(Originally posted November 8, 2010)
To say I was born with a Silver Spoon in my mouth could not be further from the truth. Our middle class family, proudly hailing from a small Alabama town, was perfect to me: Parents who loved each other and who loved me, and a sister who would have been closer to perfect if she had been a little more like her brother. (Just kidding, Amy!!) The only silver spoons in our home were tucked carefully away in the silverware box, and I would always happily polish the little silver we had before placing each utensil on the Thanksgiving table.
I was always the self-appointed Interior Designer, Social Director and Event Coordinator in our family. Days before Thanksgiving arrived, I would be ironing our best tablecloth and napkins, folding the napkins into my favorite shape at the time: the Bishop’s hat. My Mama’s crystal glasses, each received as a wedding gift, would be hand washed and dried until they sparkled like diamonds. Careful polishing of those silver spoons was my job, along with the dinner and dessert forks, dinner knives, iced tea spoons, and the all important gravy ladle.
A fun Saturday activity for me would be dragging everything off the built-in shelves in the Den, moving it all around and giving a fresh new look. I would drag the furniture around, sending a lamp to the living room, an end table from the living room to the Den. Paintings and bric-a-brac would be pulled off the walls as I would stand and visualize a new placement for all the family treasures. Something tacky find its way into the mix since last re-do? It would discreetly “disappear” to the utility room closet.
I loved shopping, packing a picture-perfect suitcase, keeping my room all spic and span, folding all the towels to match as if they were a department store display, well, you get the picture…
Yes, I did…and do, love nice things. The arrival of the Neiman-Marcus Christmas Catalog was my fourth favorite day of the year, right behind my birthday, Christmas and Thanksgiving. After the arrival of the Official Preppy Handbook, man-made fibers were rarely seen on my body, opting for 100% cotton and a good dependable iron.
At some point, people began to assume that because I loved Neiman-Marcus, I must hold great disdain for stores a few rungs down on the shopping ladder. While not true, it has at times been a burden to bear. During my college days, my friends would revel in getting me in a situation that they KNEW would just grind my gears and “make me want to run backwards” as my Mama would say. For some, it seemed to be their personal quest to throw burrs in my saddle, but at least these were friends that truly were friends. All was in good fun. With that being the case, some of the experiences which at the time had me searching for a fresh oxygen supply, can now be met with a smile and a chuckle.
I can say that now. 26 years after IT. “IT” being the most traumatic experience of this inexperienced southern boys sheltered life. Allow me to elaborate…
As mentioned in the harrowing tale of the Big White Bus, the shocking events you are soon to read took place on one of the mission trips with the Christian Student Center from the University of North Alabama.
In 1984, our mission destination was Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Having never traveled out west, I was OH so excited to be heading to new country! The purpose of our trip was to work with members of a small church in the town, going out in the community to invite people to visit the local church. Each evening, guys from our group would be preaching a “scripturally sound” gospel lesson. Guys that did not preach would usually lead the congregation in singing at the services. Let me insert here: I don’t preach and I don’t lead singing. Period. End of story, and don’t even think of asking me again, because the answer will still be a big, fat N-O, NO. That is not where my talents lie, yet once on the road to Wyoming, the ability to produce fabulous table settings hold little value.
To say it was a sexist time when duties were dolled out was an understatement. Cooking duties for daily lunches? The girls. Loading the luggage for 25 college students each day? The guys. Hey, I pack the suitcases, not the luggage van! I would always try to have a “bathroom emergency” come luggage loading time…either that or feign stress over not having the day’s Travel Bingo boards ready for the days travel. Oops!
For several days our happy band of missionaries made the trek to Wyoming crossing state lines one by one, thinking we would NEVER see the lights of Jackson Hole. If memory holds true, I am pretty sure that one of our vans had some sort of problem in Colorado delaying our arrival in Jackson very late at night. As we drove into Jackson Hole past the Antler arches bordering the town square, I thought this would be a fun place to check out in our free time, making note of gift shops for future inspection.
Arriving at the church, we would find out which church members would be our hosts for the duration. Prayers would be fervently, yet silently offered that we would not be in a home with 17 cats or in a trailer home, propped up on cinder blocks with gunshot holes in the side, or both. Usually there would be some affluent church member that would be the jackpot for a few of our lucky Christians. There we would be, like the Miss America top ten, holding hands, waiting for our name to be called. The last was not necessarily the best and Bert Parks would not be singing “There She Is” at the end here. Stealthily, we would try and see the vehicle the different church members would be driving: late model Cadillac = good chance for clean sheets; rusted out Fairlane wagon = at LEAST 17 cats you would be knocking out of your bed for the next week.
So it was that our band of college missionaries were dispersed among the Jackson Hole brethren that evening. One family, the Clark’s announced that they would be taking 6 girls. SIX?!? That was unheard of! Yes, it did turn out that these six girls had indeed prayed the prayer of the righteous with a luxurious mountain lodge their home for the week. Well, as our tired travelers were locating luggage, being driven off into the Jackson Hole night by the two’s and six’s, we noticed a cowboy, complete with boots and hat talking all quietly in the corner with our Campus Minister and the Minister of the Jackson Hole church.
Then our Campus Minister, Tim Stafford, and the local church Minister walked over to our bunch. We noticed that Tim had somewhat of a sad look on his face. Here is why: They announced that four of us would be going to a small town to work with an even smaller church in the town of Big Piney, Wyoming. The cowboy we had seen was the preacher of the Big Piney church. Apparently, Big Piney was too far away to travel back and forth each day, so four college students, two boys and two girls would be going there for the week. To stay. Away from friends. For the entire week. In Big Piney. Wyoming. Not Jackson Hole. No kidding.
All the guys that had dutifully been preparing sermons for their appointed service must stay in Jackson Hole. Rosters were reviewed to see which pair of roommates had no sermon givers in the mix. There was only one pair of guys that fit this major qualification for late night banishment: Me (remember those famous words? ‘I don’t preach and I don’t lead singing!’ they came back to bite me) and my roommate, Dusty Wear. Dusty was scheduled to lead singing, but since he was rooming with a “Non-preacher” he got the short straw as well. Dusty had a girlfriend, Mona Gooch, one of the sweetest, kindest most gentle girls that ever graced the Earth. I think that Dusty and Mona had been boyfriend and girlfriend since they were in Nursery School, and weren’t about to be parted that night. So Mona, and her roommate, Debbie Myrick made numbers three and four of the lot picked to head off for a week in Big Piney. OH were we sad that night! Tim tried to console us and assured us that countless additional jewels were added to our crown. We were scared to death, being driven away from Jackson Hole by a cowboy…for all we knew, an axe murderer.
Well, I have to insert here that that short straw turned out to be a good thing. A VERY good thing! We had a BLAST in Big Piney, Wyoming! Our host, Rob Jones and his wife Sherry were just wonderful and showed us a week in the Wild West we would never forget! Early on, Rob figured out (I can’t imagine how) that these city slickers, especially me, could be a source of amusement. When getting ready to go to church in Big Piney for the first time, we were of course putting on our Sunday best. When Rob saw us, he started wringing his hands, saying we just couldn’t go like that wearing jackets and ties. NO ONE there would be wearing anything of that sort, more likely in jeans, boots and spurs.
Really? No kidding? But I had planned my Wyoming wardrobe for weeks! What did I have left to wear? However, we managed to tone it down a bit for church services. Difficult (mostly for me), but manageable.
One day toward the end of our trip, Rob told us that he had arranged for us to go to a working Wyoming ranch and we would be able to watch the Ranchers at a real, live, honest to goodness Cattle Branding! Talk about EXOTIC! This was WAY cool and knew that our friends back in Jackson Hole weren’t getting to do ANYTHING like this!!
Well, the day of the trip to the ranch arrived! I asked Rob that morning about the weather and what we could expect temperature wise that day. It was supposed to be pretty cool and to prepare for walking through some wet and muddy areas. He did not define ‘wet’ and ‘muddy.’ Looking back, probably a good thing.
So, I began plucking items from my Samsonite that I thought would be warm enough, and I informed him that I had the perfect shoes for wet and muddy. If I remember, I was planning to wear a long sleeve plaid shirt and jeans with my brown L.L. Bean duck shoes. All conservative pieces, so I thought. My shirt? Rob gave it the big IX-NAY…”you can’t wear that.” My L.L. Bean duck shoes, perfect for wet and mud? Rob said, “You can’t wear those. The ranchers will kill you.” I stood paralyzed. I had nothing else to pick from. My Kelly green Izod pants had already been placed on the forbidden list by Rob, and I was beginning to think they were probably going to wrap me in a bed sheet or easiest, just leave me behind.
As I stood in Rob’s home with nothing but my jeans approved by the Wyoming Federation of Ranchwear, Rob rushed to the next room to find me a shirt. I was not liking the way this situation was evolving. Rob returned with a well worn flannel shirt from his closet. I began to feel lightheaded. I had never worn flannel. Ever. I did not want to break that record.
Reluctantly, I put on the flannel shirt. I was still lightheaded, with vertigo setting in. If I had only known what lie ahead… When I tried to put on my belt, I was again informed by Rob that my belt would never do. “Wait here,” he said, and off Rob ran to the other room to return with a belt for me. I swear it had a buckle the size of Rhode Island! Lightheaded? I was beginning to hyperventilate by this point.
The belts approved for wear in the Official Preppy Handbook were either grosgrain with tiny whales or madras, take your pick. Big, brown leather western belts, with buckles requiring a zip code were not something I had ever sought for my wardrobe or placed on my body at any point in time. Until now.
There I was in my jeans, a brown and rust plaid flannel shirt, and a rust kerchief of some sort was placed around my neck and tied. It might as well have been a noose. At least the color palate would work with my L.L. Bean duck shoes: brown. Rob said, “No. The Ranchers will kill you. I’m not kidding.” I was beginning to become obstinate at this point. I was NOT going barefoot!! I had no other shoes for wet and mud! Rob said, “Wait here…” I only THOUGHT flannel and zipcoded belt buckles were the most I must endure that day. OH what a naive and foolhardy soul I was!!
Rob returned to the room with a pair of boots. I had to sit down. BOOTS?!? Boots. Rob presented me with the very first pair of boots he had owned. To say they were ‘well worn’ was the understatement of the year. There were holes in the bottom of the boots, especially the left one. HOLES!! MULTIPLE holes!! I’m talking at least two fingers could be stuck in the main left boot hole. Rob felt sure the they would fit me. He was kidding, wasn’t he?? PLEEEEEASE tell me this was all a joke…a bad dream…a nightmare… SOMEBODY!!! Wake me up!! Nobody woke me up. They just chuckled and helped put those holey boots on my feet.
Seriously, I was totally in an altered state of consciousness at that point. All those years I had tried to maintain a semblance of dignity and decorum, dressing well had been my hallmark. I was named Best Dressed in my high school Senior class! Nevertheless, I was dressed and ready for the ranch: flannel, zipcoded belt, and holey boots. I did have one sliver of pride left…under those boots, I was wearing my Ralph Lauren Polo socks! At least if I were hit by a tractor at the ranch and I arrived at the mortician, they would at least see that I was able to manage a small bit of high style on the ranch.
When we pulled up to the ranch, we were all wide-eyed, this being the first ranch trip for the four Alabama missionaries. We learned that there would be a bit of a walk to get to the corral where the cattle branding was being held. We all hauled our western clad hineys out of the car and started off for the corral. My feet were sliding all around in those boots that were at least a size too big, the cool outside air noticeable to the bottom of my left foot. Then we came to a big pasture area that we had to cross to get to the corral. WHOA!!!!! Wait a flannel covered minute!! In front of us lay what must have been the ‘wet and muddy’ afore mentioned. From the look and smell of things, this was ‘wet and muddy’ from a herd of cattle on the way to the branding. There was no getting around it.
Let us replay in our mind the state of my current footwear. Uh-huh. Holes. On the bottom of my boots. I was going to have to WALK through this muck and mire before me, and it was a long, LONG walk!! I knew that surely I would be going home with hookworm, ringworm, cooties and all manner of things requiring multiple antibiotics and transfusions. I remember thinking WHAT could I have possibly done to deserve this?!? Honestly, I was trying to make the best of this, put on a happy face and all that crap. But was I seriously expected to walk, with HOLES in my boots through this? Yes I was, and I wasn’t making any progress standing still.
I said a prayer to God, probably asking him to not hesitate and take me now. God apparently didn’t want me in this current outfit either. I couldn’t blame him one little bit. So, off I squished through the muck and mire. As best I could, I turned my left foot completely on its side, walking on my ankle, trying to keep the….okay, let’s just say it….cow shit out of my left boot. With every forward squish, I could feel more and more cow shit oozing into my boot. The right foot was not much better, but at least there was not a hole the size of a silver dollar in that boot. (Did you by chance see the movie Auntie Mame with Rosiland Russell? If you did, try and recall Mame on the day of the Fox hunt wearing her boots with the feet totally off to the side. That was me.)
Finally, we made it to the other side of the pasture of muck and mire. We were able to rest against the fence as we began to watch what was the most horrifying thing I had seen to date, even more so than my outfit. One by one, small calves were let into the corral that would be chased down and straddled by one of the ranch hands as it was de-testicled and branded on one side. I felt so sorry for the little calves, but knew this was a different world than I had EVER seen and was thanking the Lord above for my own sheltered life in natural fibers.
As the cattle branding progressed, one of the Ranch hands motioned for us to come out and help brand the calves. They HAD to be kidding! NO FRICKIN’ WAY WAS I ABOUT TO GET OUT THERE AND STRADDLE A CALF! But then the worst thing happened that could have POSSIBLY happened that day. Remember Mona? Dusty’s girlfriend? The sweetest, gentlest, kindest hearted girl you could ever dream of? Mona yelled out, “I’ll do it!”
@%#&*#$%$#!!!!!! WHAT?!? MONA ARE YOU CRAZY?!? I sat there, mouth gaping open, as we all watched sweet, gentle Mona Gooch sit down in the muck and mire and grab hold of one of that calf’s legs while it was de-testicled and branded. I felt nauseous. I knew what lie before me. If anyone but Mona had agreed to do it, I would have absolutely refused. But Mona volunteered, and then there was no turning back for the rest of us.
Everything is a bit foggy from this point on. As Mona walked back over from the branding pit, I think she said something like, “It really wasn’t that bad!” I probably gave her a look that I shouldn’t have given her, but I could not be held responsible for my actions at that point.
“Okay, I’ll go.” What the hell did I have to lose at this point? Maybe the calf would kick me senseless and put me out of my misery. Into the corral I walked, head held high feet walking upright now-both of them-and absolutely not believing the nightmare in which I had foolishly wandered. The calf was already in place, and they told me which leg I would be holding, and holding on for dear life if I knew what was good for me. I sat down in the mud/cow shit and felt yet more of the squishy mess work its way into my left boot. I grabbed hold of that poor calf’s hind leg, shut my eyes as tight as possible, turned my head, held my breath and prayed to God above, for exactly what I can’t say. It was becoming an out of body experience by this point, and I wasn’t exactly sure I wanted to return, seeing what was I was sitting in.
When we returned to Rob’s home late that day, I peeled off the layers of the western outfit of a Wyoming ranch hand. As I removed my Ralph Lauren Polo socks, I noticed something odd. Wading through the muck and mire had caused the elastic in those socks to completely disintegrate. Doesn’t that just figure. I thought to my self that wouldn’t have happened if I had worn my L.L. Bean duck shoes. I also thought that Rob was right. They WOULD have killed me if I had shown up wearing L.L. Bean duck shoes. Perhaps there is a cure for hookworm.
I’m happy to say that I survived that perilous day in 1984, and in some strange and twisted way, I guess I’m glad it all happened. Some might say I got my comeuppance that day, and I would have to agree. I can say that now, 26 years later.
When it came time to leave Wyoming, Rob gave me those boots. I still have them and treasure them like few other possessions I own. Thanks, Rob, for the boots and for the wonderful wet and muddy memories!