Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Importance of Getting Off To A Great Start

I think of him whenever I see or hear about young children without daily interaction with adults during formative years, especially young boys with no male influence and how that can impact society. I think of how extraordinarily blessed I was.

He was only in his 50’s then and to me, he resembled General, then-President Eisenhower.

He wore khaki, head to toe and a Stetson and he always smelled like coffee. He had homesteaded, raised cattle, loved and trained horses but from my birth through grade school, my Grandfather was my constant companion. I mean every hour of every waking day, except Sunday.

Watching him train horses, I could tell he was a gentle man but I learned as an adult that my paternal Grandfather, Mel Bowman had homesteaded his 160 acres, just after the turn of the last century and then assembled a ranch of more than a thousand Idaho acres of both cattle and horse ranch and related farmland needed to generate feed for these animals along Sand and Snow Creeks (pronounced Cricks.)

Somebody else owns that land now but it is still tucked up in that corner of Idaho, framed on the North and East by the mountains of the Continental Divide, Yellowstone Park and the Grand Tetons and straddling the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River as it carves a weave through the mile-high plateau that is actually the crater and flow of a huge super-volcano.

I don’t remember Mel talking much about himself but thanks to Grandma Adah, each of them gave the gift of four to five page, insightful personal histories, covering from their youth up until my Dad returned from Europe.

They are compelling stories of unpretentious people who were incredibly hard workers under rugged conditions. Mel ran into health problems and while still in High School, my Dad took up the slack when the doctors asked Grandpa to back off the rigors of day-to-day ranching.

But that made him my perfect companion too. He still worked but at a pace perfect for a pre-schooler. We stacked hay, dug post holes, mended fence, groomed animals and even went into town for a beer now and then (Doctors orders,) of course, actually I was across the street in the Five and Dime, probably buying such priceless artifacts as a plastic Davey Crockett wallet.

When my Dad went off to training at Camp Roberts and then Europe and WWII, my Grandparents had to let the ranch and farmland go idle with the exception of a smaller herd of cattle they fed with contracted feed and Grandpa’s prize team of draft horses including those who became my buddies, Duke, Bally, Dude and Dolly, etc., and some saddle horses of course including Gypsy my Dad’s pure black, Quarter Horse-Morgan which eventually once I was conceived and born and 5 years old, would become my first horse.

When the War ended and Dad returned (he and Mom, wedded just before he left) he took over the cattle ranch and associated farm land and my Grandparents moved one of the other homestead homes on land they had acquired to St. Anthony, a few miles away and the “big city” in Fremont County, about 2000 people then out of a county of 10,000 people in a land area 6 times the size of Durham. (The ranch and farmland is actually closer to Ashton, the second largest town at just less than 1,000.)

But Grandpa couldn’t stay away from the ranch and came up in his Jeep every day. Kind of got under my Mother’s feet, I’m sure, but was my constant companion day in and day out from birth and even after I started school Oh I did a fare amount of exploring on my own but I know now he was probably always a stone’s throw away without me knowing it.

He died as I was turning 16 but not before he and Grandma hand painted that old red Jeep and gave it to me. I mean hand painted with brush strokes and all. It was kind of a passing into adult-hood for me…he was gone a few months later but the memories that old Jeep had weren’t covered up with paint. Like the bar of Naptha soap still under the driver’s seat to cover the smell of a gas leak, or the manual windshield wiper for the passenger or the small bench seat he had created for me so I could sit next to him when he drove and which came in handy on dates.

He’s been gone now going on 45 years, but he’s never been far away from my thoughts. He was kind and patient and had the time to teach me a love of the land, of conservation, of horses, of opera arias and acceptance of people with different backgrounds (we often visited around campfires with Basque sheepherders who came through the ranch and with Shoshone Native Americans.)

He also taught me how to ride a horse, how to roundup, how to handle a rifle, how to ride a bike and how to drive tractors and old pickups around the ranch and the fulfillment of hard work. And never to take my health for granted, just as Grandma Adah taught me a love of books and history and eagerness for school and lifetime learning.

Mel could barely write his name and I don’t recall if or how much he could read but he was so proud of Grandma Adah for having made it through the 8th grade and my Dad for graduating from High School but he helped open and prepare me for the world as much as Adah taught me to learn about the world.

Both my Grandparents and Parents were disciples of “don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” long before Willie and Waylon put it to song.

And when I hear the heartbreak of young kids with little or no interaction with adults during those formative years… I realize how blessed I was with day to day interaction in formative years with great parents and people like Grandpa Mel and Grandma Adah.

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