H. Alan Day's Blog

A Supreme Court Swearing In

On Monday, September 13, 2021, PBS will premiere the documentary “Sandra Day O’Connor: The First.” I’ve already got my favorite chair reserved and the popcorn popped. PBS most likely chose this date because it just before the 40th anniversary of Sandra officially becoming a Supreme Court Justice.

Sandra’s swearing on September 25, 1981 was a momentous event for the Day family. One of those you never forget. My family, including my parents, flew to Washington D.C., a city that I had only visited a handful of times. Just setting foot inside the Supreme Court Building was awe-inspiring. The Great Hall with all the busts of the justices quickly became one of my favorites. After a tour, we were ushered into the courtroom and seated in the section reserved for special guests. President Reagan did the swearing in. It all felt a bit surreal.

A reception followed. Though I can’t recall where it took place, two things stand out in my mind. First, is my sister Ann’s husband, Scott Alexander, who at the time was an Arizona state senator. Scott was big on meeting people. As President Reagan walked past our table on his way to the reception line, Scott jumped toward him to shake his hand. This abrupt action caused the Secret Service agent next to Reagan to draw back, ready to pummel Scott. If Scott had taken one more step, this guy would have laid him down. Scott did get to shake Reagan’s hand in the reception line.

The second event occurred while in line. When my mother got to the President, she looked up at him and said, “You have a familiar face. Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” My mother had the start of dementia. I don’t recall what Reagan said, but true to form, he played it cool.

On the flight back to Arizona, the pilot announced that there were dignitaries on the plane. I was surprised that he was referring to our family. Sandra, of course, had remained in D.C. The entire plane applauded. What surprised me even more was that my father, who was such a strong personality, turned bright red when this happened and couldn’t even speak. Sandra may have gotten her strength from him, but I think that she inherited her style and grace from my mother.

Over the years, I visited Sandra and John many times in D.C. Each experience was special, a chance to step into Sandra’s world, which to me always remained other-worldly. As I’ve said many times, one of my best jobs in life has been being Sandra Day O’Connor’s brother.

 

If you’re interested in more stories about her years on the Court—stories that she shared with me—tune in to The Cowboy Up Podcast, Episode 8 “The Making of a Supreme Court Justice” and Episode 9 “The Lady Who Led the Way.”

And remember to tune into PBS on Monday night, with or without popcorn.

National Day of the Cowboy

Saturday, July 24th marks the 17th annual National Day of the Cowboy.

The purpose of the day is to celebrate the contribution of the Cowboy and Cowgirl to America’s culture and heritage. In the words of former President Bush, as posted on the organization’s website, “We celebrate the Cowboy as a symbol of the grand history of the American West. The Cowboy’s love of the land and love of the country are examples for all Americans.”

Here’s some background on the hoopla. Almost two decades ago now, Bethany Braley from Prescott, AZ was working at a magazine when her boss asked her to make his pet project “Vote for a Cowboy Day” happen. First thing Bethany did was change the name to “National Day of the Cowboy.” Then she took off running, and she hasn’t stopped since. Last year, we did a Cowboy Up Podcast episode with Bethany. You can give a listen to it here or below.

I was raised a cowboy and loved being a cowboy, but I never thought of myself as an icon of the American West. When you work your career as a cowboy, the glamour points are few and far between. During spring and fall roundups, days start at three am, end 14 hours later and continue in that vein every day for a month. Talk about some long, hard dusty days.

But as most of us would agree, it’s important to preserve western culture and heritage. So, hats off to Bethany and all the folks keeping the cowboy spirit alive and intact. Let’s make sure to do it again next year.

Can Someone Make It Rain?

This is the time of year that desert-dwellers have one eye to the sky and fingers and toes crossed hoping for RAIN. So far, this summer has been tough for ranchers. And firefighters. And for all those folks sweating it out in the Northwest. Is cloud seeding an answer? Maybe. Maybe not. See what you think.

Wishing a happy, safe and, if you’re lucky, cool 4th of July.

Alan

I was sitting in my office in late July enduring one of the harshest, ugliest droughts we had ever experienced on Lazy B. Not one drop of rain had fallen during the past nine months. Since the grass hadn’t greened up with protein, we had to haul feed to keep the cows from starving to death. I was wondering what I had done wrong to cause God to punish me. Out of frustration, I picked up the phone and called my sister, Sandra, who at the time was serving as the Majority Leader in the Arizona State Senate. Sandra answered the phone.

“Do you know how dry it is here on the ranch?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s that dry all over Arizona. Getting close to a crisis.”

“Well, why don’t you do something about it?” I said, only half joking. Sandra was one of the world’s best problem solvers.

She said, “What do you want me to do?”

Out of nowhere popped an idea. “How about starting a cloud seeding program to make it rain?”

“My goodness,” said Sandra. “Now that’s a thought. Let me see what I can do.”

I hung up feeling better at having dumped my load of angst onto her shoulders. I didn’t give our conversation another thought.

About a week later, Sandra called back. After checking around various places in Washington D.C., she was directed to the Office of Emergency Preparedness. She spoke to a General Lincoln, the head of the office, who was quite responsive to my suggestion. He asked if it were dry on the Indian reservations. Sandra said yes, very dry. He told her that if she could get the Indian tribal leaders to request federal assistance with cloud seeding, the federal coffers would open and at least money would rain down on Arizona. Sandra immediately called Peter McDonald, the chairman of the Navajo Nation and asked him if he would like to get some rain made. He said absolutely, yes. A contract was issued and Safford, Arizona, a town forty-five miles west of Lazy B, became cloud seeding central. I was overwhelmed with the response. It was incredible. You make a phone call, bitch a little bit to your sister, and boom! Life changes. Or so you think.

If the government could seed above the reservations, I was pretty certain they could seed above the rest of the state. I jumped into my Cessna and flew over to the Safford airport to check things out. Three airplanes were parked in a row. I could see the silver iodide flares mounted under the wings, pointing backward like small missiles. Silver iodide helps make rain by acting as a nucleating agent. When silver iodide molecules make their way into clouds, water molecules attach to them, and when heavy enough, they fall out of the clouds as rain.

It didn’t take long to locate the crews lounging in the hangar doing what pilots do, talking flying and drinking coffee. They were happy to greet a new face and only too happy to tell me that they were professional cloud seeders and were there on a government contract. “But you can’t make rain out of blue sky,” one said. They were hoping for moisture and clouds to invade the area within the next week.

I said, “When that happens, my ranch is due east. Can you make sure to fly over it and let loose your magic flares?”

Much to my surprise, they quickly turned me down. Their contract with the government called for them to fly only in Arizona and no closer than thirty miles to any of the state’s borders. That meant they would miss Lazy B entirely. I argued and begged for them to make an exception. It’s federal money, I pointed out, and reminded them that I was the one who had inspired their contract. They were kind and patient to this impatient cowboy, but firm in their position. I asked why some knucklehead bureaucrat in Washington had drawn up the contract that way. They suggested I call my senator and ask. I went home frustrated but determined.

The next day, I returned to refresh the argument. They again turned me down. I again was undeterred. By the third day, they had about enough of me.

One of the pilots said, “Why don’t you seed the clouds yourself? That’s your 182, right?”

I nodded.

“All you need to do is make a removable bracket and bolt it onto the landing gear,” he said. “We can tell you where to get the flares and how to use them.”

My mind exploded with possibility. I was so desperate for rain. “Spell it out and don’t miss a detail,” I said.

Per their suggestions, I ordered the flares from Olin Mathieson Chemical in St. Louis, Missouri and bought a car battery. I built a bracket in my shop, then bolted it onto my plane’s landing gear. The flares soon arrived. After I secured them in the bracket, I threaded the two lead wires from each flare through the door and into the cockpit where I had stored the car battery. In order to fire the flares, I would need to touch the wires to the battery’s terminals. I would do this while the plane circled at the base of a targeted cloud. The flare would burn for eight minutes and release its silver iodide crystals. The cloud’s updraft would suck up the silver iodide. The pilots had instructed me to seed cumulus clouds with a minimum updraft of five hundred feet per minute. The seeded clouds might rain, they might not. Seeding a cloud that was about to rain could double or triple the amount of rainfall.

By the time I was ready to seed, moisture had moved into Arizona and cumulus clouds were forming I soon discovered that flying at 12,500 feet at the base of a big cumulus cloud was not your everyday flying experience. It was turbulent to the extreme. Sometimes it felt like I was riding a bucking horse. I always strapped myself in with a shoulder harness, but I had to unstrap it to climb in the backseat to fire the flares. The plane would buck so much it would throw me all over the cockpit. I became frightened that I might hit my head and get knocked out.

I flew eight minutes under a cloud candidate, and when the flare stopped burning, I scouted out another for another cloud. The bracket held six flares so I could seed six clouds. Quite often a thunderstorm would start within minutes of seeding a cloud. On a number of occasions, when I descended from the base of a cloud to the ranch, which took about sixteen minutes, two inches of water already would be covering the runway, all from the rain I had just initiated. I would be laughing and screaming and cheering as I hydroplaned to a stop. I tried seeding all types of clouds and pretty quickly learned which clouds were ripe and which weren’t ready. If I seeded one that wasn’t ready, in about four minutes it would disappear. Poof, gone. I started feeling godlike.

One time, I approached a very large cloud with a very dark bottom. As I flew under it, I hit a huge updraft. My gauge indicated it was a 3,000-foot-a-minute updraft. Within seconds, I was sucked up into the middle of the cloud, a place I really didn’t want to be. Total fog. Rain. No sense of direction. It might have been cold, but I was sweating so much, I wouldn’t have known. I had no idea where I was going. I tried to keep my cool, pointed the nose down, and started to power dive. The airspeed indicator quickly jumped to the red line. If I exceeded that line, I was in danger of shaking off a wing, especially in turbulence, and believe me, I was in heavy-duty turbulence. I kept thinking, kiss your ass goodbye, cowboy. Fortunately, the power dive brought me out of the bottom of that cloud. I never bothered to tell my wife or family about my near miss.

Twice, I invited people to accompany me. One was my foreman Cole, who flew with me quite a little, and the other was a friend. Both of them had the exact same reaction when we landed. “That was an exhilarating ride, Al. But if you need somebody to go with you next time, please don’t call me.”

Every morning, I worked on the ranch and watched the clouds develop. I planned my day so that I was available for seeding in the afternoon when the clouds typically rained. My work became vastly easier because green grass began sprouting everywhere. The cows had smiles on their faces. They were putting on weight and all of our reservoirs were full of water. In fact, rain was greening the entire area, not just Lazy B. At the end of the season, our records showed a fifty percent greater-than-normal rainfall. I will always believe that my seeding caused at least some of that increase, if not all.

I went into the fall with a great feeling of success and happiness and ordered another case of flares for the next summer. Cumulus clouds only appeared during the monsoon season, not during winter. I was afraid to tell anyone about my venture because I didn’t know how many rules and laws I was breaking by being a wildcat seeder. Plus, I figured people would be funny with their reactions. Some people might say I washed out their reservoir; others might say I stole the rain that would have come to their ranch. I didn’t want to face such accusations. So I kept my success to myself.

The following summer, I was ready to seed well before summer rains that usually began around the first of July and extended through September. I seeded all summer with spectacular success. The danger was no different. Flying at 12,500 feet gave me a headache every time. For whatever reason, I never brought oxygen or a helmet, even though I was still getting bounced around in the cockpit. After landing, I would have to lie down for two hours. By the first of October, rainfall on the ranch was seventy percent above normal. What an amazing summer it was. I felt as if I had created a new dimension to Arizona ranching and assumed that was a good thing.

Then one day at the beginning of October, clouds appeared sooner than usual. I watched with glee as they seemed to grow and multiply before my eyes. It was getting to look like the best day I’d ever seen for possible rains. I drove up early to the hangar and had just opened the pickup door to get out and go to the plane when a voice spoke to me. “Don’t fly today,” it said.

I looked around, trying to determine where the voice came from. I didn’t think anyone was within two miles of my hangar.

The voice repeated: “Don’t fly today.”

I was dumbfounded. In all my life, I had never heard a voice without a body speak to me. It repeated itself again. Was I hearing the voice through my ears or hearing it through my mind? I couldn’t determine. It repeated the same words at least six more times.

I started arguing with it out loud. “But this looks like the best day ever to seed,” I said.

“Don’t fly today,” it said.

I began to feel quite troubled. Should I pay attention to this or not? I rationalized with myself. We’ve had a fabulous summer already. The tanks are full. The grass is green. The cows are fat. We’re approaching fall with the ranch in the best shape it has ever been. Maybe I don’t really need to seed. I shut the pickup door and drove back to the headquarters.

That afternoon, it rained so hard that the Gila River flooded, and the flood was so severe that it washed part of the town of Duncan away, including the elementary school. Three people drowned and the area suffered multi-million-dollar damage. I had a very strong reaction to all of those events. My main reaction was thank you, God, for looking after me and persuading me not to fly. I’ll always believe that if I’d flown, the flood might have been worse, and more people might have died. I would have carried that guilt to my grave.

I never seeded again. It became clear that I had been playing God, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’m not particularly religious, but some force had my back and had been kind to me.

When I sold the ranch, I still had half a case of flares. I didn’t tell the buyers what they were for. I have no idea if they remain there, but I’m pretty certain they’ll never be used. And that’s just fine by me.

Remembering Sylvester

I’ve had a lot of animal friends over the years. Just thinking about them still makes me smile. In honor of National Pet Day, April 11, I thought I’d introduce you to one of my favorites, a little sparrow hawk named Sylvester.

During roundup one spring, I noticed a little bird on the ground flopping this way and that. He looked different from a dove or quail, so I got off my horse to take a closer look. I could tell by the downward curve of the beak that the little fellow was a hawk, a baby hawk. Based on its coloring, it looked to be a sparrow hawk. If it lived, it would grow to be the size of a dove.

I put the little guy in my glove and put the glove in my shirt pocket. By the time I arrived home, he was pretty bedraggled. My wife Barbara took an instant liking to him. She found some raw meat and fed him, and he gobbled it up like there was no tomorrow. Immediately, the two bonded. She named him Sylvester.

Sylvester learned that when he squawked, one of us would come running with food. For days, he ate ravenously. He came to trust both of us and would hop up on our arm or especially a shoulder and ride around like he was king of the house. He grew rapidly and before long, he was trying to fly.

I took over as his flight instructor. We had a big living room, and he would go careening around it and bounce off the walls and the couch. He had more crashes than I ever did. Fortunately, he was never hurt. Soon he was flying around the living room like it was his own private airport. He was ready for his next lesson: outdoor flight.

I took Sylvester outside and let him go. He flew around for a bit, then came screeching back to me. He was a natural. He started taking daily solo flights, some long, some short. After each, he’d land on my shoulder or head and, with much ado, tell me about his adventures of where he’d been and what he’d done. I always knew by the tone of his squawks whether he was happy or unhappy. When he was flying, I could call him, and he’d come to me like a missile. As he grew, he developed the most vivid green and brown feathers around his neck. He was just beautiful.

Sylvester never was house trained, so that was a bit of a problem. When he sat on my shoulder, he messed up the back of my shirt. It was a small price to pay for the love and happiness that he brought with him. I built a perch for him on the outdoor porch, which he used as home base. What he especially liked was to be on top of the huge windmill that was the centerpiece of the ranch. I’d walk out on the porch and call him, and here he’d come. I always had fresh meat in my hand, and he knew what to expect.

When Sylvester was about eight months old, he started leaving for a day or two, then would come back. I knew he was getting ready to shove off for good. I hated the thought. Sure enough, one day he up and left. We were his first family, but the time had come for him to find his second one. I like to think he circled the ranch one last time, raised a wing, and flew away. To this day we still talk about Sylvester and his funny antics and loving personality.

A Snow Angel in the Sand

It’s that time of year. Well, in normal times, it would be that time of year. Things are changed up this year. But there are memories of past holidays that still bring a smile to my face.

One that recently popped into my mind was from Lazy B days. My fraternity brother, John, and his wife Candy and their two kids used to visit us for the holidays. In fact, we saw them twice a year. Over Thanksgiving or Christmas, they’d come to Arizona, and in the summer, we’d escape the dry, hot high desert and visit them in Huntington Beach, California.

John and Candy were always enthusiastic when they came to the ranch. They wanted to experience everything. Especially Candy. She had never shot a gun but was determined to give quail hunting a try. So, I got her partnered with a gun and out we all went, away from headquarters to where the quail liked to congregate. John was holding his own, so I helped Candy. I showed her how to shoulder the gun and pointed out the quail running around in the distance.

At first, she didn’t see them. When she did, she wanted to know which ones to shoot. I pointed, advised, instructed, but Candy never got a shot off. Finally, I picked up her up and ran up on those birds. I set her down and pointed. “Shoot ‘em or kick ‘em!” I said. “You’re close enough to kick’em.” She took the shot and hit the target.

Candy also wanted to try rounding up cattle. As ranch host, I always felt responsible for my guests, so I picked a horse for her that happened to be named Candy. I’ve had two horses named Candy. The first one bucked like crazy. (If you’ve read The Horse Lover or Cowboy Up, you might remember that Candy and the cowboy walk of shame.) The second Candy was a delightful little mare who was bred to work cattle. That horse knew what to do. I figured Candy would be safe on Candy.

Our group rode out to the Z-L pasture. When we started rounding up, I kept one eye on team Candy. When rider and horse are in synch, they work together. A rider can anticipate when a horse will turn and can turn with it.  A rider who doesn’t understand that will be off balance. I could see Candy the horse doing its job working the cattle. All was going smoothly until a cow took off and raced past team Candy. Right on cue, Candy the horse took off running after it. Suddenly, the cow turned. Candy the horse turned to stay with it, which caught Candy the rider unaware. The four-legged Candy went left, and the two-legged Candy rocketed forward. She went flying through the air and landed spread-eagled, face down, skid marks behind her. She looked like a snow angel in the sand.

I raced over. She had taken a pretty good thumping. “How many fingers do you have?” I asked her. “How many toes?” After a five-minute reorganization, with Candy being brave and trying not to cry, and me catching her horse, Candy got back in the saddle just like a cowgirl. And we all went on our merry way.

Wherever you are holiday season, I hope you see some snow angels. We all need a few of those sightings these days. And even if you don’t see one, have a very happy holiday. Be safe, stay healthy, and don’t let go of the reins.

Alan

Check out a new episode of The Cowboy Up Podcast, “Holiday Traditions, Celebrations & Libations in the Old West” with guest Sherry Monahan. Click here to listen.

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