One Last Sunset for the Old Cowboy

Although I’m a firm believer in the concept that a man shapes his own destiny, certain events and people that are part of a man’s life have a direct impact on how the story of this destiny unfolds. I can speak with confidence that a critical component of where I am today comes from my grandfather, Robert Burcham.

Now Papa Bob, as us grandkids always called him, was quite a character. Born in the heart of the Great Depression, he grew up in a world very different from ours today. He would tell me stories of going to school, which was three mile away, by walking over the hills where Mom and Dad now live to a small country school on the Maskell-Dixon Road. According to him, sometimes he would ride an old milk cow to get there, other times he would bring his shotgun with him to do a little quail hunting over the noon hour. In a world of climate-controlled SUVs that never leave paved roads where a successful lunch break involves getting that next level on an internet game, these stories attested to the priorities folks had back then.

Papa and my great-uncle Jim outside their house near Newcastle, NE. Taken in the 1940s.

Papa (left) and my great-uncle Jim outside their house near Newcastle, NE. Taken in the 1940s.

Moving our story forward through the decades, Papa learned quite a bit that he passed down to me. He learned how to break a horse to ride without getting yourself broke in the process. He learned how to doctor sick calves or a cut horse back to health. He also learned the importance of family and faith, and was a good example of taking time for each priority.

Old picture of Papa with a horse.

Papa (on the far right), with his brothers Jim and Bill, and his father, Elmer. My Aunt Tammy is the baby. The horse is one of hundreds that were on the farm through the decades.

Papa always had time for us grandkids. We spent hours with him, doing routine work like chores or fixing fence (which I’ll admit he never was too good at), or hunting deer and turkey. One of his favorite stories he told was the time he took a certain 12 year-old boy deer hunting, and said boy wouldn’t stop talking. He told him to stop talking, so the boy sang instead. So he told the boy to stop singing, and the boy started to whistle. Exasperated, he told that boy to stop whistling. A few minutes later, the boy was humming a tune. Eventually, I figured out how to keep the noise to a minimum while hunting.

From the time I was little, he always had time for his grandkids.

From the time I was little, he always had time for his grandkids.

When I was 14, Papa taught me how to break my first horse. It was a black gelding that I uniquely named Blackie. For hours each day, he sat by the roundpen with me, giving me pointers. “Ride ‘em every day,” he’d tell me. “Even if it’s only for 20 minutes, get on him and take him out every day.” And so I did.

And then we broke another one, and another one, and another one. There were so many horses that I can’t remember them all. He always had horses and was pretty good at trading them too. As a client at the vet clinic I work at told me once, “I traded horses with Bob, and by the time I was done the only thing I made money on was the halter.”

If it wasn’t horses it was cattle. Papa spent days in the salebarn buying the crap calves nobody else wanted. I’d sit there with him, eating candy bars and drinking pop. We’d take these one-eyed goofballs home, fix their problems, and one or two at a time build a trailer load of calves. I learned a lot about doctoring cattle from him, and no one I’ve met was quite as adept as he was at lancing abscesses. Real art right there.

My interest in becoming a veterinarian was sparked from Papa. He loved animals, from cows to horses and cats to dogs. He always had animals around and was always “fixing” them. Even today, I used some of the advice I learned from him to fix a calf with a cut foot.

Of course, our favorite pastime together with animals was hunting them. Papa taught all of us how to hunt. My cousin Robert and I went with him deer hunting for years, and it was the highlight of our fall. I specifically remember one time where he bagged a buck on a hill 300 yards away, dropping him with the open sights of “Old Faithful”, the .270 he always used. It was at sunset, so by the time we got done gutting the deer we had to drag it out in the dark by flashlight.

My Dad, Papa, and I at the deer check-in.

My Dad, Papa, and I. This year was the best deer hunt we ever had.

I could tell stories about him and the times I spent with Papa for several days if time would allow. But instead, I’d like to sum it up with this. Papa often said he was born 50 years too late. He loved the story of the West, where men broke horses, tamed the prairie, and worked with their hands to create something real. He was born into that story and lived it as best he could while the world around him rushed ahead, trying to forget that old American dream.

This is best illustrated by the last horse sale the two of us went to together. Papa had one horse left, which knowing how there used to be hundreds at home it was hard to part with it. But the horse needed to go. My heart broke as we took that last one up to Corsica Sale Barn, knowing it was the end of an era. But as we sat in on those carpet rugs in the bleachers, watching them run through, a gelding came through that was the right build, with the right look. Into the air Papa’s hand went, unable to keep from bidding. We got that horse and took him home (much to Grandma’s chagrin).

Just like that one last horse he couldn’t let go, Papa Bob was that connection we had to a time we all grew up dreaming about. A time where kids hunted while at school, where families farmed together to earn a living, and where faith mattered to everyone. That way of life was a fire that he didn’t let die inside of him. And on Saturday, it didn’t die with him—it’s still alive in the hearts of his children, his grandchildren. It’s alive in me.

When I graduated from vet school, Papa wanted me to have a white Stetson hat. He said that all the veterinarians that were worth their salt had a good white hat. I wear it now knowing why he wanted me to have it. Because it was Papa that made me a cowboy. I’m darn proud of that and want to thank him for that gift and everything else he gave me.

-Jake

In loving memory of Bob Burcham (1935-2015). God’s blessings be on his soul.

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