Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Near Death

Aunt Fran died a few months ago. She was near 100. Maurie had gone a while earlier at about 100, too, and my mother at 90 a few years earlier. Their grandmother (not Aunt Fran, as she was a Rockey, not a blood relative) was 109. They grow them sturdy in the middle of Nebraska, I guess.
Aunt Fran’s only child, a son named Doug, died while overseas during the Viet Nam war, not from the war as I understand it, but still. When I think of her, I think of him, and when I think of him I eventually think of the Sandhills. Do you ever do one of those association things in your head where you end up a long way from where you started? Well, this goes on in my head more than I like to admit, and this particular one leads to my early teens.
Doug and I were not well-acquainted until the summer after my freshman year in high school when we went together to the All-State Music camp at the University in Lincoln. It was 1960, and the University was like a different world…no, it WAS a different world for me. Big buildings, lots of people, and a world of music like I had never imagined. I had one line in the musical “South Pacific,” and I delivered it like I was supposed to, loud and little regard to key, but on cue. Then it was singing in the big chorus with really talented people, sampling some of the great musical literature; I had never experienced the fabulous beauty of a Requiem before.
My roommate was the son of a rancher in the Sandhills, he said they needed people to help with putting up hay, and I pretty much committed before I asked my parents. They weren’t pleased as it was also time to irrigate, and they needed free help rather than me out earning $6 per day in the hay field. I was home by the start of August when the real hard irrigating started, so it worked out.
We were about 30 miles from any town, slept in a bunkhouse, ate breakfast in the basement of the big house and were in the field by 7 AM six days a week. Since I had experience on a farm, I was running one of the mowers, a twin-mower arrangement that cut 14 feet at a swath, along with the ranch foreman, Bo. We ate “dinner” at the one hired man’s house and “supper” at the other’s, and it was not consistent fare. I specifically remember one hamburger casserole. The wife apparently didn’t know that you were supposed to drain the hamburger after you brown it, so the casserole was swimming in a half-inch of grease. We had the choice of whether to eat it…or not. Some decisions aren’t that hard to make. The pickups came around to gather us up at 7 PM.
That was the summer of my first airplane ride. My boss had one at the ranch and he would fly in the long summer evenings to check the cattle, and I rode along. A Piper Super Cub is really slow, and has been described as the safest plane in the world; it can just barely kill you.
Drifting over the wide open Sandhills with the long shadows of the evening defining the hills, the blowouts, the lakes and the occasional grove of cottonwoods was all golden light and the wonder of flight. I do remember the sensation that would be repeated when I gave in to the love of flying and got my own license when you land on a grass strip. It is really, really noisy!!
That was also the first time in my life I experienced a knuckleball. You see, Bo was a pitcher in the Basin League, similar in the 1950’s to the Cape Cod league today, that showcased a lot of future major league players. There wasn’t much future for a pretty good knuckleballer, so he went to ranching and raising a family, but he responded to my request to “play catch” one evening. My excuse was that it was starting to get dark, but that was lame. The first one hit my leg, the next one hit my chest; and there was no third one since I was sure that one would catch me in the teeth.
I mentioned the pickups. One of them, a late 50’s Chevy, turquoise in color, had a roping chair mounted to the front right bumper in front of the headlight, and that was used for working cattle. I loved to ride in it when we came in from the field. We were a bunch of teenagers, driving fast on sand trails when my hat (we all wore hats since we were in the sun all day) blew off. Bobby (the driver) hit the brakes, I extended out from the roping seat like a hood ornament as there was no such thing as a seat belt, and we skidded to a stop to retrieve the hat. If my grip had failed, I would have gone under the wheels that were sliding on the sand. Got the hat and away we went.
All this review of events started with Aunt Fran.
When I wrote, The Ladder, it contained a phrase that was repeated more than I like—“…that is a book in itself,” and sometimes phrased, “…but that is another story.”  I have so many stories cluttering up my head, and the process of writing seems to trigger one after another.  They aren’t Pulitzer Prize types, but they are just the stories of one life, and it happens to be my life.
When my brother died, I thought about how many stories were in his head, and when he passed, the stories were just gone.  Sure, there were others involved, usually, but it is the same for everyone that when they die, their side of the story, their unique experience dies.  How many times I have wondered what it would have been like if someone I cared about would have put down their stories.  Some of my stories will be recollections of others, some simply my history, but always my “side” of the story, and it is getting to be more and more likely that I will be the only one surviving when the story is told. 
That sole survivor situation could lead to embellishment at the best, fabrication at the worst.  We know that the stories will not be factually accurate as everyone’s memory works differently than a video tape of the episode.  Especially when those things happened forty or fifty years ago. But that’s what you get.
After Norma died, we had no idea what to do with all her stuff, so we simply had an auction. After the auction, we stayed with my brother at the farm and had a couple of drinks and started to talk about some of our experiences as kids. Linda and I had just started to get to know each other, and she was amazed at how all the stories seemed to lead to a situation where I was the one who was just about killed.
For instance, when I was about five years old, I had a hand-me-down tricycle that was designed a bit differently than anything today. Instead of the front tire as the drive, one of the rear tires was driven by a chain. It was old, the tire was completely bald, it was spring and it was muddy. It is always muddy around the farm…when it isn’t dry and dusty. To solve the traction problem, I wrapped barbed wire around the tire, weaving it through the spokes, and it proved to be quite serviceable. My brother was on a horse, Cherry the bay, I think, and offered to pull me… which seemed like a good idea at the time. So we take off at full speed, I hit some ruts, lost control and my leg dropped onto the barbed wire that was rotating like a buzz saw. The barbs went through my jeans, my long underwear and my leg. Since we couldn’t dare tell our parents, we bandaged it up a little and went on with things. To this day, I have quite a scar where it should have been sewn up as it took several days before my mother figured out that something was terribly wrong.
A lot of things had to do with horses. I fell off during the Rescue Race at full speed, head over heels at the Rodeo Grounds, flew over the head of my horse Klinker and landed in the stumps at the bottom of the ditch, etc. Is it any wonder that I fail to grasp the romance of horse ownership?
There were others where I was alone, like the time I crossed the river on the tree, came back and slipped on the patch of mud that had thawed, fell in and went under the tree and into the brush. It was winter, so by the time I got back to the house, my clothes were frozen to the point where they were stiff. I still have nightmares about that one. But fortunately, I didn’t lose my rifle.
He thought he had killed me the time we (that means “me”) were riding calves. We weren’t supposed to be doing that, of course, but the rodeo had been in town and it looked like fun. We fashioned some gates in the old bull pen and got a calf in there, rope around the middle, around and around my wrist that was enveloped in an adult leather glove, and open the gate!
The gate stuck as he opened up, so it was just a little gap which the calf bellared and jumped right through. That scrubbed my legs completely off the back so that I was fully extended on the top since as much as I tried, the rope was firmly attached to my arm and I couldn’t let go. We are running and bucking through the cattle lots which were baked into pottery shards in the late August heat with buffalo burrs all over, when I went up, then came down as the calf’s tail head hit me right in the solar plexus. All breathing and vital functions shut down, the glove thankfully came off and I fell face first into the sandpaper dirt.
Thankfully not too much blood, but the non-breathing thing was a problem. Eventually, it started up again, hesitantly, but my brother was really worrying about how he would explain this when I died for good.
He actually picked me up and carried me up to the milk barn where I laid on the cool concrete for a long time recovering. Again, not as many visible marks as you might think, so that one was relegated to the stories they didn’t know for many years.
It was a dangerous time, a dangerous place. But I survived, and as I have said before, at least I won't die young.

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