I never get too maudlin around Father’s Day. My own dad died when I was 9 years old and I have only a few memories of him. Mom later married a rancher named Glen P. Wood. We all knew him as him Pat. He died yesterday at the age of 88. I do have a lot of memories of Pat, so maybe this year I’ll make an exception.
I never called him Dad. Neither he nor I would have been comfortable with it. But looking back, the way you do when somebody you’ve known all your life passes on, I guess he was pretty close to that. For a few years there, he was the guy who made the rules, the one who taught me things, some of which I didn’t care to learn. Mostly how to work, the importance of getting the difficult chores done whether you felt like it or not.
I remember when I first met him. Mom was a real estate agent then, and she’d brought me with her to this ranch she had listed up near Thompson River. When we got there a thunderstorm had just knocked the power out. My first glimpse of Pat’s face – or the one I still remember – was in the glow of a match as he lit a hand-rolled cigarette. He wore a sweat-stained Stetson. His lined face seemed grizzled even then. But his voice was soft as he and Mom talked by lantern light. They got married the following year.
I was 12 years old when I first moved to the ranch. I loved it; it was like living in a cowboy movie. Pat taught me how to saddle a horse and hitch up a team. He taught me how to handle cows and put up hay. He taught me how to drive a tractor, and then a cattle truck. I still tell people I can handle a lariat, but in truth I never got very good at it. It wasn’t for lack of a teacher; I’ve seen Pat rope bulls from a running horse in heavy timber. He could roll a smoke on horseback, too. Try it sometime. As far as I’m concerned, he was the last of the cowboys.
Pat had the misfortune to have more than the usual allotment of teenagers living under his roof. When he and Mom got married in 1965, I’m sure he had no idea what he was letting himself in for. The combined families totaled 13 kids. It was the stuff of a sitcom, but The Brady Bunch is not an accurate picture of how these things work in real life. There were some bumps in the road. As kids get older, they get less cute. They get in trouble; some of them tend to sulk and malinger. I was like that. Pat and I got in a scuffle once, a moment I’ll always regret. Another time, he picked me up at a police station after I’d been arrested at a kegger during my senior year. He put up with a lot of that sort of crap. He must have hated it sometimes, but he did the best he could.
Pat never drank. He had a temper, but he was never mean. He always treated Mom well, no matter what. He used to smoke those hand-rolled cigarettes by the truckload, but he quit that several years ago. He didn’t like large gatherings, but when it was just family around he could be persuaded to play pinochle. He attached a story to everybody he knew, and every time that person would visit or come up in conversation, he’d repeat the story like he was telling it for the first time. With me, it was the time he saw me reading a book while raking hay on a John Deere tractor. He’d chuckle about that, and I always liked the grudging approval in his voice when he’d finish by saying that those windrows of mine were straight as an arrow.
He wasn’t the warmest of men. He was often more gruff than was strictly necessary, and sometimes dismissive of things that were beyond his own experience. Things like seafood and the Internet. But he did have a sentimental streak that became more noticeable in later years. Toward the end of his life, his eye would sometimes glisten a little as we were leaving. He was partial to my daughter Cassie, at least partly because she’s fearless and feisty and loves horses. She saw his softer side. The last time we saw him, he seemed actually delighted when she walked in the room. I was struck by it. With Pat, delight was not a common reaction.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. I guess because Father’s Day is coming up, and on the actual day I’ll be flying back to Montana to help bury the guy who was not really my dad, but who came pretty close. Take ‘er easy, Pat. Thanks for everything. I’ll miss you. And I’ll see you on down the trail.