Tony Vagneur: See you on the trail, Uncle Wayne
It’s one of the best memories of my youth. My parents had taken me to the local rodeo when they were still held next to the Aspen Meadows, and I was all excited about that when a cowboy on a big horse rode up to the rail and my dad handed me over to this man I didn’t think I knew.
He put me in front of him in the saddle and we rode around the arena several times, once working up to a gallop for a short way. He knew a lot of people around that rodeo ring and I was impressed with how nice he was. I thought that being in the rodeo arena with him was the coolest thing that had ever happened to me.
I hadn’t thought much about the age difference before, but death puts odd things in perspective. I was 3 or 4 at the time and he was 18 or 19, both of us young kids. He died the other day at 87 years old, the last of his generation, and through all that span of years, I always thought he was one of the nicest guys around.
Uncle Wayne I called him, although in reality he was my dad’s first cousin, but when people start asking you, in a big family like mine, how you’re related to someone, it’s easier and saves time to just say someone is an uncle or an aunt, although there weren’t many Vagneur women in my dad’s generation. But I also called him that because, deep down, I wanted to be closer, to have him for a real uncle.
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For years it was a consternation to me, when introduced to someone, they’d say, “Oh, how are you related to Clyde and Wayne?” That wasn’t to discount any other men in the family, it was just because in the 1940s through the ’70s, Wayne and his brother Clyde were rodeo stars. They didn’t ride broncs, but boy, could they rope, and when their names were announced over the PA system, a hush would fall over the crowd for they knew something good and exciting was about to happen.
Wayne and I didn’t hang around much until I got out of college and was back here full-time. You might say we partied a little, or maybe it was a lot. Wayne had an unending curiosity about people, and when he’d see someone in a local joint that seemed out of place, he’d soon have the full story on the guy or gal. We knew nearly as many out-of-towners as locals and got invited to more parties in almost every location around town. We were good at talking to people, good at partying and good at bottle pool at the old Eagles Club. We made a lot of money off that odd leather jug.
But what held us together the most was the ranch — it was just in our blood, I reckon, that ranching way of life, as it is for many of us, and our lives fairly well revolved around that. He was one of the best ranchers I ever knew.
I’d pack salt for the cows, stay at cow camp and move the cattle up high in late summer, and when he got a break from haying, Wayne would come up and help out. He knew I didn’t need the help but figured someone ought to be checking on me, and he was the guy to do it. I didn’t like people around me much at cow camp, but Uncle Wayne’s visit was always the highlight of my summer up there.
Yesterday, just as the morning sun hit the tips of the Elk Mountains, I threw the saddle over the back of my horse and cinched it down like I’ve done a thousand times, and there was a presence of Wayne in the cool air as the leather squeaked and the buckles clicked and the horse snorted a bit. It was like so many past mornings he and I had started off on an adventure together.
Easy, my horse, and I got behind a long line of snaking bovines, headed up a steep trail Wayne had traveled in the same way from his youngest days, and in that moment, there was consolation in the knowledge of the rolling of the generations and the ranching tradition.
The last time I visited him in the nursing home, he asked if I’d driven my truck. When I replied in the affirmative, he said, “Good. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
How do you say goodbye to people like that, heroes and good friends you’ve had over the years? You don’t, you can’t, and if you could, would you?
Uncle Wayne found the exit open last Sunday night and took advantage, never looking back. Wayne, I loved you like a dad.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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