My Dad was a King
My dad served as a platoon sergeant in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. The 10th is an elite unit trained to spearhead assaults under extremely difficult conditions. This didn’t add up when I was a little boy, because every time I heard this description of Dad’s unit, all I could think was, “My Dad? Really?” My father was the most gentle and humble man I have ever known. While other dads were loud, back-slapping story tellers, my dad was quiet and reserved. I often tried to get him to tell me war stories but he would not.
He would talk about his buddies and how much he thought of them but nothing about battle and nothing about himself.
Near the end of his life, I finally got one tidbit out of him. All he said was that a man died because of an order he gave, and that he had thought of that man every single day since. After dad passed away I researched his Army record and was astonished by what I found. Dad received two Bronze Stars for “acts of heroism and gallantry in the course of enemy combat” along with two Purple Hearts. He never told me about the medals, but in the end, he told me about the private who lost his life on his command.
After the war, General Dwight Eisenhower had this to say –
“Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and in the sacrifices of his friends.”
The man I knew understood this and quietly taught it to me every day of his life.
He taught me in the wholehearted and unconditional way he loved my mother for 62 years of marriage.
He taught me in his calm and gentle manner that provided the example I would call on every day in my adult life.
He taught me that honor is inseparable from character and gratitude.
A Giant of a Man
Life gravitates around defining moments. We all experience them – those suddenly open pages unexpectedly filled with memories rapidly written in indelible ink. As a reader of my page, you know that my oldest son Barry’s dog Bailey was killed by a truck on the highway in front of the ranch a few months ago. Yes, these things happen and they never give you warning. No one is exempt. At their worst, they are painful experiences we tuck away into the attic of our memory.
At the best, they serve us, shape us and teach us.
Character is built over time but defined in moments. Barry is a 32 year old man with his own business, a beautiful family and a heart of gold. He grew up working alongside his grandfather and lived for the days they could put the work down and just go fishing. He was born with a passion for the lakes and woods and loved nothing more than sharing them with a like minded companion. His favorite would ultimately be Bailey – the chocolate Labrador he raised from a pup.
Bailey was a smart dog – that’s for sure, but it never was about her. I watched my son love and teach that dog with patience and expectation. She became the best bird dog I’ve ever known and seemed to share Barry’s passion for the hunt. For ten years she rewarded his nurture and attention with loyalty, joy and companionship.
When Barry’s children came along, I realized more completely how important Bailey truly was. Like all of us, Barry had been shaped by his actions. He easily turned his patient heart to their care and instruction, and my 8 year old granddaughter Kayla and 3 year old grandson Colton are the unspeakable center of his world.
That particular Saturday was simply a perfect spring day at the ranch. By the cool of the evening, the work was done and all of us were winding down. With Colton napping in the house, Barry took the girls blackberry picking and my youngest son Ricky and his friend Michael went across the highway that runs through our property to a pond to shoot anything unlucky enough to move. I stayed in the backyard with a glass of tea to cool down from mowing.
The sound was sickening and unmistakable.
Through the quiet breeze, screeching tires and the thud of impact. My first and instant thought was “Oh my God, where is Colton?” I ran around the house to see a pickup truck sideways in the highway and a man and woman standing by the ditch with their hands gripping their heads in horror. I don’t even remember my body moving from the house to the ditch but what I found there obviously (and even thankfully) was Bailey.
I turned toward the pastures where Barry was picking berries with his mom, wife, and daughter and saw him running at full throttle towards us. I somehow knew he had the same horrific thought, and I called out to him “It’s Bailey.” He slowed his pace.
When he arrived, Bailey was in the throes of death. My screaming granddaughter was also running and getting much closer and I knew she must not see, so I ran to her and stopped her, far away from the highway. Connie had also reached her by now and held her close, rocking her inconsolably in her arms.
I could describe what happened next with noble terms like coupe de grace but the hard fact is my son had to shoot his own dog in a muddy East Texas ditch. He took her on one of our four wheelers to a far corner of the ranch to be buried, which he and the other boys soon did.
Now friends, here is the point of this story.
I saw my son that day.
I saw him shred his leg running through a barbed wire fence when he thought his son might be hurt. I saw him comfort a stranger who had just hit his dog. I saw him mercifully end his own animal’s life. I saw him tenderly kneel before his crying daughter and hold her until she found comfort. I saw him reassure his devastated mother that it was not her fault and that Bailey had broken free from her kennel before. In rapid succession in the heat of trial, I saw Barry put every living thing ahead of himself.
Later that evening we had a little funeral for Bailey in a peaceful spot by the creek where he buried her. He painted her name on a rock and Kayla put some flowers on the grave. We all stood around and remarked how beautiful the place was and how Bailey would have liked it. It was only when I whispered a few words of prayer thanking God for her life did I see my boy allow himself a moment to grieve.
I’ve never loved him so much.
I walked out of those woods with my arms around the shoulder of a giant of a man.
One of the greatest miracles of life is that adults produce children.
A greater miracle is that children produce adults.
There’s really nothing more humbling than the realization that a little boy has his eyes fixed on you expecting to learn how to be a man. Young dads have a hard time coming to grips with this because they are trying so hard to grow up themselves. Older dads are better, but they still struggle to understand how to be relevant to a boy at least two generations removed.
Granddads, however, relish it.
A boy is at ease with his grandfather. There’s little pressure to perform satisfactorily or to prove his mettle. In a granddad’s company, the pressure of daily life is removed and conversation is easy. If anything, the relationship is free from any hint of conditional love.
Dads have to raise the sons.
Granddads get to cheer them on.
I have five perfect grandsons, and it never makes my wife happy to hear me say that I’m just one short of a full set of pallbearers. I’m joking of course, but there is some truth in it.
When my last breath expires and it’s finally time to meet Jesus, I want it to be my grandsons who take that last walk with me.
Rick Wilcox is a sixth-generation Texan and the lucky father of grown children and seven perfect grandchildren. He also has a wife he doesn’t deserve. An international businessman by day, his muse cajoles him to write, ranch, and roam on an increasingly consumptive basis.
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About the ranch
Founded by my family over 150 years ago in northeast Texas, the ranch is a rich tapestry of eight generations. I walk into a single cemetery and find most of their headstones where decade after decade their remains were placed in solemn ceremony – but they are not there. It’s when I’m working the land or walking through the virgin forest I sense them most.
The story of the ranch is a story of people. Yes, the land is an inextricable song that sings in my soul, but the beating heart of Caney Creek is the people who cherish each other on one holy spot. As I survey the decades I see men and women who were unconditionally devoted to each other, and wholly committed to the bonds of fellowship.
As a man who was adopted at birth, I find great solace in the eclectic weaving of lives. It began with one clan and has now involved many. My own precious family is blended and bound to each other. It extends even to an inner circle of friends who now are closer to me than brothers and sisters – and the bonds we have established in this life are often materially refreshed in the times we spend there.
Caney Creek Ranch is above all an ongoing story of love. Love of Texas. Love of families. Love for each other.
Rick is the one wearing the hat.