Friday, December 21, 2012


(Blogger's note: Here are a couple short efforts of mine appropriate for the season.)

He reviewed it all again: Track on the outbound VOR, compute winds aloft, heading, altitude, plot it within seconds, turn 330 up the valley.  How many times had he rehearsed this very situation? The payoff, he told himself, might save our lives.
   He tried the landing lights once. As expected, their beams failed to penetrate the gloom and only bathed the night surrounding him and heightened his anxiety. Headlines from the local weekly rose annoyingly: "Local rancher, daughter missing," "Search mounted for rancher's plane," "Fog claims two in air crash."

   "Gallows humor," he said aloud.
   "What?" she asked.
   "Nothing, Kay." He tried a smile on the passenger beside him. She was twisting the jewels of her queen's tiara, like a rosary, through her fingertips. A worried gesture. He'd seen it before. The girl asked if the landing lights would help other aircraft spot them.
   "We're the only knotheads up here tonight, Hon." His jaws ached, torqued as they were from the tension.

   "What about Springfield?" Kay asked.
   "Too close to the mountains, Hon, too close." The engine purred along in a contented hum. The calm was unearthly. The silence weighed heavily between them for minutes until Kay broke it, "Doesn't Middleton have an airport?"

   "Just a strip. Last I knew they weren't even current."
   "How far are we from home?"
   "Thirty miles," he told her and to himself, maybe thousands.

   Kay was the state's Beef Cattle Princess. Her tooled leather banner rode atop the other cargo in the rear seats. The "cargo"––a mixed assortment of paper sacks, association paraphernalia, literature for the next event, some trophies, his own vet supplies, a bolt of plaid for Connie's Christmas wreath projects. Odds and ends, and for what?
   What does it all matter? he demanded. Does anyone really care? What rewards for the effort you put forth, all the hours donated, the headaches and tedious phone calls and meetings? He gripped the yoke tightly, trying to transfer the tension. And, here we are, putting it on the line for trinkets and trophies, ribbons, and an organization inspired toward grudging support at best.

   They were on their way home from the fall all-breeds beef cattle show, sale, and board meeting. Kay passed out ribbons and silver, welcomed the lieutenant governor, and was interviewed on Channel Four. He ramrodded a bylaw change to defeat, tried to get a bred heifer sale at the spring bull test and couldn't, and failed to win approval for an annual farm-to-market tour. He'd rather shoe a horse than take on another project or needle folks to help.
   The plane coasted on, unperturbed. He dipped the wings once for him and then for Kay to look for lights below.

   "Watch for the interstate," he told her.
   "Can't you go any lower, Dad?"
   "We could bite off a radio mast, Sweets . . .  or a grain elevator. We're right on the deck as it is. Try to raise your mother on the two-way."
   Kay called twice, three times. Finally a squawk came back.
   "Wynn, where are you?" Connie echoed her daughter's anxiety.

   "We think we're five miles out. Can't see a thing. Get all the lights y' can on the strip. Come back."
   "Wynn," she came back, her tone carrying that same strain when she found him lying where his horse spilled him one icy morn. "We still can't hear the engine. We've only got the pickup. The car won't start. Can't you get any lower?"
   He'd forgotten. A dead battery or voltage regulator, the result of neglect and too little time. Get the tractor, he called back. It was at the other place. Did he want Jody to "jump" the car? Negative, send him for the tractor. How was his fuel?

   "Enough. . . couple hours' worth. No, we can't get any lower."
   He rolled the Cessna into the steepest bank he could risk without inviting a stall. Here's where Kay gets sick, he predicted. The paper sacks broke loose and threatened to engulf the cockpit.
   He cussed them––the sacks were one reason they'd left the city late, trying to round up another hundred grocery sacks for Jody's Christmas project.
   Jody wanted to line both sides of the lane and "every fence post clear to the porch with 'luminaria navidad' you know, like they do in Mexico with candles in paper sacks." Jody loved events. He kept the old traditions alive or hatched new ones. Strange for a boy––every kid was different.
   He'd been dipping candles since Thanksgiving and needed hundreds of sacks for his big display. Jody wanted a gala for the friends and neighbors who would drop by during the holidays.
   "Try to wedge those sacks under something," he told his daughter. " I shoulda secured 'em."

   "We hear you! We hear you!" Connie announced it again, then, "Near the dam," when he sought a fix. Was he drifting away or coming closer? he asked her.
    "Closer . . . louder. You sound too high. Come down some."
    "Not until I see some lights," he snapped. He rolled the plane into a gentle bank. Should be able to see the tractor if anything. It wore four lights in front, three behind, a custom-rigged setup for night baling. It plus the pickup should do it. Might do it. "We can circle for an hour if we can turn on a point, but we need some lights to set the wingtip on," he fairly shouted into the mike. Here's where Kay gets sicker.

   "There!" Kay sobbed and pointed off toward their eleven o'clock position. He couldn't see a thing, so they circled and strained, searching for the tractor's beams swinging and bobbing across the field. Nothing. He took the risk and bled off another 30 feet. He and Connie agreed: He would circle for an hour until . . .  until the fog lifted, until the evening breeze cleared the smudgy landscape beneath them, until . . . the lights of the faithful tractor and reliable pickup gave him confidence to guess where the dirt strip might stretch below. Circle, just keep circling, then bore in the best y' can . . . when you're ready. "Where is that light, you saw, Sweets?"
   Then, dotted off the wing they saw a fragile line growing their way. Head for 'em! He adjusted it all: carb heat, throttle, cranked in some flap. Practice slow flight, the first lesson y' ever learned, he coached.

   One by one, the lights grew longer. Then, they'd flicker from view, caught in the ebb and flow of some taunting, vaporous mirage. Was is only a trick of the scuddy night? He despaired––no vehicles were in motion. "Keep driving in circles, make 'em tight. Stop Jody and tell him!"
   "Can't you see us? We see you––get lower. I'm in the tractor."
   Then the strip took on some shape below, thanks to the tractor and something else. He turned back south and added power, banked, and there, not a hundred yards off the wing's tip was a frail, luminous ribbon that grew even as he and Kay watched. He swung wide, came back and lined up on the row of softly glowing yellow beacons that lured the plane back to safe harbor.
   "Kill the tractor lights––we can't see the ground." The landing was as mushy as the weather. He rolled to a stop, killed the prop, and squeezed his daughter's hand.
   The dirt runway around them glowed in the light of, perhaps, a hundred candles enveloped in paper sacks. He collected himself before he got out to greet a grinning Jody.

    "How'd it look from up there, Dad?
    "Like a Christmas tree, son . . .  maybe a cross."

    They didn't speak until they got to the house. Their son and daughter went on inside while they stopped at the porch. She couldn't but cling to him and finally managed. "Jody drove himself like a man possessed, getting those things in place. Honestly . . . I didn't think it would work."
   "It was light enough, Babes, believe me, light enough."

 Copyright, 2012 by JLC.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wet Wool and Woodsmoke

The pickup earned the label "Blue," its oxidized surface bearing testimony to the storms it weathered, the tons of hay hauled, the bull that rubbed its bumper to a luster on one end, and the cow who thrust her head through the broken grill guard and violated the nameplate that used to hang there.

   "Blue" was old even then, inspiring our neighbor, a local wag, to christen it, "Ol' Everlastin'," and because it was an International, of course, the community consigned it to the general species of "Cornbinder." Some of the most formative, memorable moments of my years growing up revolved around "Blue."
   I was the last of the litter, the johnny-come-lately in a family of five brothers and sisters. But, as it developed, the bottom rung proved no handicap. I had my granddad to myself during those teenage years, and the hours spent bouncing around the hills with his company and in the faithful blue pickup remain my most pined for in the fabric of memory.

   That fall day we were on the annual Christmas tree gather. It was different this year. Typically, my grandmother would be there in her glory, passing judgment on every tree nominated to be taken home, gathering boughs for the mantle and the multitude of wreaths that must be fashioned.
   But this had been her year for feeling poorly, the result of a hepatitis attack after the state fair. This trek to the hills was missing another element: Not one of my nieces or nephews, the grandkids, came along. They were in school or down with the grippe. So, it became just Granddad Lou and I. My uncle Phil, Lou's only son living at home, was already in the hills having stayed the week past at the cow camp, fencing and picking up strays, our own or the neighbors'.

   Phil lived both for and in another era. Fall roundup gave him the chance to don chaps, pack his warbag and slicker, and slip the veteran Winchester into the worn scabbard in the event a coyote or "some venison" crossed his trail.
   Ever since anyone could remember, we small ranchers staged an episode after the fall gather, dubbed the "greasy sacker re-ride" when those cows, calves, or steers that evaded the main crew were sought out and brought in before winter claimed the country.

   Uncle Phil spun many a yarn and had many a laugh over the re-ride. He took pride in being "chief of the greasy-sackers," a title his friends bestowed upon him. Fall, the roundup, and the re-ride allowed Phil to be poet, philosopher, and crown prince of all he surveyed in our hills. He took on new dimensions then. He became Bridger, Carson, Cody, Goodnight, Chisholm, and his other heroes of those times which inspired and formed his persona over the years. Trailblazer, mountain man, scout, cowman, and stockman supreme, Phil lived his own colorful dreams for a few wonderful weeks, and the afterglow remained long enough to carry him through the holidays and the feeding routine that became a daily routine of winter on a ranch.
   It emerged a hard, brittle day under a sky of scuddy steel the afternoon we went after trees. The gold of the aspen had turned mottled and drab, the rabbit brush past its prime.

   "Storm by tomorrow, maybe tonight," my granddad grumbled. He didn't seem in good humor. Going after Christmas trees seemed a mite frivolous, or so he let on. Now, I knew him well enough to read through his declaring the day "wasted."
    My grandmother confirmed it: "Your grandfather is an old brick. He told me last year, the day he couldn't go to the hills after those trees would be his last.
   "He told me once: 'Peg, I know . . .  there'll come a time when I won't be up to the spring drive, let alone the roundup. But, I hope I can at least ride along to get the trees.'
   "He has his open moments. Watch for 'em."
   I accepted her challenge. But, Granddad Lou did not invite closeness or such. His emotions swam well beneath the surface.

   The roads were grim, hard and rutted in the shadowy recesses, slick or soupy in the sunny patches. Frost was moving deeper every day, but the land had not submitted completely.
   Along the road, we met Ferris Portman, one of the big landholders of the region, dryland farmer and cattle baron whose exploits were held in suspicion. Portman was new to the country, and he swung a wide loop.

   He waved us down as we approached and climbed down from his new Power Wagon. The topics were cattle and the weather, then money––Ferris was keen on money––and bankers. While they visited and Ferris dominated the conversation, I could see my grandfather fidgetting. He wanted to break it off, but you didn't shake Ferris that easily. Not until his cowboys and a couple dozen pairs broke over the hill, did Ferris let up.
   "Here they come. Say, I'm missing at least two good cows and a half dozen big calves. We had 'em before we moved into our field. I told yer hand over at the camp––the silly one––what's his name? Phil? I tol' him I'd buy him a steak and a milkshake if he found that bunch.

   "I don't 'spect he ever ate in a restaurant. Can he read? Don't appear he's got a lot of capability, but those retarded folks surprise y' with what they can do. Gentle enough hand around stock––hard to find gentle hands today that are any good. Where'd y' hire him from?
   "I had four head shot this fall, just left them in th' gully. I don't know what it's comin' to. Prob'ly find those strays full of .30-30 holes for all I know. Y' can't insure 'em, prices bein' so sour. We might get outa cows but grain's not so hot neither.

   "You know," he laughed, "I don't know why anyone with good sense stays in this business, do you? Be honest now. Look at these ranahans I got hired––an' your half-wit over there at the camp––why, they're better off'n you an' me both. Nary a worry in this world. Well, I gotta open gates or they're gonna get ahead of me. See y'. Merry Christmas."
   And with that, he jumped into his new pickup and spun out and down the road.

   "Ferris prattles on a lot," I ventured.

   The cords on Granddad's neck stood out stiff and rigid if he was mad. His sagging jowls tightened and took on a lumpier appearance then. He didn't answer me. So I kept quiet and fell to studying the leathery hand gripping the shift knob, the stubby, knobby fingers working back and forth over its worn surface, an angry gesture.
   When we met up with Phil and fell to cutting trees, Granddad Lou barked at him for dropping "Blue" into a badger hole and danged near getting us stuck. It became a quiet ride home for the three of us, and dusk when we pulled in the yard. Granddad was smoldering and silent.

  By the light of the porch, Phil grandly displayed one of the junipers we'd cut while Grandma smiled her approval through the dining room window. Before Lou and I left to do chores, the old man clapped his son on the back.
   "Glad yer back home, Philly. We need y' around here."

   Granddad and I began pitching hay to the horses and replacement heifers. Up in the yard we would hear Phil whistling and singing as he unloaded the evergreen harvest. After several minutes, I mustered my courage to say what I'd rehearsed all the way down from the hills.
  "Granddad." I waited until he looked up and I had his attention. "Mister Portman wouldn't understand  . . .  but I know one reason you stay in the cattle business." I glanced up toward my dear, funny, simple uncle. Lou paused, leaned on his fork, listening to the cowboy Christmas ballad Phil was vigorously working over. There, in the twilight, I felt his milky old eyes rest on me and soften, regarding me as someone needing more attention these days. I was to think on this moment many times in the years that followed.

   "Ol' Blue" is at rest now, sitting in the windbreak, a plaything for the great-grandkids and a haven for field mice. Phil prepares for the "re-ride" every year, and Granddad Lou hasn't missed a trip to the hills for Christmas trees yet.
   But, most of all, I remember a chilly November night there at the feed bunk and my crusty old curmudgeon of a grandpa hugging me to his chest where I could smell the wool and the woodsmoke of him.

   Some things endure.

Copyright, 2012, JLC