My First Boss, A Cowboy Born in the Wrong Century


 “Mr Thomas was born May 31, 1915 in Fossil, Oregon, to William and Mary Thomas…. He worked on several ranches in wheeler county and was a professional rodeo cowboy……..” 

Jim ThomasJim Thomas was born in the wrong century for cowboys.

I knew him most of my early life but never knew until his obituary that he served in WWII or that he was a cowboy poet.

What I did know left an indelible mark.

My first memories of him are from the Saturday night square dances my family attended at the Camp Sherman Community Hall. As young girls, my sister and I waited with great expectation for those dance nights. We had rituals about what time we arrived, what to wear, and there were endless discussions about who might, or might not, be there. There were excitements and disappointments every weekend.  If Jim came, he came late, the evening punctuated by his entrance. Whether he was drunk or sober, he made a splash. I remember once there was a commotion at the back of the hall when he tried to ride his horse into the dance hall. I was thrilled someone would do something that outlandish.

He danced the Cotton-eyed Joe like a floating dream,  his bowed legs and cowboy boots tapping out the rhythm— heel and toe, and one, two, three— his strong arms holding some lucky woman at a proper distance as they glided across the dance floor. I remember when my turn came for a dance. I must have turned a crimson shade of red as we swirled around the room, knowing every woman was watching. I was only ten or eleven, but I knew innately—right then—what a dangerous man was long before one came along to break my heart.

Some years later I worked for Jim at Jim’s Horses for Hire. Ending up running a dude string is a bit like a prize-fighter becoming a professional wrestler, I would imagine. He also drove the snub-nosed school bus for the local two-room school-house I attended for a year. I suppose he was trying to be a good husband and father, a free spirit tied down by his responsibilities.

He lived with his wife and two small children about a half mile from the corrals. In fact, he lived right across from the community hall. He rode his horse, Roanie, from his house to work leading my horse along behind so we could round up the rental horses in their pasture. The crisp mountain air stung my nostrils on those mornings, the smell of pine, and that special way that sound travels through cold air woke me up as I waited for his arrival at the corrals.

He would have worn a plaid cowboy shirt that had been through the wash enough times to soften and fade it into a wonderful shadow of its original color. The front pockets were never snapped, and there was always a pack of Camel straights in one. He wore button up Levis’ held up by a tooled leather belt with a silver belt buckle with its brass bucking horse frozen in time. His weathered old boots were not fancy, just working cowboy boots. His hat was a Stetson, no other kind was acceptable. It was black, but with a sweaty grease ring around the bottom third, mixed with dust, dirt, and grime that made it seem a kind of dark brown fading into black at the crown. The brim was weathered and tipped down so far he had to cock his head back to look you in the eye. He always had it on unless he was being introduced to a woman. Then he would remove it politely with a nod.

He smoked his Camels from the minute he got up in the morning until he went to bed at night. He may have smoked at night, for all I know. He smoked without ever taking the cigarette out of his mouth, and he smoked them right down to the stub. His fingers were stained brown from the tar. I can remember watching impatiently as the ash would grow longer and longer, waiting for it to drop onto his shirt or pants. When the butt was short, the smoke would begin to drift up his nose setting him off into a fit of coughing that would force him to remove it until the spasms subsided. Like all smokers, it was worse in the morning. I could  hear him coming a good ten minutes before he got to the corrals.

A gifted horseman, he  knew whether a horse was giving its best on any given day, and he respected the work they did. He expected them to work in the summer but wintered them out on a huge ranch in Eastern Oregon where they never saw a human being until spring. Rarely did he send his horses out alone with customers he didn’t know or trust. And that was my job, the guide and protector of the hoses. Sometimes he would ask my opinion of someone who wanted to go out alone with a horse. I never realized it at the time, but he was teaching me to look at people, to assess their character, know whether they were trustworthy.

We spent a good deal of time sitting around that corral waiting for customers and I learned a lot. I learned how to play mumblety peg. I learned how to play coin toss games, how he made tea in an old coffee can on a wood stove. I learned that he drank and kept his stash in the barn where his wife wouldn’t find it. I learned a lot about horses, trimming hooves, about tack, about using turpentine on wounds as a disinfectant, and all along, I learned about people.

I have never understood how someone could walk into a corral with an old cowboy like Jim and try to convince him of their equestrian skills, but they would. Usually, these same people would try to mount the horse from the wrong side, or claw up the side of the horse as though the saddle were a life line. Once on board they had no idea how long the stirrups needed to be, or even what they were for.

Jim had a horse he kept for special occasions when someone rubbed him the wrong way. I suppose you could call Bar-S a Palomino, although he was a far cry from the version we all think of: the beautiful golden color and flowing blonde mane and tail. Bar-S was more albino than Palomino, blue eyes surrounded by reddish pink eyelids and white lashes, a washed color that looked more like a worn coat than gold. He had a sullen and shrewd look, evaluating you the minute you walked into the corral. Bar-S, was his name because of the brand on his left shoulder, but Jim called him “The Pig” because of his demeanor and for Bar-S Bacon®, popular at the time.

Sometimes Jim would let a particularly arrogant rider go out alone, especially if he was trying to impress his friends. Inside the tack shed, out of earshot of the dude, Jim would turn to me, an evil grin on his face, choking on a bit of smoke drifting into his nose. “Saddle up the Pig, Sarie,” he’d say. Once The Pig was saddled it was the rider’s turn to try and get him out of the yard. This was particularly humiliating as his friend’s horses would dutifully head out of the yard on their well-known track. The Pig wasn’t having any of it. Kick, and he would back up. Kick harder and he would back up faster. Sometimes, he would back up under a little loafing shed trying to scrape the rider off under the low roof. He would jam himself into a corner and just dig in with every kick, crushing the rider’s leg against the corral rails, or until the rider was forced to ask for help. The Pig always came home dry. No one would run him into a lather.

I worked for him throughout high school, and then our worlds grew apart. I was in the whirlwind of my youth, gobbling up life as it came at me.  I never realized that Jim’s life was in a steep decline. I guess life was gobbling him up. Years later I got word that he and his wife had gotten a divorce, and I went to see him once when I was in my twenties with children of my own. He was living the lonely life of an alcoholic by then. I made some sorry excuse about getting home with the babies. That was the last time I ever saw him, but I have never forgotten those years together. I know that whatever insight I have into people comes from the years I spent with Jim in that corral so long ago.

[This post was inspired by a writing prompt from The Scintilla Project, offering a fortnight of storytelling. Follow this link to find out more, or click on their badge on the right hand menu.]

Some Thoughts on My Father-in-law

I found this in my files this morning. The Word document says I wrote it August 18, 2006, just a year ago. I thought I would post it as a memorial to my father-in-law, Jonas Hammack, who died Wednsday, September 5, 2007. He was 92.

He shuffles toward the opposite end of the field, his upper body cantilevered over twisted lower limbs, ever veering to the right. Like an old horse with one blind eye, he steadfastly compensates for the loss of ground and ends up where he wanted to go, the irrigation ditch, where he went to close the weir.

As he bends down, I can see pale skin and bony spine between shirt and jeans. The belt has a few new notches punched in it since I saw him last. Time is taking its toll. Some in the family think he may have had a stroke because he drools now, and when he sits he slumps toward the right.

He would never go see the doctor about it unless coerced, and he sure as hell wouldn’t go in for any of “that therapy business.”

“I’m as good as I ever was, just a little slower,” He says.

There is no forcing this man to do anything he does not want to do. His jaw is jutted forward the same way it has been his whole life as he closes the weir; the sprinklers give a final spurt and then fall silent.

He is too proud to admit that he might need help.

My father-in-law grew up an orphan in North Dakota and came of age during the Great Depression. He was a CCC kid. Most people don’t even know what those letters stand for anymore, but they saved his life. He loves Franklin Roosevelt even though he has voted as a registered Republican in every election since.

Jonas worked hard all his life. Unasked for, he outlived his wife and having survived that blow fifteen years ago he is not about to go down easily. Who are we to tell this man how to live out the last years of his life? Would it really be better if he went into a “home” to rest?

The end is only the same as the rest of his existence and although he may complain about it occasionally, he accepts it. There is nothing wrong with his brains; it is simply the mechanical parts that are failing him.

I watch and am reminded that he is only thirty-five-years older than I. An eye blink in time. This is the first year I have begun to know what it feels like to be thought of as “old,” and I am much more sympathetic to his plight than in years past. I am aware, with my graying hair, that young people now view me as middle-aged or worse, old.

Recently on a trip with my adult children I was looked after as though I might get lost, or not remember the way back to the car. It made me angry. I now understand the evasive answers my own parents and my father-in-law used to give me when I asked about having someone come in to help around the house. Suggestions of incompetence I’m sure they felt were implied.

All of us know who we are. We have lived in our skins for all of our existence and even if we aren’t always comfortable with who we are, we are at least familiar with the terrain.

We must hang onto that dignity and carry ourselves to the grave fighting to retain as much of who we were as humanly possible.

All the older members of my family seem to be doing that with as much class as they can muster. I hope I can live up to their example.

There is not that much time left.