It all looked to be an easy morning. The spring works were in full swing and we were already "up on top" - in the ranch's mesa country. The chuckwagon was set up at the Martinez corrals, and we were gathering the Creek Pasture to those pens. I always liked the mesa; a little more rugged than the rest of the ranch, with heavier cedar cover and rocky canyons cutting past brushy slopes and flats. It was a bit more of a test for good hands and good horses, something that appeals to our youth and to our denial that youth will finally fade.
The Creek hadn't wintered a lot of cows so it would be a quick branding that day. It was the first Tuesday in June, 1972, primary election day in New Mexico. The light schedule worked in our favor, as my dad wanted to get the pasture branded up and turned back out, turn the horses loose, button down the camp, and take the rest of the day off for the crew to go home and vote. Most of the boys lived in Dilia and Anton Chico, little farm villages on the Pecos River. We'd told the boys to take the next day off, too, knowing that once the polls closed and the bars re-opened there would be celebration of the vote in the village, no matter which way the elections went. We were registered in a precinct up in Las Vegas, some distance away. When dad made the plan for this day, I was not surprised or particularly impressed that we would stop the spring works for a day or two just to go vote. It was, I knew, the important thing to do, but I was mostly looking forward to getting cleaned up and spending a little time in town with my wife; maybe a little shopping and, after several days at the wagon, getting to eat a nice meal at a nice table inside a nice café.
The pleasant morning was bright and clear, under a flawless blue sky that canopied mixed greens and tans of emerging spring grasses and sandstone cedar-breaks. Looking across the sloping pasture at the drive being thrown together, I could see my wife Georgia riding alongside my dad, coming up out of the little Aguilar Creek, following some cows and calves moving ahead of them in a hurried trot. My bride and I had only been on the ranch a while, having mustered out of the military a month previous, so these spring works were for me a return to the familiar life, and for my wife a new discovery. Watching Georgia impressively sit her horse with straight slender comfortable ease, I pondered just how big a change in life she was experiencing, and how fully she was embracing it. Everything felt good and right that morning, right down to the horse between my knees.
Keno Red was his registered name; a handsome, modest sized, streak-faced, dark sorrel who had been my horse a long time, since well before I left for the service. Though he had been in other strings while I was away, it was as if we had never separated; a good pair. Four years away had not faded the familiarity that, after plenty of time and miles under the same saddle, settles into the bones of both horse and rider. A good cowpony but a little dangerous, I knew Keno well, with all his abilities and attitudes, plus a particular quirk that demanded healthy respect.
Keno did not like anything going on around the left side of his head. Whatever might be near him on that side, either in the air or on the ground, was a threat, and sometimes he would react. I remember when Duane Brockman, a little overconfident, found himself in that 3 year-old's strike zone and was knocked out cold by a lightening-fast front foot. He was always wary out his left eye, but I knew how to get along with him on his terms and didn't usually have much trouble that way. I could bridle him with little trouble, something most men couldn't do easily. Other than that, Keno was a top cowpony by anybody's measure. Sometimes to show off I would pull Keno's bridle off and work a herd, using just my feet to point him at selected animals and push them out of the bunch.
Keno and I joined the drive and pointed them through the gate of the picket corrals we called the Martinez. As soon as all were in, the crew jumped to action, separating most of the cows from the calves and setting up the branding equipment. "Dad, do you want to drag on my horse?" I asked. "OK," he responded. "I'll just use your saddle." He reset and cinched up, shortening his rope and tying off on the saddlehorn. Nobody in our part of the world dallied in those days, and roping "tied off" was a different more sophisticated art, requiring the roper to deftly handle the slack once an animal was caught. The famous western poet, S. Omar Barker, in a poem about roping tied off, quipped "… either it's yours, or your its."
Irons hot, flankers ready, Dad and Keno eased into the bunch of bawling cattle, shaking out a loop and snagging the first calf. The crew fell into its rhythm working each flanked calf quickly, with always another coming in on the end of Dad's stretched rope. Georgia and I were standing next the branding stove as she filled a vaccine gun and I shifted the irons in the fire. We watched the roper pick up a big "early" calf, probably born as early as December. He caught the calf deep, the loop closing around its flank and not loosening. Then, things started happening fast.
Bucking and running, the calf darted around behind the horse as Dad lifted the rope, ducking his head slightly to skillfully guide it over his hat, looking over his shoulder at his quarry. Dancing on the end of the rope, the calf ran up to the picket fence, ducked to the right, and then ran to the corral's corner. Dad started to pass the rope over Keno's head when I saw the horse, white-eyed, throw his face up high and away from the twined threat. I could see the wreck coming as the calf then ran full speed along the fence past and behind the right side of horse and rider through the crowded herd.
What happened next was probably over in less than three seconds, but the mind in a crisis can sometimes press the unraveling of events down into extreme slow motion. The rope did not make it over Keno's head, instead catching in the shanks of his bits. I could see Dad reaching to get it untangled as Keno struggled fearfully to break the closing trap, the running calf heading for the end of the rope. Slack ran out fast, hitting hard against twisting bits and tender mouth. Helplessly, I watched horse, trapped, neck bent and head struggling - rider still in the saddle - flipping backward into the crowded corner of cows and calves. I heard a sickening thump, cattle leaping away in mass, and then like a riptide off the corral fence they were jumping and stumbling over the stretched rope and fallen horse, his legs thrashing skyward trying to regain something, anything, solid. Under Keno's inverted body, Dad could be seen through the boiling mob of cattle and dust. I ran toward the wreck as Keno tried to roll one way, then the other, panicked, pinning and mashing his rider into the ground. Finally rolling to his side, he jumped up, frightened, kicking his limp prostrate rider as he leapt away.
The next thing I remember is kneeling over Dad, along with Georgia and one of the cowboys. He was on his back and looked to be conscious but dazed. I said something stupid, I think, like "are you alright?" His eyes were half open and the trauma was obvious in his visage. "I think my back's broke," his voice hoarse with strain. Georgia comforted him as I dashed toward a pickup. My mind racing, I knew I had to get help, and we were a very long way from it. I had to move, no time, no time…
Frantically cranking a trailer off the hitch of one of the trucks, I looked back over my shoulder to see Dad standing, Georgia holding him steady. Relief washed through me at the realization his back was not broken after all, but even at a distance he didn't look very good. He was pretty beat up - bent over a little bit, dusty and scuffed, but he said he was alright, just needed a little break. Georgia and I helped him sit comfortable on the ground in the shade of the picket fence before I walked across the corral to Keno Red standing in the corner, still shaken by the event. Picking up the bridle reins, I untracked him and stepped up gently, giving him time to settle down before shaking out a loop and restarting the branding. I suppose nowadays everything would stop in favor of finding medical care, no chances taken; but maybe people were tougher back then, or maybe just resigned to the fact that the remote isolation of ranch life must accept the fact of injuries, short of broken bones, and keep going. Anyway, he looked like he was resting so we finished up the branding and drifted the herd back out into the Creek Pasture to pair up.
The boys stayed back to put the campfire out and close up the chuckwagon while Georgia and I put Dad between us in his pickup to start the 15 mile trek back off the mesa to the ranch headquarters. The road was rocky, with a lot of low rough obstacles and shallow washouts, making the journey slow as we tried to keep him as comfortable as we could. I felt like we were creeping but I would cringe, maybe even more than he, whenever I misjudged the road's ruts and bumps. As we moved carefully down the road, he broke the silence: "Don't tell Momma what happened." I wasn't surprised at the instruction, as that was his nature, but this was going to be mighty hard to hide. When I made that point, he simply said, "I'll do the talking."
Close to an hour had passed when we drove through the horse pasture gate and were in view of the headquarters. Rolling slowly around the little hill by the house we pulled up next to the driveway as Mom came out to greet us. Looking through the passenger window and seeing the obvious, her focused alarm was characteristic of a ranch woman who accepts the facts of a dangerous life, subconsciously braced for such eventualities, conditioned to respond instead of panic.
"What happened?" She asked intently, attention fixed on his condition. Georgia and I sat in silence, under his instructions. "I fell out of the chuckwagon." Georgia's and my eyes simultaneously rolled toward the passenger between us with the same incredulity. "That's his story!?" I thought to myself, knowing that Georgia was thinking the same. "You what?" Mom wasn't buying it. "What in the world were you doing up in the chuckwagon?" " … gettin' a biscuit." I just slowly shook my head, and I saw my wife fighting off a smile at the new discovery about her father-in-law's mischievous sense of humor. Undeterred, Mom asked again; "Well, what really happened?" "Keno fell with him, " I interjected. "We'd better get to town. He may be clever but he's hurt bad enough to need a doc." Mobilizing, she answered, "Let's get him into the car," starting back to the house to grab her purse and close the front door.
In the back seat, Mom helped him get as comfortable as possible as the four of us started for the highway, another eleven miles of dirt road before reaching pavement. From there we were still almost 30 miles from town and medical help. Not having to worry about bumps in the road now, I was airing out that big Lincoln on the way to the hospital, figuring if a state policeman picked up on us maybe he would escort us on in. In the rear view mirror it was easy to see, even though he wasn't admitting it, he was in a lot of pain. "Does it hurt to breath?" …"kind of." "We'll be there pretty soon," I said, pushing the big car a little harder.
Pulling into town, I pointed the car up the main drag and caught the street leading to the hospital, when I heard a stir in the back seat and saw Dad trying to sit up and look around. "Where we going?" he queried. "To the hospital. It's up this street." He knew that; I just assumed he was a little disoriented. "No, we have to vote, first," he retorted, like he thought I should know that. Georgia looked back at him as if maybe she didn't hear right. "No!" I argued. "We've got to get you to the hospital. Dad, you're hurt." Why did I have to remind him of that, I thought to myself. The expression on Mom's face pretty much told it all, predicting the victor in this argument. "If we go there first the polls will close," he said, trying to sit straighter in the back seat. "Lets vote first, then we'll find a doc," He said through a visible twinge of pain. "Dad, look at you, we need to get to the hospital!" Mom usually had no problem weighing-in when she knew what was right, but I could see by her resigned expression I was on my own. She already knew the futility of this one. Dad dug in, stubborn: "We vote." His immovable resolve would not be challenged. "We'll find a doc later." All arguments summarily dismissed, I conceded defeat and turned at the next corner, headed for the polls.
The voting machines for our precinct were set up at McFarland Hall, an old gymnasium on the high school campus that held a number of memories for me, having played ball, watched games, danced, attended concerts, sneaked out of assemblies, and generally misbehaved on its old hardwood floors during my high school career. Today, I was about to observe the singular event in my experience that dispatched those memories and embedded McFarland Hall as an emblem of a bedrock principle.
Parking at the curb, I peered up the walkway and stairs at the gym's front doors. What would normally have been a short walk with just a few steps up looked a little forbidding. Dad was stiff and getting very sore having been cramped up in the back seat for over an hour. We helped him get his sea legs under him while Mom went ahead to hold the door open. She had plenty of time, because Georgia and I were his crutches, carefully helping him along. The stairs were slow, each one a task in itself. Once inside, we gingerly crossed the foyer through the big double doors onto the gym floor. The voting place was characteristically dignified and respectful. It seems when people vote they recognize that there is something important and sacred in their care. The quiet but wide-eyed surprise of the voting officials reminded me we were a sight; dusty and tattered, having come straight off the cattle works. I realized I hadn't even removed my spurs. We helped Dad over to the table to sign in, the lady at the roster a bit wide-eyed at this beat-up cowboy in front of her. They all knew him, but none had ever seen him like this; smudged with dirt, banged up, not the usual nice shirt and necktie he normally wore when going to town. Once signed in, Georgia and I helped him get to the voting booth. The old style machines had a handle up high that simultaneously closed the curtain and reset the machine. He couldn't reach high enough so I pulled it closed for him. In a couple of minutes he was finished with his vote, so we helped him to a seat then voted ourselves. All done, in a grimace he said "Lets go find a doc."
The nurse opened the front door of the little community hospital to help us limp in. "Hi, W.O." The doctor looked over the top of his glasses and asked, "What in the world did you do now?" "Hi, Doc. Aw, a horse fell with me." He said, trying to front an all-OK attitude. I filled in; "The horse went over backwards, Doc. …mashed him pretty good." "I can see that. Sit here, W.O. Let's check you out. You all can wait out in the lobby. Nurse, we should set up for an X-Ray."
Some time later the doctor came out to report. "Looks like three cracked ribs, a bruised lung, and a bruised liver. He'll be fine, but he's going to be pretty sore for a while. I'd prefer to keep him here overnight just to make sure He's OK. You'll need to keep him wrapped up pretty good because of the ribs. Other than that, just keep him off any horses for a few weeks, especially the ones that fall down. Tell him to take it easy for a while."
Settled in to a hospital room, Dad was cleaned up and comfortable, having gotten a dose of some sort of pain reliever, while Mom, Georgia and I were scattered around in chairs, relaxed, glad that the scramble was over with. "I should go back to the ranch tonight and bring you some clean clothes in the morning. That way the kids don't have to stay here. They'll probably discharge you in the morning so I'll be back early. Will you be OK?" "Sure. I think I'll just stay here." "Of course you will," she retorted, faking annoyance at the idea of him jumping up and doing the town. "W.O., did you remember your mother is coming from Dalhart to see us tomorrow?" We had all forgotten about that in the haste of the last several hours' events. "..Oh yeah, I forgot. …Don't say anything about this." Georgia smiled, warning him, "She'll know, and you're going to have to come up with something better than the biscuit story." "I'll do the talking," he grinned back.
Well, he did have a story for her, but I don't recall what it was. I do remember she didn't believe him and started in on the 'everymother's lecture' about being too old for such dangerous work. Anyway, everybody was back on the ranch and into the routine, moving camp, branding, and attending to the spring works. He was supposed to stay at the house, but didn't. It was, however, with those cracked ribs, easy to keep him out of the saddle.
Many years have passed since that first Tuesday of June in 1972, but I look back often into its memory and still chuckle at Dad's hardheaded insistence about going to cast his vote. My quiet laughter is nevertheless laced with a deep respect for what we, as well as the poll workers, the voters, the medical people, and others observed that day. Folks often use well worn phrases, respecting the vote as a right, a franchise, a privilege, and all the rest, but that day we witnessed the action itself give enlightened meaning to those terms, rendering them alive and declaring the simple act of a vote as the most basic arbiter of a free society. In 2004, my brother, W.O. III, part of a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan, witnessed their first national election in 5ooo years. He told of a young Afghan woman who wept inconsolably because she had lost her voter certificate and could not cast her ballot. My son-in-law, Matt Peterson, a Marine whose unit provided security in Iraq's first election in 2005, remarked "I will remember watching people vote for the first time in a democratic election for the rest of my life. Self determination is an amazing thing."
Early in 2011, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines at Sangin, our son-in-law's outfit, Afghanistan had so far sustained the heaviest casualties of any unit in the history of that war, taking a key Taliban stronghold that had resisted defeat for years. The Secretary of Defense arrived for direct personal briefings from the battalion, accompanied by a Marine Lt. General who had lost his own son, right there, just a few months previous. At the completion of his tour and briefing the Secretary with the General standing beside him asked "Is there anything I can do for you?" They could have asked for any number of creature comforts, but the Marines, dirty and tired, the strain of constant battle evident in their faces, were silent. After a long moment, a young Marine spoke up: "Don't let them forget what we've done here."
"…what we've done here…" The enemy was on the run. Markets were active again. Schools were reopened. The provincial governor was able to travel at will for the first time in years. The privilege of dipping a finger into a jar of purple ink and voting was brought to Sangin.
The restoration of those nations is a rocky trail, fraught with danger and risk, but if they will hold on to the vote, they will make it. If they don't, they won't. The courage and defiance represented by an ink-stained finger there or the secure confidence in a signature on the voter list at the polling place here, mean the same thing: the destiny of a society, ours or theirs, belongs to those who have the passion and the gumption to vote, no matter the obstacles. It is a simple act, but with a price measured in inestimable blood and treasure paid out over history by those who know its value, often paid by those who have it for those who desire it. It is the same act - quiet, secret, sacred - whether cast in a remote village by an Afghan peasant, or in a school gymnasium by a busted up cowboy.
W.O. Culbertson, Jr. was a man of insight and principle. Had he lived long enough to see what my brother and son-in-law witnessed and experienced, I believe he would have enthusiastically wanted to hear every detail, and he would have said to them, "Well done. Remember what you've seen." He would have been amazed at the grasp for liberty being made by tribesmen in the middle-east and Asia. He would have understood with clarity their implications, and what their success or failure would mean for his grandchildren and great grandchildren. It would never have occurred to him that his own example would be the measure, the standard, by which I and my family follow the news of liberty on the other side of the planet. He saw things in simple profound terms, and simply would have known - and would have told us all - "You have to vote." That's about all he would have said about it. …and, in recollection I would add, even if a horse falls on you.
"Don't let them forget…"