Lazy B


by Sandra Day O'Connor and H. Alan Day (Random House, 2002)


(This column was first published in the April 25, 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


When Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor responded to the thousands of ballot errors that turned around our 2000 presidential election by placing the blame solely on the voters, I was enraged. How could she be so callous, I thought. But when I came across the book she and her brother, H. Alan Day, wrote -- Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest  -- I decided that I at least owed her a search in this book for why she adopted this posture, so foreign to my way of thinking.


I believe I found the answer and, still far from agreeing with her position, I can understand the source of her beliefs. And in doing so I read a book that I recommend without reservation to everyone. It is a straightforward account of life on an isolated 250 square mile ranch just a hundred miles north of Mexico.


Here is their description: "The Lazy B Ranch straddles the border of Arizona and New Mexico along the Gila River. It is high desert country -- dry, windswept, clear, often cloudless. Along the Gila the canyons are choked with cottonwoods and willows. The cliffs rise up sharply and are smooth beige sandstone. The water flowing down the riverbed from the Gila Wilderness to the northeast is usually only a trickle. But sometimes, after summer rains or a winter thaw in the mountains, the river becomes an angry, rushing, mud-colored flood, carrying trees, brush, rocks, and everything else in its path. Scraped into the sandstone bluffs are petroglyphs of the Anasazi of centuries past. Their lives and hardships left these visible traces for us to find, and we marvel at their ability to survive as long as they did in this harsh environment. High upon one of the canyon walls is a small opening to a cave. A few ancient steps are cut out of the bluff leading to it. To reach it now requires climbing apparatus -- ropes and pitons. The cave's inner walls have been smoothed with mud plaster, and here and there is a handprint, hardened when the mud dried, centuries ago.


"Every living thing in the desert has some kind of protective mechanism or characteristic to survive -- thorns, teeth, horns, poison, or perhaps just being too tough to kill and eat. A human living there quickly learns that anything in the desert can hurt you if you are not careful and respectful. Whatever it is can scratch you, bite you, or puncture you. When riding horseback, you have to watch where you are going. The branch of a hardy bush can knock you off; a hole in the ground covered with grass can cause your horse to stumble or fall. When you take a spill, it might be onto a rock or a cactus. When you get off your horse, it pays to look first to avoid stepping in an ant den, on a scorpion, or in the path of a snake. Over the years, Alan, Ann, and I each had our share of falls from a horse, insect bites, injuries, and other dangerous events, which we learned just came with the territory....


"It is possible to survive and even make a living in that formidable terrain. The Day family did it for years; but it was never easy. It takes planning, patience, skill, and endurance. DA said he had to plan for the lean years and the low cattle prices, because there were so few years when there was plenty of rain and a good market for the cattle as well."


The two children, Sandra and Alan, grew up with their father, DA, and mother, MO, and a few cowboys. Sandra narrates: "Life at the ranch involved all of these components -- association with our old-time, long-suffering, good-natured cowboys; living in isolation with just one another and with few luxuries; eating mostly beef and beans, dried fruit, and biscuits; riding horseback for long hours in the heat and dust; seeing the plant, animal, insect, and bird life of the Southwest close at hand; and enjoying the love and companionship of MO and DA, not just on evenings and weekends but all the time. It was not until I grew up and moved away from the Lazy B that I learned just how unusual my early life was."


Their parents and the cowboys strongly influenced their behavior and here is where they developed their strong belief in individual responsibility. Their father especially brooked no excuse for failure. When Sandra was in high school she was given the task of driving a pick-up truck for two-and-a-half hours over difficult terrain to bring the crew their lunch. A flat tire delayed her: with great difficulty she changed it. When she finally arrived, the men had started a job they could not interrupt. "I could see DA, but he didn't acknowledge my presence. The crew continued to work the cattle. I knew it would be a couple of hours or more before they finished. I also knew they liked to eat lunch as soon as they arrived with the cattle and before they had to brand and work on them." Finally, hours later, the men stop to eat. "'You're late,' said DA. 'I know,' I said. 'I had a flat tire the other side of Robbs' Well and had to change it.' 'You should have started earlier,' said DA. 'Sorry, DA, I didn't expect a flat.' 'You need to expect anything out here.' 'DA, how about some lunch? I'll get you a plate.' 'No. I'm too tired to eat now.' I had expected a word of praise for changing the tire. But, to the contrary, I realized that only one thing was expected; an on-time lunch. No excuses accepted."


Now I can understand Judge O'Connor's inability to accept the failings of those voters. She was applying to them the very high standard of conduct her father applied to her.


I also came away from this book once again with appreciation for those last remaining independent Americans, the cowboys. Here is a passage about them in general and the children's favorite in particular: "Life on the ranch was no Sunday-afternoon stroll in the park. Cowboying is the least respected and most dangerous job around. There are other equally dangerous ways to earn a dollar, but most of them -- such as fire fighting, police work, and roughnecking at an oil well -- get the respect and attention they deserve. And NFL football produces plenty of bruises and broken bones. Only a few men reach the top in professional football. Those that do are very well paid and have a great deal of public adulation. At the same time, the football players wear protective helmets and pads and have professional trainers to keep them in top shape. They actually play football no more than about twenty-five minutes a week. Cowboys, by contrast, wear soft hats, no padding, have no professional training, work about seventy hours a week for very little money, and at a job where painful injuries are common. It is often one man against an eight -- or nine -- hundred-pound animal that doesn't do what is wanted or expected. For example, while at the Lazy B, Jim broke his nose fourteen times, and broke various fingers countless times. He never went to a doctor for any of these injuries. He would set his broken finger by taping it to a stick or a nail and keep on going. He could tolerate pain better than anyone we knew. One day on a roundup he rode all day with what he called a slight pain in his neck. It turned out to be a broken collarbone. But he never missed a day of that roundup.


"Once he had a sore tooth and asked Alan to look at it. Alan looked and saw a large dark hole inside the tooth. Alan described to Jim what he saw, and Jim said, 'Okay, I'll take care of it.' He took a fresh piece of baling wire off the roll, heated it in a fire until it was red-hot, and, with Alan guiding his hand, stuck it down the hole in his tooth. We listened to the sizzle and watched smoke come out of his mouth. Jim sat there without a word and never flinched. He is the only man we know who gave himself a 'root canal' with a baling wire.


"Jim would ride horseback from Willow Springs to wherever we were going to round up cattle that day. Sometimes he would have to ride eight or ten miles to meet the cowboys at daylight. He often had to leave Willow Springs by 3:00 A. M. to meet us. When we were ready to ride, he was always there. One time when we were working at Old Camp, he rode out to meet us leading an extra horse. Old Camp was probably the toughest place to ride and to round up on the ranch. There were steep canyon walls to get up and down to gather the cattle off the hillside. We worked all day rounding up, branding, and sorting the cattle. We finished about 4:00 P.M. Jim told DA he planned to ride his other horse over to Bowie to compete in the rodeo there. It was about fifteen miles. He rode to the rodeo, entered every event, then rode another seventeen miles or so to Willow Springs in time to change horses again to meet the next day's roundup. It was business as usual. 'How'd you do last night, Jim?' 'I won,' he said, and that was that.


"Sometimes Jim would enter a rodeo that was a long distance away. He would drive his pickup and trailer his horse, going straight through -- several hundred miles. He would participate in the roping and bronc-riding events and not even wait for his winnings. 'Just send me the check,' he'd say and head back to the ranch."


These ranch hands provided a tough but loving extended family for a boy who, as an adult, has followed his parents into ranching and his sister who is now serving her country on our supreme court.-- Gerry Rising