Friday, July 25, 2014

A Party for a Cowboy Preacher

I was surprised and pleased when the invitation came to attend a birthday party for an old friend. I had not seen Larry in several years.  We met on a trail-ride several years back. Conversation was easy with him from the start and I could see he was a good man with horses. And he was obviously more experienced than I with organized trail-rides.

As I recall, he told me he felt life passing him by when the Texas Sesquicentennial Wagon Train passed his dairy. So he made major changes to his life, saddled up and joined the train. As he related the story, I knew this cowboy was philosophical and serious about living a full life. I don’t remember exactly how many years ago that was, but it’s safe to say it was more than ten.

I learned that Larry and Dianna hauled a buckboard and two horses to Abilene every year to carry dignitaries in the Western Heritage Classic parades. They did the same thing for Cheyenne Frontier Days. That’s really a long haul and a serious commitment. 

I ran into Larry a couple more times at Abilene and we stayed in touch sporadically over the years. From a pair of horseshoes and other metal, he made a roping cowboy complete with iron hat and gave it to me. The cowboy swings a loop made from copper wire. He also made a deer horn slide for my collection of wild rags. Both are favorites. 

Larry became a preacher at Rimrock Cowboy Church and I got busier with writing and our paths did not cross for a few years—until the invitation. Jan and I had a minor conflict the night of the party, plans for the next day that told us to get to bed early, and were both dead tired from a busy Saturday. But we knew we should go, knew that we would regret it if we didn’t, would likely have a great time if we did. 

We got lost once when GPS on Jan’s phone led us in a circle, but found our way easily to Woodland Ranch when we gave up on the phone and consulted the map that came with the invitation. The ranch headquarters sits on a hill near Alba, looks out on a nice lake and a groomed pasture with horses and cattle. An unusually beautiful setting, and the weather was nice, about as good as you get in summertime Texas. 

The party was a secret, so Larry and Dianna were not there when we arrived. We visited with their son and two daughters and roamed around the ranch yard and kitchen. I always feel at home surrounded by people who wear boots and hats and there were plenty of those. When the guest of honor arrived, I think he was genuinely shocked.

We had great catfish and all the trimmings cooked by friends and family and good conversations with new friends. When a couple across from us learned that I am a writer, she told of how her father was an avid reader and in poor health. It was the day before Fathers’ Day, so Jan poked me and nodded toward the car, indicating I should give her one of my books for her father.

I can’t explain why, but I am sometimes uncomfortable giving a book to someone I just met. It’s like giving someone a pet that brings an obligation to care for it. Giving a book almost comes with an obligation to read it. But I did as Jan suggested and gave her a book autographed to her father. She cried, proving once again that Jan was right. I also gave Larry my latest book for his birthday.

I listened as people stood to give testimonials to Larry and the positive influence he had on their lives, including some who had been baptized by my old friend. Then we talked Larry into reciting some of his cowboy poems.  As the day waned and the sun began to set across the lake and we listened to the sounds of cowboy poetry and laughter, Jan and I knew it was a night we would never forget.   

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Ball and Glove

As I put my fingers into the too-expensive ball glove and slammed the baseball into the pocket a few times, the sound, feel and smell of the ball and glove made fond memories come rushing back. The ball and glove were gifts from my son for Father’s Day. He knew I no longer needed a ball and glove, but we both knew it was a symbolic gift—a symbol of the bond between father, son and grandson. He said the three of us would play catch again someday. 

Catch—probably one of the most common ways for fathers and sons to bond when I was a boy and when my son was a boy. I coached at least one of his boy baseball teams and I tried to never miss a game when he played for other coaches. He developed into a good player. 

My father never coached, but he would come out of the dairy barn, the hay meadow, or a plowed field to make it to my games. He didn’t coach my team, but he did coach me. I wondered how a farmer dressed in overalls knew so much about baseball. I had to learn from someone else that he had been a top player in his youth and had to pass up a chance to play on a traveling team because he had to earn a living. 

I wrote a piece several years back about boys and baseball, but never could find the right place to publish it. In the piece, I criticized the sorry state of boys’ baseball these days. Here is part of that article:

Was I scared, tense and nervous that first Little League game?  You bet.  But I would rather have had a ground ball hit me in the teeth than let that coach, my father, or myself down.  My teammates were the same.  The message—if you are going to do something, it is much more joyous to do it right.  Put your heart and soul into it.

Today’s message: Relax, don’t take it seriously – being a slacker is cute—everybody should get a trophy.  What fun is that?  It misses the joy of knocking down a ground ball and throwing out a runner at first with heart as much as skill.  Sure, there are boys who are natural athletes and those of us who have to put forth much more effort to get the same or less results.  Some boys may not be cut out for baseball or for any sport.  That’s fine.  I will be just as pleased if one of my grandsons chooses a violin over a baseball.  Whatever he chooses, I want him to put his heart into it.  Because that is the way you squeeze joy out of life. 

I am not advocating taking away fun or traumatizing young boys for the sake of winning.  Just the opposite.  We have taken the joy out of the game and replaced it with political correctness.  Take infield chatter—they don’t do it anymore.  The sound of “batta, batta, batta, eeezy out, swing batta swing, two away, get your easy man, force out on every base, run on anything”, was as sweet as the sound of tree frogs singing on a summer night.  Now, we can’t say easy-out because it might hurt someone’s feelings.
The message in the old days: Don’t let a few words rattle you if you are coming to the plate.  Today’s message: Sticks and stones can break my bones and words can also really, really hurt me.  Nobody is allowed to put any pressure on me.  Sorry, but life is not like that. 

Am I saying that baseball is lost?  Far from it.  Select teams play a great brand of baseball. But they are select—a pretty exclusive club. 

My appeal is for those kids who want to play for the love of the game. Let’s teach them how to play it, how to enjoy it, before they make a decision about the role of team sports in their lives. 

Baseball is a metaphor for life.  I used it that way in my first novel. Writing that book made me  realize what I learned from those glorious days of baseball.  I learned to look fear in the face and stand up to it by hitting a fastball that seemed headed for my head instead of the plate.  I learned patience as I let balls pass by and waited for the right pitch.  I learned to handle embarrassment when I struck out, let a “skinner” get by me, or missed a pop fly.  I endured and survived absolute mortification when I was not chosen for an all-star team. 
I learned how to function as a member of a team and support my teammates.  I learned how to suck it up when we lost and how to be a good sport when we won.  I experienced the pure joy of hitting a fastball in the sweet spot of the bat and watching it sail just over the reach of a jumping shortstop, the thrill of stealing home.  All boys should have such sweet and bittersweet memories. 

And then I got to experience the warm glow when a symbolic gift brought it all back. Thanks for that, son.