Someone once called my father a rugged individualist, which, as I look back, comes pretty close. Growing up the son of wildcatter and rancher, he knew from an early age that he too would one day be a rancher, and as a grown man, that’s how he lived his life–on a piece of land far away from people.
After serving two tours as a squadron commander flying P51 Mustangs in WWII where he was shot down by zeros, he met and married my mother, Ruth, in San Antonio, Texas. They moved to the Big Bend after he graduated from Texas A&M, and were droughted out. I remember my mother saying, “The only thing left was our suitcases.” And my dad nodding his head.
Aviation would become a mainstay in our family, because my mother was also a pilot in the War, and because of the remoteness of the places where my father took us. I remember birthday parties at the ranches in our neighborhood. There’d be ten to fifteen planes parked on the dirt airstrips with a piñata swinging from the shade tree. We lived on extremely isolated ranches in the Llanos of Venezuela, Mexico, and Hells Canyon.
As a boy, it seemed like my father was afraid I’d grow up not knowing how to work. I’d be up at three am wrangling the horses up for the men on horseback, then milking the cows in time to start school (home school with my mother) at six. At noon, my brother and I would grab horses that were left in the corrals and finish the day riding with the men out prowling pastures. Because he placed me right in the middle of life on the ranch, I grew a deep fondness for traveling on horseback, for wild places where very few people had been before, and for caring for these places as if they were my own home. I worked six-and-a-half day week alongside men who stayed busy those long days without even thinking about it.
But as hard as he could be, he was gentle and thoughtful, and consequently, we were extremely close. As a teenager, I remember his hand on my neck or arm when I sat on the arm of his chair or stood close to him. I always felt that he listened to me no matter what wild idea I had, supporting, always encouraging. I felt that he was proud of me. I think having this kind of backup from someone I respected so much gave me the self-confidence that made me comfortable with taking risks and not afraid to think differently than those around me.
My dream growing up was to work with him and create a large ranching business, which never happened. Instead, because of his influence, I have been able to think and work independently, which has led to creating a ranching business that instead, I run with my son, Duke IV and daughter, Tess. My dream ultimately has come true, but with a twist.
I am always surprised to see how closely my son Duke IV resembles my dad, even though he did not spend a great deal of time around him. He is charismatic like his grandfather was, who always had a flock of kids hanging around him in high school with other fathers looking on wistfully. Duke’s sensitivity, his ability to lead people and made sound decisions is a complete remake of my father. People are drawn to him because he is genuinely interested in them, the same as his grandfather, both known to spend hours talking with people they’d just met. D4 still wears the short sleeve shirts that D2 handed down to him over 15 years ago and the same kind of velcro-fastened tennis shoes that his grandfather used to wear. And his piloting skills are on the same level – I trust no one more than them to fly with.
In his later years, my dad came to live a few miles from the Chico, so he could be close. He would come over when we were branding or working cattle in the corrals and sit in his chair as close as he could without getting in the way, intently watching and listening. Without even looking at him I could feel his pride, the same that I felt as a boy, which creating the self-assurance that has formed my life as a rancher. It’s the same pride that I feel for Duke now when he is roping, flying, talking with his team or a friend. And the same pride when I see my grandkids running around the ranch in their hats and boots without a care in the world, waving swords or fishing poles around. If it were not for his vision and passion for working and living out on a dusty, lonesome, old ranch, we would not be working as a family raising cattle and kids as we are.