12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
Thirty miles southeast of Amarillo the stark landscape of the southern High Plains drops off into a deep canyon called the Palo Duro or "hard wood." Rocky and dry, scalding or freezing by season, the canyon is virtually uninhabited except for cattle, horses, wild turkeys and Tom Blasingame, 88, who may well be the oldest working cowboy in Texas.
Short and appropriately bowlegged, Blasingame, who was raised on a farm in Oklahoma, has lived and worked in the Palo Duro, part of the 177,933-acre JA Ranch, for much of the past 70 years. Married since 1933, he and his wife, Eleanor, 72, have rarely lived together. When their children, Tom, now 51, and Nancy, 40, began school, Eleanor moved to the nearby town of Claude, where she worked as a legal secretary and where she still lives. Tom visits on weekends but spends the rest of his time in a spartan three-room cabin, without electricity, where he talked about life in the saddle.
I've rode all my life. Every chance I'd get I'd ride. I was about 7 or 8, along there, and people would hire me to help 'em drive cattle to market. They'd furnish me a horse. It would take nearly all day to get to a shipping point. I'd get two bits a day for that. I went to school two or three winters. It was a country school way out. We had to walk about a mile and a half. I quit after a few years because I just couldn't study. Too many windows to look out and see covered wagons and people moving cattle through the country. We had a man teacher and he would say, "Get to studying, young man." But I was contrary and sassed back at him. He used to whup me hard, but he never could make me cry.
If you got a whuppin' at school in them days, your parents would whup you when you got home. My dad used a double rope. I was so stubborn and high-tempered, I'd cuss him all the time he was whuppin' me. I was might' near an outlaw when I was a kid. I don't know why I was so mean. It was just borned in me. I guess that later the work took that meanness out of me.
I quit school to help my dad work, but I learned how to read and write of course. I just wanted to be outside the time. Finally, when I was 18, I left home. I wasn't unhappy with my family. I just wanted to get out of there. I couldn't stay off a horse and wanted to get out where the big ranches was.
I headed West on a big iron-gray horse. I got him for $125 from a feller up the road. I don't know how I saved that much money making two bits a day, but I finally did. I rode into JA's here in 1916 and didn't have 50 cents in my pocket. Back then the JA ran 25,000 mother cows. I guess there was about 800 sections. A section is a square mile or 640 acres. They had five chuck wagons out all the time, about 10 men to a wagon. By the time I came, the whole outside range was fenced. Inside, the ranch was all open country, but no more. Everything is fenced and cross-fenced with gates. I don't like fences and I don't like gates either.
I like to break horses. They raised their own horses here at JA's, and they'd break about 40 broncs every spring, 4-year-olds. They was wild. They had run on the range. In the long run that was the best. A 4-year-old is pretty well hardened and hard to hurt, and he's got a good tough heart too, not like these horses nowadays that are halter broke when they're winter colts not even a year old. I never did hit the horses much while I was breaking 'em, maybe a slap on the neck or somethin' just to let 'em know they done somethin' wrong. A horse is pretty smart. He knows when you're abusing him and when you're not.
I left the JA after two years to go to Arizona. I wanted to get to wilder country. Everybody wore six-shooters out there. I didn't. I was just a kid. I never did see any gunfights, but I heard of 'em. They robbed a train while I was there and had a big shoot-out with the deputy sheriffs. One outlaw got his arm tore plum off with a high-powered Winchester. I seen him later at a dance. He'd dance with one arm.
I worked at the Double Circles in east central Arizona. It was a monster outfit. They didn't know how big it was. We'd make big drives and throw the cattle together and brand and cut what we wanted to ship out. They had a big holding pasture in the center of the range where we'd put 'em, then we'd turn the others loose and brand 'em. We had plenty of wood in that country so it was easy to make a good fire.
We lived outside all the time. We had our bedrolls rolled up in a tarp. If it was raining, we'd just cover up with our tarps and sit there. We'd bathe in the river. It was pretty cold sometimes. We lived on beef and pinto beans. The meat kept fine outdoors. It was a lot better than this Frigidaire meat, you bet. Down on the desert outfits, they made lots of jerky. I'd eat it with biscuits if they was good, or I'd just eat it straight. You didn't have many good bread cooks out in the camp. In the wintertime we'd have them steaks for breakfast, and gravy. It was a pack outfit, so you didn't get eggs or anything like that. It had to be stuff you could pack, but I never got tired of eating the same thing all the time.
At the Circles we'd go to town on the Fourth of July and Christmas. Most of the cowboys would get drunk, but I never did take to that whiskey. Drinkers, they're pretty disgustin' when they get down and waller on the ground, mumblin' and stumblin' and vomitin'. 'Course, I'd go to the saloons. There was music going all the time. Them dancin' girls would come out there onstage. You ever heard a song called Mexicali Rose? Well, I saw her. She was a beauty, all right, a tall, slim brunette. She sure could sing.
On Christmas we'd hurry back to the ranch because that's when they'd have them big dances. People would come from a hundred miles on horseback, women, children and all. They'd pack their good clothes on little mules. They'd stay around a week and dance all night and sleep in the daytime. We'd lay around and run horse races, and a lot of 'em would play poker and kill time till night when they'd go to dancin' again. Don't ever think that people who lived way out like that couldn't dance. Man, they could dance, waltz, one-step, square dance, you bet. Even them little kids could square dance. That was the prettiest thing to watch.
I stayed at the Double Circles for a couple of years. Then I worked some in New Mexico and California, and I moved back here two or three different times. I wanted to work for a lot of different places. That was the only way a poor man could see the country. I would just decide to quit and go. You know, cowpunchers is pretty restless. Back then you could just throw your saddle over the fence and go to work for the next outfit. The Texas outfits paid $30 a month and the Arizona outfits paid $50. If I'd a had any sense, I could have been rich today, if I'd of saved my wages. I always spent it or loaned it to some renegade that never did aim to pay it back. They'd drink it up and gamble it away. But heck, you were working with them, and you didn't think nothin' about it much.
I never did gamble or play poker or drink liquor. I didn't even drink black coffee. That's the reason I'm living today. I don't smoke. I chewed a world of tobacco though, but I've quit that because my teeth wore out. I've still got a few left, enough to chew beef with.
My wife, Eleanor, does all those things. She smokes, drinks coffee, cusses too, once in a while. I met her in '32 when I came back to the JA. It was at one of their July Fourth dances. Her dad's ranch was right next door. I don't know why we got married. We just kind of wanted to. After we had our son and daughter, they'd come out and stay with me sometimes on the ranch. I always liked little children, and when I had some of my own I loved 'em so much. I never did spank 'em. I let Eleanor do the dirty work.
I've read lots of books. Read the Bible a lot. I believe what the Bible says, but I don't reckon I'm religious. Even if I was, I couldn't go to church because I've got too much work to do.
There's never been what you call crime out here that I know of. You're so tired at night you go to bed early and you have to get up early. There ain't much time for meanness. There's a lot of crime down in the cities I hear. I guess it's because there's so many people who haven't got nothing to do. I've had somethin' to do all my life. I never did want to settle down. I just wanted to work on a cattle ranch all the time. That's my kind of life.
I still help 'em work cattle here, brand and ship. I've got sections to look after, riding the fences, checking for washouts down in the creek. I don't ride every day, but most of the time. Riding is the best medicine for me. I can ride in a car and it makes me ache. Put me on a horse and I quit aching right away.
There aren't too many young men who want to do this kind of work anymore. They want a good house, electricity and things like that. They think cowboyin' is a big hat and a rope and a party on Saturday night. There's not many left like me. I'll stay out here as long as I'm able to work. I don't know, though, I may try another ranch one of these days, a place where they have a little more cow work. That's all I'm fit for is ropin' cattle.