.

With infinitely more enthusiasm than skill I cut off the top of the car making a tantalizing convertible. I found then that the top was part of what kept the bottom from buckling and squeezing in the doors so they wouldn’t open or close. I fabricated reinforcements to correct that.

I “chopped” the top as we said in those days to make the car lower and sleeker. Now the top looked good, but the body was too thick. With the trusty tin snips and hack saw I “sectioned” six inches out of the middle. It now looked low and sleek, but too long. So I shortened it by ten inches losing the small back seat which I now used for the front seat since the original front seats were too high.

Shortening it involved the serious business of cutting the frame and re-welding it. While I was down there, I “stepped” the frame a few inches to make the car hug the ground. Hug it did. Watch out for anything higher than a manhole cover. I also had a machine shop shorten the drive shaft.

The old Ford engine was too underpowered, and too high to fit under the hood, so later I replaced it with a low, rumbling Chevy V/8.

The top didn’t fit anymore, so I stretched an old Studebaker hard top to fit. I fastened on with the locking device from an old ford convertible. Other adaptations included a hydraulic brake cylinder from a Chevy truck, tail lights from a Pontiac, steering wheel from a later ford (a mistake, I see now the old one looked better) a racing shift mechanism since I had to cut off the floor mounted gear shift lever that now hit the dashboard. I shifted gears using the stubby remaining post with my foot for awhile, but this left me one foot short to work the clutch or brake and the accelerator.

The project was going wonderfully until I hit a snag. I had to put it all back together. I discovered my destruction talent far exceeded my construction skill. I found that poring over custom car magazines at the drug store every month had almost prepared me to change a windshield wiper blade, but not restore a dismembered car.

The magazines had kept the fire of my vision burning. One picture in particular. It jumped out at me like the sirens beckoned Ulysses. (See the ancient Greek story or the movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”)The photo was so close to the car I was trying to build. Unfortunately it was in a book not a magazine. But some chances come only once in a lifetime. I plunked down lunch money for a week and bought the book. I dog-eared that page for years staring at that car. In my dream the parts strewn around our back yard resurrected into this vision on the page. Like Ezekiel in the Bible seeing the dry bones rise up and live again.

Finally I got the pieces assembled and running enough to drive about 180 miles to Vernal Utah where I had got a job at a service station. Along the way I was pulled over by a highway patrolman. Bless my innocent soul, I could not imagine why. I wasn’t speeding. He opened our conversation. “What in h___ is this contraption?” Shortly into my explanation I sensed he didn’t really want to know.

Safety inspections had been invented a few years before, and my “car” was noticeably lacking a sticker, also the ability to get one. The patrolman was basically an understanding man who probably had a lunatic son of his own at home. When I told him how I needed the summer work for college (note the time passage. I had finished high school, a mission and some college and was still sawing, welding, bending, and figuring) he told me to get out of his sight and never appear on his highway again. I kept my promise. I came home at the end of the summer at night, assuming he was off shift by then.

Life goes on at an ever quickening pace. I could still get a lick in between books, basketball, wife seeking, and other extra curricular activities of college. Later my patient wife and inquisitive toddler sons supported my habit. But soon the spare moments got sucked up in the necessities of providing and presiding that come with husband and fatherhood.

I wisely evaluated my shortage of time, money, and skill. I disposed of my adolescent dream and went on to mature responsibilities.

Sort of.

Years later I was presenting a program in Southern California. As is my daily custom I went jogging the next morning after my show. With no better option, I was running across paved parking lots and industrial building drive ways when I happened to glance to my left. An auto body shop happened to be in my line of sight. .It’s garage door happened to be open. Inside happened to be the car, the car in the book, the vision of my teenage dreams. Quick left turn, breathless dash to the car, stammered question, where? How? What?” I blurted.”

“This is a custom car from up in Pasadena, the mechanic replied. “It was built from a Ford convertible back in the ‘40’s. Some guy had it stored for about half a century. He finally sold it, and the new owner wants us to fix it up. You like it?”

I tried to explain. No way. I pictured myself behind the wheel. I came within an eyelash of breaking into a full throated rendition of, “To dream the impossible dream, to love pure and chaste from afar…” I thought better of it and ran off again at a revived pace humming.

Back home I went to the storage/hiding place where I keep my improbable dream. I stroked her fender gently, looked with the eye of imagination at the singular sports car still stretching its wings to fly. And sang softly, “And the world will be better for this, that one man scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to build the impossible car.”