Note: Might as well put the kettle on. I reckon you’ll be settin’ a while with this one.
“Lord my shepherd help me pray
Though I left my heart to stray
Though I left my heart untrue
I can follow
There are two young men named George whom I will never forget. I say young men because that is the way I remember them — youthful and energetic and with the whole world open before them, as they are pictured here — though they are now both much older than I was when I knew them, and I felt very old at the time. When I was turning twenty-nine and came to F– Ranch, they were both just nineteen. George P., whom I recently tracked down and heard from by email, says he is “a middle-aged dad” now. I have completely lost the other one, George T., whom we called Geo.
The end of a good day. Wranger George P. and Kernal. Click for larger.
I’m pretty sure I would not be alive today if it were not for George and Geo. In the cheerless middle of a cold winter night in the last century, these two friends practically carried me out of the dilapidated house we lived in and sped me to the ER of the nearest hospital. Turns out it was a good thing they did that, but I love them for other reasons.
George was from up north in the state and had spent his childhood summers as a camper at the ranch. When I arrived in March of 1991, he had already been at the ranch a few weeks working full time. There wasn’t much going on in the winter, but there were cows and sheep to be cared for in addition to all the horses, and there were repairs to make around the ranch’s 4200 acres — gates and fences, for instance. George was helping Arden, who had retired from dairy farming to work as the ranch’s farm manager. Come spring and summer we would be very busy putting kids on horses, taking out trails, and leading horsemanship classes, and in late summer and fall we’d also be making hay (really making hay, like mowing it, “bining” it, and stacking it in barns).
Always ready with a smile. George trudging back from chores on a winter morning. Click for larger.
Arden relied on George because George was reliable in that showing-up-no-matter-the-hour-or-the-weather kind of way, and in that tell-him-once-and-he’ll-get-it-done kind of way, the kind of reliability that an old dairyman found hard to come by in young men in the twilight of the twentieth century. But I relied on George every day in another way; I relied on his phlegmatic calm, his kind and generous nature, his willingness to share every good and bad experience and then laugh about it at the end of the day while we rubbed neatsfoot oil into our boots to keep them from cracking and drying out. He was quick to laugh, but there was a kind of sadness to him, I thought right away; it seemed as though George was hunkered down on the ranch because he didn’t know quite what else to do in life. His work history had been in restaurant kitchens, and in addition to all the other work he did he was sharing cooking duties in the ranchhouse at the time I arrived. He was a good cook, a natural, and he liked making and serving food. However, he was too valuable as a horseman to be in the kitchen during the summer onslaught, and there were others who would take up the culinary tasks during that time.
Looking back from the present, I see I had so much unidentified anger deep inside me then, and even though I willingly did the hard work and obeyed the rules as best I could, I remember always feeling that I was about to burst. Uncle Bill seemed to embody everything I felt it important to rebel against, and yet I also felt it was my duty not to spread bad attitude. George was the one who heard me grumble under my breath, or read the particular shape of the steam coming out of my ears after Bill would pass by barking some complaint, and he would find a way to make me laugh, or he’d just say “Come on, let’s run the horses out.” Playing guitars with George on the dangerously collapsing front porch of “the men’s house” at the end of the day — well, I think that might have saved my soul.
George T. ("Geo") on a rare break in the bustle. Click for larger.
Geo arrived a few weeks after I did. Geo was from Cardwell, Montana. At that time in his life he was experiencing a difficulty relating to authority. His relationship with his father he described as hostile. I seem to recall talk of punches having been thrown. I’m pretty sure Geo had done a couple years in the military (is that possible at so young an age?), which had done him wonders, but he did not want to go back to Montana. A pastor he knew who occasionally volunteered at the ranch and whom we called Pastor Willie had suggested he give the ranch a whirl.
That was a happy day for us, because the Ranch needed a personality like Geo’s. Geo was comic in bearing and buoyant in spirit. Despite being from a small town in Montana, he had urban hip-hop tastes. He had a habit of striking up what he called “beatbox” or “bebox” by using his mouth to imitate a heavy, sputtering rap beat. Very quickly, every member of the ranch began asking him to stop doing this, but he would only grin the big friendly grin you see on his face here and shout, as a d.j. would, “Hit it! Hit it! Hit it!” He had an infectious laugh — hell, just looking at him smiling makes me laugh even now. He was indomitable. You couldn’t squelch his life-loving energy.
Geo, Rebecca and Joanna vaulting on horseback, another ranch visitor handing up the kitten for the finale. I think I was gone by this time. Photo used by permission of Chris Alcott. Click for larger.
One thing I especially valued about Geo was that no matter how much he thought something “sucked”, and there were many things about the way the ranch was managed that quickly found themselves on this list for Geo, he seemed determined to make the best of it. I remember seeing him frown — the frown was always temporary, he just couldn’t be like that for long, and while he frowned you could see him struggling with what he considered unfair or outrageous. His heart was good. And he didn’t want to use his fists. Pretty soon, he’d be laughing again.
And he did amazingly well with the parts of the ranch that did not suck, like being with the campers. I escaped counselor duty all but one week of that summer because I was needed as stablemaster, and George was often assisting Arden with farm chores. But Geo served as a counselor for the most difficult age-group of boys, the back-talking, limit-testing preteens; you’d see them pile out of their parents’ cars on Sunday afternoon all full of beans, ready to cut loose and raise hell, but in less than a day they’d be marching in step behind Geo like ducklings, loudly repeating the boot-camp cadences he had taught them. And when they stepped out of line, he sat on them, but he laughed with them too and it was all a great time. They knew he liked them, and they loved being around him. By the end of the week, their lives were different.
Built at the beginning of the War Between the States, a.k.a. the Civil War. We called it "the Mill". Click for larger, but watch your step on the porch.
We worked side by side every day. During the busy summer season, the day started before sunup with the drive in to the ranch house. We saddled up the few horses we’d kept in the night before for this purpose and rode them out to look for the rest of the herd in whichever pasture we’d run them out into the previous evening. Bringing the herd in was exhilarating. A herd on the move is a terrifying, beautiful thing. Being part of that motion is like riding some great raging river. We broke fast after round up, then we taught lessons in the ring and rode trails all day. I was the least experienced rider, so was not often needed as an instructor. Some days I stood in the stables, talking to the horses and making lead ropes out of old hay twines.
At the end of the day, a few of us would mount up, call for the dogs, and run the horses back out to pasture for the night, what we called “round-out”, chasing them through Ring pasture so they wouldn’t stop and eat the good grass there, and on into Lake or Thoroughbred pasture. We cracked little whips and shouted to keep them going, and the collies nipped at their heels and barked. When we’d herded the last pony through the gate, there was the pleasure of the five minutes or so riding back in the evening sun toward the stable, and toward dinner and maybe a shower. It was the best time of day. We never rushed back. The round-out crew was different every day, but very often it was George or Geo and myself and one or two of the older campers. In my memory I see us all riding back through Ring at a walk, with the evening sun turning the green grass gold.
One of the campers in the stable with Decapa, or maybe that's Julie. The ranch house is visible in the background. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson. Click for larger.
As stable master, I also recruited a few souls to scoop the stables with me before they could go in to dinner. I’d hook the spreader up to the PTO (power-take-off) of one of the tractors and drive it into the stable, and after we’d loaded it up with poop I’d drive it out into one of the pastures, usually Lower Barn, and spread it. The spreader was a wagon with a kind of conveyor belt that pulled the manure back into a spinning mechanism that flung it out into the fields to serve as fertilizer. You controlled the flinger with a lever, and if you let it spin too fast you’d have horseshit all over your back in no time. Manure was greenest and wettest in the spring, when the horses were eating the new grass. Because of the proteins in the grass, this was also the time when the horses shed their ragged winter coats and their flanks started to shine and they fattened up. I enjoyed flinging the manure. The noise of the tractor meant I didn’t have to listen to anybody, and at the end of the day that was nice. I just drove around, looking back every once in a while to see the clumps of dung arcing beautifully against the setting sun.
Teaching classes in the ring. Photo used by permission of Mary McDowell Heidorn, standing center. Click for larger.
After spreading manure, there were flakes of hay to toss to the round-up/round-out horses in the paddock and whatever sheep or cattle might be in the barn that night. Most nights there were also hayrides, barn-dances, or worship services, depending on the day of the week. We returned exhausted to the Mill, as we called our house, played a little guitar or treated our boots before collapsing into bed in rooms where ornate wallpaper put up a century before was pealing, and got up before sunrise to do it all again. On Saturday mornings we had cattle round-up and a chuckwagon breakfast, which meant we had to get up even earlier. Through the fall and winter, the workdays were shorter but the work itself — fixing fence in the biting cold wind and snow — was more demanding. More often we worked alone then. In late summer Arden taught me to drive the tractor along steep hills so we could stay ahead of the haying while the weather was good. Or I’d hook up the brush hog to the PTO and spend days chopping back blackberries that were encroaching on pastures and hayfields. George and Geo were often using other tractors to set out those big round rolls of hay, especially in winter when there was no more grass for the animals. Arden did all the other things we younger men had no clue about, like taking the spring rams and calves to market. He came and went like a ghost, always smiling and crooning hymns. I liked those days, too, but I was always glad to get back to the ranchhouse, where a cup of coffee and some quiet conversation awaited, and maybe some cake, too.
It wasnt’ that the work was hard and physical. That was the best part. We ate like hogs and slept like unmined diamonds. What was difficult to endure was the endless speechifying by the owner about how this wasn’t good enough and how that had been the wrong thing to do. And every complaint and edict was backed by a scripture reference — some parable ingeniously interpreted — so there was no arguing. There was a constant wearing down of one’s spirit, of one’s good intentions. The staff, in response to this subtle but constant abuse from above, closed ranks to support one another, which was the true miracle of that place.
Weekend visitors to the ranch heading out on a trail. Photo used by permission of Chris Alcott, who is in the foreground at left riding what looks to be Sundae. Click for larger.
Geo left the ranch late in the year; just couldn’t take the insanity of being carped at incessantly by a man who was never satisfied, never gave praise and always criticized, pressured and wheedled. We all missed him terribly, even perhaps Bill, who was not happy about how Geo departed and expressed “disappointment” in the young man. Bill needed to keep a stock of people to villify and use as examples, and Geo’s hotheaded departure was convenient that way. The young women of the ranch, especially Rebecca and Joanna, the two who had grown up there and were homeschooled and more intelligent and better educated than any people under eighteen I had ever met, were constantly rolling their eyes when Geo first arrived; his beatbox noisiness and puppy-dog energy offended some sense of culture they had imagined for themselves by reading Austen and the Brontës. But when he left, the place had a hole in it. I think he went back to Montana for a few months, but it didn’t work out, and we soon heard that if Bill would allow it, Geo wanted to return after Christmas. After a speech in which he gloated about Geo having learned a lesson, Bill told us he was allowing Geo to return at the New Year. We rejoiced.
Though older, I was like both Georges. Like George P., I struggled with an inner restlessness, and like Geo, I had inside me a truculent resister against authority. I had almost quit and gone home after two weeks, having seen how things were there, but even in that short time I had developed a loyalty to the hardworking folks who would be left with even more to do if I left. Perhaps — no, certainly, I ascribed more importance to my own presence there than was due. The ranch was constantly attracting more volunteers who wanted to have a part of that beautiful life on the land with horses. But I stayed and I began, for the first time in my life, dealing with the contradictions, working out my salvation with fear and trembling. Like George. Like Geo. And my body began to come awake to the fact that I was a creature of earth, an awareness that has not ceased to tug at me for a single day since then.
A moment to unwind. Geo, George and Jonathan, the youngest member of the family that was living on the ranch at the time. Click for larger.
Meanwhile my heart began to implode, literally. I contracted acute pericarditis, no one every found out how. Bill discouraged doctor visits because they were an outlay of money that to him expressed the opposite of faith in God. (Yes, I know, these are the machinations that go on in a cult. And in some very real respects that’s what the ranch was. But I must be as charitable to Bill as truthful memory will allow. He was not amassing money and driving around in Porches and having ten wives. He was earnestly trying to communicate the gospel of Jesus, and give children a safe place to develop a sense of belonging and achievement in the process.) Insanely, I went along with the “have faith and it will go away” policy, as I was not fond of hospitals myself and at that time still had that young man’s sense of indestructability. But the sac around my heart had filled with fluid over the preceding weeks and I was approaching the point where I could not breathe without pain — it felt like someone was harpooning me from behind every time I inhaled.
As my internal organs began to be increasingly restricted by the accumulation of water around my heart and lungs, I failed to see that I was in what the Germans quaintly call Lebensgefahr — “life-danger”. And Ohio’s deep bitter winter cold, to which I was unaccustomed, seemed to increase the pain. Hearing of the trouble, my parents begged me to get me to a doctor. I did, once, and got some Erithromyacin for the swelling, and assumed it would take care of itself. But it got worse, and the breath I was able to draw became shorter and shorter and more painful with each day, even as I convinced myself that it would be okay, until I woke up one night when the cold was bone-breaking and the heat had gone out in the house and found myself rasping and shivering in my sleeping bag. I suddenly realized that something was dangerously wrong. I called out for George, noting even in my delirium how nifty it was that I only had to shout one name, and both of my housemates came running into my room.
The hospital was thirty miles away by twisty country roads. The boys helped me dress and loaded me gingerly, like a live torpedo, into the back of the Subaru, where I lay in fetal position feeling every bump and dip on the way. I believe George was driving. Calm. Assured. Fast. Since I did not die, Bill was able to claim later that this trip had been unnecessary, though I know and they knew that I might have stepped out with His Grimness (the Reaper) that very night had they dawdled. But I did not die. That was not the Plan. I still believed very much in a Plan back then. Nowadays I struggle with the idea of a Plan. Here’s what I remember, though: it never occurred to me at the time that I would not live, not even a month later when the symptoms returned and the cardiologist I was visiting took one look at me and called an ambulance and I was again hospitalized with acute pericarditis. I still remember lying in the ICU, knowing that everything would be alright. I knew that I was loved. For some reason, that made me feel invincible.
The bad ones always survive. I know this photo was taken after my hospitalization because I had never been able to grow a beard until after being on prednizone. I don't recall the name of the woman in the picture, but we could not have survived the days without the help of our weekend volunteers. Click for larger.
Like I said, I love George and Geo for reasons other than saving my life. It was because we were all there together during one of the most bizarre chapters in any of our lives, when we were young, strong and optimistic. It is difficult to talk about my ranch experience with people who were not there, because in many ways it doesn’t make any sense. People do what they have to do, and everyone’s journey has its own dark turns that seem inexplicable to others. The entire time I was at the ranch I wondered if I was staying because I was too afraid to leave, and through all the years since then I’ve wondered if I left because I was too afraid to stay.
Maybe we all wonder that, because the ranch had such great potential and to have been a part of it for any time at all was to breathe in that vision of an outdoor life with good people close by. Geo appears in pictures that were taken at the ranch the next year, but no one knows what became of him after that. I’ve just located George again after all these years, and this very day he wrote me that he left the ranch about six months after I did, but went back years later with a wife and young family and was helping to run the place as program manager for several years. He says he left only after Bill decided to quit paying the staff, (“After all, it’s more of a ministry than a job,” Bill reasoned), because he had a family to feed. George returned to the hospitality industry, where his efforts were appreciated, and is now managing a Bob Evans restaurant. Like me, he has gone where his journey has led him. But I know he wakes up from dreams in which he’s bringing the herd in, standing in the stirrups at a full gallop. I know he wakes up remembering the smell of spearment stems just broken by the hooves of running horses.
Ready to serve.
NOTE: This is one of a series — or rather a cluster — of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. The first one was Shooting Emma.