I was 10 years old, standing in the doorway of a small trailer. Ten wooden desks were lined in two neat rows, facing a large teacher’s desk and a chalkboard. Eight kids stood facing me, and I looked at their feet. All six of the boys were wearing boots.
I wanted to find a way to hide my own feet. I wished I could go back to a few weeks before when I talked my mother into buying me a pair of black loafers.
I have very narrow feet, and my mother had always been a stickler about buying shoes that came in narrow sizes. At Gorem’s Shoes in Sheridan, Wyo., the only style available in narrow sizes was black oxfords. So for years, that’s all I’d worn.
When penny loafers became the big fad in third grade, I knew I didn’t have a chance of getting a pair. But when we went to Gorem’s for school shoes and learned that they had gotten a shipment of black loafers in narrow sizes, I begged my mother for a pair, failing to mention that they slipped in the heel.
Now…standing in that doorway on my first day of fourth grade, I wished I’d known previously what I knew at that moment.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, my father announced that he’d taken a job as a ranch manager. Despite not having worked on a ranch since he was a teenager, he somehow landed a job managing a ranch owned by construction magnate Peter Kiewit, near the Montana/Wyoming border.
The ranch is right at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains, in one of the most glorious little valleys I’ve ever seen. But there were some major unforeseen problems.
First of all, soon after our arrival at the X Bar X Ranch, my father realized that Mr. Kiewit had not informed the other ranch hands that Dad was going to be managing the place. Most of these men had worked there for years, and one guy had been there for a very long time. He expected to be named manager.
So there were hard feelings, not to mention immediate conflicts. Because Mr. Kiewit lived in Omaha, only visiting the ranch every few weeks, Dad was left to deal with the tension on his own, not an easy task for a man who struggled with conflict.
Although Peter Kiewit was a very nice man, we later learned that he had married into this ranch, which was owned by his wife’s previous husband. So although he seemed to be interested in what was going on there, it’s hard to say how invested he was.
Second, the community along Pass Creek was very tight-knit. There were about a dozen ranches lining the gravel road that turned off the main highway just north of Parkman, Wyo., and most of these ranches had been in the families for decades.
They were not mean or ill-intentioned people, but every one of these families had a certain standing in the community; outsiders were subject to scrutiny. And of course, in a country where land is the most significant measure of position, hired help did not rank very high on the food chain.Which brings me to the most significant factor of what turned out to be the worst two years of my parents’ marriage. After growing up on a ranch, my mother had no desire to ever live on a ranch again.
When she married my father, she was thrilled with the prospect of getting away from life in the country. She was happy that he wanted to be a teacher. Looking back on it from the present, it’s easy to imagine what motivated my father’s decision. He had just lost his own father, and I’m sure part of him wanted to fulfill Earl’s dream of being a cowboy.
But my father made the mistake of not consulting Mom about this job beforehand, and it’s not hard to imagine why. He knew she would talk him out of it. So she was not happy about the move to Pass Creek, especially knowing that we would be considered “help.”
Whenever the opportunity arose, she made a point of mentioning the fact that her parents’ ranch was larger than any along Pass Creek, a nervous tic that I’m sure did little to endear my parents to the locals.
My sister Collette and I went to that little one-room school (Slack School) during the two years we lived along Pass Creek Road. And as is often the case, the dynamics among the children reflected those of the parents.
It was confusing, because it was clear, especially when we were alone, that these kids did not dislike us. But as a group, they made it clear that we were not welcome. It was evident from the first day we arrived, when I looked around the room and saw those boots.
The message was sometimes subtle, but always there. We were not invited to parties. We were ridiculed for petty things, especially the fact that my parents were Democrats. Our second year there, I was one of two fifth graders, and there was nobody in sixth grade in our one-room school.
At the beginning of the year, the other fifth grader, Carl Caywood, gathered forces with the only fourth grade boy and three third grade boys, and they approached me with a proposal.
“Since you’re so much better at soccer than anyone else, we can’t really split the teams up even, so it should be us five against you and all the little kids.”
Carl delivered this idea without looking me in the eye, and even then I knew they were blowing smoke up my ass. I also knew that any argument would be overruled. They had also appealed to a growing competitive drive in me. Part of me wanted to show them that they were making a big mistake by assuming we couldn’t beat them. “Okay,” I agreed.
Over the next several weeks, or perhaps it was months, we played soccer every day at recess, and my little band of ragtag first and second graders and I lost every single game. There were no Chip Hilton moments. Instead, there were skirmishes and injuries, insults shouted and tears shed. I stubbornly refused to quit.
They beat us every single time, and after weeks of this, I started to show an explosive temper, sick of the constant humiliation as I fought to try and win just one game.
This temper followed me for years afterward, although this obviously wasn’t the only source. A lot of my anger bubbled up from some latent understanding of the unhappiness that was so heavy and omnipresent in our house.
Sometime during that second year of our stay at Pass Creek, my father drove to the Veteran’s Hospital in Sheridan, where he approached the reception desk and told them that he needed help. The nurse at that desk asked him what was wrong, and he told her that he didn’t know, that he just needed to talk to someone.
She told him that if he couldn’t be more specific about what was wrong, there was nothing they could do for him.
My father was not an assertive man even in his best moments, and this was obviously not one of them. After this woman delivered this cold-hearted diagnosis, my father left that building, sat down on the steps, and broke into tears. MSN