Ballads, Art and Nature Often Spark Childhood Memories

Posted By Mike Padgett

Oct. 18, 2009

SHOW LOW, Ariz. – Memories sometimes are unlocked by the most unexpected of keys. And with one memory can come a flood of others.

When I look at this photo, I think of the work of an Arizona artist and the ballads of a California singer. And that combination of two artists’ individual magic sometimes unleashes memories of my rural childhood.

I captured this photo during a recent trip to Show Low in northeastern Arizona. The pastoral scene looks like an isolated area, but the location is a few minutes from downtown Show Low. It was midmorning in early October. Fall was approaching. Waves of giant clouds filled the sky.

Studying the photo today, I think of my dusty cowboy boots, favorite Levis and worn leather gloves. I think of sore muscles after milking cows and wrestling bales of hay. I remember steam rising from the fermenting corn silage I shoveled to feed our cows on winter mornings before sunrise, before school.

The water and the fence in the photo remind me of irrigating pastures and repairing barbed wire fences and building corrals. The forest in the background reminds me of tramping through the woods, hunting for deer.

Painful memories

Besides the happy memories, there are sad ones. I remember a sister who died when she was 3. I was in the fifth grade. In the decades since her death, several times she has wandered into my thoughts unexpectedly, like a rainbow after a storm. I wonder who she would have become and what she would have achieved, had she won her battle with leukemia.

I remember the names of two fifth-grade classmates. One day, they went target shooting with their rifles. Only one returned alive. The other boy, while he was climbing through a wire fence, accidentally shot himself.

I remember another classmate who tried to steal one of my assignments in art class. I think it was a state map. He did a poor job of erasing my name from the back of my map.

I remember the morning when I had the flu and I had to get out of bed to milk one of our cows. She balked at letting anyone else milk her.

Sick, injured livestock

I remember loading a rifle for a calf suffering from a stubborn lung infection. It wasn’t responding to medication, and we had it isolated so other calves wouldn’t get sick. As I aimed, I remember the calf’s helpless look at me that dark, cold morning. Sorry, little guy.

That rifle was the same one my father used on my dog, Boots, who caught distemper from a pheasant hunter’s dog. Shooting my dog was the right thing to do. I was at school at the time.

I remember one of our horses bumping an exposed bolt on a corral post. The bolt tore open her shoulder, like a 90-degree, 4-inch tear in a shirt. The flap of hanging skin exposed her quivering muscle. Our veterinarian arrived. The horse stood still, trembling a little, as the vet gave her a local anesthetic. Then he grabbed a needle and thread to sew up the wound. She healed with minor scarring.

Dogs and horses are my favorite animals. I don’t remember the age of our first horse when we first brought her home, but she and I bonded quickly. She had a bit of a limp in one front leg.

I remember the birth of my horse, Smokey. She was black with three white feet and a white star on her forehead. We grew up together, so getting a saddle on her the first time, and then easing into it, was easier than I expected.

We had two saddles. One was tan, with the rough side out. The other saddle was an antique. It had dark brown stamped leather, a brass horn and a high back, or cantle. Wish I’d kept that saddle.

Riding adventures

One day, as I rode Smokey across a pasture wet with irrigation, she lost her footing on the slippery grass. I jumped off as she fell. She wasted no time in getting back on her feet. Smokey was okay. So was I.

That adventure was mild compared to the day years earlier when I was thrown by another horse. I was riding Blackie, the mother of my horse. Blackie was a high-spirited black flash. Black as coal and with one of the most comfortable of gaits. Sometimes, she would ease into what is known as a pace. That is when her legs on each side would move forward together, instead of her legs diagonally opposite moving forward together.

I had walked across the pasture one day to put a bridle on Blackie. She stood still as I eased the metal bit between her teeth and buckled the bridle.

I planned to ride her bareback to the barn to get a saddle. But as I jumped up on Blackie, something spooked her. She bolted. I grabbed her mane to stay aboard. Blackie was a powerful horse. We didn’t know much about her heritage, except that she was smart and quick. Riding her could be a challenge, if you wanted to stay aboard.

Blackie flashed across the pasture, with me wondering how this ride would end. Without warning, she stopped at a wooden crossing over a dry irrigation ditch. I flew over her head, somersaulted and landed in the ditch.

Injured rider

After a few seconds, I got up. I was groggy. My first recollection is standing up and seeing my father running toward me. I never knew his short legs could move that fast.

Dad asked if I was okay. I said yes, and I walked toward Blackie. She hadn’t moved since her sudden stop.

I picked up the reins and jumped back on her. She walked across the cattle bridge. I touched Blackie’s flanks with my heels. She eased into a fast trot for the barn.

Our doctor said I had a mild concussion. My left shoulder hurt, too. He said it probably was bruised or stretched ligaments.

Other memories include the day our largest dog, Joe, a collie-chow mix, bolted across the road in front of a gravel truck. The driver stopped and moved Joe’s body off the road.

When I got home that day from school, Mom told me about Joe. I remember cradling Joe’s limp body out of the roadside weeds. His eyes were closed. I buried him in the pasture, near some trees.

I remember the day I ran over another of our dogs, Skeeter. I was driving our cattle truck onto our property when he ran to greet me. He always stayed a few feet from our trucks. But not this day.

I remember the sickening feeling of the bump as he fell under my rear wheels.

Chores and summer jobs

One summer in high school, the only job I could find was hoeing weeds in a field of sugar beets. I wasn’t alone. Carrying hoes with me were a Hispanic couple and their three children. They were not bilingual. Neither was I. Smiles became our shared language.

I remember the year, after graduating from high school, when I worked in a food processing plant. I packed boxes of frozen vegetables and drove a forklift. A few months later, I joined the military.

Growing up on a small cattle ranch in the 1960s was memorable. There was plenty of healthy work to go around. The doors to those memories often open when I listen to thoughtful ballads like Kate Wolf’s, and when I study Ed Mell’s lithographs and paintings that show Arizona’s canyon country and skies filled with giant clouds.

Wolf died in 1986 while undergoing treatment for leukemia. She was 44.

Mell continues his work in Arizona.

Wolf’s ballads about people and Mell’s artistry showing dramatic landscapes remind me of rural Americans, with their daily lives and hopes, and the gorgeous country they call home.

Those realities are what I think of when I look at this photo I captured on the edge of the forest near Show Low.

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Oct 18th, 2009

One Comment to 'Ballads, Art and Nature Often Spark Childhood Memories'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    Hello Mike,
    Thank you for sharing your walk down memory lane. I enjoyed it very much.
    What wonderful memories, and how lucky you were to be able to grow up on a ranch.
    I always say, “they can’t take our memories away from us”.

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