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Irons in the fire: Uncle Reed’s last lesson

Paul Marchant Published on 30 April 2014

Last month, I went back to my hometown to attend the funeral of my uncle. It was kind of a surreal experience for several reasons, not the least of which being Uncle Reed was only eight years older than I am, the youngest of eight siblings and the first of those siblings to die.

Aside from the natural grieving that such an occurrence initiates, the selfish part of the grieving process kind of slapped me in the face. You know, the part like the time the temperamental little mare reached out and gave you a cow kick to the thigh and you wanted to cry and cuss at the same time because of the pain, but you also realized how lucky you were she missed your knee.

The death of someone close to you, especially when it’s unexpected, gives a guy cause to reflect on his own mortality. The old familiar phrase, “you just never know …” really takes on some added significance.

For me, the viewing and the funeral were like an emotionally super-charged family and high school reunion on steroids.

Because my folks left the third-generation ranch where I grew up and bought the current place – 200 miles away – while I was at college, I haven’t had much reason to go back in the last 30 years.

So, obviously, I haven’t had much contact with a lot of the people from my growing-up years since I graduated from high school.

It’s truly odd and exhilarating to see people I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years. Some of them hadn’t seemed to change much, while others were completely unrecognizable to me at first.

It was a bit disappointing when someone didn’t quite recognize me, but flattering when people mistook me for my younger brother – who’s 15 years my junior.

Truth be told, little bro is the one who should have been flattered. Though he may argue the point, he certainly isn’t my equal when it comes to rugged good looks. I think it’s called hotness in the modern vernacular.

Hotness aside, the real point is that people change – sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Uncle Reed was the embodiment of both sides of that river.

He was always a bit of a rounder – but a charming rounder, the kind of feller that everyone seemed to like, even if he had burned them once or twice. He was the kind of guy who could sit in the back of Miss Ybarra’s high school Spanish class and keep the window open so he could spit his tobacco through the opening.

Everybody but the teacher seemed to know about it (and she probably did, too), but he could still pull it off. He’d do things like load the old bay horse, appropriately named Perro, in the back of the pickup with no stock rack and drive two miles into the post office in town – just because he could and it made people wonder what he was up to.

In many ways, he was the personification of True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn. He even had a big dun gelding named Beau.

When I was in high school, I worked for him a lot during the summers. When I’d help him cowboy in the west hills, he’d put a bottle of vodka and two cans of Fresca in his saddlebags.

Before we’d even find a cow, he’d be drinking vodka and chasing it with Fresca. He’d be silly drunk by the time we’d get a little jag of cows gathered and have me laughing myself to tears with his goofy tricks and endless, often off-color jokes.

I always liked to ride with a split-ear headstall with no throat latch. One of his favorite tricks was to ride up along side me and slip the bridle off my horse’s head.

I always knew it was coming, and I’d eventually just let his prank succeed just so he’d quit pestering me. He’d nearly fall off his horse with laughter, seeming to think he’d pulled off the original buckaroo prank.

It was always a good time with him, but even though I was young and naïve, I was smart enough to realize that Jim Beam, Captain Morgan and the Grey Goose were friends that would betray him, more likely sooner than later.

At the cost of two good wives and at least as many jobs, the alienation of family, a couple of smashed pickups and 10 months in the hoosegow, he came to realize that he maybe ought to change, and the last couple years of his life did bring some changes. Good changes.

The nature of the game of life seems to be that bad and destructive changes can happen in a hurry and are pretty easy to make.

Conversely, often to the detriment of patience and immediate happiness, good and productive changes seem to take much more time and certainly more effort.

I think the good Lord planned it that way. A prize that is won through pain, tears and honest effort is a prize that is more likely to be protected and cherished than one that is cheaply gained.

After the funeral, I was talking to a former classmate, who was sort of the muse of my youth. We were discussing how it was a shame that our class had only held one reunion in 31 years.

She expressed a little trepidation about another reunion because she didn’t want people to remember her as she was in high school, which is to say she didn’t feel like she always treated people how they should have been treated.

Thank goodness, we don’t have to remain our high school selves and are all blessed with the ability to change. When we can make the good changes, we should be willing to humbly show them off. If I didn’t fully know it before, Uncle Reed’s final lesson taught me that.  FG

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