We were in the middle of a hay field the day my Dad said, "Git up there behind the wheel."
Surely he wasn’t talking to me, was my first thought. I was only six or, maybe seven. No, surely not. But, he was looking right at me and he wasn’t smiling. Oh my gosh, maybe he really was…
Before I was able to complete the second thought he had picked me up and plunked me in the driver’s seat of the idling Chevy. My line of vision hit the steering wheel dead center. I was staring directly into the horn button.
" Can you reach those pedals?".
Pedals? What pedals? I was frantically searching.
Finally I saw them….way down there…about six inches below the bottoms of my feet. Surely he didn’t mean those pedals? But he was looking at them too. And, he still wasn’t smiling.
"No sir, I don’t think so."
"Well let’s just see. Stand on that one and push it down as hard as you can," he said, pointing to the clutch pedal. I braced against the steering wheel and pushed so hard I thought my eyes would pop out of their sockets. It moved, but I was really struggling to hold it. Something slipped and I lost my grip. The stiff old return spring catapulted me right back up into the seat.
Dad had glanced away at that moment and when he looked back and saw me still sitting in the seat he was not pleased.
"Didn’t you hear me?"
"Yessir, I tried but …"
"Well then try again," he said.
I did. This time I was able to lock my knee and hold the pedal down.
"Okay, that’s good. Now, reach over there and pull that gearshift to you and up," he said.
I grabbed the big black knob and yanked it. There was a terrible screeching, grinding noise. It sounded like a scream from the depths of hell and scared dickens out of me. In that split second of lost concentration my knobby little knee involuntarily unlocked and the clutch pedal spat me back up into the seat again.
All hell had broken loose.
The old Chevy was bucking and lurching like a bronco with a burr under his blanket. I was hanging onto the steering wheel with all my strength and it was jerking me around like one of those balls on a rubber band attached to a paddle.
Dad had been standing on the driver’s side running board. Now he was hanging onto the end of the door, which was flopping open and shut with every lurch. He didn’t look happy. In fact, he looked scared. I had certainly never seen that before and it frightened me even worse.
He was yelling but it didn’t make any sense to me.
He kept saying something about a son of a bitch and killing it.
I didn’t know what he meant but I had a feeling he really meant it. Every time the door slammed shut it smashed Dad up against me and I could feel his hot breath in my face as he screamed. Then the door would swing out and take him with it again. This went on for what seemed like a long time.
Somehow or another I finally figured out that "Kill it!" probably meant stop the truck…which sounded like a good idea to me. My arms were turning to rubber. With much effort I was barely able to look up over the dashboard and saw a line of fenceposts approaching. I aimed that little bronze steer hood ornament at the biggest one and hung on.
There was another terrible noise and a big bump, but we just kept going. At least the Chevy and I did. Dad had vanished. The door slammed shut and he wasn’t on it. I was on my own…but not for long. I heard Dad screaming about the son of a bitch again, looked out the window and saw him running alongside the truck. I could tell he definitely wasn’t happy now.
I really don’t remember how I finally got the truck stopped, but obviously I did.
Dad and I both survived and the old Chevy wasn’t hurt.
From that point on my driver’s education was more gradual - which was fine with me. I already had some experience with Dad’s ideas about teaching. His methods got fast results…sometimes instantaneous.
Just a year or so before, when I was about five, he had decided I would become a horseman…or else.
He was trying to pasture ponies for resale at the time and knew the animals needed to be ridden in order to be kept in top shape for potential buyers. Since he didn’t ride himself and Johnny was busy with his own mounts, his pragmatic logic dictated that I should spend every available moment horseback. It would help keep me out of trouble and unlimber the animals, he said.
Hence, the decree went out. Each afternoon upon his return to his castle, Dad expected to find his youngest knave astride a glistening steed, making hoofprints and leaving dust in the air.
Johnny was in charge of logistics. He always bridled the lucky beast of the hour, brought it up to an area near our front yard and made sure the day’s command performance was underway whenever Dad rolled in.
We had no saddle small enough for me at that time, so I rode bareback. Johnny had fashioned a bridle out of one of Dad’s old leather belts, using .22 shell cases as rivets. This homemade headgear was attached it to an antique bit we found in grandpa’s barn. The reins were cotton clothesline cord.
Johnny said I was a natural.
"Some people just never learn to go with the movement of the animal. They just can’t seem to get the rhythm or something. You look like you were born up there, boy," he said.
That movement and rhythm stuff was completely lost on me. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. But, the fact that my big brother was pleased gave me confidence.
After the first couple of days I was enjoying myself…except for this one stupid sorrel gelding. He was, shall we say, problematic. He didn’t care for children in general and he hated me in particular.
At the time I weighed in the neighborhood of fifty pounds with all my pockets full of rocks. The sorrel weighed several hundred pounds and had nasty a habit of biting.
Since I was always barefooted, this was very intimidating. I had to watch his head constantly. When I saw him start to bring his nose around, I would jerk my foot back to avoid getting my toes nipped. Riding this animal was anything but fun. It simply demanded more concentration than most five or six year olds have to invest.
As fate would have it, the inevitable occurred one afternoon just as Dad pulled up to watch. Tired of my kicking and prodding to urge him forward, the sorrel swung his head around, caught my entire foot in his mouth and slung me off his back.
I spun and sailed through the air like a big frisbee toy and then flopped belly-first on the sun-baked earth like a tortilla being tossed on a hot griddle. The ground was covered with goathead burrs. Needless to say, my undignified landing was painful.
I burst into tears.
This was a mistake.
Dad yelled from the fence, "Don’t lay there and bawl like a baby. Think about what you’re doing. Go git that horse and show him who’s the boss!"
It was at this moment I realized Dad’s logic and mine were different…especially whenever he was in teaching mode. I had just gotten my liver and lights jarred loose and had about three dozen holes poked in my hide. Bawling like a baby seemed a perfectly logical response to me. To be honest about it, that stupid horse was about the last priority on my list. As far as I was concerned riding lessons were adjourned for the day.
Of course, I was wrong.
Dad immediately came over the barbed wire fence and across to me in what seemed like a single bound. He yanked me up by a belt loop of my cut-off jeans and held me like a rag doll as he spoke directly into my face. He had my undivided attention.
"Now listen to me, son. The first rule of horseback riding is you never ever let go of the reins. The second rule is when a horse throws you off you get back on him quick as you can, no matter how bad it hurts…"
"You’ll get stepped on or stomped if you lay there on the ground like a big splattered cowpie! The quicker you get back on him the sooner he’ll learn who’s boss," Dad said.
It seemed pretty obvious to me that this horse already knew who was boss and it surely wasn’t me. Sensing that Dad wasn’t in the mood for a debate, however, I wisely left that thought unspoken.
What happened next is indelibly etched in my mind.
Dad caught the sorrel, led him over by the lower ring of his bit and handed me the slackened reins.
"Now, dust youself off and…" Dad was saying whenever the ornery gelding managed to wiggle his mouth around and rip a sizable chunk of epidermis from his knuckles.
He grimaced and let out a growling curse but never loosened his grip. Instead, he used the bit to yank the horse’s head around, forcing the animal to step forward.
Just as he did, Dad rocked backward like a major league pitcher launching a fast ball, but he threw a fist instead. It landed like a sledge hammer on the flat surface of the animal’s outstretched neck.
I had never seen a man knock a full-grown horse completely off his hooves before. It was impressive.
I watched, silently aghast, as this huge beast flopped around like a catfish on a stringer. Dad stood spread-legged over him, still holding the bit in his bleeding hand. His neck horribly twisted, the horse was frantically rocking and rolling on his ribcage, trying to get his balance.
"Stand up! I ain’t through with you yet!" he yelled at the stunned horse, as he yanked up on the bridle fiercely. The horse snorted and struggled and finally wobbled back to his feet.
Dad yanked him around and stretched his neck out again.
When Dad drew back his fist the second time the sorrel closed his eyes and shuddered and tried to shy away. He was no fool. He knew what was coming and wanted no part of it.
Instead of a giving him a second blow, however, Dad continued to pull on the bit, leading the animal in several tight circles and finally bringing him a halt.
"Now, I think he’s learned some manners. Git back up there and see if he offers to bite again. If he does, you try your best to kick his teeth out," Dad said.
I did…get back on, that is. I never had to kick his teeth out.
The sorrel had undergone a miraculous change of attitude. He was very obedient and polite from that time forward.
It seems we both learned something about fear and respect that day. The lesson stayed with me for a long time. Any time thereafter if I saw Dad getting angry, my mind summoned forth images of that poor old gelding struggling to get back on his feet.
The mere implication that such force might be brought to bear on me was a powerful deterrent. It saved me from all manner of foolish and evil things I might otherwise have gotten into.
Johnny and I talked about this several times afterward. These discussions were very philosophical and always went something like this:
"You don’t think he’d ever…(gulp)…hit.." I would begin.
"I just hope I don’t ever make him mad enough to find out," Johnny would reply, not bothering to wait for the rest of the question.
Then we’d both think silently for a minute and Johnny would conclude: "One thing’s for sure. If he ever did, there wouldn’t be enough of you left to make a greasy spot."
Somehow, that was not a great comfort.
The thought yet lingered in my subconscious mind a half dozen years later. Johnny and I were moving cattle down the rockiest, most cactus-infested stretch of right-of-way you can imagine.
I was riding drag - bringing up the rear - when my pony stepped off in a rat nest, disturbing a rattlesnake who was probably taking a siesta after a hardy mouse lunch. The irritated snake buzzed and the rodeo was on.
My pony pitched left and then he pitched right. He sunfished and crowhopped and did every trick in the book except somersaults and the moonwalk. I lost my seat on the first jump but I had a death grip on the reins.
When he finally broke and ran I just drug along behind, plowing up sharp stones with my teeth and letting my pockets and eyelids and earlobes gather up as much cactus as possible as we went. It was a struggle, but somehow I managed to keep a hold on those reins.
Apparently the adrenaline rush wore off after about 50 yards and the little cowpony finally realized my body weight was threatening to pull his head off and he stopped. Although in a semi-conscious state, I was thankful.
Johnny came galloping up and brought his mount to a lurching halt directly above my disheveled carcass. He yelled down as I lie bleeding and spiting teeth.
" Are you hung up?" he asked.
"Well then, why in hell did you let him drag you? Ain’t you got enough sense to let go of the reins?" he asked.
"Let go of the reins? Not me. No sir. Daddy told me never to let go of the reins, no matter what! He said that was rule number one." I painfully replied.
Johnny was utterly stupefied.
He looked as if he’d been hit in the back of the head with a ball-peen hammer as he pondered my logic. Finally he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, as though to clear his mind, and said:
"Oh well, of course, that explains it! I’m sure he’s gonna be real proud of you when he gets the doctor bill."
Dad decided I needed more practice with the truck’s controls before he turned me loose behind the wheel again.
To this end, I did a lot of steering while sitting on his lap.
It was good training. From up there I could actually see out the windshield and feel him operating the brakes, clutch and accelerator. This helped me understand how everything worked, even though my legs still weren’t long enough to reach the pedals.
One of the first places I steered to was the livestock auction.
Dad wasn’t really looking to buy or sell at this particular sale. His purpose was to gather information. He wanted a first-hand look at the going prices, what sort of livestock was selling and things like that. Of course, being an impressionable child, I didn’t have a clue. I was simply enthralled by the sights and sounds of the place.
The sale barn was basically a big tin roof which covered about four acres of holding pens and gates and chutes. A steel stairway led to a catwalk which overlooked the pens so folks could walk around and look down at the livestock.
I had never seen so many bawling, bellowing cattle in one place in all my young life. There were animals of all different sizes and shapes and colors. There were groups of mother cows and calves, steers and young heifers, held in dozens of separate pens. There were horses down there too. And, way in the back, a few dozen goats and some hogs.
It looked like a family reunion for livestock to me.
I figured every pasture for miles around was empty because surely all the livestock in the universe was crammed into those pens beneath me.
It was the noisiest place I’d ever been. The men who moved the cattle from pen to pen and down the alleys were constantly slamming big metal gates and yelling and making all sorts of strange noises. The bulls were bellowing angrily at each other, calves were squalling for their mothers and mother cows were bawling incessantly.
If not deafening, it was certainly maddening. The urgency and distress in the animal’s voices made my heart beat faster than normal. Flecks of hay and dirt and dried dung wafted through the air in clouds. It stuck to my sweaty skin and made me blink. The odor of manure and urine was overpowering in the dense humid air. It was so strong I could taste it in the back of my throat.
Bowlegged cattlemen in faded jeans and starched western shirts dotted the catwalk and leaned with their forearms draped across the railings, seemingly oblivious the stench and chaos. They were as at ease as they might have been at a community social gathering. They talked among themselves in groups of two or three, making animated hand gestures and facial expressions as they spoke.
If you watched closely - and, naturally, I did - it was apparent there was some sort of unspoken rule about spitting. Evidently it was a requirement. The workers down among the cattle spat every time they finished a yell or a holler. Some of them were chewing tobacco, others weren’t. It didn’t seem to matter. Each one spit every few seconds, regardless.
The men on the catwalk spit, too. The older ones were slow and deliberate - leaning out over the railings and carefully letting loose so that it would land between the cattle. The younger men were quick about it but didn’t seem to care where it landed. As I observed this, my salivary glands involuntarily responded. Within a few minutes I was spitting right along with them.
A very loud voice came over a speaker and said the sale was about to begin.
Dad put his hand lightly on my shoulder and guided me along into a big room with rows of folding seats something like those I had seen at the Rialto movie theater. The big difference was there was no movie. Instead of a big screen, all the chairs faced a small semi-circular arena with gates on each end. This was the auction "ring".
Livestock entered through one gate and exited through the other. Across from the audience was an elevated room where the auctioneer sat, overlooking the ring. As the animals were moved through the arena the auctioneer would pull the microphone up close to his mouth and mumble a bunch of numbers and fractions and gibberish fast and loud. It went something like: "I got ten…ten…ten… ten and a half…tenanahaf…tenanahaf…who’ll go ‘leven…’leven"
It didn’t make sense to me but surely did to everyone else. He had everyone’s undivided attention. I noticed that the man in the row ahead of me periodically touched the brimExit
Read Chapter 4