Seems there’s a lot of mentioned these days about veterans. As I sat on my cow pony contemplating a set of calving heifers in the creek bottom pasture it suddenly hit me! Hell, I am a veteran!
“Well,” I says to myself, “what did you get out of being in the military? ”
I guess the answer would be something about a way of dealing with authority, and the chain of command. However, my very next thought was of the older men, the World War II veterans. I was privileged to ride with some of them, cowboying in the nineteen sixties. They had been in the Army, the Hoss Cavalry, during the days before mechanization. They trained at Fort Riley and other illustrious army posts. Their independent seat in the saddle, their knowledge of horses, and their fine hands on the reins were an inspiration to this gunsel, dreaming of becoming a cowboy. It was a rare opportunity for those of us born during and after the second world war, to have a visual image of man who rode in what is now called the classical seat. When they rode a bucking fit, they were relaxed, and unshakable, usually laughing and cussing. When they rode a cutting horse, they danced with horse and cow, never grasping the saddlehorn. In fact, they often had a lit cigarette in their free hand! There was obvious pride and even a touch of arrogance in their posture as they rode tall in the saddle! Those of us called greenies, who rode with, or usually behind them, caught a glimpse of the great horsemen of the nineteenth century, the true vaqueros, and we yearn for that skill and balance, that feeling of being at home on their throne of leather. Sometimes, something good can come from the craft of war, I guess.
I have never seen anything grow as fast as baby Mexican cliff swallows. We have a mud nest under the corner of our front porch. We sit on the other side of the porch to avoid being strafed by the parental units as they swoop in and out, feeding the chicks. At first we couldn’t see anything in the nest. We’d stand up on a chair, watching both ways for the parents, and take pictures down into the nest with our cell phones. We could barely interpret the results, maybe a little yellow V-shape was a baby bird beak? Now, a few weeks later four fat little bodies are perched shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the dried clay nest waiting for their mom, dad, or aunt or uncle to bring Cliff Swallow bug tacos!
Watching these birds reminds me of the air to air combat scenes in the movie “Top Gun.” Amazing aerial feats performed by these birds, sometimes appropriately referred to as swifts, delight us as they sweep up tiny invisible insects to carry back to the nest. I can almost imagine a radar heads up display zeroing in on a mosquito.
“Ten-four, Goose, I’ve got an Aedes Egypti in my pipper, about to squeeze off a round, over.”
They come in at night and perch on the thin strip of metal under the cornice, and in the morning we find dots of crusting guano, white with black centers, on the porch floor under the nest. Remember from geography class in fourth grade how guano was mined in Chile to be used as a powerful fertilizer? Wonder if I should scoop it up onto the nearby rose bush. Anyway, I guess that Saint John may have been right,we maybe ought to eat bugs. Look at what they do for baby cliff swallows!
I dashed out into the rain to retrieve an iPad out of my pick up. The rain was cold, each drop was an icy bullet on my near hairless scalp. As I galloped back into the house, for some reason I remembered what a friend of mine had observed about Texas rain. He had spent time in Swaziland, Africa. There, he noted the rain which came off the Indian Ocean was warm and soft. No one ducked inside or quit their outdoor activities, they just went about their day as if nothing had changed. But, he said, in Texas the rain is cold.
Then, as I sat on the porch with a nice warm cup of coffee looking out at the rain I pondered the lives of those Texans who volunteered to become drovers, herding thousands of Longhorn cattle up through the hills and prairies of central Texas, through Oklahoma and Kansas to the newly built Union Pacific Railroad. Out in the open, day and night, they frequently got soaked to the skin. I imagine the rain was just as cold then. There was no carport or porch or barn to retreat under. There was no warm shower to climb into, and no dry clothes. Even in the summer, during a rainstorm, Texas can get pretty cool in a Norther. I picture those “rannies” huddled on their horses living minute to minute, praying for the sun to come out. Once I was in a similar situation moving cattle in New Mexico near the Texas Panhandle. My partner was in an older cowboy, a former brand inspector. As we huddled in a light rain shivering he said
“Why couldn’t I have died when I was a baby, then I wouldn’t have to endure this misery! “
Working cows means something different in each part of the world. Here in the South Central Texas brush, it means wandering around horseback with hounds, trying to find the cows in brushy areas, deep ravines, and on the other side of a hill. That’s different from South Texas where you sit on a horse waiting for the barking to change and come toward you as the dogs move some demonic long eared man haters with antlers three feet wide out of thorn thickets so tight that even snakes and lizards have to move with caution.
Sometimes I remember with fondness my days in the Panhandle where your vision was only limited by the curvature of the earth. With no terrain, and no vegetation other than short Grama grass, you could see cows seven miles away. If you stood on a tuna fish can, like Mac Davis said, you could see them at fourteen miles. Then he added, if you stood on a number ten pineapple juice can, you could see all the way around the world to the back of your own head! OK, that’s as absurd as the hippie who was a little impaired when he patted his hands around the light pole and wailed
“Oh my God, I’m walled in! “
I guess my favorite was the time several of my friends were working for a well-known cowboy/rancher near here, and they were taking it pretty serious, worrying about corralling a bunch of pretty wild and salty escaping heifers. He said “I don’t know what you boys are worried about, them heifers ain’t going nowhere, the United States is surrounded by water!