You Made Green Grass One More Time, Dad

Jan Swan Wood
W.R. "Bill" Swan, on Sailor, and his daughter, Jan, on Lily in 2001.

The meadowlarks are singing this morning, along with the honking of the Canada geese. Rain and snow overnight have refreshed the early sprouted green grass that shows faintly on the land.

The joy of spring is bittersweet though, as I am mourning the loss of my Dad this week. Known as Billy, Bill, W.R., Dad and Grandad, depending on the era or relationship, he was so much to so many.

I want to share who and what he was to me.

When I was a child, Dad was stern and pretty hard driven. The sense of humor was there and came as teasing, some of which eluded me as a child. As I got older, I understood him better all the time, and we joked with each other a great deal. He was not someone you wanted to challenge on something, as he had a very short fuse, somewhat like peach fuzz. When angry, his black eyebrows become one eyebrow, and his brown eyes would snap with fire. His explosive temper could have one tiptoeing around pretty carefully on the bad days, which usually involved haying season or calf scours. But, he wasn’t one to hold a grudge or ever bring up an incident again. One tongue lashing or butt kicking was sufficient, that’s for sure.

I always knew he loved me, though he didn’t say it much until I was grown. I was the youngest of the six kids, and was the last one at home on the ranch full time from the start of my fifth grade year of school. That left him and I working together steadily. He bought cattle from late fall through spring, some of them very, very light (nearly dead) calves with lots of problems. That developed in me a good eye for the sick one. Another “grade” of cattle he bought when I was home was the bred heifer calf. He’d see one of those little heifers with her “piggy” look and would snap her up as a bargain. It was then up to me to extract the calf if she calved while he was gone to the sales. Some of those extractions were pretty difficult, which has led me to run calving ease bulls with everything, not just the heifers. I got very good at pulling calves, even cutting up a calf to get it out, and got plumb over wanting to do either.

We processed the cattle he bought all week on Saturdays. Dehorning, lancing lumps, doctoring eyes, cutting bulls, and branding were all in the mix and I achieved a high skill level through repetition. I was never prouder than when he told me that he liked how I branded and turned the branding over to me. He said “Brand them so it looks like you’re proud of them.” I still do.

Childhood lessons are in the thousands, but one that sticks in my mind is that “LADIES DON’T SPIT.”

I was probably five or so when I got something in my mouth and hocked up a big one and spit, just like my Dad and brothers. Oh boy. I got a spanking that stung for what seemed like a week and a lecture on ladylike behavior that did NOT include spitting. To this day, I can have something of the most disgusting nature in my mouth and unless I can remove it with a tissue, I swallow it.

When I was very small, I didn’t get much one on one time with Dad, simply because we had a big family. I recall one of my proudest moments, though, when he told me he and I were going to take our horses to Haines’ to gather a remnant steer that had gotten misplaced on a pasture lease. He said he’d need my “help” and that I could ride Penny instead of Skipper. Skipper was my pony, a hard trotting, hard mouthed little spitfire who wasn’t much fun to ride alongside his big, long strided horse. Penny was a big horse, gentle as a kitten, and had a fast running walk that could keep up with her brother Reno, Dad’s top horse. I nearly swooned with joy at getting to go “help” Daddy! (I’ve realized since that Mom probably just needed a break from a little person’s questions and that’s why I was sent along.) I remember clearly our two buckskin horses in the trailer, and stopping in town at Gamble’s to get a pair of gloves for me. He told Mr. Milberg that he and his hand were going to go gather a wild steer up on the river. Oh the delight! Mr. Milberg (Walt) helped me find some little red gloves that fit me and most definitely weren’t a hand-me-down, but brand new, and Dad and I were off for the big drive to old Bixby to find the steer. Imagine my disappointment when upon our arrival, we found the steer in the corrals ready to load. Neighbors had left him in there when they used the corrals to ship some cattle and caught him in their gather. I was crushed, having wanted to ride with him on Penny, but I was still thrilled at the time together.

After I was grown, he and I still worked together frequently. From wherever I was living, I would load a horse in the trailer and head to the ranch to lend a hand and enjoy some time together. During and after the work, he’d tell me stories of his years growing up on the ranch in Colorado or his time in the Navy. Even if I sometimes heard a repeat, I still enjoyed every one. A few years ago he and I made a trip to Colorado and revisited the very places some of those stories took place, making them become even more real to me. I’ll sure miss them. I wish I had them recorded so I could listen to his voice tell them once again.

The last big day he and I had together was watching the American Rodeo just last month. I took our dinner (which is eaten at midday, not evening) and we had a good visit and then enjoyed the rodeo together. Little did I know it would be our last big time together, though I had treasured every one of them in recent years with the realization that each could be the last.

We had big visits on the phone several times a week, and now I wish they’d have been more frequent or that I wouldn’t have been too busy (I thought) to just drive over and spend the day. Now there are no more days to spend. I don’t think there ever would have been enough.

Dad was not just my Dad. He was my rock. I always knew that no matter what, he had my back, as they say. He believed in me as no one else does, and was proud of the words I write and the cartoons I draw. He was my hero, mentor and dear friend. I am proud to have called him Dad and to be his daughter. I am so thankful for the 54 years of his almost 90 that I got to be a part of.

So Dad, thanks to an early spring, you made green grass one more year. I’m sure Reno was saddled and ready for you when you got to the other side. Be sure and pick some flowers for Mom when you ride in and tell her I look forward to seeing you all again. When you hear that my time is close, could you go catch Lily for me and throw a saddle on her? Then we can go ride together again.