Chapter One:

Fresh Paint


It was lime green.

At least that’s what it was after my brother Johnny brushed on two thick coats of epoxy enamel. I don’t recall what color it was before, but it had "Kissee’s TV Repair" emblazoned on each door.

Johnny felt the signs had to be covered immediately. There simply was no use in giving the previous owner free advertising, he said. Besides, such words were completely out of place on a pickup truck destined to be doing the honest ranch work God intended for such vehicles.

It was a 1948 three-quarter-ton Chevrolet with all the "deluxe" features.

There was a spotlight on the driver’s side, an external windshield visor, drip guards above each window and lots of bright trim. The seats were covered in leather - in the places where the springs hadn’t yet poked through - and the interior was plush as the outside. Even the dashboard was dripping in chrome grilles and gauge bezels and heavy knobs.

It was opulent. Or, at least it had been once. It was almost a dozen years old when Johnny got it. You surely wouldn’t have guessed it from his obvious delight. It was his first pickup truck and a symbol that he had finally become a man. He ran Mama’s rag box empty the first day scrubbing and polishing every square inch.

Although I was barely tall enough to get a good reflection of myself in the moon-shaped hubcaps, I was mightily impressed. Dreams of someday being big enough and man enough to drive this wondrous machine filled my head.

It would be a while, but my day would come soon enough.

Johnny mostly used the truck for daily chores. He traveled to and from the various pastures, tending our livestock and making the obligatory trip to town for the mail every day.

Waiting for the mail to run was an important small town ritual in those days. This was where the social pecking order of the community was established and maintained. The character and appearance of the vehicle a person drove to the Post Office was of extreme significance.

Everybody who was anybody in our little world was either at the Post Office or had a representative there every morning. The menfolk did their waiting on the caliche parking area around the front of the building.

They congregated in groups of two or three, loosely gravitating around one or the other’s vehicles. No one ever spoke of it, but the rules of this cultural rite seemed crystal clear even to me, an ignorant child.

Individuals of lesser social rank always hopped out of their vehicles and walked around shaking hands and talking to whomever was already there. It was not necessary for a person of status to actually dismount his machine. All he had to do was arrive - followed by a cloud of dust and accompanied by the rattling of loose chassis components. If he was truly worthy the group would come to him and orbit around his vehicle.

Of course, it didn’t really take much to be worthy. Small town status was a fickle and fleeting thing. Generally, it came as a result of anything new or out of the ordinary which momentarily called attention to a particular individual.

It could be you had just sold some calves and had bought yourself a new Panama straw hat. In that case the group was sure to notice it and come right over to inspect it and make conversation. Or, maybe the rumor was out that your girlfriend’s father had recently knocked out one of your teeth - in which case everyone would have to get a look at your swollen mouth to confirm what they had heard.

I am sure this was on Johnny’s mind the day we took the freshly-painted and spit-shined Chevy on its maiden voyage. He had already mounted a gun rack across the rear windshield and artfully hung a well-worn lariat rope on one of the hooks. To further confirm his identity as a cattleman he had replaced the factory hood ornament with a little bronze steer and attached a sticker which said "Cowboy Cadillac" to the rear bumper.

To assure his masculinity went unquestioned he had clamped a custom turning knob to the steering wheel. It came from the Western Auto store and was a real doozey. The bottom half was chrome and the top was a clear plastic bubble which encased a color photograph of a half-dressed female model. It was so scandalous at the time that Johnny carried a special rag under the driver’s seat for the express purpose of hiding the knob from the view of my mother.

The gleaming old truck indeed made the desired first impression. We rolled to a stop about 40 yards away from the group in the Post Office parking lot and just sat there non-chalantly. Within two minutes every one of the local boys had sauntered over for a closer look.

"Goshomighty Johnny, this thang’s so shiny the game warden could spot you a mile away in the moonlight," one remarked.

Another asked how many gears were in the transmission and kicked each tire with the pointy toe of his boot. Every man scanned the entire vehicle inside and out, mentally cataloging each detail and made comments as he went.

So engrossed were they that the mail carrier would have come and went without notice had he not made a detour to take a look himself, canvas mailbags slung over his shoulder.

Before the event finally concluded each and every man had taken his turn pulling off his big straw hat and sticking his head inside the driver’s window to gawk at the lady in the turning knob.

It was Johnny’s glorious moment in the sun.

At that particular moment a little glory was exactly what he needed. He was a young man struggling to establish an adult identity. And, there was no way he could have known it then, but that old pickup was going to carry him through a lot of crossroads which lay ahead.

"This truck beats a saddle pony any day. It has plenty of power and you never have to feed it oats," he remarked on the way home that day.

This was a lavish compliment, considering that Johnny loved horses. He couldn’t help it. It was in his blood. Our maternal ancestors were horse people from way back. They came to South Texas at a time when the only descriptions you could find of the region were the words: "Immense herds of wild horses" scrawled across the map.

They made their living by rounding up these mustangs, breaking, training and selling them to ranchers, settlers, traildrivers and governments on both sides of the Mexican border. Johnny always got a lump in his throat and a faraway look in his eyes whenever grandpa reminisced about those early times. His passion for the old ways and the old times was obvious. So was the fact that he felt cheated by fate.

"Just my stinking luck to be born a hundred years too late. All the ranges are fenced and the great cattle drives are over," he said more than once.

As poetically tragic as that may sound, reality was even more cruel. The fact of the matter was that Johnny was born with terrible eyesight and acute asthma. I am sure The Good Lord knew exactly what he was doing when he put Johnny in the twentieth century instead of the nineteenth. The harsh life of the real cattle drives wouldn’t have been an ideal time or place for a fellow wearing glasses with lenses like the bottoms of Coke bottles and a Primatine Mist inhaler.

"I’m sure sorry about those three hundred head of steers we drove off that cliff, Mr. Goodnight," I can envision him saying; "I was having a coughing fit and knocked my spectacles off. ‘Couldn’t tell which way we were headed."

Even if he’d been dealt a less than perfect hand, it wasn’t his nature to be defeated. Johnny was determined and tenacious and set about to do whatever was necessary to become what he knew he was - an old waddy at heart.

Our father had spent years slowly building a modest herd of range cattle which he ran on pastures leased from my grandfather. These pieces of land were the last vestiges of the ancestral horse ranch.

Considering how Johnny deeply felt about the family heritage, it seemed only natural for him to assume a larger role in ranching the family homestead. So, as it turned out, Johnny didn’t leave home. He stayed and became a partner with Dad in the family cattle venture.

Suddenly he was free to live his dream of being a cattleman - some pretty heady stuff for a guy barely old enough to legally buy beer. It was no wonder that in no time at all he became a legend in his own mind.

His voice deepened. The bow in his legs became more pronounced. He started chewing tobacco. He was a regular rootin’ tootin’ Tom Mix with an Elvis pompadour and a James Dean sun squint. It was a role for which he was well rehearsed.

At age 21 he was over six foot tall and very thin but had already perfected the classic John Wayne hitch in his getalong. His upper torso appeared to be falling forward and his feet had to hurry to catch up.

Watching him stride across the corral one day, Dad remarked: "I swear, the way that boy moves you’d think he weighs twice what he does. I wonder if your Mama has put starch in his underwear?"

If she had it certainly wouldn’t have stayed long. There was always enough work to take the starch out of anything or anyone, but that was fine with Johnny.

He wasn’t afraid of work. In fact he relished it, so long as it somehow had something to do with cattle and horses. His attitude was fortunate because, as he soon found, the path he had chosen was paved with blisters and bruises and perspiration




Read Chapter 2