Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Windshield Time
Tom and I traveled together a lot over the years, going to horse shows and rodeos, church meetings, and business meetings. I looked forward to the windshield time as much as the destination, always enjoying the conversations about family, horses, church or our insurance businesses, with some baseball or football added when the season was right.
My first trips with Tom were to horse shows he was competing in or judging. He took me along to help drive initially, and to keep him company on the long trips to Ogallala and Gillette. We got to know each other, talking about our families, our work and our interests, which meant we talked a lot about horses and sports. Lots of sunflower seeds were eaten, and we hit every ice cream stand we drove by. Hours seemed to melt away when we got to talking. We became good friends in a short time.
Tom’s ability as a horse trainer was widely known, and picking his brain about horses and training was always interesting. He often compared being a good trainer to being a good father. His laid back nature was a plus, never pushing a young horse to frustration and always trying to show them the easy way to do what he was teaching them. He found what the horse’s natural abilities were and developed them. He seemed to do the same with his large family too. Whenever I got crossways with one of my kids after hearing Tom talk about horse training, I tried to let them find the easiest way to get done what I was asking them to do, whether it be in their school work, sports or chores at home. I soon realized they all had different interests and talents and I tried to focus on those points when raising them. Windshield time with Tom helped me be a better dad.
One of the best windshield times with Tom was our roundabout trip to Medicine Hat, with stops in Belgrade, Helena and Great Falls on the way. Tom was judging in Belgrade and Helena, and we stopped in Great Falls to visit the Charlie Russell museum on the way north to Medicine Hat. We shared a love of Russell’s art, and discovered his writing as we worked or way through the small museum. Tom bought two books of short stories by Russell, and as we drove the miles to Medicine Hat, he read, or tried to read, the stories and tall tales Russell spun between our fits of laughter.
We talked about the beautiful country we saw in Montana, and wondered why we lived on the windswept, dry prairie of South Dakota when such places as Bozeman existed. We finally agreed it was because of family. Family keeps us anchored, and where that happens to be isn’t nearly as important as that family tie. My dad grew up in central South Dakota during the Depression and joined the navy after high school, sailing aboard a light cruiser for many years, seeing sights he never thought he would see, leaving Pearl Harbor a few weeks before it was attacked to go to flight school in Florida. He met my mom there, and made plans on living in warm sunny Florida after they married. It wasn’t long before the pull of family, Dad had three sisters and five brothers, brought him back to the treeless plains of South Dakota. Mom was homesick for her family much of her life, going back to visit only a few times over the years. She must have loved Dad very much to fight that homesickness for so many years. Windshield time helped me realize the importance of that family anchor in our lives.
Tom and I belonged to the same church, and that was always part of our conversations while driving somewhere. We tried to take our beliefs with us and let them be a part of our days and our activities. We had supper in Gillette one evening with a horse buyer Tom knew, and as we were leaving the café, Tom realized the waitress had given him ten dollars too much change. He turned to go back in and return it when the horse buyer said “keep it, no one will know the difference.” Tom very matter-of-factly said, “the waitress will know when they take it out of her pay.” Windshield time gave me a friend who was open, honest and a great teacher, showing me in his life how to be a better person. Thank God for that windshield time. I miss Tom.
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