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by Tom Skiens (AKA, 'Foxtrot')
By the age of 11 it was clear to my parents and anyone else who was paying attention in the small town of Seneca that I was a handful. The cards had been dealt. I was the smallest kid in my class and the class above and below me. I was a cutup and class clown. I was fearless of others bigger, faster or stronger. I felt invulnerable, destined to outdraw Matt Dillon at the beginning of the 'Gunsmoke' TV show and to outflank the enemy and win the day on the 'Combat' TV show. I would defend the honor of a female on the, 'Have gun will travel' series and sing to the Rodeo crowd on the Saturday Roy Rodgers show. My head was filled with visions of defending the weak and upholding justice faster than a speeding bullet. My parents were convinced that my head was filled with different ways to injure or kill myself.
I was the type of kid that would see a picture of a Paratrooper and the next day I would find enough string to tie a sheet to myself so I could jump off the corner of the house. I discovered that sheets do not inflate at a height of 10 feet above the ground. I needed to find a taller building that didn't have parents around. You might find it hard to believe but my friend, Tuffy Rider, tested my Paratrooper idea off the top of the Wright house. The Wrights had two good looking daughters and Tuffy would do anything to impress a girl. Tuffy didn't get hurt on this day but it wasn't because he didn't try. We abandoned the idea of hooking the sheet to ourselves and started fixing a handkerchief to a small rock which sometimes worked well.
School broke for summer vacation in June. On the last day of school we were told to come in at 1:00 PM to pick up our report cards. Tuffy and I took this opportunity to go down to the Silvies river where I would try to drown myself. As luck would have it, Tuffy recognized the head sinking under water and the blurb-blurb sound of a drowning friend in time to pull me to the safety of the river bank.
We made it back to school just in time to collect our report cards. My mother was waiting in the classroom with Mrs. Hendricks. This was not good. My mother ask me why I was soaking wet but she didn't chew me out when I told her. I was about to be slapped around in a different way. My report card said I would be held back in the 5th grade for another year. Mrs. Hendricks told me it was because I had not learned my states and capitals and she ask me if I remembered the rule. I confirmed that she had repeated several times over the year that a failure to memorize the states and capitals would be grounds to hold me back a year.
There may have been other reasons to hold me back but I will never know for sure. In Texas it is common to hold large boys back a year or two in grade school. The result was that Texas produced some of the biggest, strongest high school football teams in the nation. Texas loves its Friday night football. On a national basis it was not uncommon in these times for teachers to hold boys of a small stature back one year to help them better compete with others of a similar size. On the other hand I had not learned my states and capitals. During the final test I missed two capitals. The cards had been dealt, I would no longer be in the same class as all those I had grown up with. The up side of this was that I would be in the same class as Linda Weeks and that reality pretty much neutralized all the bad things. They don't put a stamp on your forehead when you fail a grade so it is not like everyone in the world would know unless I told them.
My mom and I left the school together and walked across the street to our house where she dropped another bomb shell on me. She said that after we got home we would pack some cloths in a bag because Jim and Jean Sproul had offered me a summer job. Mom said that bright and early the next morning Jean Sproul would take me out to the ranch on the northwest corner of Bear valley. I thought this would be great, I was eleven years old and I had a job. There were 8th graders in Seneca who did not have a summer job. I quickly forgot about failing the fifth grade.
Mrs. Sproul did not show at first light. I drove everyone crazy waiting for her car to pull up in front of our house. She arrived about 1:00 PM, we said good buys and this and that and finally hit the road. Jean Sproul was a beautiful lady and even though I would work on the Sproul ranch for the next two summers I do not believe my eyes ever saw any part of her body below the breasts. To this day I could not confirm weather or not she had legs but I know for a fact she had breasts and beautiful long blond hair. I'm not sure about the hair. It was the breasts.
We arrived at the ranch and I was told to get settled in the bunk house. That took about five minutes. As I came out of the bunkhouse I met Jim Sproul for the first time. Jim was one of the biggest men I had ever seen in my life. He weighed over 300 pounds. He could lift up an Ox, carry it to the dinner table, eat it and then play giggle with his wife Jean. He could go bear hunting with a tooth pick and the Bear would be at a disadvantage. Jim was one of my early real life hero's. He could drive a cat, blow up things with Dynamite, build a Lake, ride a horse all day, fix a fence, cut and stack hay, weld steel and pull his .22 pistol out of a holster while moving on horse back, fire one round and kill a Rattle Snake. I could throw a bottle or bottle cap into the air and he could shoot it, first time, every time. Jim was a big man, this was a big ranch and Jean had big breasts.
Jim walked me around the barn yard to show me what to feed, how much to feed and who to feed it to. He told me I was to get myself up in the morning, do the chores, put the separator together and run the milk through it so that when the cook started breakfast at 7:00 AM in the morning she would have fresh cream. I was never late except the time the separator broke.
I filed all the information about the chores. Jim then took me to a fence that overlooked the lower pasture where the milk cows, geese and a few horses grazed between chores. Jim pointed out a white pony with large black spots he called, 'Patches'. Jim said the horse would be mine for the rest of the summer and the first thing tomorrow we would put a saddle on him and see how I got along with that Welsh Pony. I couldn't have been farther away from failing the fifth grade if they had sent me to the moon. If this was punishment then I would seek it over success throughout time. My last thoughts before going to bed that night were, 'she has big breasts'.
The next day we moved Patches and some other horses out of the lower pasture and into a collecting corral. Jim got a rope on Patches and moved him into the barn yard where he was hitched at a staging area. Jim picked out a saddle that looked like it might fit me and rounded up a halter and blanket made for a pony. We put the gear on Patches and let him stand at the hitching post for about two hours because he had not been saddled sense last fall and his temperament would be a little surly. I would find out over the next two years that Patches was a little surly most of the time and a lot surly some of the time.
After lunch Big Jim fixed me up with a straw hat and a pair of spurs. He told me to mount the pony and hang on because that surly critter would sure as hell try and cause me to have a wreck. I took the rains off the hitching post and pointed Patches toward an open space in the Barn Yard. I didn't want him bucking me into a Rail Fence. I grabbed some short reins, latched onto the saddle horn with my left hand and planned to put my foot into the stirrup and be in the saddle before Patches knew what hit him. That was my plan anyway.
As soon as my weight hit the left stirrup and before my right leg could swing over his butt and into the other stirrup Patches was off Running and Bucking. He was bouncing me up and out of my stirrups so I tucked my thighs under the Bucking Rolls while I reacquired the reins. This all worked out real well. Big Jim and his two sons were hollering and hooting and waving their arms to help Patches buck a little harder. I threw my right arm up in the air like the real cowboys on TV. Patches slowed down to a walk, I spurred him one more time seeking additional action. Patches was a smart horse. Before our relationship was over he would leave me sitting on the ground wondering what the hell happened more times than I could count. He would dump me when he was ready, not when I was.
I rode Patches almost every day that summer. Big Jim, the other ranch hands and I would go down into the Murderers creek country and round up cattle for three or four days in a row. Once we had collected 200 or so head of cows and bulls we would herd them on a two day drive back to the ranch. Big Jim would go through 2 or 3 horses a day while I rode patches every day. Jim's horses were big, I had to jump to reach the stirrups. He would ware out a horse in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If we rode late he would carry a third horse to the dinner table and eat him, hoofs, horseshoes and all. What could be better? When we started the two day drive to the main ranch I would saddle Patches at 3:30 AM. We would open the gate at 4:00 AM and the lead cow would start trotting up the road, Big Jim would give me a shot of Whiskey to help cut the morning chill and we would hoot and holler them cows until our voices gave out. I was eleven years old and I had stories most men couldn't tell.
As time went by Patches and I learned to do some tricks together. Every time we would approach a barbed wire fence I would gallop Patches ahead of the pack and dismount to open and hold the gate for everyone else. After they passed through I would go into slow motion shutting the gate so all those cowboys could get way ahead of us. Horses don't like to be the last in line, it's not in their nature. They like to run with the herd and maybe even lead the group. So, if you hold a horse back they get real antsy and they want to run hard to catch up. This is just what I had planned. After latching the gate I would hold a tight rein on Patches and turn him to face the other horses way out in front of us. Patches would be pawing his feet on the ground and blowing his nose, his body would quiver just a little and his head would shake. I would grab the saddle horn with both hands and holler, 'giddy up' as I brought my feet off the ground and tucked both knees into my chest. I was hanging off the left side of Patches as he reached full gallop in two strides. I would bring my feet down, tap the ground and swing up into the saddle just like Roy Rodgers in the Saturday morning TV show. I like to think Patches enjoyed showing off as much as I did.
I had a good routine that summer. I would do the chores as soon as I got up in the morning. My next job was to Corral, catch and saddle Patches so I could ride over to the high forty and bring the Remuda into the barn yard. Lots of times I would have to wait an hour or so before anyone else would be up to fix breakfast. The meals in this place were fit for a king. Big tables, big stacks of food, Big Jim, big ideas and big Breasts floated around free like oil on water. After breakfast I might be told to take Patches and mend a line of Barbwire fence. Some times we would load several horses in a trailer, drive for an hour and spend all day moving cattle. I might hook up with the ranch hand to move bulls or steers and if I was lucky, other horses.
Patches knew how to move livestock better than I did. He also knew how to dump me in a pile whenever he got tired of me poking my heals into his ribs. As an inexperienced kid I was all gallop and go. Patches was more like, Hold up and Woe. I would see a calf cut from the group and head for the hills so I would put some leather on Patches flank and giddy up after that critter. I wanted to follow that calf every move he would make. My eyes, my senses, everything would be focused on that calf. Patches had other plans, he ran under a tree that had branches sticking out just above the height of the saddle horn. I would have a terrible wreck and when the dust had settled I would see Patches standing 10 feet away eating grass while I would be picking pine needles out of my focus.
On another occasion I had Patches in a full gallop on the tail of a fast calf. We were running and jumping sage brush, running and jumping sage brush, running and I thought jumping but Patches dodged left and I went straight ahead. When the dust cleared Patches was standing 10 feet away eating grass and I was picking sage brush out of my assumption.
At one point I had learned to not hang on to the saddle horn when Patches jumped a log. Up to that time whenever Patches jumped a log I would end up in front of the saddle balanced on his neck because the stiff arm holding the saddle horn acted like a loaded spring and as soon as Patches kicked off with his rear legs that spring would throw me up on his neck. Armed with this new wisdom I would go out of my way to find a log for Patches to jump. One day we are at a full gallop when up comes a big log. I leaned forward over the saddle horn waiting for Patches to raise his front feet then kick with his hind legs and sail over the log. Patches decided to stop. I ended up wrecked on the other side of the log nursing my new wisdom. Patches was standing 10 feet away eating grass.
The worst wreck I ever had while riding Patches damn near took my head off. We had been branding calves all day long. The neighbors and drop by friends had worked hard, eaten a good meal and settled their whims with a couple shots of Whiskey. Around 4:00 PM everyone loaded up their stock and headed home. My last job before starting evening chores was to run the roping horses up to the high forty pasture. The horses knew where to go as well as I did. Patches had to trot to keep up. The Remuda milled around the gate while I dismounted to open it for them. Just as soon as I got out of their way the roping horses entered their 40 acre playground. With that job complete Patches and I turned south and headed home. Patches didn't wear shoes so I got him off to the left side of the road so we could gallop in the grass. About 200 yards from the ranch stood a large telephone pole that had a 3/4 inch steel cable guy wire tied to the pole on one end and staked to the ground on the other. Patches and I had taken this path dozens of times so I wasn't paying much attention as we approached the guy wire. Patches had a long day also and maybe by accident or out of plain meanness he was a little to the left of our usual path. At the last second I realized the guy wire was going to hit me. Pure instinct raised both my arms straight up in the air just in time for the guy wire to catch me under the armpits. I was thrown backwards off the pony landing square on my back knocking every particle of air out of my lungs and I think knocking me out. When I regained my senses Patches was standing 10 feet away eating grass, I had terrible marks under my armpits and a set of broken reins in my hand.
I will always remember Patches as a sturdy, reliable horse with a mind and manner of his own. As befitting the legacy of an old welsh pony I will end this story with a parade. The picture of Patches and I at the beginning of this story was taken in 1959 at the annual June "62" days celebration in Canyon City Oregon. The Sproul's did a fine job of dressing me up for the parade to look like an Indian and Patches was perfect in his part. I rode bare back that day and used my knees plus a single hair rope to control the pony. Patches was that gentle. Of course, enough was never enough for me. Even though we won the show with our looks I tried to show off more by having Patches walk sideways, first to the left and then again to the right. I did this several times until Patches got fed up with my games and put an end to it by raring up on his hind legs and scaring the hell out of me. The crowd clapped and yelled approval while I put a nervous smile on my face and pretended like it was all part of the plan. As things would have it, my mom and sisters were standing in a perfect spot to see this beautiful pony stand up on its hind legs with me on his back. I hadn't intended for things to go like this but as usual Patches would have his way. He was a fine pony. I can still see him to this day, standing 10 feet away eating grass while I sit in a cloud of dirt chewing on my pride.
Exercise: write a story--twelve and under--animal
Americal Division Unit Patch
This patch (above) is symbolic of the 'Jungle Warriors' of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade. The 11th LIB consisted of the following units:
The 3/1, who declare themselves to be, 'Always First'
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