& Yesterday, I was going to go to an auction. Instead I went to a funeral.
Well, it wasn’t a funeral in the sense you might think. It didn’t have all of those trappings like organs and pulpits and flowers and a front row filled with family mourners clutching hastily printed programs bearing a nice picture of the newly departed. It was a funeral perfectly suited to the senses of an old Abiquiu cowboy named Ronnie Patton.
The “services,” should we call them that, were in Ronnie Patton’s ‘church’ — an old adobe ranch house at the edge of a broad pasture of long-used land where horses now graze contentedly, their heavy hooves occasionally churning up a thousand-year-old shard of Pueblo pottery. It wasn’t Ronnie’s house or his ranchland, mind you. It’s now owned by Mickey Simmons and his wife, Sharon Burkard. But over the years of working there, Ronnie’s soul was ground into its soil, right in there with the pot shards. Now, his ashes rest there.
Ronnie Patton was a paradox. He lived in a simple house he’d built on a small piece of land not far from the bank of the Rio Chama. Among his neighbors were the famous and influential and wealthy – Shirley McClain and Marsha Mason, the movie stars; Helen Hunt and other heirs and heiresses to fortune; barons of big business and the dot-com revolution; artists, authors, poets, potters, media personalities and others of varying degrees of often self-inflicted importance and notoriety. It is probably more precise to say that they, his neighbors, are the paradox, but that’s another story for another time.
Ronnie Patton was a man of no pretension. Like too many of the old timers who are dying these days around here, I didn’t know him well and I should have made the time to know him better. I’m sorry to say that, because he was another of those people we should learn from, those of a vanishing breed who lived a life of simplicity in an increasingly confusing world, and enjoyed it.
His home sat on a small piece of land he’d earned with his hands – stringing fence, drilling wells, moving cattle, fixing tractors, building sheds, laying pipe, cutting wood – hands so calloused, it was said, he could take the edges off a rough-cut 2-by-4 — without sandpaper. He had no wife, no children, no teevee, seven fingers (or was it six?) and fewer teeth. His possessions were plaid shirts, frayed jackets and a butt-sculpted saddle, a once-blue pickup truck, his ham radio and an uncounted number of cowboy hats, all of them reshaped by the crunch of tractor tires, the weight of horses’ hooves or the general ravages of Time. And he enjoyed it — you could tell that by the always-crinkled smile under his handlebar mustache and the singsong lilt in his voice when he proudly read his cowboy poetry.
He’d worked the land for a number of bosses in Rio Arriba and Santa Fe Counties since the late 60s, soon after he’d brought home his medals for a job well done as a radioman on a carrier off the coast of Vietnam. Instead of going back to his native Texas, he drifted into the arroyos of northern New Mexico, and hooked on with a land baron named Alva Simpson.
Job title: Cowboy.
Duties: Anything needed on 11,000 acres.
Equipment needed: Your strength and your wits.
And he enjoyed it, he must have. After all, he could have drifted off to somewhere else – he was accomplished in many ways – but he just hung around here for close to half a century, just being a cowboy.
Ronnie Nelson Patton, 71, left us late in November, in a VA Hospital in Texas, where he’d gradually succumbed over the past few months to cancer. He’d been cared for by Texas kinfolks, those who he’d gone to visit, once a year at Christmas time, and who last weekend came back to thank his New Mexico family and bury his ashes. About 40 of us showed up – for tables loaded with food, a few prayers from a short preacher with a stout voice and a DVD slide show — Ronnie as a baby, a boy, a handsome sailor with a harmonica and hippie glasses, a well driller, a barn builder, a pipe layer, a motorcycle rider, a horseman and a beer drinker holding a hand-rolled stick of tobacco.
Of course there were stories to be told. Of the Navy days back in the 60s, when their huge carrier and a cruiser and a bunch of destroyers, dodging tiny, bobbing, wooden boats of Japanese fishermen, raced up through the narrow and deep Korea Strait on an ineffective errand to rescue the spy ship Pueblo from the clutches of the North Koreans (who, by the way, still have it.)
Of the movie days, and Ronnie’s life on the fringes of Hollywood, when he provided horses and tack and wagons, and even himself, to help tell film stories of New Mexico and the West – The Milagro Beanfield War, Lonesome Dove and several others. It was said Ronnie was a special breed of movie extra – no makeup necessary. “He always looked the part,” said one, “because he was the part.” The folks at Wrangler jeans thought the same; they once featured him in an ad. Not to say that his ‘character’ didn’t change: “Every time I saw him,” said one old Navy buddy, “he had less fingers and less teeth.”
Of Ronnie’s 26 years of every-Sunday visits to buddies who lived nearby, when they’d b.s. until the beer was gone, at which point Ronnie would say it was time to go. One day Ronnie walked out of the house after having had a few too many. He walked back in and announced, “I can’t go home.” What he didn’t say was that he’d backed up a little too far; the rear end of his truck was hanging off the edge of a nearby cliff. For 15 years after that, we were told, Ronnie always parked his truck very carefully upon arrival, with the front end pointing down the road.
Of his penchant for peanut butter and for lighthearted poetry, which he penned during those times alone in his tiny house, when he wasn’t cranking up his primary link to the outside world – his ham radio — to talk with old friends, or check in with other volunteers of the Santa Fe Amateur Radio Emergency Service.
And, finally, of his horse. A horse he’d raised from the time it was foaled, 40 years ago – maybe more. The mare had died, and Ronnie had fed the colt from a bottle. For his efforts, Simpson – who later deeded Ronnie his small homestead – gave him the horse. Ronnie named the horse General. General Patton.
For 34 years, Ronnie and General were a pair. Once, penned up in a corral at a movie location, General got some of his teeth kicked out. “I always thought it interesting,” said Simmons, that General and Ronnie were missing about the same number of teeth from about the same places in their mouths.”
After Simmons bought the spread a decade ago, General was allowed to stay. Every morning, when the horses would come up from the pasture, Ronnie would drop by to give General some sweet feed. One morning, Simmons said, General wasn’t with the others. He was then 34 years old, and Ronnie had an inkling. He asked Simmons if he would look for him, and drove away. Later that day, Simmons found General, his old head up above the grasstops, but unable to stand. He drove over to Ronnie’s, and they called the vet. When he arrived, the three of them drove into the pasture. They parked, and walked over to General as the vet prepared the lethal chemicals. Ronnie stroked General’s head for a few moments, said a few quiet words, and walked back to the truck.
From a distance, Ronnie watched as the needle went in to General’s neck. “Goodbye old boy,” Simmons heard him whisper.
“He was his baby,” Simmons said. “He loved that horse.”
At last weekend’s gathering in memory of Ronnie, there were a number of moments when grown men – big men, old men, young men – had to lower their heads and put their knuckles to the corners of their eyes, and the ladies held the tissues to their noses. The last of those moments came when everyone walked outside to stand around a small hole in the ground, listen to another prayer, and walk by to throw a handful of dirt onto the carefully placed box of Ronnie’s ashes. Then, as the shovels came out, and the hole began to be filled, somebody poured in the contents of a can of Coors Light. We all walked away from the fresh grave. Soon, I guess, there will be a marker. It will be right next to a bigger marker, one that is a bit weathered because it has been there awhile. It says, simply, “General.”
& Later that day, I dropped by the auction up in El Rito, and stopped at El Farolito for a burrito. Parked outside was a tractor. Inside, its owner — another of our neighbors who’s lived a long time off of this hard land — was just getting up to leave. I mentioned Ronnie’s memorial service. “Oh, I knew Ronnie Patton,” he said, putting on his own beat-up hat. “Yeah,” he nodded. “Now he was a cowboy.”
That’s about all Ronnie Patton would have needed to hear. He would have enjoyed it. [He also would enjoy it if you visit this link and listen to him reciting one of his poems — The Chinese Computer.]
& Off to slather some p-butter on a piece of toast and ponder some poetry, I’m outta here.
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