Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Voice from the Past

When I took a sabbatical from the financial services field, I never imagined that it would be permanent. Walking away from knowledge and skills I had spent most of my adult life accumulating and honing seemed, well, dumb, even incomprehensible.

But my list of things to do before I die included a few things that I might be too old to do before long. So I rationalized my sabbatical as a chance to check off a few things on that list while I still had the physical stamina and desire to do them. I’m glad I checked them off, because I don’t think I have the energy now.

Shortly after I extricated myself from most of the entanglements of my profession, I got a call at home one night from cousin Shep challenging me to retrace our grandparents’ and parents’ journey across Texas in a covered wagon in 1918. To his surprise, I accepted.

That trip changed my life for the better. I chronicled that trip in Biscuits Across the Brazos.
It gave me the confidence to pursue a few other dreams that were starting to look a little less plausible. After that, anything seemed possible.

I have posted here about my horse packing trip in Wyoming (taken while I still had to go to work every day). You can see that a lot of my dreams had to do with fulfilling the cowboy life I had imagined for myself as a boy, but had put aside to make a living and support a family.

With newfound freedom, it was not unusual for me to choose a dream one day and leave to fulfill it the next. In other words, I was having the time of my life. On a whim, I drove to Alpine for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in cold February. One day, I will write about the morning  legendary author and story-teller Paul Patterson brushed away snow on a bench at a chuckwagon breakfast and sat down beside me.

Paul told me that he was a good friend of Elmer Kelton’s and that Kelton had illustrated and written the foreword to one of Paul’s books. At that time, Kelton was the most prolific and beloved writer of westerns alive, but I had not known that he was also a talented artist.  Friend Robbie Plunkett is a big fan of Patterson’s books.

Before leaving the Big Bend area, I dropped in on Ft. Davis, Marfa, Marathon and the Gage Motel, and Terlingua, home of the Chili Cook off. I still marvel at the carefree freedom I felt as neither distance nor obstacles seemed to matter. I was hungry for different experiences after being tied to schedules, desks and telephones for thirty years.

I became a regular at the Abilene Western Heritage Classic. I enjoyed sitting alone in the stands for hours watching ranch cowboys show their ranch horses. I marveled not only at their horsemanship, but their style, the tall-topped boots, big spurs, colorful wild rags, and big hats.  

Always a lover of tack, I relished watching what they put on their horses’ backs and heads and in their mouths. I was fascinated by romel reins, bosals, mecates, and the little grass ropes that the cowboys tucked under their belts. I was intrigued by the pull harnesses that replaced breast harnesses. Many years earlier, my fascination with tack and love for good boots had inspired me to open a western wear store called Chute I. 

On my second trip to the Abilene Classic, I was sitting in the stands watching ranch team roping when I heard a deep voice holler, “Yeah!” as a roping team made a clean run with two feet caught. The voice seemed like an echo from my past. I looked around for the source, but could not find him.

As the competition drew to a close and the winning team was announced, I heard the voice again. It was a distinctive voice, one I knew I had heard before, but I just could not place it. It came from a mouth that seemed to be full of something like bubble gum or chewing tobacco. A  throaty, bass sound, almost slurred.

On the third cheer, I saw a large man stand with a clenched fist, a sign of approval for the ranch team in the arena. He wore a hat that matched his size. When he walked past me, the large hat kept his face shadowed, but I knew who he was.

The voice was older, mellower, like it was emerging from the long, dark, tunnel of my past and just waking up from a long sleep. I followed him and another cowboy out of the arena, waiting for a break in a conversation that seemed very serious, but they entered a room open only to ranch rodeo contestants before I could approach.

I waited almost an hour for him to reappear, still engaged in deep conversation with the same cowboy. I followed behind them, enjoying myself, taking time to observe everything he wore from the tall riding heels on his boots, the large spur rowels, and the huge palm leaf hat, looking for a sign of the seventy-pounds-lighter boy I once knew.

 Finally, the other cowboy peeled off and I stepped beside my old friend, matching him stride for stride, looking straight ahead. He glanced in my direction, nodded and kept walking.

For a second, I thought I had made a mistake. I had not seen him or spoken to him in almost forty years. But no, this had to be Calvin.  

I purposely bumped him enough to take him off stride. He turned again. I smiled and he put out his hand. “Well, damn, Jimmy Ainsworth, you got old, didn’t you?”

“Tried to stop it, but it just took hold.”

He patted his stomach. “Guess I’ve changed a little myself.”

“You have, but I recognized your voice.”

We talked a few minutes, trying to cover forty years, recalling raucous tales from our teen years, but he had a team of ranch cowboys and stock to look after and had to prepare for the ranch rodeo that night. He introduced me to his ranch hands from the Quien Sabe Ranch. I watched as they tended their horses and checked their tack for the events that night.

Calvin had been ranch manager at Quien Sabe for more than twenty years. I was surprised. I had always thought of my old friend as a wheat and milo farmer. But when I thought back, he had a black horse he called “Old Stud” and hired out to do daywork as a cowboy when his family could spare him from the farm.

I watched his team compete that night and saw how the years had made him into a genuine ranch cowboy, an occupation I had aspired to during our years of roaming the Panhandle countryside and playing sports together. I thought I could best him team roping, but he had me beat in all the other events. He had both horse sense and cattle sense, and was clearly the leader of the team in that arena. The other cowboys, mostly younger, obviously looked up to him.

About two years after meeting Calvin in Abilene, I completed the first draft of my first novel. I had read a lot of books about writing and decided to attend my first writers’ conference and try to connect with real authors. My expectations were low, but I hoped to discover if what I had written was anything close to worthwhile. I chose Amarillo because I wanted to see the Quien Sabe and my old home place. I would be a trip I would never forget.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Truth, Fiction and Families

This is an excerpt from presentations made for East Texas Historical Association and Tarleton University a few years back.

I have a grandson who is named for two fictional characters in my books. Well, they are real people with fictional names.  I love the confusion. It inspires questions about our history. I even catch myself referring to my family members by their fictional names. I am surprised when readers recognize someone else in a character who is actually based on myself. 

I cannot decide if I should be flattered or disappointed when that happens.  I do know that I enjoy getting to be child, father, grandfather, and even mother when I write.  It was cathartic trying to get inside my parents’ and grandparents’ heads during times of crisis as well in ordinary living. Anton Chekhov said, “Any idiot can face a crisis—it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.” 

I like to read about conflict and tension, but I also like to read about day-to-day living. I like a lot of that interspersed with my action and thrills.

This is a tranquil, day-to-day living excerpt from Chapter 5 of In the RiversFlow.

On the back porch, Jake drew water from the cistern and poured some into a wash pan and some into an empty Garrett’s snuff glass…. He removed his toothbrush from the snuff glass and mixed baking soda and salt for toothpaste. As he brushed, Griffin Rivers and Buddy came through the pasture gate. Griffin rode Buddy all the way to the back porch and relaxed in the saddle while his grandson rinsed and spat over the shelf into the yard.

This scene, of course, is not filled with tension, but it shows a little slice of the  characters’ daily lives.

Real characters and fictional ones definitely blur, but what about events? Same thing.  Few who lived in Delta County during the fifties will fail to recognize a scene in Rivers Crossing in which a young girl drowns in a cistern. I first wrote the scene exactly as it happened because it occurred less than a mile from my childhood home, and I was at the scene that terrible day.  However, the editing process required me to change it because the truth was so unbelievable.  For those of you who have read Rivers Crossing and those of you who will, two people died in that cistern on that awful day—not one.

Have people challenged me about changing that? I expected many readers to help me out with the real facts. I have received many e-mails and letters about this part of the book—even several phone calls, but not one challenge. People who lived there during this time seem to intuitively know that I am aware of what really happened.   Other readers are left with a believable story. Many have written me about their own recollections of the day and night it happened, including a future physician who was on the scene with his physician father.   

I do not believe this event has been recorded for history anywhere other than in local newspapers at the time.  Is it harmed because the story I wrote is not factual?  You decide.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why I Ride

As I was struggling through Why I Write by George Orwell, someone thought I said “why I ride” when I mentioned the book’s title. Almost daily, I ask myself why I write, but I also ask myself why I ride.

On hot August mornings, that question comes up as I struggle up the small incline leading from the creek to the stalls and barn, leading Shooter with a piece of string. I have taught him not to run away when I approach (the carrot helps), but he only occasionally comes when I whistle. He knows it’s too hot to ride and won’t run up and volunteer.

So why do I do it?  I have all sorts of answers, but none satisfy me. The truth is; I dread it, especially on cold or hot mornings and on mornings when I have low energy or hurt in the wrong places. I try to be thankful that I can still walk up that hill and keep pace with Shooter. When I swing the saddle across his back, trying to ignore the pain in my left arm and shoulder, I feel a little better. When I step in the stirrup and throw my leg across the saddle, better still.

But the next day, I dread it again. And if I skip two days, it is drudgery to go back. So why? First, there’s the thing about taking care of things that you own. It always bothered me to see a young horse just stand in the pasture and get fat. Their manes and tails usually need attention, their coats get dull, flies and other pests fly around their eyes and leave welts. They get stiff. They turn into decorations rather than useful companions.

And of course, horseback riding is good exercise for me. But I could burn an equal amount of calories in the time it takes to catch him, groom him, saddle and bridle him, bathe and feed him.

I can also hear my Papa Hiram (yes, he’s Papa Griff from the Follow the Rivers series of books) asking from long, long ago, “Ride that horse today, Bolivar?” And then there’s Teadon (Daddy, yes, he’s Rance)) saying, “A man does what he knows is right, whether he feels like it or not”. When I ride, I remember them both and think about the sacrifices my parents must have made so that I could have a horse as a boy.

And then there are the saddles. I rode bareback as a boy and wanted a saddle so much it hurt. I fear it has made me gluttonous about them. I own too many. Like old men, saddles crack and get stiff from lack of use.  Riding keeps them supple and moist and it’s a lot more pleasant to clean and oil a saddle that’s used than one that’s not (it’s another strange mental thing).

I wouldn’t even have a horse if things had gone as planned. Still in grief over losing Rowdy, I thought I had owned my last one, but a friend needed a place to wean a colt with good bloodlines. I volunteered. It was good weather, and I soon began to teach him to lead, then to lunge in a round pen, and pretty soon I knew I had to finish one last horse. Before he wore his first saddle, I owned him.  

He’s pretty enough as horses go, got good conformation. He’s not the most athletic or talented horse I’ve ever owned, but he is the most affectionate. He likes people and sometimes I think he especially likes me. Neighbors bring him apples on their daily walks. He’s obedient; stands where he’s left without being tied. I never tie him to saddle him and brush him and I leave him totally naked while I put up the tack. He turns, stands in the right spot, and waits patiently for his bath, then follows me to the open gate without as much as a string.

I feel better as I see him walk out into the pasture, all clean from a bath, “legged up” and muscled out, his eyes clear, his coat glossy, doctored for flies and pests.

But he’s a strange combination of gentleness and spookiness. He’s afraid of the oddest things. Big trucks; yard windmills that make loud noises; cars honking; no problem. But chickens scare him and we pass by a chicken ranch on one the many routes we take. I think it’s sensory overload. First the smell, then the shallow creek we have to cross, the overhanging branches, then a sea of chicken tents. Yes, I said tents—big white ones. Who wouldn’t be frightened?

He’s also scared of puddles left after a rain, any movement in woods or weeds made by things unseen by me, little blue flowers, and anything that wasn’t there the last time we came that way. I finally cured him of his fear of big rolls of hay (yes, he was afraid of the big bales).

He knows every detail of every trail. If anything is askew, added, or out of place, he comes to a dead stop and wants to turn back home—quickly. This can be disconcerting when you are in a pretty fast lope and he comes to a dead stop on his front feet without warning. I have never fallen, but have found myself across his neck or shoulder more than once if I don’t see the object before he does. I hope Jan is not reading this.

In my younger days, this would have embarrassed and irritated me to no end that a horse that I trained acted this way. He would have been punished until he learned to behave. I tried that. But I have decided that the horse simply cannot help being afraid. When I first started training him, I kept a log as a reminder of the steps he needed to complete so that he could be a finished horse. It gave me a sense of accomplishment as I checked off leading, lunging, saddling, mounted walking and loping, jumping barrels and rails, sidepasses, backing up, etc… But when we went outside our pasture, it was like starting all over again.

Because of the log, I know that he has ridden by the chicken ranch more than three hundred times, but he’s still a little skittish every time we pass. He no longer comes to a dead stop, but if someone has put a stack of wood beside the road or a limb has fallen, look out. I think only age will cure his fright.

When I first started my riding ritual, I was terribly bored (Shooter’s skittishness did not relieve boredom). I blame team roping and team penning. After you have competed using a horse and rope with cattle, ridden across Texas , participated on short roundups and cattle drives, just riding alone down the road ain’t much. Sorta like giving up. Growing old.

But now, I try to put a different spin on it. For one thing, I have discovered about a dozen alternate routes to ride. Thanks to a friendly neighbor, I ride in wooded areas a lot. I know most of the trails that they have cut through the deep woods. I can ride all the way to the river, see lots of wild animals, even a few I can’t identify, but mostly pigs and deer (Shooter is alert to them, but they don’t bother him as much as blue flowers or lizards). 

Yes, Jan frets, and I guess I think about it a little, being out there all alone where vehicles could not reach me in case of emergency. Heck, it might take a day or two and a few good bloodhounds to find me.

Then there are those rare days when I feel myself “take a deep seat” in the saddle—the times when I return to those days of yore when I was nine; when I rode my little mare bareback; the days when I discovered I could control her with my seat, thighs, calves, and heels and by little flicks of three fingers of each hand on the reins; that she and I could lean into the turns together and I felt as if I could scoop up Mother Earth with a free hand; the days before I developed a fear of falling; the days when I achieved what Tom Dorrance called “true unity”.

Of course, I was too young to know what I had achieved. I felt like Little Beaver, but I wanted a saddle so that I could emulate great cinema cowboys like Joel McCrea, Ben Johnson, and my mother’s favorite (yes, she’s Mattie in my books), Dale Robertson. Remember Tales of Wells Fargo and that commercial he did for Pall Mall where he rides up fast and steps off his horse? “That’s my horse. That’s Jubilee.” Many decades later, a little filly was born on my place. I named her Jubilee.  I met Dale in Ruidoso a few years ago. He was selling autographed photos of his Wells Fargo days. We lost him just a few months back.

When I return home, I take Shooter through a few rituals. He backs pretty good, can spin reasonably well both ways, is clumsy on rollbacks, and he knows that the last thing we do is to run full speed to the barn and make a good stop on his back feet just beside the horse stall that we never use. That’s when I start to feel good—when it becomes worthwhile. I think he feels better, too. When we miss a few days, he comes up and hangs his head over the fence and stares at me. Of course, that could be for a carrot.

And I occasionally ride the four miles to Cowhill Council, where a few well-seasoned friends gather for coffee by a pond with ducks, under big oaks. I have also discovered a few hidden meadows in other pastures, places where one can commune with nature.

I presented a program about my books a few months ago and someone in the audience asked if I still rode. I told them most of what I just told you. I told them it was an almost daily ritual. As I was leaving that evening, a lady about ten years my senior rushed to open the door for me. She gave me a penetrating, almost disconcerting look and said, “It’s not a ritual thing; it’s a spiritual thing.  I see you taking off your hat and putting it over your heart, getting down on one knee all alone in those woods, and talking to Jesus.”

Now how did she know that?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


The most talked about perception in recent memory is that the sequestration involved disastrous cuts in spending that would bring the country to its knees. This lie has been repeated ad nauseam. Reality: There are no real cuts to spending, just reductions in the rate of increase in spending. i.e…. we have more money to spend now than we did before, just not as much more as we planned.

It is true that some specific things were cut (in defense, mostly) but that was a matter of selectively targeting specific areas to create the most publicity and the most pain, not because there was less money to spread around. The administration chose to make high profile, publicity-garnering reductions in the rate of growth of spending, rather than scaling back in bloated areas. It’s Kabuki theater disguised as budget cuts. It’s so much easier to call them cuts rather than “reductions in the rate of increase”. So let’s just call them slowdowns for short.

Perception: Sequestration was a Republican idea. Our president has said so repeatedly. Reality: The idea and onerous design came from the administration (the brainchild of Jack Lew, the current Treasury Secretary). Members of Congress are not without guilt, of course, but they did try to give the president the flexibility to take away the most painful (and stupid) reductions and to move them to bloated areas where real cuts could and should be made. He declined, preferring to cause as much publicity and pain as possible and blame it on the opposing party.

How about green energy subsidies? Perception: They help the environment and create jobs. Just ask the recently retired energy department head. Reality: Subsidies failed by any reasonable measure, costing taxpayers hundreds of billions. We keep subsidizing, so perception wins.

Perception: Stimulus plans work. Reality: Short term gain for long term pain. History tells us they never work long term. The latest one did not work and was filled with pork and waste.

Perception: "Comprehensive" when referring to laws is a good thing. Reality: Never. Trying to solve multiple problems with one bill results in a bureaucratic, bloated, expensive nightmare. For every page of a bill, twenty to 100 pages of regulations will be issued. The 2700 page Obamacare is already up to 25,000 pages of regs. And this does not count numerous court challenges and decisions that are bound to come. Not to mention the pork and political payoffs that are hidden inside all big bills.

Almost every piece of huge legislation has been nearly impossible to understand and impossible to administer. Unintended consequences from such legislation are almost always disastrous. Witness what’s happening now to Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act. And we ain’t seen nothing yet.  The gang of eight bill is another example of bloated legislation.

Perception: Legislation is written by members of Congress. Reality: The vast majority is written by young lawyers and clerks buried in the bowels of congress—people who rarely have world experience. Elected people almost never read the bills and the ones who do read them seldom understand them.

Recent newsflash—market index (DJIA) is up today from their 2009 lows a range of 150-160%. Wow. Perception: The stock market is the place to be for great gains. Reality: From 2007 highs, the markets are up by about 2.8%!  2.8% over 5.5 years is about a half percent a year.

Credit Card abuse at IRS.  Acting commissioner Werfel (say it fast and it sounds like waffle—and does he remind you of Pee Wee Herman or it is just me?) investigated his own organization and found (surprise!) 99.75% of use is within guidelines. Perception: It’s just a tiny bit of abuse. Reality: First, how could he know? Answer—he cannot since he could not or would not stop the .25% abuse. Second—that .25% can amount to millions. Third—Why do so many IRS agents need credit cards and do they not know how easy to curb abuse? Businesses do it every day.  

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (the previously mentioned author of the sequester) has done another incestuous investigation of the IRS scandal and found no evidence of “political motivation” behind the targeting of conservative and religious groups. How stupid is this guy? Okay, maybe he isn’t stupid, but he sure thinks we are. What the White House calls a “phony scandal” is tyranny and sets a terribly dangerous precedent if we don’t stop it in its tracks. Are you as tired as I am of being force-fed drivel? And the IRS will soon control our healthcare.

New immigration bill--Perception: Social Security (payroll taxes) paid by legalized immigrants will increase government revenue.  Reality: SS payments are supposed to go into a trust fund not available for general expenses. It is not revenue (yes, I know that Congress regularly raids the fund). Also, low income wage earners (on average) take out much more than they put in. So they represent added expenses and a larger deficit for social security, not the opposite.

Perception: Newly legalized immigrants will increase income tax revenue (shame on you Rubio, Graham, Flake and McCain—we expect this kind of nonsense from radicals like Schumer et al, but you should know better). Reality: Low income workers (50% of all taxpayers) pay no income taxes and a large portion actually collect refunds for earned income credit and for dependents. The IRS, for example, sent 24,000 refund checks to the same address last year, all made out to illegals with fake names and social security numbers.

Polls show most Americans prefer a path to citizenship for immigrants. Perception: We don’t have one. Reality: We have one now and have always had one. Thousands of immigrants choose that legal “path” to come to America. But that path is littered with bureaucrats holding stop signs and yield to stupidity signs.  The follow-the-law folks who want to come to America legally are punished with years of bureaucratic delays, some for a decade or longer.

Solution offered by politicians: Pass a bloated bill full of pork and vague language that gives the people who came here illegally (primarily folks who are at the bottom of the economic scale) preference over those who chose legality (primarily folks at the top of the education and economic scale). Reality: How about passing a law that knocks down a few bureaucrats standing in the way of legal immigrants. Give the folks who will actually contribute to our economy preference over illegal aliens. How about just strengthening and enforcing the laws we already have on the books even before we spend billions on fences.  

This is two weeks of news and I am not done yet. Stay alert. Pay attention. Stop the drivel.