Death is Like a Wolf at the Door

Sin, says the Word of God, is crouching at the door. But death crouches there also. Its cold jaws nearly snapped shut on me when I was a few hours old. My mother's young life also hung in the balance that Tuesday, as well. This was in the mountains of Colorado, August 18, 1942. It was not that long ago, as I remember it, but it was a very different world.

Death was like a pack of wolves in 1942. This year marked the high point of the Japanese Empire. Just four months before, 4,000 American soldiers died on the Bataan Death March. But in August, the Americans struck back, with the first amphibious landing of the war on an island that few in Colorado had ever heard of: Guadalcanal. The jungles of Asia, from China to the Philippines, Malaya, and Burma, as well as dozens of Pacific beaches, bore dark stains of human blood. I was far from all of that carnage, but, even so, my parents told me often that I escaped those terrible fangs by a tiny whisker. Dad was convinced that God spared me for something special.

Early Days

What happened? To answer that, we need to back up, just a bit. My mother and father, Hank and Louise Fox, were almost-newlyweds living on a ranch in western Colorado. Their winter headquarters was a sod-roofed four-roomed log cabin. It sat on a small mesa south of the Colorado River in Eagle County. The closest town of any great size was Glenwood Springs, about 45 miles down-river. But the roads in those days were pretty rough for the first 30 miles or so, making that 45 miles a two-three hour trip, depending on conditions. The choice was to stay on the road that went along the river, which was easier going – no passes! But there was also a road over a pass called Trail Gulch. Both ways led to the good highway that ran from Eagle to Glenwood. Travel was not easy. The cars were not reliable, and tires were always going flat or blowing out. You carried spares for a reason. Travel was an adventure, and you never knew for sure when you would get there.

Mom went into labor more than one month early. This was a big surprise to everyone. But I was coming, ready or not. Dad went to get his mother who was staying at the Edge place, a few miles away. The only doctor that anyone could think of was Old Doc Cole, who was pretty much retired and living near McCoy, about 20 miles east. So Dad went to get him. Mom remembers being left alone for a good while, which frightened her. But I finally made my entrance into the world. Dad said that no one had a lot of hope that I would make it. I am not sure why, particularly. I was a bit big for a preemie. It 's a good think I did not go full-term. Had I been the size of my grandson, Jeremiah, who weighed 11 pounds 3 ounces, the chances of a safe delivery in a log cabin would have been slim, indeed. Doc Cole did what he could and left. It was not too long, though before it was clear that all was not well. Mom kept hemorrhaging, she was losing blood, and everyone knew that was not a good thing. They sent for another doctor, Doctor Courtney, who lived at Grand Lake, Colorado. When he finally arrived, he was concerned about the blood loss. But, fortunately, he had in his black bag something new that proved to be a life-saver. It was called blood plasma, a medical break-through. It kept Mom alive long enough for him to get the bleeding stopped. As I said, the wolf snapped at both our heels that Tuesday.

The Ranch

I was born in a homesteader cabin that was built by a man called “Shorty” Wright. Shorty's homestead was called the “Wright Place.” I have no doubt that it is still called that to this day. My father had himself homesteaded on the upper flanks of King Mountain to the north and across the Colorado River from the Wright place. He had eventually put together three sections of grazing land (about 1920 acres), but this was good for summer grazing only. He needed some land in the low country, that could be irrigated to raise hay. The mother cows could spend winters there, eating hay, and have their calves where the climate was milder. They then returned to King Mountain when summer grazing time returned. The Wright Place was the winter place for my father's ranch.

He had been leasing a winter place called the Breen Place from a large rancher named Harry Benton. But he wanted a place of his own, and he had finally bought the Wright Place in early 1942. Mom and Dad moved there a few months before I was born. It was not in a great state of repair. The buildings were all of about 50 years old and looked 100. But my parents were young and expected that they would soon get it all fixed up. If course, there was no running water, no telephone and no electricity. That was completely to be expected. Unfortunately, there was no source of drinking water on the place, either. All water was “alkali” or brackish, and not fit to drink.

Why be a Rancher?

I need to explain something that might not be clear. My parents were really not raised as ranch children. Mom had spent early childhood on a ranch, but left at seven or so. Dad left the ranch at about age one. So they were not raised in the country, but they both had ties to western ranches. My father was the grandson of an early Colorado pioneer. His name was George Thomas Fox, and he came to Colorado in 1883. The Fox family homesteaded in the Wet Mountain Valley in Custer County. The homestead is still known as the “Old Fox Place.” It was between Wetmore and Greenwood, and a bit to the east of there. My aunt, Mary Wilma (Fox) Facklam said that Great-Grandfather George was a hard -working, honest man, but not too kind, especially to his son. My grandfather, Benjamin Franklin (Frank) Fox had a very unhappy childhood, and left home when he was fourteen.

There is an old cowboy song called “Little Joe The Wrangler.” It is sung to the tune of the old church hymn “I Have a Friend in Jesus/Lily of the Valley.” My father said that my grandfather, Frank, loved that song and would often sing it. In the first verse, a little boy runs away from home and joins a cattle drive. That sounds very much like what Frank must have done when he left home . He worked as a cowboy for Watson Cattle Company, and went on several cattle drives from southern New Mexico to southern Colorado. He learned to speak Spanish fluently by working with the vaqueros from New Mexico.

Frank married my grandmother, Lou Etta Morgan, in 1900. The eastern girl, who sometimes used her two names as one, Louetta, moved to Colorado to stay with her uncle. She met the dashing cowboy, Frank, fell in love, and were married on 20 December 1900 in Greenwood. Frank, as a married man, settled down, and among other things, worked with his father on the family ranch. When his father, George, fell ill with a stroke, Frank took over the place, but sold it in 1908. As a result, when my father, Harry Morgan (Hank) Fox (born in 1907) grew up, the ranch had already been sold. He spent most of his childhood in Florence, Colorado. So he knew how the other half lived – how they lived in small towns, anyway.

But my father was a romantic. He had heard all the tales of cattle drives. He had read the dime novels. He loved the history of the Old West. My grandfather Frank was tragically killed in a boiler explosion in 1925. A U.S. Senator offered to give my father an appointment to Annapolis. All he had to do was graduate from high school. I think that appointment may have never happened, since he had badly scarred heart valves from childhood rheumatic fever – it was called a “heart murmur.” But my father had no interest, anyway. He left school at the end of his junior year to become a cowboy, working on one of the local ranches. But he really did not want to be a cowboy all his life. He wanted his own ranch.

He heard that there was still land available for homesteading under the Stock Raising Homestead Act, so he decided to mount an expedition to western Colorado to see if he could find some land. Louetta had turned the family home in Florence into a boarding house. His younger sister, my Aunt Wilma, was very excited, and her fiancé, Del Facklam (a boarder at Louetta's) was just as enthusiastic. So it was not long before three intrepid explorers took off for the west in an old Ford : Hank Fox, Del Facklam, and Hank's cousin Louis Morgan. They went on a long trip. They worked where they could find some odd jobs. They even worked in a little coal mine, but they kept their eyes open for good grazing land, available for homesteading. Finally, they found the place they wanted, on King Mountain.

The men went ahead and started the homesteads in 1928, and Louetta and Wilma joined them later. They all saw it as a grand adventure. My father worked as a cowboy For Benton Land and Livestock Company, and he also acted as a guide for elk and deer hunters who wished to hunt on the Flat Tops, a primitive area on the White River National Forest. They often said that they did not know the depression happened, because they were just trying to survive on their mountain homesteads, anyway. Mom ( Anna Louise Hale) had been born to Samuel Elijah Hale and the former Louise C. Young some years before all this, on 8 March, 1919. She was one of a set of twins. Her sister was named Pearl Lucille. Her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage in when Mom was about 6, and her father died in 1928. So she was raised in a home called “Tuckaway” in Denver. Her older sister Grace and brother Clarence were old enough that they stayed in the area of Toponas, Colorado.

Her father, Samuel, had a small ranch west of Toponas, and he was also the “Raleigh Man” going from ranch to ranch in a buggy selling a wide variety of products useful in the home and farm. After his death, Clarence continued to work on ranches in the area, but Grace married and moved away.

After graduating from South High School in Denver, Mom wanted to re-connect with her older brother, Clarence, and he arranged for her to get a summer job working for Benton's. She worked there for two summers, all told. It was there that she met several of the cowboys. One, named Hank Fox, caught her eye, and they corresponded for some time. This finally ended in their marriage in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on 15 January 1942.


Ranch Life

What was it like living on a run-down homestead in the early 1940's? For me, I had no complaints, because I knew nothing different. I thought it was great, as a matter of fact. We had dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. They were all interesting, and we learned that all could be dangerous, too. Kittens have “needles in their fingers.” Turkeys can peck. Dogs can snap if you pull their tail. Horses can bite and kick. Bulls and cows with calves can chase you. Even pigs can bite, and a mother pig is a very dangerous animal, indeed. We learned this through first-hand experience, mostly, but also from our parent's repeated warnings. None of us were seriously hurt, but it must have been a miracle.

I was not an only child for long. My sister, Barbara Louise, was born 7 August 1943, not even a year younger. My mother did not want another child born in a log cabin, so they packed the Oldsmobile and headed for the hospital in Grand Junction, well in advance of the due date. At least they thought it was well in advance. Barbara was born on the Trail Gulch Road, a few miles north of Gypsum, Colorado. So much for that plan! But they did not take chances with the other three kids. They were all born in Glenwood Springs, in the hospital! Mom went there well in advance, each time.

Who were the others? There was Linda (Linda Lucille), born 23 August 1946. Then, regular as clockwork, came Frank (Franklin Morgan) on 29 July 1947. I don't know what happened in 1948 and 1949, but on 4 July 1950, came our little firecracker, Jo Ann. That filled out the family.

The first thing I remember was a very interesting cabinet in my mother's kitchen. It had some things inside called pots and pans. They made a wonderful, loud noise when they were banged together. I liked to do that a lot. I must have driven my mother insane, but she seemed to be tolerant of my experimentation. I still like things that go BOOM! The other thing that I remember is my grandmother's lap. She used to sit in a certain chair on the western side of the living room near a window, that got the afternoon sun. She used to tell me stories.

Once she told me that she had had a dream. In her dream, Jesus had come back, and she could see all the people (who were His followers) rising up in the air to meet Him in the clouds. In her dream she raised her arm up to heaven and asked Him to take her up too. But He did not. Finally, the full number of the saints had gathered, and they, as well as Jesus, Himself, vanished in the clouds.

I did not like this dream, not one little bit. I had no doubt that Jesus would take me up, interestingly enough, but I did not want to go to heaven if my dear grandmother (“Nana”) would not be there. I remember her soothing me, giving me a hug and stroking my hair, and saying, “There, there, honey. It was only a dream.”

I also remember her staring at my face and remarking that my lips were so beautifully chiseled that it was a pity that I was not a girl. I did not like this very much, either, but my Nana could do no wrong. She used to read to me a lot, as did my mother. I had some colorful books made out of oilcloth. I performed another experiment that almost burned the house down. I opened the door on the pot-bellied stove in the living room and threw in one of my oilskin books. I observed it catch on fire, and then realized that it was going to burn up. So I reached inside the stove and pulled out the burning book and threw it on the floor. Fortunately, that is when my father came in, and he stomped out the flame. I not only lost my book, but I got a good spanking. It could have been worse. I did not get a burn, and we still had a house.

One of the other things that I remember was the large logs that held up the roof in the living room. Here in New Mexico, they would be called “vigas.” I think my mother was teaching me the names of the months. I liked those names, and rolled them off my tongue. June had a delicious sound. I thought it must be something like a lemon. August, on the other hand, did not sound at all edible. I thought August must be like one of those logs that held up the roof.

As I got older, my adventures extended outdoors. I don't remember not being able to ride a horse. I remember riding double with my mother for miles, and also with my father. By the time I was four, I had my own saddle, and was allowed to ride for short distances on my own. When I was five and Barbara, four, we were turned loose. We were like wild Indians and rode all over the Wright place. Of course we could not go much over a mile in any direction, because the boundary was fenced with barbed wire, and we could not open the gates. But we learned every inch of that little mesa.

I know that sounds young, but our parents seemed to think nothing of it. We had little scrapes and bruises. Once, Barbara's saddle turned and she took a tumble. There was no way that we could get the saddle back in its proper place, so we led Barbara's horse home. I got off and walked home with her. Sometimes our horses would lie down and try to roll over with us on their back. We were too little to stop them so we simply got off when they laid down, and then alternately pulled and whipped them with the reins until they gave up on rolling and stood back up.

Getting on the horses was quite a trick. Reaching my hands up over my head, I could just barely grab the stirrup. These were full-sized horses, and we were little kids! But we developed a technique. I would flip the reins around the saddle horn and get a rock or something to stand on. Then I grabbed the front and rear saddle strings and would pull and jump at the same time in order to get my knee into the stirrup. Then I would grab the horn and the cantle, pull my knee out of the stirrup, lift my foot as high as I could, slip it into the stirrup, and then swing my right leg over. It was complicated, but we made it work. The horses would patiently stand there while we did all this.

When we got a little older, my father would always tell us, “Don't you run those horses!” We would promise not to, but when we got some way from the house, we always would at least gallop them. But we knew that he could tell what we were doing by the lather and sweat marks on their chests and flanks, so we would walk them around for an hour or so before we went home, so they were well cooled off. I think my father knew very well what we were doing, but he never let on.

Barbara and I liked to play “Red Ryder and Little Beaver” from a pair of comic strip characters drawn by Fred Harmon. I used to look at the “funnies” even before I could read, and I understood the Red Ryder strip well enough. The funny thing is, we both liked Little Beaver, the Navajo boy, better than Red Ryder, the big red-headed cowboy hero. So we would argue, “Today I get to be Little Beaver! No, you were Little Beaver last time!”

Just west of the house was a reservoir, where the runoff water would back up behind a small dam. My father strongly ordered us to never swim our horses in the “pond,” as we always called it. But three or four times, when we thought we could get away with it, we swam our horses across. The water was deep enough that there was not much above water, just their head, neck and withers. So we would get soaked and have to stay out a LONG time to dry off. I would not want to try this today. Many years later we mention to Dad, “Do you remember telling us never to swim our horses in the pond on the Wright Place?” He answered, “Yes.”

“Why did you tell us never to do that?” we asked.

“Because old Shorty Wright never removed some barbed wire fences when he built the dam. So if you had swum your horses across, they would have gotten entangled in the wire, and you would have probably drowned.”

Barbara and I stared at each other, jaws dropped. “We hate to tell you this, Dad, but we disobeyed you and swam our horses across several times.”

He just shook his head. “Well, God must have protected you! If I had tried it, I would have drowned for sure!”

That was not the only near tragedy. My father was halter breaking a young horse, two or three years old. He took a break and tied him up to a post near the house and went in for a drink of water. He heard a commotion, and went out. Linda had crawled out of the house ( she was about 16 months old) and gone across the yard and was right under the half-broken horse. He was dancing around, snorting, ears laid back and showing the whites of his eyes. Dad, heart in his throat, threw himself across the yard, and scooped her up, hugging her to his chest. There was not a mark on her. She was not a bit frightened of the horse or his feet dancing all around her. Dad was frightened enough for them both!

In the spring we would drive the cattle up to our summer pastures on King Mountain. We had a little cabin up there, also. It was a great place to spend the summer because it was so cool, green and pleasant. There was a beautiful spring nearby with ice-cold water. There was a bank of a gray-colored clay that I would gather and use like modeling clay. I made things and left them to dry in the sun. But once when I was walking home, I was attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets. They stung me repeatedly. I was sure that they were trying to get my clay, but I refused to part with it. I ran home screaming with big, red welts, but I still had my clay!

During much of 1946 we lived at the Harrington Place, on the north side of the Colorado River. Dad leased it from Benton's. Mom said it was because of problems with water on the Wright Place. Water was a definite problem. As I already explained, the place had no potable water. We used to get water at Burns. We had four or five milk cans, each holding ten gallons, and this was our drinking water supply. Mom loved to garden, but there was no garden at the Wright Place. She kept some hollyhocks growing by throwing dishwater on them, but that was about it. The bigger problem was irrigation water. The water came out of Catamount Creek, and was carried to the mesa by a flume made of wood. It used to leak a lot. I remember Dad cussing it, and constantly repairing it. That year he realized that the flume needed major fixing, so he leased the Harrington Place so we could get a sure crop of hay.

I have some fond memories of the Harrington place. There was a little stream there, which was nice, and it had trout in it. I had my own pet trout, or at least I thought it was always the same one. I used to feed it bread crumbs, and it would come up and almost eat from my hand. Life was good. But then we had some distant relatives come visit. I showed them my fish, which was a big mistake. The guy thought it would be great sport to shoot the fish, so he pulled out a small pocket pistol and proceeded to do just that. I wept for my fish for all the rest of the day. I am sure my mother would have liked to shoot him with that little pistol, but what was done was done.

I remember my cousin, Pat, coming over to play with us. She was a lively companion, and always had ideas for interesting games. She taught us to sing, and we learned old classics like “On Top of Old Smokey,”, “Red River Valley,” and “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.” She also taught us one about worms crawling through a dead body, which was deliciously scary. It had a line, “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms crawl all over your chin and your mouth.” We sang it to Nana, just to torment her. But she was a good sport.

Dad earned extra money by working as a cowboy for Benton's. One of the young guys he rode with was called Livingston K. Toomer. His little brother could not say “Livingston,” so he called him “Wissington.” That made his nickname “Wiss.” But everyone on the ranch heard the name as “Whiz.” So “Whiz Toomer” he became. He had been in the war, in the Pacific, and was in the Marines. He had been badly wounded, but I remember him as a friendly, happy-go-lucky scamp. When he rode in to our place, he would always take his lariat down and try to rope us. We went running for cover, but not too fast. We did not mind getting roped.

Once Mom had washed a load of laundry and had it on the clothes line to dry. Dad and Wiss came by for lunch. While they were eating, Dads horse came untied, and he wandered through the yard. The saddle horn caught on the clothes line, which broke, and he managed to drag the clothes through a pile of ashes. Neither one said anything. They just climbed on their horses and got out of there. Mom came out and saw her clean clothes all dirty again. She was fit to be tied, but fixed the clothes line, washed them again, and hung them up to dry – again. That evening when Dad and Whiz came back, they threw their hats into the kitchen. Mom threw them right back out again! Later that summer, Mom went to stay in Glenwood Springs. When she came home, we had a new baby sister, Linda.

Perhaps I should tell a bit of the rest of the story. Wiss Toomer died in 2010, which was a great loss. His obituary said that he was awarded three purple hearts and the Navy Cross for his service in the 3rd Battallion, 25th Marines. He was a true gentleman, and a great Christian. He must have been attending Colorado A&M College during the winters, when I first knew him.

The other thing I remember is that I was playing near our house and found an Indian arrowhead. But this was not one of the common flint ones. It was hand made from thin sheet steel. Those were very rare, since they had to date from the last century – probably no older. It is still a family heirloom.

Things That Go Boom!

That was about the time that Dad let me shoot his .22 semiautomatic pistol. I thought that was great, even though he held it for me. But the fun was cut short when I leaned too close when it went off. The slide recoiled and hit me above my eyebrow. It bled freely, and I still have the scar. But that did not scare me too much. I still liked guns.

Dad also liked things that went BOOM. One Fourth of July, I think it was 1947, he bought a huge package of fireworks, including some skyrockets that were 10 times bigger than anything sold today. We waited until evening, and he set up a pipe about 3 inches in diameter and angled it toward the west where the pond was. I was so excited that I could hardly talk. After the sun had set, and the western sky was a ruby glow, he lit the first skyrocket and dropped it down the pipe.

It blasted off in a violent sputtering stream of fiery sparks. The idea of aiming it at the pond was to reduce fire danger, I now think. If so, Dad had not reckoned with these skyrockets. The first one had not reached peak altitude when it was well past the pond. It arced up in a beautiful parabola, over the yard, over the pond, over the horse pasture and then exploded in a thunderclap and brilliant fireball. We all clapped our hands. My sisters liked the show. I loved it.

But the horses did not like this. They snorted, almost jumped out of their skins, and ran around in circles. Then they stampeded south, tore down the fence like it was made of straw, took off for parts unknown , and were soon lost from sight in the growing darkness. My grandmother glared at Dad, who looked sheepish. Barbara and I jumped up and down and shouted, “Shoot off another! Shoot off another!” Mom would have glared too, but she was staying in Glenwood Springs waiting for a baby to arrive, who turned out to be Frank.

Dad shrugged, and calmed down Nana. He said, “Well, the damage is already done, we might as well shoot off the rest.” And proceeded to do so, much to our delight. But that was not the end. He also had some M-80's, which were big firecrackers. I do mean big. They went off like a small stick of dynamite, and were actually quite dangerous. Dad and I lowered the pipe that served as the launch gantry for the skyrockets until it looked more like a cannon, and then threw a M-80 into the pipe. It belched fire and smoke, with a thunderous, ear-ringing BOOM. The children loved it. The women hated it. And our dog, Pete, hated it most of all. The noise hurt his ears, obviously. He ran around barking, which redoubled when he saw Dad light a match. BOOM! His barking redoubled, and he tried to nose the firecrackers out of Dad's hands. So he stopped and put a package of ladyfinger firecrackers in an old blue enamel coffee pot. Ladyfinger firecrackers were linked together in a couple of rows, in such a way that if you lit the fuse when they were connected, the flame would travel down and set off all the firecrackers in rapid succession. Each one was not nearly as loud as the M-80's, but they went off like a machine gun. Dad lit the fuse and the ladyfingers started going of “poppity-pop-pop.” The whole yard reeked of gunpowder. Pete hated that noise, too. So he ran up, grabbed the handle of the coffee pot in his teeth and tore in a circle carrying the hated infernal machine in his mouth, firecrackers continuing to go off. We all laughed at that. But it got less funny in a few minutes.

We played with sparklers for a while, then came the grand finale. Dad fired off a couple of more M-80s in the pipe cannon, and then for the ultimate finale, he took several, lit them all at once and threw them into the pipe. Pete had definitely had enough at this point. So he suddenly ran up and bit the end of the pipe, just as the M-80's went off. It was bad. I thought he was killed. He fell back on his haunches, mouth agape, and then fell to his side, stunned. Nana said, “Well, you have killed your dog, Harry. I hope you are satisfied!” Then she went back into the cabin. The celebration was over. Dad and I went to Pete, who was recovering. He threshed around and stood up. We examined him. The inside of his mouth was powder-burned, and he had blood running out of his ears, but he eventually recovered. He never could hear too well after that, though. I supposed both eardrums were ruptured. The only positive note was this. It certainly was a Fourth of July celebration that I would never forget.


We had other adventures, usually involving animals. Once when my mother was canning meat, Barbara and I were playing in the icehouse. We found some old canning jars, and then we noticed a bunch of puppies, who were just the right size to fit in a quart jar. So we started canning puppies. We put each pup in a glass jar, reused the old lids, and sealed the top. We had five or so pups canned, when Mom realized that we were being unusually quiet. That was a sure sign of trouble, so she came to investigate and, to her horror, found the canned puppies. She quickly opened the jars, and no harm was done. None suffocated. But we got a stern lecture about being kind to animals. In our defense, we did not have the slightest idea that canning the pups would hurt them, and we had certainly planned to set them free when we got around to it.

Another time we had an old sow who gave birth to a litter of little piglets. We were not allowed to go into the pigpen, and it was pretty stinky anyway. But one day the old lady got out of her sty, and she paraded around the yard with a trail of piglets behind her. Barbara saw one little piglet, who looked so cute that she had to grab him and was sitting in the yard with the little piggy on her lap trying to pet it. But it did not like this and started squealing. The more it squealed, the harder she hugged him. The old sow did not like this at all and came running toward Barbara. At about this time, my father came up from the barn to see what was going on.

As in the case of Linda and the young horse, Dad's heart nearly stopped. The sow had the teeth and the strength to tear Barbara apart, and sows have been known to do so. He went running to rescue her, but could see that he could not get there in time. But the old sow simply went up and smelled the piglet and looked at Barbara with a puzzled look. Then Dad skidded to a stop beside the three of them, separated the piglet from Barbara, and drove the pig family back to the pen. We heard a lot about the narrow escape, and how dangerous pigs can be, though.

And then there was the old turkey gobbler. He did not like either Barbara or me, but seemed to hate Barbara most of all. He would often chase her, and he was a frightening sight. He stood almost as tall as we were. He had a long, hooked, yellow beak, cold beady eyes, and long spurs on the backs of his legs. His wings could stretch out, it seemed to us, as wide as our father was tall. (he was 6'2,“ so that was probably an exaggeration). One day he was chasing Barbara, and I decided to rescue her. I stepped between them. That was something new. The turkey stopped and then ran at me. I retreated, but I pulled out my pocket knife, which was an old fish scaling knife I had found somewhere. I opened the blade and charged the turkey. He retreated, then charged me. I waved the blade at his eyes and he stopped. But it turned out to be a standoff. Neither dared to go to close to the other. Finally, in exasperation, I threw the knife at the turkey. It did not hit point first, but it did hit his breast with a hard whack. At that, he turned and trotted away, much to my relief. Barbara did not say much, but we did have a good laugh about it.

We decided to tame a milk cow calf. Barbara and I played with him, taught him to lead and even put a saddle on him. We called him “Nono” which Mom said must have been the words we heard the most often. When Nono got big enough we would ride him, but just around the corral. It was a sad day when Nono went to market. We learned that it is not a great idea to make a pet of an animal whose purpose in life is to end up on someone's dinner plate.

The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad tracks ran along the bottom of a canyon north of our place. During that time, the railroad hired Navajo men to repair the tracks, and they lived in railroad cars on a sidetrack nearby. Sometimes, in the evenings, some of the Navajos would walk up a side canyon to our place. They liked to sit by the barn, smoke cigarettes, and watch our horses in the horse pasture to the west. Dad did not mind, and would often go out and talk to them.

One evening I got dressed up with my cowboy hat, with the thong around my neck to keep it from blowing off, my split-cowhide leather vest with conchos, my leather chaps with more conchos, my cowboy boots, and my gunbelt with twin ivory-handled cap pistols. I went down to the barn, picking my way carefully so that the Navajos could not see me. There were four or five there at the time. My father saw me going around the corral, and knew what was going to happen, but just like the case of the old sow, he could not move fast enough.

I crept up to the corner of the barn, drew my cap pistols, and the jumped around the corner and “shot the Navajos all dead.” I fired off about ten or twenty shots, firing two-handed. Dad had no idea how they might react. He thought things might get ugly. But they all fell over and played dead until Dad got there. Then they all laughed and laughed. They thought this was about the funniest thing ever. Dad apologized, sent me off to the house. Then he smoked a cigarette with them. They all probably rolled one out of his Bull Durham pouch. He usually rolled his own cigarettes, since store-bought ones were too expensive.

School Days

In the fall of 1948 I had just turned six years old, and it was time to start school. I was not too sure about this school thing. I got a new metal lunch box with a thermos, and some new clothes. The school bus was a station wagon with wood sides. I had to walk about a mile and a half to the county road, but my Dad took me the first day in his Oldsmobile sedan. The school was ten miles away or so on Derby Mesa, and it was called, logically enough, Derby Mesa School. The old building is there to this day.

It was not much, really. Just one big room, with a storeroom in back. There also was a woodshed and a stable for students that rode horseback, though none did. All eight grades were in one room. My teacher was named Mrs. Fix. One of my first-grade friends was named Jerry Hare. Some of the kids thought it was funny for a fox to be friends with a hare.

Things did not start off too well. About the third day I learned about the toilet. There was two outdoor privies, one for the girls and the other for the boys. You were supposed to go to the toilet during recess or lunch break. But if you had to go, you could raise your hand and be excused. So I raised my hand, was excused and went to the toilet. Then I found some ways to amuse myself. I was playing an interesting game of throwing a stick into the air and seeing where it would land, when I looked up and here came Mrs. Fix down the path. She had an angry look on her face and a stick in her hand, too. She used the stick to switch me every step of the way back to the schoolhouse. I got the message, and never did that again!

But for the first couple of months it seemed that the older kids delighted in picking on me. This was a new thing. I was the oldest in our family, except for my cousin Patsy Lou, but she was a kind-hearted girl who would not think being mean. But these kids, some nearly as big as an adult, were not always kind. Some of the kids seemed to delight in trying to kick or punch me in the groin. I tried telling the teacher, but she told me I was going to have to work it out. I told my parents, and they seemed worried, but said I was just going to have to deal with it. Finally, the game ended. I was accepted, and no more kicks to the groin.

We all took cap gun to school, boys and girls alike. They were essential to our games. One of the games we played was cops and robbers or else cowboys and Indians. As one of the little kids, I was always a robber or an Indian. When the cowboys shot us, we had to play dead and lie down until the bell rang. That was not so bad. But when the cops caught us, they put us in the woodshed and locked the door. I hated that. So, finally, I resorted to “Kings X.” King's X was potent medicine. If you said “King's X,” crossed your fingers, and said “I'm not playing!” then they could not lock you in the jail.

I said this a lot. I learned many things in school. The kids told me that the little tiny black seeds in bananas are poisonous. So, when I had bananas, I would split them and carefully scrape out the black seeds in the center. I also learned that if you cut the web between your fingers you would die. So I was careful not to do this. They also told me that some kids had “cooties” and I needed to be careful not to get them too. I did not know what cooties were, but one day I saw or thought I saw a little red bug on a girl's arm. I assumed that this red bug was a cootie, and stayed well away from her.

My first stage appearance was in Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol.” I played the part of Tiny Tim, and had no problem delivering my line in a loud voice, “God Bless us every one!” I remember I had to walk on crutches and got carried a lot on the older kid's shoulders.

Danger and Salvation

My parents told me to always stay away from the Colorado river. I heard many times how two little boys had drowned in the river a few years before I was born. It happened at Carlsburg, about 2 miles downriver from Burns. My Dad said he had almost drowned when swimming a horse across the river one winter. They swam across alright, but when the horse tried to lunge up out of the river on the other side, his forefeet kept hitting ice, and he kept falling back in. The horse panicked, but Dad was finally able to get them both out safely. I look the warnings to heart, and stayed well away from the watery clutches of the river. I have always found it strange how many tourists now come to Colorado specifically to float those same waters.

I think it was the summer after my first year of school that the tent revival came to Burns. A Reverend Doll came up from Denver and set up a circus tent. He had his own seats, a stage, a pulpit and a piano. The revival meetings went on all week. I listened carefully to what was being said, and realized that I was a sinner and needed to accept Jesus. So, before we went to the last night of the revival, I asked permission from my parents to go forward and invite Jesus into my heart. My parents were dubious at first, since they thought that I was too young. But when they asked me some questions they finally decided that I understood well enough. So they gave permission.

That next night I did go forward. I thought then, and still think now, that I made a life-changing decision to follow Christ. I became a child of God. But my parents did not allow me to be baptized. They decided that could wait until I got to be a bit older.

The '40's Wind Down

Second grade was not at the Derby Mesa School. They had built a new schoolhouse near the Colorado River, just across from Burns. This school had 4 rooms and two teachers. One teacher had grades 1-4, and the other 5-8, just as you might expect. We had running water electric lights and flush toilets, though we also had outdoor privies for emergencies. Seems to me that we used the outside ones quite often. The nice thing about second grade was that Barbara was attending school with me, too. I had hated being separated from her during first grade.

This year we put on a minstrel show. We put on blackface and sang negro songs. This would horrify people today, of course. But I am sure that no one thought this was the least bit disrespectful. The other big event was a friend who tried to swing high enough to go over the bars. He went up unbelievably high, but then the swing dropped straight down, and he broke his arm. It is a wonder that there were not more such accidents. I don't remember much adult supervision on the playground.

In the spring of 1950, we sold the Wright Place and those beautiful summer pastures on King Mountain. We bought another ranch from a man named Gern Booco, which was about five miles north of McCoy, Colorado. One of the best parts of the move was that Barbara and I got to help drive all the saddle horses from the Wright place to our new ranch, which was more than 20 miles. It was the longest horseback ride that we had ever done.

That wrapped up the 1940's. The next decade was to be the last on the ranch for me, but it proved to be a great preparation for the years ahead.


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