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Rated: 13+ · Book · Biographical · #2296336
Nearly interesting stories from an unremarkable life
#1061198 added December 28, 2023 at 8:30pm
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Uncle Roy

Roy Alan Fisher posing with his stock truck.

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      My uncle, Roy Alan Fisher, would have looked perfectly at home on the set of a western movie. Whenever I think of a cowboy, Roy is the image that comes to mind. Tall, thin, and lanky, he kept his dark blonde hair cut short. I always thought there was a slight resemblance to actor James Coburn. If Roy was still with us, he would have turned one hundred years old in 2023.

      Uncle Roy wore cowboy boots with pointed toes and a high heel all his life, even after he gave up saddles and stirrups in his later years. A life-long bachelor, his wardrobe consisted of a couple of pairs of blue jeans, a big rodeo-style belt buckle and a few western-style shirts with pearlescent snaps. He always wore a felt cowboy hat in the winter and switched to a ventilated straw hat during the summer. Those hats slowly cycled from 'good enough for town' through 'sweat-stained but serviceable' to 'fit for the trash' as he lived a life of raising cattle, putting up hay, and patronizing the local bars. His other accessory was an ever-present drawstring pouch of Bull Durham tobacco. The yellow strings and the white paper disc with the image of a bull were always visible hanging from a shirt pocket. His only concession to fashion was a fairly clean western-cut suit coat and a bolo tie for 'formal' occasions.

      I don't know if Roy really liked that pungent tobacco, or if he just enjoyed rolling his own cigarettes. He'd lost half his left thumb in a childhood mishap with a hatchet, but that didn't slow him down. Nieces and nephews would look on, fascinated, as he delicately curled a rolling paper and held it with only half a thumb. He'd gently tap tobacco onto the paper with his right hand and then bite one string and pull to close the pouch. After stashing the tobacco back in his shirt pocket, the paper would be expertly rolled into a cylinder, licked, and twisted to complete a cigarette. A few flakes of tobacco always drifted away to decorate his clothing, furniture, and floor. The seamless flow of rolling, licking, and lighting seemed like sleight of hand magic to a bunch of impressionable little kids. The acrid smell, however, was not pleasant at all and none of us was ever tempted to emulate his ‘roll your own’ example.

      Roy wasn’t the only one with a missing digit. There was some sort of accident with a .22 caliber rifle when my dad, Gene Fisher, was about ten years old. Dad lost his left index finger and Roy, being six years older, got the blame. I never did get the details, but it was in the forgotten past and I didn't ever see it come between them. I assume it was just the result of a stupid kid trick. My aunt Lou said that the incident wasn’t a subject for family discussion, and she never heard the details either. And you know how cartoon characters are drawn with only three fingers and a thumb? Well, that must be enough because my dad got along just fine. He was left-handed, but in spite of the missing finger, he could write, pound nails, and hold a horse's reins without any difficulty. Few people ever noticed it on their own, and he even made a joke of it with his grandkids. Once they learned to count to ten, Grandpa Gene would say, “count my fingers.” Then he’d grin when they came up wrong, "1, 2 ,3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, . . . no, wait."

      Uncle Roy had his own cattle ranch later on, but he lived within walking distance when I was growing up. He and my dad often worked together during those years, and despite being older, Roy usually allowed my dad to take the lead. Roy had a trailer across the way from ours when he and dad worked as carpenters near Seattle. And he moved back to Montana shortly after my dad took over the family ranch near Ronan. We brought our trailer with us from Washington, and Roy stayed in the ramshackle old farmhouse at first. Later on, dad built a new house and Roy lived in a trailer about 100 yards away. Roy enjoyed having kids around and he didn’t object very much when we’d visit and ‘help’ him. My older sister, Linda, did a bit of house cleaning sometimes, but mostly we just helped him eat his candy. He'd smile and call any of his nieces or nephews 'Gilligan' if they did something silly or got in his way. Uncle Roy often said, “when it comes to getting work done, one kid is a kid, two kids is half a kid, and three kids is no kids at all.”

      There were few women in Roy’s life. He occasionally drank with a female acquaintance but didn’t really date and never married. I didn’t notice it as a child, but Roy seldom spoke to my mother. I learned as an adult that she often resented his too-constant presence at our house. I realize now that he was always more comfortable in the company of men. Sometimes, I’d spend an afternoon with him and my dad in a local tavern. I’d sip orange Crush while they drank Olympia beer and told tall tales. Their stories and jokes would get more and more outrageous as the empty bottles accumulated on the bar. Dad often said, “The first liar doesn’t stand a chance.”

      Uncle Roy’s taste for beer occasionally led to serious trouble, such as being hit by a train at the blind crossing near the grain elevator. Miraculously, though his pickup truck was cut completely in half, Roy was left unharmed in the cab by the side of the tracks. The box, along with the rear wheels, was on the other side. He was still half-drunk and cussing that ‘damn train’ when dad and I arrived to take him home. Maybe Good does look out for drunks and fools.

      Another time, Roy woke us at 3:00 am to pull him out of the ditch. He was almost sober after hiking three miles from the accident scene. At first, we couldn’t budge his pickup, but dad kept taking bigger and bigger runs at the chain and finally yanked Roy and his truck back onto the highway. It turned out that he had dozed off and gotten high centered on a mailbox that had been set up in a barrel of rocks. We couldn’t get the pickup off the barrel, so dad drug him down the road until the barrel was ground away and the rocks fell out. I can still hear the roar of dad's engine, revved up in second gear as we towed Roy down the highway with a comet tail of sparks flying behind us. The guy who lost his mailbox complained to the sheriff about teen-age vandals and the gouges in the asphalt were visible for years afterward.

      Uncle Roy had little use for a family sedan or station wagon. He preferred a pickup truck equipped with a stock rack so he could haul a horse when needed. He bought a brand-new Dodge Power Wagon in the winter of 1971. It was his first four-wheel drive pickup, and he was eager to show it off. My folks weren't home when Roy showed up at our house, so he insisted on taking me for a ride in the frozen hayfield. I got out and opened the gate while Uncle Roy twisted the front axle hub-locks into 4-wheelin' mode. We climbed back into the cab and Roy hit the gas, aiming the pickup at the deepest snow in sight.

      Montana winters often feature blowing snow and the field had some bare spots interspersed with three-foot drifts. Those drifts would melt just a little during the day and refreeze overnight. Sometimes the crust was hard enough for a small kid to walk on. It was solid enough that day to support a Dodge Power Wagon. Uncle Roy's tough new truck had high centered on a snow drift in less than five minutes. He gunned the engine for a full minute, shifting between first and reverse in an effort to get loose. The wheels just spun uselessly in the air. Finally, we walked back to the house, found a couple of shovels, and spent half an hour digging out enough snow for the truck to get some traction. It wasn't the way I'd hoped to spend the afternoon, but I had sense enough to keep my thoughts to myself!

      Roy spent most of his life in and out of the cattle business, building up a herd in the good times then watching it disappear when prices fell and the bank called in his loans. Eventually, Roy sold his 160 acres and semi-retired. His final venture was a stock truck that he hired out to take cattle to market for local ranchers. Sort of like a cowboy Uber. Cancer took him soon after in 1986.

      Roy grew up with horses in the days before tractors took over, and he really loved them. I think he was happiest when riding or working with his horses. As a boy, he was in charge of the horses that provided power for the beaver slide. The beaver slide is a contraption that's used to lift a load of loose hay up high and then dump it onto the top of a haystack. Imagine pushing a pile of grass up a playground slide with a big garden rake and you'll have the basic idea. The beaver slide, however, has cables and pulleys attached to a hay head that moves up a steep ramp. Roy's job was to drive a team of horses forward to pull on the cables and lift the hay head up the slide. Then he'd back the horses up again to lower the hay head for the next load. Men with pitchforks would spread each load of hay evenly, and the process would be repeated dozens of times to build a haystack twenty feet high.

      When he got older, Roy graduated to the horse-drawn mower that was used to cut the hay. The sickle blade was powered by a gear train from the mower wheels, and it took a man’s skill to drive the horses, sharpen the blade, and grease the moving parts every day. Roy also learned to drive the horse-drawn buck rake that picked up the dried hay from the field and delivered it to the beaver slide. Horse power was becoming a thing of the past by the time Uncle Roy entered his twenties, but he continued to maintain a team and drive them around my dad's fields well into his adulthood.

      I'll always remember the last time I saw him riding on a decrepit old hay wagon behind a pair of strong young horses. He was breaking them to harness, and they weren't being cooperative. I heard a yell and looked up to see the wagon racing across the pasture with Roy shouting "Whoa!" and trying to slow the runaway team. The wagon bounced dramatically high over a bump and Roy dropped the reins to hold on. The horses pulled the tongue and front wheels from under the wagon and kept going. The rest of the wagon ploughed into the ground at a steep angle. Roy made a beautiful arc off the front of the wagon and rolled a couple of times before coming to a stop in a sitting position. The blue haze of his fervent and heartfelt cussing was far more impressive than the smoke from the Bull Durham cigarette that smoldered beside him in the grass.

      We didn't repair that wagon and the horses were never again put in harness. My dad liked horses, too, but we could do far more work with far less effort by using our International Harvester tractor. Uncle Roy continued to ride occasionally but gave up driving a team. He had a buckskin mare that he trained from a foal and rode regularly for almost thirty years. She finally had to be put down when I was still a teenager. Roy couldn't bring himself to do it, so my dad and I took care of the sad task. Well, dad took the shot. I was there for moral support because it was too hard for dad to do it alone. I think it was the first time I ever saw a grown man cry. And the memory still brings tears to my eyes more than fifty years later.

Author's note: 2100 words
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