Gary Hubbell: Double tough: The life and times of Randy Melton
I have a photograph of Randy Melton that says it all. He is astride a saddle bronc at the Snowmass Rodeo, his hat frozen in midair behind him, all four of the horse’s feet bunched up in midair underneath him, Randy’s one hand bound into the rigging and the other hand reaching for the sky behind him. His face is a study of intense concentration, as if riding that bronc is the one and only thing that matters to him in the world. It is a twilight photo, and the red striations of the mountains near Lenado are glowing in the sunset. Four girls crowd the rail behind him, looking on in a mixture of fascination and glee. They are smiling. You wouldn’t know that he had broken four ribs that morning.
That is Randy ” entertaining, focused, classic ” and double tough. He is a simple man, in love with life, horses and old-fashioned Western tack and clothing. He is also in love with his new wife, PJ, and their new baby boy. Randy came to me in summer 2002 looking for a job. He had been cowboying for various ranches down in Parachute, but wanted a taste of the high country. I needed wranglers and I decided to try him out.
He was 29 that summer, and he and Bo and Orin made quite a threesome. The girls at the rodeo didn’t stand a chance. Neither did the saddle broncs. He won all but a couple of the weekly rodeos and ended up the overall winner for the summer, taking home the buckle. At 6 feet, 3 inches and 200 muscular pounds, he didn’t have the typical bronc rider’s short and wiry build. Tall guys tend to get thrown around a lot. But his balance was perfect and his focus intense, and he rarely got thrown.
Randy was in love with the cowboy lifestyle, insisting on carrying an original Colt .45 single-action pistol on extended rides, along with his $400 Garcia spurs and custom-made bear-trap saddle. Every item he ever wore was original cowboy gear, authentic and well-used. He always had a neckerchief around his neck, his jingling spurs never left his boots, and he always said, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” in his soft Missouri accent.
He had gotten his start in life by joining the Army right out of high school, where he had been somewhat of a smartass and a cutup. The Army straightened that out. He liked the discipline and the physical training, and his endurance and strength made him a perfect fit for the Ranger battalion. Randy liked telling stories, not boastfully but in an entertaining, informative style. He told us about the intense Ranger training, where the instructors deprived the recruits of sleep and food and marched them into the ground on night excursions. Those who couldn’t handle it could remove themselves from the battalion by walking to the “tree of woe” in the middle of the compound, placing both hands on the tree, and saying, “I am not worthy, I am not worthy of being an Army Ranger.”
Randy’s duty assignments read like a synopsis of Clinton-era foreign policy: Haiti, where the natives placed sheets of plywood with spikes nailed to them in anticipation of their parachute landing; Honduras, where his company discovered $3 million in funny-looking American money, years before the new currency was introduced; Panama; and Somalia, where combat was actually much more intense and prolonged than the public ever knew.
“The best feat of horsemanship I ever saw was when we were out on patrol in Somalia,” Randy told me once. “There was this tribesman riding an Arabian horse at a dead gallop. He was 500 yards away from us, firing an M-79 grenade launcher at a dead run and hitting targets. The only problem was, our Humvees were the targets. I almost hated to kill the sonofabitch.” Randy was the M-60 machine-gunner in the squad, and he caught both horse and rider in a burst of fire.
Randy ended up receiving a reprimand from his commanding officer because the horse was still struggling when he received the command to stop firing, which he ignored. He put the horse out of its misery.
After leaving the Army, Randy was a guard in a Missouri maximum-security prison for a time, but found the duty depressing. He headed out West, where the cows still need a cowpuncher and outfitters still need packers and wranglers. While working for me, I knew that all I had to do was say the word and the job would be done. Randy broke eight or nine colts for me that summer with his kind, patient touch, and I never saw him raise his voice or lose his cool. In the fall, Randy was our packer, riding into the camps with packtrains loaded with groceries and gear and riding out with antlers and meat loaded onto the packhorses. When the weather hit and two of my camps were snowed in, Randy led the way through 3-plus feet of snow to dig them out.
With the commencement of hostilities in Iraq last year, the Army informed Randy that his reserve unit would be called up. They gave him the choice of an active-duty posting with a horse unit in Texas, or going to Iraq in the reserves. He rejoined the Army and moved to Texas, but suddenly all the positions with the horse unit were filled. He’s being sent to Iraq for a year anyway, with a month-old baby boy and his wife PJ staying behind in Texas.
If anyone can tough it out there, Randy can. If anyone can make a difference, Randy can. If the Iraqis have any sense of goodness and peace, they will find it in Randy. But if they want a fight, they’d better watch out, because Randy will bring it on, and on. He’s double tough.
Still I pray for you, Randy. Come home safe.
Gary Hubbell lives in Marble, where he and his wife, Doris, operate OutWest Guides. They offer summer horseback rides, fly-fishing trips, and autumn big-game hunts.
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The steep Jail Trail that leads into downtown Aspen is getting a better grade to address safety concerns and make it easier for people to use.