October 05, 2010

My Cowboy Myth

I do not recall ever seeing Grandpa Dale on a horse, except in photographs. By the time I was born he was more carpenter than cowboy. I remember him as a wiry man, not particularly tall, with a hooked nose and bald head always hidden beneath a simple farmer’s cap. He wore blue jeans, work boots, a belt, and long-sleeved, button-down shirts no mater the weather. On Sundays he wore pressed slacks, usually brown, and good boots to church.

Grandpa Dale built things. He built the first house I remember from a small barn when he and Granny Delmira were living on the outskirts of Ainsworth, Nebraska, a town which lays official claim to being “the middle of nowhere.” He and Granny Del made all six of their grandkids child-sized teepees when we were little. I used to drag mine out into the yard on nice days and stay there for hours. He built the table, bench, and shelves in our kitchen in the house in Westmont. He built bookshelves into the walls of our basement in the house in Gretna.

After they sold the red barn house in Ainsworth, he and Granny moved to Omaha and Grandpa Dale built things for Habitat for Humanity. We worked as a project foreman for them since I was little. My older brother, Brandon, would go work with him in the summers when he was a teenager, roofing or painting or hanging drywall. I went along a few times, but I was too small to be useful and easily bored.

Grandpa Dale was a gentleman, but not in a lofty way, but in the manner of a truly gentle man. He was raised a cowboy when cowboys still took their hats off indoors, answered questions with “Yes, Ma’am,” and “No, Ma’am,” worked hard, and looked after the all beings in their care. He was always willing to lend a hand to those who needed it. He knew horses and dogs and cattle. Mom told stories that made them seem to do his will unbidden. Even our neurotic little miniature poodle, who hated all men, loved Grandpa Dale.

He raised his children on the ranch. My mother and aunt worked alongside their brother in the pastures and the hay fields. When Granny got a job in town, she sewed her own suits. Mom and Aunt Donalee were expected to have dinner on the table when she got home in addition to the outdoor work. All of them participated in 4-H training horses. Mom told me that even after she married and was living forty miles up the highway on the outskirts of Valentine, Grandpa Dale still brought her a newly broken horse to train.

That was all over by the time I came along. The closest I have come to seeing the cowboy my grandfather was, is in his brothers and his descendants. My great-uncle Vernon still raises, trains, and sells horses. He and great-uncle Bob still wear their jeans, cowboy boots, shiny belt buckles, long-sleeved shirts, and dove-grey cowboy hats. Uncle Dean, my mother’s brother, and his two boys do likewise. Even my littlest cousins had cowboy hats and boots of their own almost before they were old enough to sit a horse, something that comes very early. Little cousin Cole earned his first rodeo belt buckle at the age of five. He roped a dummy steer in a competition. Aunt Donalee is also a rancher, though her two boys favor farmer’s caps and baseball hats over the cowboy look.

My mother married a city boy and settled down first in the sprawling metropolis of Valentine, Nebraska, population twenty-six hundred. After a short stint in South Dakota, where I was born, they returned to Nebraska and have lived on the outskirts of Omaha since Reagan was president. I grew up dreaming of horses and every time we moved I begged my Mom to move to a ranch. I didn’t connect the idea of a ranch as a business with a ranch as a place to live. Unlike her brother and sister, Mom didn’t study agriculture in college and she had not married a rancher. She studied pre-medicine and anthropology before finishing a degree in accounting when I was in elementary school. Dad studied business and has worked in the same industry his entire life, the one he was raised to work in by his father, coin machines. Going to work with Dad was always fun because it meant being around video games, pinballs, pool tables, dart boards, and juke boxes. But no horses.

It’s been twenty years since I gave up my dreams of being a cowgirl, but I still dream of horses. It’s hard to find them. One can’t just borrow a horse like one borrows a car. I still have hopes that someday I’ll be in a position to have horses of my own. I have saved my mother’s saddles in anticipation of that day.

Part of this is tied up in the myth of my Grandfather, who died when I was nineteen, and in the myth of my mother as she once was, that cowgirl I never met. Part of the myth is written in the land our ancestors settled a hundred years before I was born, countryside good for cattle, not crops. The anticipation is kept alive by the myth of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I’ll never be a cowgirl or a rancher. I’ll never work as hard as they or know as much about cattle or corn or markets, but I still have hopes about horses.

I did not realize until after Grandpa Dale died quite what I had missed. He was seventy-six, with at least seventy years of hard work behind him. I would have loved to learn carpentry or cabinet making, but as a teenager I had more of an eye towards work that paid and things I could buy. I don’t value money so highly now and sometimes wish I had valued it less back then. Maybe had we known each other better I could have learned other things, like how he came to be so gentle, so sure, and so generous.

He yelled at me only once that I recall. It was the year Lena lived with us, a spoiled, vain girl from a wealthy Ukrainian family. I was fourteen and she fifteen. We fought a lot and I freely commented that I hated her, right there with the entire family and Lena present at the dinner table in my Grandfather’s house. I don’t remember what he said to me, but I do remember he was angry. No person should hate another and certainly no one should be so flippant about it. I recall I was ashamed and shrunk down in my chair, but I learned something important. It changed me.

At his funeral, Reverend Bill told the story of how the church built the education wing. The members met to discuss the need, but the consensus was that they could not afford to hire a contractor. Dale Oatman stood up and said “We’ll do it ourselves.” So they did. Reverend Bill fell off a joist and slipped a disk in his back, but under Grandpa Dale’s guidance and a lot of hard work from everyone, the education wing was built and is still being put to good use.

Grandpa Dale is buried in the Ainsworth cemetery, a spot beside him waiting for Granny Del. After he died I asked my parents where they wanted to be buried, in Valentine or Ainsworth. They said those towns weren’t their home anymore. They are very practical about such things, my parents, and perfectly happy to be cremated and spread to the wild winds if my brother and I want it that way. I think it appropriate that Grandpa Dale is buried in the earth, though. In so many ways he lived a life so much closer to that sandy soil for so much longer. The time I knew him, when they lived in Omaha, was really just a small fraction of his life.

Granny Del still lives there, just a few miles from my parents, but lately she has been talking about moving back west, to Ainsworth or Bassett where she went to high school or Broken Bow to be closer to Donalee. She still has friends out there, and a myriad of relatives I’ve never met, all just as long-lived as she. She’s never really liked the closeness of the city (or more accurately, the suburbs), with people crowded together cheek to jowl and no space to breath.

There are still tools in my mother’s garage that say “Oatman” on them, both power and old fashioned hand tools. Dean’s boys, my cousins, are the spitting image of their grandfather, Jim especially. Between Jim and Jeff there are now three more little Oatmans to carry on the name. There’s also Donalee’s two boys. All of them carry on the work.

Brandon, my brother, looks a lot like Grandpa Dale, with that same nose and thin build, but he’s a product of city life. I am too, I suppose. I got the build, but not the nose or the name or even the personality. In the last respect, I’m far closer to my Dad’s cantankerous uncles than my Mom’s family. But I think I got other things from my Grandpa Dale, quiet things, unspoken things. I love animals and sometimes I feel I know them in a deeper way than I know people. I like to build things. I like to help people. I listen for the sound of the wind in the grass and the coming of storms. And I try not to hate.

I hope Grandpa Dale would like that.

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