As I noted recently, I am the only son of an only son, born midway between my dad and his first granddaughter but as hard on him as he was on his father.
If he were still with us or if he is looking down now, he would be even more proud of her than he was at her birth, now a single mother, lawyer and chief privacy officer for a major healthcare concern spread over dozens of cities and towns across our ancestral landscape.
I was the end of the line of more than a hundred years of ranching but in the late 1840s, these ancestors didn’t begin as ranchers. They came to the Rockies as carriage makers, saw mill operators, molasses manufacturers, cavalry troopers, miners even a dirt farmer or two (smile – rancher humor.)
But collectively they understood that settling and homesteading and building communities from scratch involved commons such as that where his granddaughter ranges in another way.
He’d also be the first to remark at what a perfect blend she is of each of her parents, but equally important would be what she has done to express those equal sets of genes including molding a career blending law, management, technology and innovation.
My dad also would give a smiling nod at the pride my urbanite grandsons and daughter take in our Idaho ranch heritage.
On our final leg to an annual lakeside family rendezvous in the northern Rockies last month at the hospitality of my youngest sister and her family, they took delight when a cowboy hat they picked out for me turned out to be identical to one their great-great grandfather wears in family photographs.
Already with enough cowboy hats and boots to last several lifetimes, I couldn’t help but wear it as we rode up into the Bitterroots that day, smiling at how frustrated my dad—their great-grandfather—appears in that same photograph at having to dismount.
Not yet 30, in an act of defiance, he refused to keep his hat on, revealing a rancher tan and a look of disgust I’ve seen in the mirror from time to time. I see far more diverse evidence of his nervous system in his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I wish I could tell him every day how much I love and miss him and how I know I was hard on him. We both eased up as I turned 30 years old, but we didn’t really clear the air until I was nearly 40 and he was a year younger than I am now.
My emotions were ambushed a few day ago when I first heard a new hit single by Garth Brooks interpreting a brilliant composition co-written by Marc Beeson and Allen Shamblin entitled “Send ‘Em On Down The Road” as I recalled that day when we too “…just threw that baseball back and forth till dark…:”
“he wanted to protect me but somehow my father knew
that you can cry for, live and die for,
you can let them find their wings but you can’t fly for
cause if they are not free to fall
then they are not free at all
and though you just can’t bear the thought of letting go
pick ‘em up, dust ‘em off and send ‘em on down the road”
Some of my favorite Garth Brooks’ songs include references to rodeos such as the iconic “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” echoing a variation of a quip my dad would repeat in the 1950s whenever he was greeted with, “How are you?”
It was co-written with a friend and rodeo rider Randy Taylor in Stillwater, Oklahoma where Brooks first performed it in 1986 at a club called Bink’s with his band Santa Fe.
Less than three years later, it was the singer’s debut hit single, just as I relocated to Durham, North Carolina in 1989 and where I still live in retirement.
But historically, true cowboys, aka Bedouins of the American West, were fast fading when Prescott, Arizona staged the first rodeo in 1888, inspired in part by the success of the Wild Bill Cody shows.
Until then, westerners viewed tourism as a way to recruit settlers and investment. But Cheyenne, inspired by the “potato days” celebration just south in Greeley, created its Frontier Days Celebration in 1897. By 1901, Denver added one to its local celebration.
By the time Pendleton, Oregon created its famous rodeo in 1910 and Idaho’s first rodeo, the War Bonnet Roundup, was organized in 1911 fifty miles south of our ranch, a circuit was forming.
When Tucson started its rodeo during the Prohibition, it was a tourist event, and when Old Tucson Daze began the year before I was born, it was, ironically, held on an old movie set.
The father of one of my classmates in high school is hall of famer Deb Copenhaver, a contemporary of my father, who won back to back world championships in bronc riding in the mid-1950s when I was 7 and 8 years old just younger than my grandsons now.
Rodeos are emblematic of the time when Westerners began to reflect what visitors from the East expected. By the time I was born, it had become firmly embedded in Western identity, reinforcing that authenticity is a negotiation.
My parents married young at just ages 22 and 16, eloping over the Bitterroots to Bozeman, as my dad left to join a tank battalion propelling across France. Initially, his dad had held him out of the war as an only son so the ranch could aid the war effort.
But when his same-age cousin and best friend, a tail gunner in a B-26, was shot down over northern Italy, my grandpa finally relented and allowed the ranch to go fallow as my grandparents put their only son in harms way.
Dad’s unit was part of Patton’s third army sweeping into southern Germany, liberating Dachau, the first concentration camp established leading up to the war, then changing to horses and spotter planes to patrol for Nazis fleeing into the Alps.
Coincidentally, one of the prisoners liberated there handed a young soldier from North Carolina what looked like a rock, and told him never to forget what happened there.
The day before this past Memorial Day, those ashes were laid to rest in a Hebrew Cemetery here in Durham where I live, which dates to the 1800s.
By the time I came along, my parents were still kids too at just 25 and 19, and they had grown incompatible in some ways while apart.
They were still “two hearts on fire,” to borrow a line from a Shenandoah song written by Hugh Prestwood, but researchers now know that what held them together for more than thirty years was a shared style of parenting.
In the typology of four parenting styles, my parents were “authoritative,” the mix of “authoritarian and responsive” practiced by 32% of parents.
I know now that researchers find that this style correlates to the “concerted cultivation” common to middle class parents or parents who successfully keep or move their children up into the middle class.
More wealthy parents are often negligent or permissive including many so-called “helicopter parents” today who mistake over controlling and frenetic hyperactivity with cultivation.
Researchers have pinpointed that a natural or more free-range style or permissive style of parenting found among many who are poor is one of factors that perpetuates poverty in their children and differentiates them from poor parents intent on breaking that cycle.
One of my siblings seems only to recall my parents as “authoritarian,” perhaps because she didn’t witness the differences two of us saw in the parenting styles of parents who truly were.
Regardless, I am incredibly grateful and credit my parents for any success I enjoy as well as the legacy I see in their grandchildren and great grandchildren.