H. Alan Day's Blog

A Call for Cowboy Pilots

               When people start talking about the plight of wild horses, they almost always include helicopter gatherings in their conversation. In this context, the helicopter is considered the tool of the Devil. During gatherings, helicopters terrorize horses by chasing them in an aggressive manner in their attempts to herd them into makeshift corrals. Unfortunately, many of the ranges where wild horses live are rocky and steep making gathers by horseback impossible or, at the very least, impractical. So void of other options, the Bureau of Land Management is left dealing with the Devil.

               During my ranching years, I heard about these gatherings. The stories of cruelty dismayed me and I wondered if the horses could be gathered in any other way. An answer came the day a stranger driving a pickup and hauling a trailer arrived at Lazy B. On that trailer was a helicopter.

               The stranger hopped out. He wore boots and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat with sweat stains and looked every inch a cowboy. He was a friendly sort and asked me if I had any wild cattle that needed to be gathered. “I can gather them easily with my helicopter,” he said.

                I thought for a moment. “There are a bunch of replacement heifers in a pasture that I need to gather,” I said. “But I can get that done on horseback.“ I looked at the chopper glinting in the sun. “Tell you what. I’ll make a deal. I’ll hire you to gather the cattle if I can ride along to see how you work.”

               Fifteen minutes later we were lifting off, headed for the Cottonwood pasture.

               We soon spotted a group of heifers. The corral was on the west end of the pasture, so the pilot approached the group from the east. He descended, but instead of coming in fast and hot, he gently eased the chopper toward the group. Startled, the cattle looked up, turned west, and ran about fifteen steps. They stopped and turned back to look at the strange apparatus buzzing in the air. For a better part of a minute, they eyed the helicopter, which was now hovering in place. Then they started ambling west. They didn’t feel threatened, so weren’t in a hurry and neither was the pilot.  He found another group and repeated the process.

               In less than an hour, we had all the cattle, now in five groups, heading west toward the corral. We were high enough that we could keep our eye on all five at the same time. To keep them moving, the pilot zigzagged back and forth along the rear of the groups. If a group stopped, he turned and went at them but never in a threatening manner.

               Once all five groups were steadily walking, he picked a convenient hilltop and landed. I watched the cows move like some invisible force was behind them saying, “March along, time to get to the corral.” I was amazed. The pilot explained that if he were to charge the cattle and fly over them, they would turn and run back under him in the wrong direction. It wouldn’t take long before they would learn that they could always do this.

               “If they run back under you, you’ll never be able to gather them by helicopter,” said the pilot. “They’ve learned that they can turn and run. The herd is wrecked for the pilot and the pilot after that. “

               After fifteen minutes or so, a few of the groups stopped, so we lifted off and got them moving again. Soon, all the groups combined into one and went into the corral.  The pilot landed outside the corral, and I hopped out and shut the gate.    

               I was flabbergasted. I had just had a real eye-opening demo of the practicality of the helicopter. This was by far the easiest, quickest gather I had ever experienced. Had I done this on horseback, I and six other cowboys would have had to load our horses on trailers, haul the trailers eight miles, unload at the corral, saddle the horses, and ride for an hour to get to the back of the pasture , then turn around and start pushing the cattle toward the corral. If helicopters had been cheaper to purchase and operate, I would have bought one.

               So when fellow horse lovers refer to the helicopter as the tool of the devil, I beg to differ. I say the pilots, not the helicopters, are the devil. The BLM should qualify pilots as a cowboy who knows how to fly a helicopter rather than a helicopter pilot who thinks he can force livestock to do his wishes. My guess is that the horses would be less terrorized going into the corrals and have fewer injuries along the way. My other guess is that the BLM has never considered this option. But it certainly is an option worthy of trying.

What Rastus Knew

Rastus was a Lazy B cowboy who was like family. He couldn’t read or write, but what he knew never ceased to amaze me. When he was eight years old, he ran away from his abusive and dysfunctional home in Pinos Altos, New Mexico. Somehow he  made his way to Lordsburg, about 80 miles away. A kind soul noticed the homeless young boy wandering around town and suggested to Rastus that he might fit in at the big Lazy B ranch. They just might need someone to bring kindling to the cook. What’s more, he’d probably get fed for doing the job. So Rastus went out to the ranch, got hired, and remained there for 75 years.

Rastus learned cowboying from the roots up. He went from being a cook’s helper to being the number one cowboy in the crew. For as long as I remember, he was the go-to guy. He had an encyclopedic mind that observed things most of us wouldn’t notice. He always was aware of how much water was in each tank and how the grass was growing. If a windmill pumped a little less water than it should, he’d say the leathers need to be changed. What’s more, he also knew each cow, and Lazy B had 1500 cows. Often he could identify a cow by looking at her footprints. He knew which calf belonged to which cow and what last year’s calf looked like.

One thing that we all learned is that if Rastus told you something, which would be something to do with the ranch, you could go to the bank with that. It was always correct and accurate. The only time my dad argued with him, Rastus was so incensed someone doubted his word that he quit. His word was his bond. When it turned out Rastus was right, my dad had to go to town and hunt him up and apologize. 

Rastus lived at headquarters and only went to town about once a month. Ever year, we give him a Christmas present, which often was a nice shirt. No one ever saw the shirt again because it stayed folded up for later use. He probably had ten shirts for later use that he never unwrapped. He had a needle and thread, though. He’d wear a shirt or pair of pants until it got so thin it would start to tear. Then he carefully sewed the tears together with tiny stitches. He literally wore his clothes until they came apart. Yet he never looked anything but neat and clean.  

Before my time, Rastus had fallen off a windmill. One leg landed on an anvil and had a real bad break. The doctor had to cut a piece out of it. When it healed back up, it was three inches shorter than the other leg. He had his boot built up, but I never knew him to walk without a limp. If he suffered from backaches, I wasn’t aware of it because he never complained.

So even though Rastus never learned to read, never learned to drive, he was one of the smartest men I ever knew. He was totally loyal to the ranch, and I was proud that he was a part of my extended family.


A Double-Dose of Inspiration

You never know when inspiration will appear. Just the other day, two big doses came my way.

               I was having lunch with my buddy Neil. His wife had passed from cancer a few years back, a sad event indeed. Neil recently had remarried, so I was eager to hear his news.  Turns out he married a long time friend. She and her husband were dear friends of Neil and his wife; they even traveled together. Her husband died shortly after Neil’s wife died. One day Neil happened to mention to her that he was taking a trip. She he said, “I’ll go with you,” and the rest is matrimony history.  

               If that doesn’t pluck your heartstrings, there’s more to the story that will. Neil’s new wife had a daughter with two children. The daughter died and the father had long stepped out of the picture.  Some families are small, some are big. Neil’s wife’s family errs on the small side. In fact, she and the other grandmother are the children’s only living relatives. So at age 86, my buddy Neil and his wife are raising a ten-year-old and a twelve-year-old. When called on to be saints, some people willingly and without complaining, rise to the occasion. 

                As Neil and I parted ways, a man who had been dining next to our table came up to me.

               “I couldn’t help but overhear that you’re a writer,” he said. He explained that his mother is an avid reader. At age 103, she devours books and has a mind that is as sharp as when she was fifty. His mother happened to be in the restroom, so I waited around to meet her. Pretty soon, her she came with her walker. Her son introduced us.

               “I know your name,” she said. “Didn’t you write a book with your sister?” She proceeded to say that she still owned it and even told her son where it was in the house. “Where can I get your other books?” she asked.

               “I keep some in the back of my car,” I said.

               She wanted them inscribed. I explained that a new book is worth the cover price, but as soon as I scratched it up, it would dip in value. She chuckled and her son handed me a pen.

               It was an honor to send her home with those books. We all face our mortality, but it’s inspiring when you see someone, who has lived longer than most, face it with grace and with the eagerness to learn something new each day.  

Flying High

               I was flying my Cessna 210 on an instrument flight plan eighteen thousand feet above the Colorado plains. Despite the stratus clouds, it was smooth flying on a route that I had traveled many times. The little bird had been airborne an hour and half hours, having taken off from Valentine, Nebraska and expected to land at Lazy B in another two and half hours. 

               Suddenly, there was a tremendous BANG! In an instant, I went from sedentary to red-alert pilot. The plane was vibrating and rattling so violently I thought the motor might detach. Instinctively, I pulled power and trimmed for maximum glide. The motor idled, the hammering decreased to a knock, and the plane began gliding through thin air.

               Without hesitation, I turned toward La Junta. It was the closest paved airstrip and sixteen miles away. It didn’t have a control tower. Pilots called in and if someone were in the office, that person would answer. No one answered when I called, which meant that no one would be clearing the one runway and setting up for an emergency landing. I was on my own. It’s amazing how fast palms get sweaty.

               While flying, I made it a policy to look at the terrain below and keep my eye out for a straight road or flat area that I could land on if something went wrong. Well, something was wrong. I broke out of the clouds and began visually searching for La Junta. There it was in front of me. I was pretty sure that I could get there, but I started to look for alternate places to land in case I fell short. 

               This was my fourth plane since learning to fly. I had enough experience to know that the motor had blown a piston. The motor could still run on five pistons, but I was reluctant to give it power, fearing the plane would shake to pieces. At that moment, altitude was my best friend. The higher you are in a plane, the farther you can glide and the more time you have to make decisions, to try to restart the engine, or to radio someone on the ground.

               I listened to the propeller turning the motor and making the plane slightly vibrate. I listened to the wind whistling. I scanned the land beneath me. And I concentrated on my job, which was to maintain maximum glide and stay calm.

               As it turned out, I arrived with too much altitude and had to circle the airstrip once. I could have flown another two miles. The landing was routine, but then I needed to get off the runway so other planes could use it. I gave the motor a little power and it grudgingly got me to the operations office.

                I jumped out of the plane, relieved to feel terra firma beneath my feet. I found some coffee, sat down at a table, and replayed what had happened. I hadn’t panicked. I hadn’t even imagined crashing. I did what I needed to do as a pilot. Here I was, safe and sound. And that’s when I started to shake as much as the plane.

A Cowboy on the Writing Trail

               I came to writing in a very oblique way. I never had dreams of writing a book while I was growing up or during adulthood. But then one day, the phone rang and my sister Sandra, who is pretty plain spoken and gets to the point in a direct fashion, said, “Alan, I think we should write a book together. “ 

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said, “Tell me more. Why would we want to write a book? And what would that book be about?”

               Sandra said that we had been raised in a very unique environment that had taught us both a very strong work ethic. Being raised on the Lazy B cattle ranch, a 200-square-mile chunk of Sonoran desert, taught us to be problem-solvers because out on the ranch nobody was going to solve your problems for you.

               I had never taken any writing classes and certainly had minimal skills in that department, so the book Sandra was suggesting felt about as big as that ranch. I had a hard time getting my arms around it. Sandra was far more skilled than I in terms of writing ability.  She wrote many legal opinions which weren’t graded for literary quality but were read by many lawyers and historians.

               After stumbling and fumbling with an answer and not wanting to look like a fool, I finally said, “Well, how do I go about this? How do I start to write a book?”

               Her answer was Sandra simple. Yellow legal pad and number two pencil.

               “What if the product sounds dumb or doesn’t make sense?”

               “Whatever you have on paper submit it to me and we’ll make it work,” she said.

               I have a feeling that not many would-be authors get that kind of a send off in their writing careers. Having been given an assignment, however, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled it.

               A lot of days I would only get a paragraph or two written, and then after sitting and contemplating it for awhile, I’d tear it up the sheet and throw it away. Other days, I would say to myself, okay big boy, today’s the day for writing. And then I would find fifteen excuses why not to write. Progress was very slow.

               After six months of writing, I had several chapters that seemed a little bit appropriate. I sat down and read everything that I had written. It was so bad that shame consumed me. The thought hit me that even if I could rewrite these pages twice as good, they would still be bad. In a fit of depressed anger, I tossed it all away.         

               I had attempted to write the history of the ranch chronologically beginning in 1880 when our grandfather settled on Lazy B. I decided I needed a whole different format to make it more interesting. Yet I didn’t know what other formats were used by writers. So I gave myself two weeks to come up with another way to write the book. I spent time each day just trying to think up a different way to write the story. Toward the end of my two week self-imposed deadline, I finally had a bright idea.

               I asked myself the question: which author do you most enjoy reading? The answer was Larry McMurtry. I then asked why Larry McMurtry? What is it that draws you to his writing? My answer to that was I admire his character development. I mentally bond with his characters and want to go on their adventures with them.

               As I reached this point in my thinking, the light bulb went on in my dimly lit cranium. Ohmygod. I have on the ranch six characters and each one is worthy of a book, or at least a part in a book. This idea hit me so hard that I could feel the truth of it inside me.

               Two of the six characters were my parents and the other four were cowboys who worked on our ranch, each for more than fifty years. I had huge respect and admiration for all six of these people. I thought golly, if I can just bring them back for readers in the same bigger-than-life mode that I saw them, readers will be very entertained. The heart of the Lazy B was right there in front of me.

               I immediately went to writing a chapter about each of the characters. The writing became easier and the pages started flying off the yellow tablet. Sandra was very accepting of what I had written and incorporated the stories into the Lazy B book. She sold it to Random House in 2002 and it’s still out there, finding its way into the hands of new readers.

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