Randy Tucker: A Hawk on the Wind

There is a fine line between complacency and happiness. The powers that be would love everyone to be complacent, but they care little about happiness.

Many mistakenly think the phrase, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is found in the United States Constitution, sad to say, it isn’t. It’s just a line from the Declaration of Independence, and while nice to hear, it has no binding authority over any aspect of our crumbling government.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not things easily codified. Ranch boss Cal Brennan has this exchange with company man Robert Slocum in the book Monte Walsh written in 1963, by Jack Schaefer, when talking about his cowboys.

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“See, these boys have no home except for a horse and a cook shack. They got no property but a saddle and a gun. They don’t earn any money. Got no wife, got no kids. They spend their entire life pushing cattle around to where they don’t want to go,” Brennan says.

“Sounds like a terrible job,” Slocum replies.

“Yes sir, it is a terrible job, but it’s their job. All they got is freedom and pride, keeping their word and looking out for one another. All they got is their rules,” Brennan says.

“And where are these rules written down?” Slocum replies.

“They’re not written down, you damn fool, they’re lived,” says Brennan.

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Living by a code, a personal one that you don’t need to express verbally to anyone else, but that you follow is the essence of humanity. Mix a little civility, a dash of humbleness, a good portion of skill together, but keep the base knowledge that you’ll only let someone push you so far.

The late Michael Burton wrote “Night Rider’s Lament” from personal experiences on his Arizona ranch. It’s become a trademark song of independence, the American spirit, and life in the west. Artists from the late Chris LeDoux, to Garth Brooks, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Suzy Bogguss have all scored hits with it.

While the music is great, the message is greater.

The song weaves a tale of existence in four short minutes.

As a guy who spent his early years working the late shift at a sawmill, before shutting off the power at 1 a.m., then later riding across the vast expanse of Wyoming on an old “Yellow dog” school bus from some small towns after late night ballgames, to arrive back in Lusk, Riverton, or Shoshoni in the wee hours before dawn for over three decades the opening lines have a special meaning.

“One night while I was out a-riding, the graveyard shift, midnight ’til dawn, the moon was bright as a reading light, for a letter from an old friend back home.”

The graveyard shift is the place for reflection, and not just from the moonlight mentioned in the song, but as a place deep inside your mind in the search for the meaning of existence, and that fleeting moment when you sometimes get the sense of self enlightenment, a sense that you don’t belong where you are, and even the place you find yourself in seems strange. You could call it a walk on the wild side, and psychiatrists report that sometimes people don’t come back from the experience.

Late one night, really early morning, I was on the line with a Microsoft specialist in Madras, India trying to rebuild a blown server in the wiring closet inside the Wyoming Indian High School library. It was 4 a.m., and as I talked to “Steve” (he later admitted his name was Rashaun) the eeriness of working the graveyard shift began to seep in around me. It was a strange sensation.

I had the server back up by 4:30 a.m., drove home, got a couple of hours sleep, and was back at work at 7 a.m. for a nasty e-mail from the superintendent that I hadn’t reset all the security alarms when I left.

Which brings me to the second part of the song, “And he asked me, why do you ride for your money? Tell me why do you rope for short pay, you ain’t a-getting nowhere and you’re losing your share, boy, you must’ve gone crazy out there.”

Why do we do the things we do?

What is the inner mechanism that leads you to a career? If you don’t have an idea of what you want to do as a kid, don’t worry, life will find a place for you, but as most of us know, it’s not always where you want to end up.

Working for short pay, feeling like you’re going nowhere, and not getting your share, it could be the mission statement for a teacher. No respect, little reward, no extrinsic value in what you do. So why do it?

The answer comes in another verse of the song.

“Aw, but they’ve never seen the Northern Lights, they’ve never seen a hawk on the wing, they’ve never spent spring at the Great Divide, and they’ve never heard ol’ Camp Cookie sing.”

Those on the outside, those that criticize, those incapable of comprehension, those that know everything, and those that just don’t care will never understand why you do the things you do, especially as a teacher and coach.

My coaching career ended a few years ago, but I still remember vividly the thrill of the opening kickoff, leading your team against the best another town a couple of hundred miles away can put up against you.

Perhaps even more vivid were those early nights on the football field in Lusk, Riverton, and Shoshoni late in the season when it was getting dark near the end of practice. The northwest wind always picked up just after 5 each afternoon. It was welcome in the heat of August and September, but as a Wyoming wind, it had a bite by mid-October.

The bite had the boys blowing on their hands between drills, and me zipping up my hoodie, but it also brought the smell of dinner from the homes surrounding the field. You could catch the pungent smell of onions frying or the tantalizing whiff of someone grilling nearby.

The sound of the pads popping, the whistles of the other coaches, the joking comments from the boys, and the ambiance of fading light created indelible memories. In my heart, I knew I’d do this for free, I was where I was meant to be. I loved the atmosphere, the camaraderie, and the lifetime connections that those boys, now fathers and even grandfathers. speak of when we find each other.

It was my “hawk on the wing” and “spring on the Great Divide” all rolled into one.

Is this the meaning of life?

For me, I think it is. Those lifetime connections, the thrill of competition, and the ordeal of fighting to preserve what you believe in against the forces of the bean counters, and “experts” who would take it all away from you and the people you love. Sometimes it’s pure malice on the part of outsiders, but most of the time they just don’t, and more likely can’t understand why you value what you do so much.

But then again, they’ve never seen the Northern Lights.

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