Chapter 1: The Cowboy Starts a New Life
August 14, 1958
The old, olive-drab jeep rolled down Meadowbrook Road. Might have been doing near fifty, I thought. Not bad for this old refugee. Not bad except for the dust. I'd miss this ugly old girl. Quicker than any horse I ever rode. A fifty dollar wonder at an army surplus yard. I spent a lot of hours getting it to go again, but she ran like new. Better than new, some said.
Just a few minutes to town and I'd be at the feed store. Pick up the week's order and head back to the ranch. Wouldn't be doing this much more, I thought. Damned if I knew what I would be doing though. The army would decide that, not me. Long as I was going to learn some trade, that'd be fine. Motor Pool or Engineering Corp. That's what I was gunning for.
Finally done with school after all these years and I can't wait to get more schooling, I thought with a laugh. I made it through my final year with a B average. Pretty good for a cowboy who'd rather wrestle with a near twenty-year-old Jeep than wrangle cattle.
When the draft notice turned up in the mail, it wasn't a big surprise. I'd report and hope for the best. I wanted to learn a trade. I particularly wanted that trade to have something to do with vehicles — maintaining and fixing them. That's who I am, the cowboy with the monkey wrench.
My name is Roderick Franklin Williams. I was born on October 2, 1940, in Cut Bank, Montana, on the family ranch, the W2. My mother gave birth in her bed at our home with a midwife in attendance. I weighed six pounds, four ounces and apparently had a shock of dark hair right from the womb. I was their only child.
I became known as Roddy, and I grew up healthy and active, but was never very big. I attended school in town, riding the twelve miles to and from the ranch on the school bus, and later in my jeep. I loved sports, particularly football, but was just too small to make the team, even in my junior and senior years. At five foot-eight, one hundred and fifty pounds, I settled for the track team and cross-country running.
I am fairly handsome in some people's opinion. My blue eyes and usually unruly mop of dark-blond hair, along with regular features gave me a solid, but not spectacular look. The girls liked me and I liked the girls. I never had trouble getting a date for a dance or a movie, but living as far out as we did and with all the ranch chores, didn't date very often.
My mother and father were proud of me, they said. I am a hard worker, always helping my father and doing my duties without complaining. It was the way I was brought up. My dad, Frank, and my mother, Eleanor, ran the W2 cattle ranch, and although it was modestly successful it didn't earn enough money to send me to state college in Billings. My school work would qualify, but the money just wasn't there for both tuition and my board. Mother in particular was disappointed that they were unable to help me further my education.
I had given my future a lot of thought. It was 1958 and the times were changing. My ambition didn't include ranching. In all likelihood, my parents' land would be gobbled up by a larger outfit someday. I wanted to be involved in the new, more prosperous America, but I also knew I had an obligation to fulfill. Uncle Sam had called. I was healthy, single, and had no reason for a deferment.
I had been reading the recruiting brochures for the services and found something I was confident I would like. The Army Motor Pool was dedicated to keeping their mobile equipment maintained and operating. It was my opportunity to learn a skill and get a chance to fix cars and trucks. I would serve my time and come out ready to join the modern work force with an ability in demand, just as the brochures promised.
I would have to have a physical first, but I doubted I would be found unfit. My cross-country training would have revealed any weakness. It was time to talk to my folks.
"The Army's gonna' get me anyway, so I want to see if I can get into the motor pool. In four years, I'll have a trade and job prospects. I think it's the right thing for me."
My father nodded and smiled. As much as he wanted me to remain on the ranch, he would never deny me an honest ambition. In Dad's eyes, nothing could be more honest than serving your country and learning a trade.
Mom was not so happy. It would mean losing her only child, and that was very difficult for her. She would never stand in my way if it was to better myself, but she would be sad to see me go, not knowing when she would see me again.
Two weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I waved farewell to my parents. I sold my Jeep to one of my high school buddies for two hundred dollars and a ride to the Army recruiting office in Great Falls. Shortly after enlisting I was at Fort Dix, undergoing basic training.
It was said that the Army often assessed men for their talents and then assigned them to tasks with no remote connection to their capabilities. Fortunately for me, that was not the case. When I completed basic training, I was assigned to the 63rd Engineering Battalion, deployed in Bad Hersfeld, Germany.
However, when I arrived in Germany, and barely had time to look around, I was informed that the battalion would be redeployed again in a few months and I was to be reassigned. Within a month, I found myself with the 15th Army Motor Pool in Friedberg, near Frankfurt. In a round about way, I had ended up where I wanted to be.
I spent nearly eight years in the Army. I learned a great deal about trucks and armored vehicles and a lot of other machines. I did well and rose to the rank of sergeant. I began my first tour in Germany, and after serving in Alabama and North Carolina, ended my Army career back in Germany.
At the end of July 1966, age 25, I picked up my discharge papers and boarded a C-118 transport for the U.S.A. I was almost a civilian once more and now it was time to put my plan into action. The army had filled me out. I was now a solid, fit 170 pounds. I was ready for the next step.
I hitched a ride on another transport to Omaha, then bought a train ticket to Great Falls. It was time to go home. I had seen my parents only four times in eight years, the most recent was over two years ago. On my last visit, I could see my father's health wasn't good.
I spent two days in Great Falls searching for a suitable vehicle at the right price. I finally found it in the classifieds of the local newspaper. A widow was selling her late husband's truck, a '60 Ford F-100 pickup. It was exactly what I was looking for — low mileage, well cared-for, free of rust and dents. It was never going to be as pretty as a '55, but it would do. I paid the woman cash and took the title. A full tank of gas would get me home in a day.
When I rolled to a stop in the driveway of the family ranch, I sat in the driver's seat for a few moments, taking in the scene. The ranch house didn't look any different, even after eight years. It was quiet, just as it always had been. I looked over at the barn, but saw no signs of activity. I glanced at my watch. It was nearing 6:00 pm. It was supper time.
I stood on the porch, wondering whether I should knock, or just walk in. I chose both. I rapped firmly on the door, then opened it and walked in.
"Hi folks, it's me ... Rod," I called loudly.
I heard the clatter of utensils on plates and the scrape of chairs being moved. My mother appeared first, with a look of astonishment on her face. I wondered briefly if I had forgotten to tell them I was coming, but recalled the telegram I had sent from Omaha.
"Roddy ... oh god ... Roddy," she cried, rushing toward me, arms outstretched.
"Hi Mom," I said softly into her head as we embraced.
I looked up and saw my father moving slowly toward me. He looked so much older than I remembered him. He had lost weight, his face drawn and pale where once it was full and ruddy.
I held onto my mother and my arm extended to take the offered hand of my father.
"Hi Dad. Good to see you."
"Good to see you too, Son. It's been a long time. We've missed you," he wheezed.
"I'll set a place for you, Rod," Mother smiled, her face stained with tears. "You must be hungry."
"I'm always hungry for your cooking, Mom. Let me wash up first."
We gathered around the kitchen table. The evening meal was a big plate of stew and baking powder biscuits fresh from the oven. I hadn't had this fine a supper in all the time I was away. It felt very good to be home.
Over the next couple of days, I realized I would be putting my plans on hold. My father was ill, and the ranch was failing.
Dad's health was worsening. He was in the later stages of emphysema, brought on by a combination of smoking and the dust off the dry grasslands of western Montana. I can clearly remember him, astride his favorite horse, his dusty Stetson pulled down low over his eyes, hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his lips, watching the herd. Those days would never be repeated.
The ranch was no longer profitable; too small at only 640 acres. My parents had used up all their savings and most of their line of credit trying to keep it going. They refused to re-mortgage the home. It couldn't support enough cattle to make a go of it, nor generate the cash to permit modernization or lease summer grazing land. At some time in the not so distant future we would have to sell.
Ranching was the only thing my father knew. He had been born here just as I had. Cut Bank was his home and raising cattle was his life. But times had changed, and without the help and skills to change with them, Frank Williams would be the last of our family to run this ranch.
Mom felt bad for Dad's disappointments, but worried more about his health. She could tolerate losing the ranch she told me, but she couldn't imagine life without her Frank. Just the same, each day as we watched his gradual decline, we knew it was inevitable.
I assumed the duties around the ranch that my father had formerly performed. In fact, I was able to make some improvements that, for a brief while, helped our situation. The hard work was being done by two ranch hands, but it was my intervention that put a stop to the decline.
I had returned home with nearly $50,000 after saving every dime I could while in the army. I had earned side money by fixing and tuning cars and motorcycles for other base personnel. Cash only, no receipts.
I was determined not to throw good money after bad when it came to the ranch. If I was going to use my savings, it was going to be for improvements that would be investments toward the sale of the property when the time came.
I rebuilt the hay mower, widening the cut with salvaged equipment from a now-defunct neighboring farm. The baler required a good deal more work, but with Dad's guidance and my learned skills, it was renewed in time for the second cut. There would be no need to buy supplemental feed for the winter that fall.
The truth was, however, that any significant problem that cropped up could finish the ranch for good. There was no reserve. Bad weather alone could mean disaster. A flood in the creek or a prolonged dry spell could be equally fatal. We needed some luck, and for a while it looked like we had it.
Over the first fifteen months, I committed to get the most out of the ranch and the cattle. Prices were fairly good, so if we could produce two or three hundred head for the spring sales, we would be in much better financial circumstances. But early that fall a freak hail storm destroyed the second hay crop, and we were right back where we started.
Mom was never really sure if it was the hail storm or just the progress of Dad's disease, but his decline accelerated. In early November, my father, Frank Williams, age 61, died in his bed, a shadow of his former, robust self. Mom and I were both heartbroken, but we carried on. She had me to support and comfort her, and that made it possible to accept the passing of her beloved husband. I grieved for my father, but knew I must shift my concerns to looking after my mother.
With the loss of the hay crop, all the hard-fought-for earnings of the previous year had been wiped out. We would have to buy hay to get the cattle through to the spring sales. Although neither of us said it aloud, we both knew this would be the last winter on the W2.
I debated with myself exactly how to go about proposing to Mom that we sell the ranch. I was uncertain just how strong her ties to this land were. She was a "town girl" when my father married her and became a ranch wife and mother. Whatever her history, I knew we couldn't carry on much longer and we needed to make the best of a bad situation.
In my opinion, it was wiser to sell in the spring before it became known that the ranch was in financial trouble. My savings from my army service had made it appear to the bank that the ranch was solvent, and thus no rumors circulated. It would be important that no one think they could get this ranch for pennies on the dollar because the Williams family was desperate.
I talked it over with mother and was pleasantly surprised that she was almost anxious to leave the ranch, but uncertain where she would go. I reassured her as I reminded her of my plans. She would accompany me to our new location and we would use the proceeds from the sale of the ranch to buy a home where she could start a new life. She was only fifty-two, nine years younger than my father.
When I told my mother that our destination was Bellingham, Washington, she was taken aback. I had to show her where it was on a map. She had never thought of living on the coast. For the first time in many years, I think she was optimistic about her future. While losing Dad still hurt, she could start fresh with me nearby.
"You'll like it, I think," I said. "It's not so cold in the winter and not so hot in the summer. They say the scenery is fantastic. It's always green ... all year around."
"I'm sure I will, Roddy. I hope this is what you want, not what you think I want. You have your own life to live, son. I'm just happy you want me to come along."
"I wouldn't have it any other way. Besides, I need a bookkeeper for my business. You're just the person for the job," I grinned. Her smile in return was all I needed to see. My lean, attractive mother seemed relieved and happy that she could share my dream.
The ranch was put up for sale early in 1968, and fortunately a buyer was found within three months. The new owner was a large cattle producer with an even larger feed-lot operation and was willing to buy the stock along with the land and buildings. The price was fair and on an early July summer day, we loaded our belongings and a few pieces of cherished furniture into the back of my pickup and headed west.