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 Texas : Feature : Columns : "They shoe horses, don't they?"

The Gillette Cowboy

by Lois Zook Wauson
Willie was tall, dark and handsome, with a grin on his face at all times. When I think of Willie, I see him with his cowboy hat on, wearing jeans, and his handmade Lucchesi boots. He loved trail rides, horses, and his cattle on his little ranch near Gillette, in Karnes County. He spent his last 20 years working at Kelly Field in San Antonio. Going to work every day in a white shirt and tie, working in an office, was his vocation. But, in his heart he was a rancher, and his dream was to be a full time rancher. Two more months and he was going to retire and move to the "farm" as he called it. It was June of 1984.

Willie was the oldest of my husband's brothers and sisters. He was the strong one, the one everyone turned to when they needed help. Though he never married, having had his heart broken several times, he was a favorite uncle to many nieces and nephews and friends children. He knew how to make them feel special, like they were his favorite!

He grew up in Pleasanton. He was in love with a neighbor girl, but she only wanted to be friends. He worked for a while in the post office after graduation, but then Pearl Harbor came, and he enlisted in the Marines. It was in the South Pacific, preparing for the landing at Guadalcanal, on a ship near Tarawa, when an artillery shell hit nearby and a jeep broke loose and pinned Willie to another jeep and injured his shoulder. After a prolonged stay in a hospital in New Zealand, he went to a hospital in California. There he contacted tuberculosis and was there for a long time. He came home, still not well. He lived with his parents who had moved to San Antonio by then.

Willie was bedridden for a long time and his only outings were to the doctor and going to the nearby record shop, because he loved music. There he met a girl. She was beautiful and everything he ever wanted in a girl. She was in love with him, but yet loved someone else too. Then she chose the other man over Willie and his heart was broken. Rumor had it that her family forced her to pick the other man.

Willie eventually recovered and went to work at Kelly Field and bought a farm near Gillette. He spent every weekend at the farm. As his nephews got older they would go along. Trent, our oldest son, went to the farm with him several times. They were real adventures! It wasn't until many years later, we found out that Willie would let Trent drive his big Buick Electra. He was only 12 years old! This was because Willie loved to take his Pearl Beer with him on the weekend trips, and drink beer on the way down. Trent did the driving!

Willie had built a big front porch on his old dilapidated farmhouse. That was the first remodeling project. The roof had big holes in it, and you could see the blue sky through those holes. The house had only stove and old wooden table and two chairs in it. They cooked there. But they lived on the front porch. They slept on the front porch. Most of the time they ate on the front porch.

"We felt like we were men on those weekend trips", Trent said. "We spent the days traipsing around the ranch, carrying .22 rifles on our shoulders, shooting at rabbits, coyotes, and doves. Uncle Willie would hand us a piece of his Red Man chewing tobacco, and we would act like it tasted real good, but finally had to spit it out!"

Trent said, "One night, we were asleep on the front porch, and woke to the sounds of coyotes yipping loudly right nearby. We opened our eyes and looked out. Through the darkness we made out eight or nine coyotes "ringing" us in a half circle, their eyes glowing in the dark. Their loud yipping was piercing to our ears. Willie reached for his .22, but the movement scared them off. That was one exciting night!"

Willie had lots of friends in Karnes County, and he would take Trent with him to visit everyone. His friend, Elo and his wife who were probably 90 years old were his best friends. Elo would spend hours rambling on about their turn of the century life. Trent said, "I loved listening to those tales from the late 1890's and early 1900's."

Trent went on, "We would always drop by the local 'colored beer joint'. That is what everyone called it. Inside would be a bunch of Willie's friends. We would be the only white people in there. And this was before integration. Willie would buy them a round of beer and get me a coke, and then he would sit there and talk and visit and find out how everyone's family was doing. I loved those trips to visit all his friends."

One of Willie's biggest passions was politics. He was a staunch Democrat. He had his favorites and loved to argue. From the governor's to the president's race, he followed every election. He never failed to vote. Even when he was 19 years old, and very sick once in Pleasanton, bedridden with some illness even then, Eddie remembers tormenting him with turning the radio to W. Lee O'Daniel, whom Willie hated, and setting it far enough away, that he couldn't reach it to turn it off! Poor Willie had to listen to the whole program. "Pappy" O'Daniel rambled on and on, and Willie suffered through it all, with Eddie laughing gleefully.

Election day was one of our favorite times of the year. We would take our young children and go to Willie's house, on election night to listen to returns come in. He would invite people over for a party and of course everybody was a Democrat. Everyone would leave before midnight, but Willie and Eddie still sat by the radio if the race wasn't over. The kids would fall asleep on the floor and I would fall asleep on the couch. Finally around 2:00 AM, Willie helped Eddie carry the children to the car, and we headed home across San Antonio in the dark hours of the morning. No one was out. But we knew Willie was still up, listening to the returns. I also knew he would get a couple hours of sleep and then make a cold pinto bean sandwich, and get ready to go back to work at Kelly Field. He would be happy if his man won, or sad if he lost.

It was June of 1984, and Willie was looking forward to retiring from Kelly Field. He was excited about moving to the farm, where he could take care of his cows. He treasured those cows, and called them by name. He could hardly part with one, and hated to sell them. He was working on remodeling the old house, and was going to live there as he worked on it.

That June night, we got a phone call. Willie had been found in his truck, dead. The truck had veered off the street and went up into the church parking lot at Epworth Methodist Church. He had died of a burst aneurysm while driving home from his retirement party!

Willie's dream of retirement to his farm in Gillette was never fulfilled. Willie, the favorite uncle in the Wauson family was not there any more for those who needed help. He had given so much to so many, especially love, and even though he never received much in the way of material things, he received a lot of love from so many people.

I think he probably has his own little ranch in Heaven. All his cows have names. He is wearing his favorite Lucchesi boots, has on his Stetson hat, and jeans and denim jacket. I bet God even gave him his own pickup to drive. Do you think they have election days in Heaven? I hope so, because Willie loved those days. But knowing the sense of humor that God has, He probably put Willie's ranch right next to W. Lee O'Daniels ranch!
"They shoe horses, don't they?" >
May 1, 2007 Guest Column
Copyright Lois Zook Wauson


Lois Zook Wauson's book "Rainy Days and Starry Nights' (2004) is a collection of her stories about growing up in South Texas during the 1930s and 40s.

See Gillette, Texas

Rainy Days and Starry Nights
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