Three thousand feet, cruising relaxed and cool and Eze over the vast south Texas territory. Home of the Rattlesnake, Scrub Oak trees and Longhorns, the Horned Toad and Javelinia, Wiley Coyote and the Chaparral (Road Runner). Off to the left is Kingsville where my wife Claudene grew up mostly and where we met in college. To the south is NAS Kingsville, the garden spot of Navy Jet Training.
Yesterday we arrived from Fort Worth in the VariEze for a four day visit with her siblings. We both luxuriate in the two hour flight instead of a ten our drive. They are busy taking care of solemn family home stuff and she suggests that I head out to my old helicopter cattle herding haunts. What a great idea, Honey! I waste no time becoming scarce.
At one time, the King Ranch covered much of south Texas. My father went to college here back in the post-depression 1930s. I heard him talk about the folklore and fact of the vast ranches, including tales of hungry guys that would sneak out into the night on the ranch for a deer or a tender calf, and some of them not coming back.
Now that ranch is split up into four divisions. And there are a surprising number of other ranches scattered across the Rio Grande Valley. Many historic personages and events remain cloistered and protected here by the formidable expanse of the uninviting terrain, the thick- sometimes impenetrable underbrush, and other unspoken sentries. Even today there are periodic reports from a ranch of remains of an unfortunate trespasser that bit off more than he could shoe.
In the late ‘70s I did helicopter cattle work on a number of these ranches.
Today the sun and I will arc over this other-world
ranchland skimming over the vast thick nothingness for about the same
span of time.
For the lone outpost, my overhead blink-of-an-eye intrusion will be ignored with splintered indifference, much the same as it has dealt with onslaughts and insults from thunderstorms and hurricanes and dust devils and disrespectful passing coyotes.
A long splinter from that last chance outpost
will reach up and snag a bag of stored memories, tumbling moments and
days from a twenty year distant life into the light again.
We wait for the sun, listening to the more recently weathered ranch manager tell of the local heroes and outlaws that were drawn this way. I wonder about the ghosts of cowpokes on previous cattle drives stopped at this same worn camp footprint. How many other workers sat right here in the early morning fog on this Mesquite stump- or leaning on the tree that it once was- watching the calf carcass turn on the spit while eating an ash-spiced rolled up beef and bean tortilla. Just out of focus, the ghostly image of the spunky calf that just hours ago was cavorting through the pasture keeps drifting friskily through the clearing.
I fly on, reminded again that this ranchland has a rich but secluded history. Living through college in the middle of it unveiled nothing of its mystery. From a few hundred hours flying inside the fence, hopefully I can capture some of what I bumped into before it gets away again.
When working on the different divisions of
the King Ranch, we would normally trailer the helos in to the headquarters
complex and lift off from an adjacent pasture. That way we had a day’s
fuel on the truck and some basic tools and such.
Back in that day, one of the things the ranch was famous for was the leather goods and such that were produced for the ranch hands at their saddle shop. Anything with the “Running W” brand emblazoned on the side was highly prized. After we had moved away to the great state of North Texas they opened a King Ranch Saddle Shop in downtown Kingsville. While visiting down there we toured the very popular shop. I picked up a catalog. On the back cover was a map of the King Ranch.
Thirteen hour days
Thirteen hour days were not uncommon, landing every three hours for a fresh beef flour taquito and a trip out behind a tree. Hopefully a helper would hand crank fuel into the churning helo for another three hour run. Or you get to crank the fuel yourself and your hurried taquito might have a little extra octane zing.
In pitch dark after a long day, you use the truck headlights to wriggle the helo back down into the spindly trailer skid troughs. For those that fail to negotiate successfully with the trailer, a caught skid will give a ride that makes Billy Bob’s mechanical bull look tame. Billy Bob’s Texas. World’s largest honky-tonk. That’s another story.
What could go wrong?
Another side benefit is “settling with
power”. The cattle work puts you right in the middle of the ideal
demonstration conditions. During hot months I was in and out of it numerous
The trick is to keep kind of a sashaying swirling dance going where you are constantly swinging sideways and back and forth and around, leaving the threatening overhead vortex behind or to the side. You fly down into the trees and low hot areas if you must, but keep momentum to loft on out over the trees again. Nothin to it.
Bill James, Fort Worth VariEze
Next week- Ranchlands II, T-2 Playing Through