Thursday, January 26, 2012

Two Days in Albany

Long before Lucas Black had his seven days in Utopia (see previous blog), I had my two days in Albany. One of the more memorable events in my life began in 1989 when I heard about Watt Matthews of Lambshead by Laura Wilson. David McCullough (before he won the Pulitzer and became world famous), wrote the introduction to the book.

Watt was ninety when the book was published, but still stood at the branding chutes and applied his iron to 2000 calves during spring roundup. But what really struck me was that this wealthy man still lived in a small bunkhouse on the ranch with a concrete floor and no central A/C and only a fireplace for heat; slept on an iron bed; took noontime naps on a wooden bench without benefit of a pillow; and ran his 45,000 acres from an open corner in the cook shack.

Though Watt’s father feared that Princeton would be bad for his character, his mother insisted that he attend. He graduated in 1921. The four years he spent there were the only four years he did not live on Lambshead Ranch. The Princeton class directory listed him as “Rancher, Box 636, Albany, Texas”. And Princeton did not harm his character. Bill Cauble, a Lambshead cowboy, said, “To me, that’s the real character of a man, when he could have anything he wanted, but didn’t want anything.”

I made an entry on my goals list: “Meet Watt Matthews”. I couldn’t really see how that would come about, but I wanted it to. After writing that goal, Watt seemed to show up in about half the magazines and newspapers I picked up—winner of Golden Spur Award, Charles Goodnight Award from National Cutting Horse Association, and many others. He was invited to be inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame, but asked that his mother be inducted instead. She was, but he was inducted later.  

Two years after setting my goal to meet Watt, I made a career change that took me in a direction I never imagined. I co-founded a small financial services firm. Our niche was in training CPA’s to be financial planners. Four years later, one of our CPA’s invited me to San Angelo, fairly close to Watt. I put him off. A family friend invited me to Ranger. Too busy. A Sweetwater CPA invited me out. All close to Albany, but the head-slapping moment came when an Albany CPA that I did not know called me. A deep voice said, “How many hints do you need?”

I made business stops in Abilene, San Angelo, Sweetwater, and spent the night in little Albany, a town of about two thousand. The CPA I came to visit sent me to the First National Bank, where Watt had been a director for over sixty years. A pair of his old boots and spurs and a hat were in a glass display in the lobby. A teller gave me directions and I drove thirteen miles to the ranch, then fifteen more on a ranch road until I found headquarters. I checked the outbuildings and all seemed deserted. I just couldn’t bring myself to knock on the door to a small cottage in the middle of headquarters.  What would I say to a man now ninety-six? “Hi, I’m a tourist. Would you sign my books?” Blame Nadelle and Teadon for teaching me manners.

Tail between my legs, I returned to town. I visited the Matthews room in the Old Jail Art Museum. In the local bookstore, I bought Interwoven, a book written in 1936 by Sally Reynolds Matthews, Watt’s mother. Watt was the youngest of her nine children. The bookstore owner laughed when I told her about my hapless trip to the ranch. She called and got Watt’s caregiver on the phone. She invited me to come back out.
Watt and his caregiver and about ten cowboys were in the cook shack when I arrived. “Get a plate,” he said. I politely declined, apologized for bothering the great man. When he repeated the invitation more firmly, I got in line behind the last ranch hand, heaven for this wannabe cowboy. The meal was great ranch fare, tasty and hearty. After an hour of conversation, I presented my books. He asked the nurse for a pad and pen. He wrote on the yellow pad and handed it to me.

Thanks to Jim Ainsworth for bringing this book to Lambshead for me to sign. Sincerely, a new friend. Watt Matthews, 9-6-95.   

I nodded humbly in appreciation and he wrote the same thing in my books. How I wish I had asked for that yellow sheet of paper. I saw his open journal and his bench in the corner that he called his office and asked if I could take a look. Found this entry:

Beautiful starlit morning. Hope the wind doesn’t come up with the sun. We got the cows in, separated, vaccinated and dipped in time to get started with the branding at ten.

Later, I got to see some of the buildings he had restored, the civic work he led and funded. Watt died less than two years later. There was a car wreck on the ranch, followed by a stroke and pneumonia. He asked to be brought home from the hospital and died the next morning.They put him in a plain pine box dressed in jeans and boots and denim jacket. Family members nailed it shut and put the box in the bed of a faded yellow buckboard, and surrounded it with bales of hay. Two cowboys in white shirts and black hats sat in the seat and handled the horses. More walked behind and alongside to the family cemetery on the ranch. They laid him to rest on the ranch he loved. Over 700 mourners attended and the burial was covered by news outlets nationwide.

They sang “America the Beautiful” and Watt’s favorite song, “Prairie Land”. A prairie plain, a bright blue sky, A now white cloud a sailin’ high, A wanton wind, a blowin’ free, This is the land for men like me.

Yes it is.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Seven Days in Utopia

Although Robert Duvall has never recaptured the magic of Augustus McCrae, his portrayal of the old Texas Ranger in Lonesome Dove makes me want to watch any movie he is in. But this is about a movie and a book. The book was originally published as Golf’s Sacred Journey, but republished using the movie title. Don’t stop reading if you are not a golfer. There are many more compelling reasons to read the book and watch this movie. Lucas Black is just one of them. We watched him in Flash more than a dozen times with the grandkids, and he was also great in All the Pretty Horses. Remember his line “Because I’m an American”?

Dr. David L. Cook has written a spiritual book that is not afraid of religion. If you a cynic, check out his credentials and the golfing greats who endorse his message. It seems that Hollywood has stained religious entertainment with a stigma worse than extreme profanity and borderline pornography. I applaud everyone associated with the book and the film for their courage in going against the entrenched ideologues in Sillywood.

And this is one of those rare cases where the movie is slightly better than the book. Although Lucas plays a pro golfer, the messages here are applicable to our lives in many other ways. I felt a special affinity for both because they explore more boldly the theme I tried to touch on in Rivers Flow, my first novel. Some may find Seven Days a little sentimental, possibly even hokey, but pay close attention to the message. That message is slimmed down to three letters: SFT. In my first novel, it’s one word: Flow. Here’s an excerpt from Go Down Looking (due in May) where Jake looks back on earlier times: “And what had happened to the Rivers’ flow, that high plane of experience my ancestors had told stories about? Flow is a mysterious power that many experience, but nobody can explain. If you believe in it, no explanation is necessary. If you don’t, no explanation is possible.”

Most of us inevitably ask ourselves the big question when we reach the age of maturity: “Why am I here and is this what I am supposed to be doing with my life?” Some know the answer; most don’t. I didn’t, so I started trying to find out. In one of the many seminars, retreats, etc… I attended trying to learn the answer, I was given an assignment on the last day. “List the times in your life when you did something as well as it could be done, times when you performed above your loftiest expectations.” While fellow attendees scribbled away, my pen stayed still. But on the way home and for several days afterward, the memories came. In my case, a lot of the first memories had to do with sports—surprising for a mediocre athlete. But as I wrote, I found that those experiences appeared in other areas of my life, and that more importantly, they could be repeated. Seven Days illustrates that point in a well-told story.

Still skeptical? Read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience from an author whose credentials far exceed mine.
More from Go Down Looking: “It was during one of those kicked-around occasions that I decided to ask for help, to try and find the flow again and to finally understand it. It didn't come with thunder and lightning or as an immediate epiphany. It took hard work, lots of mentoring, lots of reading, lots of listening, and a lot of blind alleys, disappointments and confusion. Mostly, it took commitment. Lights finally began to come on. And I knew that I was being guided. Things that I had learned began to make sense. The legend became scientific fact. Papa Griff and Rance became wiser. This time, I think I understood that flow was not just a gift for the Rivers, but a God-given gift for anyone who would take it.”

And no, I did not forget to tell you what SFT stands for. Watch the movie. Read the book. And while you are at it, read mine, too. Find it here. Shameless self-promotion? Guilty.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Go Down Looking, Old Men Texting and New Year's

An update on Go Down Looking

My fifth novel, Go Down Looking is in production and should be released in April or May. Here is the first of several excerpts and progress updates. I welcome your questions and comments.
Rance clicked the knife blade back and forth with his thumb. “A few neighbors have told me that they have seen an old man sitting on the porch of Papa’s old shack. Said the old man was playing a fiddle.”
Jake stood down from the tailgate. “Was it Papa? How would he get out there?”
Rance swiped his knife blade across his brogans and closed it. “Not likely. No horse and no fiddle anymore. Probably heard the wind and imagined they saw him.”
New Year and Seasoned Gentlemen Texting

Confession: I had never watched the Times Square celebration on New Year’s Eve until this year. Resolution: I will never do it again (unless a grandchild talks me into it). Apologies to Dick Clark and all of you who were or are fans of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. When I was younger, it just seemed depressing to be watching television at the annual witching hour unless you could find a great old movie. I have now tried most of the alternatives—parties etc… and being fast asleep at midnight has emerged as a clear winner. After a hearty breakfast, you’re ready for black-eyed peas to start the New Year. Sound old-fogey? Maybe, but seriously, what’s entertaining about watching a bunch of rowdy revelers (most under the influence) wearing silly hats and screaming at the top of their lungs? Yes, there were entertainers (mostly singers), but I confess I did not like a single one. I didn't even recognize most of their names.  And the hosts? I tried ABC and Fox cable. Kelly and Hemmer seemed ill at ease with each other and just plain ran out of anything to say. The ABC guys (I did not and will not commit their names to memory) alternated between wild screams and silly antics. One looked like a cardboard cut-out of Dick Clark with a personality to match (the cardboard, not Clark).
So why did I not turn off the tube and go to bed? Because two grandsons (ages nine and fourteen) were determined to stay up. Granddaughter Hannah, eleven, wisely went to bed about ten. The older teen grandchildren have outgrown celebrating the New Year with us. Who could blame them? I admit abandoning ship while Jan stayed up a few years in the past. But this year, I figured if Gray Boy (the youngest) could do it, and Landon could support him, so could I. Maybe there was something to that apple or ball falling that would impress me. Nope. Pretty anti-climactic.
When I finally went off to bed a few seconds after midnight, I heard my cell phone. A text from John Ray. I don’t recall exactly, but the text said something like GBT. I think my friend since boyhood set his alarm so that he could awaken and groggily send a text to his friends to prove he could stay up past midnight, and hit the wrong keys. I chuckled as I replaced the phone in its tiny beach chair (a story for another time). It rang again. John again. HNY. This I understood. I am sure he thought I would not see it until the next morning. So I texted him back at 12:10 AM. Same2U. I'm not sure if that qualifies as text lingo or tweet speak, but I thought it was pretty cool. His reply? Go to bed. There are many, many John Ray stories. This has been one of them.
“You have to push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” Flannery O’

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Granny's Buttons

My mother, like many women of her era, seldom disposed of any garment. When it was no longer suitable for wear, she found use for the fabric. Some pieces were used as rags; some might have been stuffed under a door to keep out the cold; some became quilt pieces. She also cut off the buttons and saved them. My wife Jan spent a great deal of time caring for Mother in her final years. She cherishes the small things Mother left, things valuable only to those who loved her. Jan is a quilter, and she especially loved Mother’s collection of buttons.  For Christmas this year, she decided others needed to share this legacy. This is the note she wrote to the women and girls in our immediate family. The button bags were given to Mother’s granddaughters and great-granddaughters.  
“Granny” Button Bags
Granny was very frugal, as were most women of her era.  As garments would wear out, Granny would cut off the buttons before disposing of the garment, saving them for future use.  The buttons on your bag are some that she saved.  She would have thought it very special that they were placed on a bag made just for you, her granddaughter, with special keepsakes inside.  The recipes, in her handwriting, were in her recipe file box along with greeting cards she had received, receipts for various things, dates she purchased a TV (September 23, 1976), obituaries for family and friends and other important documents.    
Such a special lady!
When I looked through those buttons and notes and recipes written in Mother’s distinctive hand, I noticed that she titled her recipes not Key Lime Pie, or Mince Meat Pie, but with the name of the person who gave the recipe to her. Guess she figured the ingredients spoke for themselves. The names brought back sweet memories of some of the most important women in my life. Aunt Hildred, Aunt Jimmie Dee, Pauline Gervers, and many more. I was stunned at the number of truly remarkable women in our rural community—women who helped to raise me. And I do mean remarkable, resilient, kind, loving, strong women.
I wrote and presented eulogies for Mother and Aunt Hildred. Some of the other ladies left instructions for me to be a pallbearer at their funerals. Can there be a greater honor? I made myself a note to write more about them later. A short time before her death, Pauline got a message to me that she wanted one of my books. I was pleased to deliver it. The visit was short, and I don’t think I can properly express how it made me feel. Pauline was the mother of my good friend, not my mother, of course, but as we shared good memories, I felt my mother’s presence. Pauline made me feel loved that day, just like she had when I was a little boy. What a gift.

Monday, January 2, 2012

War Horse

If your holiday plans did not include this flick, make it a New Year’s resolution. When I heard that War Horse was inspired by a London play where they used life-size puppets to play the horses, I was skeptical. As a life-long horse owner and wannabe cowboy, I often cringe when actors with little or no riding experience clumsily climb aboard an unsuspecting horse. Not to worry.
Spielberg and his DreamWorks brought in master trainer Bobby Lovgren from South Africa to get horses to do things on a scale that even he had never attempted. Lovgren is the final protégé of the legendary Glenn Randall, Sr., who trained Roy Rogers’ horses (yes, there was more than one). Lovgren flew from California with his favorite horse Finder (Finders Key) purchased on the set of Seabiscuit. Young actor Jeremy Irvine (Albert in the film) also got riding tips, but the star of this movie is the horse Albert names Joey. And Finder a.k.a. Joey requires no rider to thrill a movie audience. That’s a good thing, because Jeremy could still use a few more lessons.  
Yes, for you nitpicking horse enthusiasts, they did use a dozen horses to play Joey although Finder did most of the really tricky stuff; yes, you may notice the difference if you let such details worry you; yes, the bounds of credulity are occasionally stretched; and yes, heartstrings will be tugged. But don’t get the idea that this is Fury or National Velvet.

This is an epic drama that starts in the period just before the First World War (some call it the trench war) and takes us through a violent period that shakes the world to its core. Screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis let us see the great human and animal toll that this war exacted through the experiences of Joey and his equine companions. They get away with showing it from both sides because the horses are simply victims; they have no stake in war other than survival.

The story believably endows the horse heroes with the best of human traits. And these great horses somehow do a better job of portraying the anguish and bloodshed than humans ever could. And if you doubt that horses can form a bond with each other like the one portrayed in this movie, I can tell you from experience that you are wrong.
If you are into special effects (and I am not), you probably won’t be disappointed, because the horses in this film are better than special effects. There may be some trickery afoot in the scenes with Joey and the tank, and in the barbed wire area between battlefield trenches called No Man’s Land, but by this time, you will not care.

This movie puts you on the battlefield and in the hills of the European Continent with surround sound, a great musical score and amazing cinematography. And we haven’t even mentioned the great character actors and minor players including Albert’s parents, a young French girl and her grandfather.
I even forgot that Lovgren’s last film was Cowboys and Aliens. Now that—that’s a bridge too far.