Books logo

Lazy B

Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest

By Sandra Day O'Connor and H. Alan Day

Random House, New York, 2002, pp. 320, $24.95

Lazy B book cover

Cover of book

By Michele Leight

After a trip with my son in March 2002 to Tucson, Arizona, I happened on this book by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor of the United States Supreme Court and her brother, H.Alan Day, while browsing in bookstore back in Manhattan. Coming from a family besotted by anything "western," it immediately became a Mother's Day gift from my son. It had all the makings of a good read: a brother-and-sister team writing about their childhood in the West from the blessed vantage point of middle-age.

For most people in the United States, the word "cowboy" conjures up images of John Wayne in legendary film director John Ford's "The Searchers" or Howard Hawks's "Red River," and a never-ending stream of actors like Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, James Garner (to name a few) starring in classic western movies like "Gunfight at O.K. Corral," "High Noon" and "Duel at Diablo" (see The City Review article) and who can forget Clint with his cigar, poncho and major attitude in Sergio Leone's "The Good the Bad and the Ugly," even if it was a "spaghetti western" filmed in the wild frontiers of Spain. These cowboys are now the stuff of myth and legend, woven into the fabric of the American character, and into the psyche of all those who are not American but who dream of freedom and the vast, open spaces and fiery orange skies of the Western landscape now etched in our imaginations via celluloid. But for a real-life portrayal of the amazing men behind these mythic images, "Lazy B" is an unforgettable journey into a uniquely American way of life that is now almost completely lost to history.

For all those who find themselves thinking, "No? Cowboys? Sandra Day O'Connor? The Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor?" join the club. It was a shock to discover that the author is none other than the first woman ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States of America in 1981 by Ronald Reagan. Judging by the contents of the book, her upbringing was the perfect training for the job. In the 302 pages of "Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest," (co-written with her brother, H. Alan Day, who is still a rancher), the Chief Justice makes only a couple of perfunctory references to her important and historic position, and continues to fill the pages with wonderful descriptions of a harsh yet beautiful desert existence, peopled by a close family, colorful local characters and stoic cowboys who worked the ranch and whose spirit and character ultimately dominate the book - together with the vast western frontiers and skies from which they are inseparable. It is written in a no-nonsense, open American style that is as refreshing as a spring breeze. There isn't a pretentious or overworked line in the book.

Beginning with her parents' elopement - because they were madly in love and their mother did not want to be talked out of a marriage considered unsuitable for a girl unused to a harsh, ranching existence and throughout the book, Sandra Day O'Connor and Alan Day focus on the essentials of what many would consider an almost punishing existence in a barren corner of Arizona with an average of 10 inches of rainfall a year, brutal temperatures, few inhabitants and no modern conveniences in the early years. Hard work and back-breaking hours in the saddle ride the pages relentlessly till you can feel the heat, the dust, the sweat, culling from this existence a quality which can only be described as "backbone" in all of the main characters. Where, oh where, did they find the strength and the courage for such a life? For anyone who has sat gaping at the physical dexterity (and suicidal tendencies!) of rodeo cowboys, marveling that they are not carted off on stretchers by paramedics instead of grinning and dusting themselves off after being flung to the ground by a ferocious-looking steer, this book will enthrall, amuse and ultimately tug at the heartstrings as the realization dawns that most of the characters in the book are now dead and who, if anyone, will ever replace them?

Large as life are "DA," the patriarch of the family and "MO," or mother, an inseparable and deeply devoted couple otherwise called Harry and Ada Mae Day, parents to the Day children, Sandra, Alan and Ann. In the preface there are lines from Wallace Stegner's "Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood" which sets the tone of the book:

"There is something about living in a big empty space,
where people are few and distant, under a great
sky that is alternately serene and furious, exposed
to sun from four in the morning till nine at night,
and to a wind that never seems to rest there is
something about exposure to that big country that
not only tells an individual how small he is, but
steadily tells him who he is."


It is not surprising to learn that a woman as powerful and down-to-earth as Sandra Day O'Connor comes from intrepid stock. Paternal grandfather, H.C. Day was a New Englander who, at 35, married Alice Edith Hilton of England in 1879, (aged 18), who was the daughter of John Price Hilton of England, rector and founder of St. John's Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kansas. In 1880 the cattle business looked good enough to attract savvy investors from Scotland and England to the Western United States: "the grazing on the public domain was essentially free for the taking. Some of these investors put cattle in Montana and Wyoming and later learned to their sorrow how the excessive snow and severe cold weather could destroy the herds. In the Gadsden Purchase area, snow was virtually unknown, and the chances were better that the cattle could forage for grass year round. Only an Apache raid or a summer drought would cut down the herd" The big problem in Arizona was water, and wells had to be dug and windmills built at the "Lazy B" to power and pump water out of the wells.

After an extended stay in Europe visiting relatives, H.C. Day found out that a neighbor rancher was putting his own brand on Lazy B calves; a visit to a local lawyer yielded the advice "Mr. Day, get a gun." Mr. Day had to take hold of his ranch or lose his investment, so he built a house and a one-room schoolhouse for his children near the Gila River. Orchard and garden followed, as well as three daughters and a son, Harry in 1898. Although no further mention is made about a gun, he must have acquired one, because there was no more trouble from the rancher. The Days remained at the Lazy B for ten years, till a new manager was found, and the family was moved to Pasadena, California. H.C. took Harry to the ranch in the summers, supervising improvements, constructing windmills and fencing and overseeing "the management practices of the cattle and horses." It was alongside his own father that "DA" learned the valuable lessons of minimizing unnecessary expense, wasting nothing and praying for rain. It is amazing to think of the hard work applied to such an endeavor, without even the guarantee of minimal rainfall.

Harry's plans to go to Stanford were thwarted by World War I; he was drafted, trained, but discharged at the end of the war. His father was by then too ill to visit the ranch, the manager was producing no income, so Harry stepped in and had bad news to report back to his father. His first impression of living out on the harsh terrain as an adult was negative, and in a letter to his sister he wrote: "This certainly is a terrible place to live and I hate it here." To cut a long story short, H.C. Day died in 1921, Harry inherited the Lazy B, and in 1927 he bought some bulls from an El Paso, Texas, rancher named W.W. Wilkey, who invited Harry to dinner. Ada Mae, Wilkey's daughter, and Harry hit it off: "An instant spark ignited," writes their daughter. Upon his return to the Lazy B, a three-month correspondence began between the two. Harry saw her again in El Paso, and in September of the same year they eloped and were married in Las Cruces, New Mexico, returning to the Lazy B to live in a four-room adobe house.

For Ada Mae and Harry, these unglamorous beginnings resulted in a lifetime at the Lazy B, bringing up three children, Sandra, Alan and Ann. Their parents thought no existence better than the one they had, and Harry died peacefully in his sleep at the ranch aged 85, with his wife beside him, in 1984, and Ada Mae five years later, with her son Alan and his family still living at the ranch. Early in the memoir, Sandra and Alan wrote: "It was no country for sissies, then or now."

The Lazy B was situated near the Gila River, straddling the border of Arizona and New Mexico: "Every living thing in the desert has some kind of protective mechanism or characteristic to survive thorns, teeth, horns, poison, or perhaps just being too tough to kill and eat. A human living there quickly learns that anything in the desert can hurt you if you are not careful and respectful. Whatever it is can scratch you, bite you or puncture you. When riding horseback, you have to watch where you are going." One cannot help thinking that this was ideal training for the legal profession.

Sandra at 16

Sandra at 16

Childhood pursuits included riding everywhere and collecting pottery shards left behind from centuries old Indian camps. Sandra Day O'Connor writes: "I would spend hours waiting for DA to finish in that area looking around for some of these bits of Indian life and times. I would take them to show MO, who greatly enjoyed finding such treasures. We would talk about the lives these early inhabitants led"

The lack of water dominates early memories; it was a treasured commodity, used sparingly. 35 wells and windmills toiled to keep the family, cowboys and cattle from drying out, and the descriptions of harsh weather, grueling hours of work in the sun, weeks and months of toiling on the land, are reminiscent of Willa Cather's "My Antonia" and "O, Pioneers," two great classics of heroic attempts by human beings to tame a wild and unsympathetic landscape in order to survive: the pioneering spirit which created the American West. Disaster took the form of a broken well and waterless cattle, and all other work stopped till the well was mended. If it could not be fixed the cattle had to be moved to another area; they could not go more than a day without water before dehydrating. The authors describe the older, hand-crafted windmills "cut by hand and weathered to a soft grey" as if they were precious sculptures. They represented survival to the young children, who watched fascinated as cowboys and ranch hands brought all their skills and muscle to bear to get them working again. Young Sandra Day could not do any heavy work, but she stood by to hand over the necessary tools when necessary.

"High Lonesome," "Wimp Well," ("named after the scurvy old fellow who drilled it"), "Willow Springs," (the prettiest location on the ranch), "Cottonwood Spring" and "Round Mountain," (ranch headquarters), were names given to different parts of the ranch. Endurance was the name of the game, and a quote, attributed to Kit Carson from "Early Arizona" by J. Wagoner sums it up well: " The Gadsden Purchase Territory was so desolate, desert and God-forsaken that a wolf could not make a living on it." Despite this, the Day family persevered and three generations lived on the Lazy B ranch for 100 years. It was one of the most successful ranches in Arizona.

Ranch life was not without its amusements: in a world without T.V., video games, computers and in-house workout machines, everyone did what seems less and less a part of family life now. They interacted with each other. Card games like bridge, pinnocle, gin rummy and hearts whiled away many a hot afternoon and evening. Before electricity came to the ranch in the 1940s, a generator ran for only three hours each night. The radio was the only connection to the outside world, and during World War II the family and the ranch hands were glued to the news. They also listened to Joe Lewis boxing matches, and family members favored different weekly radio shows like the Jack Benny Program and Fibber McGee and Molly.

Taking the .22 caliber rifle out to shoot rabbit, (who chewed up cattle grazing forage and bred prolifically), and reading U.S. News and World Report, Time, Fortune and the Los Angeles Times was a way of keeping abreast of current events an absolute must for DA, which filtered down to his children. When TV finally came to the ranch, long after the rest of the United States, it never superseded conversation and interactive activities. "All three children learned the art of discussion, but there was a negative side. DA always had to have the last word in any agreement. All three of us picked up this trait, and we find ourselves as adults mirroring the same tendency," write the authors. More training for Sandra's legal profession, this time from dad.

MO's El Paso, Texas-upbringing, together with a University of Arizona college education, set her apart from the others at the ranch; she liked to read and collected books from the beginning of her life at the ranch. Household chores which included cooking for a large crew, and washing clothes using a corrugated washboard did not prevent her taking care of her attractive looks. She never wore Levis or rough clothing, and kept herself well covered with hat and long sleeves when exposed to the sun. She got first crack at the weekly bath in the years before plumbing, followed by DA and any cowboy who chose to clean himself in the single tub-full of water. Her father gave her a piano, and she sang in a clear soprano voice from time to time.

Lordsburg, the nearest town, was 35 miles away, and MO drew interest whenever she stopped in for groceries because of her stylish clothes, which she shopped for from magazines. She subscribed to The New Yorker, Vogue, House Beautiful, The Saturday Evening Post, Time, Life and the Los Angeles Times. Her daughter and son write: "MO was a patient and loving mother.she read endlessly to all three of her children. She taught me to read by age four. She taught all three of us to play various card games, including canasta, bridge, hearts and booray. She was an avid walker. When we were small she would walk with us for hours and look for interesting things to see a wildflower, a pretty rock, an unusual plant or insect. We would pick up these treasures and carry them home to put in a favorite place to keep forever. She made banana cupcakes for us every week, and various pies as well."

MO had a mind of her own. She was the only woman in a band of predominantly single men and they respected her. She did not move to El Paso when it was decided that Sandra should attend school there, like many other ranch wives. Sandra was the oldest by nine years until a sibling was born, and MO thought she needed the company of other children. Although Grandfather and Grandmother Wilkey were wonderful, Sandra was always homesick for the ranch.

Cousin Flournoy, who also lived with the Wilkey grandparents, was a frequent visitor to the Lazy B during the summer holidays. Her father had died of leukemia when she was young, forcing her mother out to work. Flournoy became a supportive and loving older sister to Sandra, introducing her to her friends and including her in her social activities.

MO loved visitors, and there were many: her brother Scott and his family, DA's nieces and their families, and Sandra's friends from school in El Paso. They enjoyed entertaining even though it was more work for MO, and she and DA would take them out in jeeps and pick-ups, or on horseback, to show them the ranch.

Once a week MO went to the beauty parlor in Lordsburg to have her nails polished and her hair washed and set. Local women took turns hosting a bridge luncheon once a month, and MO enjoyed that day, especially when it was her turn. Sometimes the family traveled, though they did not know until the last minute if DA would go along. Occasionally they traveled with friends like Lordsburg attorney Forrest Sanders and his wife, or the wealthy Maules from Houston, Texas, whose life included all the luxuries absent from MO's but she would not have exchanged hers for anything. Agnes Maule, MO's friend from the University of Arizona, sent her long letters with detailed descriptions of a fancy social life, which MO saved in a special place and re-read frequently. MO also saved every single magazine she received, storing them under the beds when the closets and shelves were full. "While some of the cowboys taught us that only the toughest survive, MO taught us that kindness and love can also produce survivors, and in a happy atmosphere."

A permanent fixture at the ranch over the years was "Rastus," whose real name was Raphael Estrada. His parents were Mexican and when his father died his mother remarried. Rastus ran away from home because he did not like his stepfather, and he went out looking for work. He found Lordsburg 50 miles away, and finally ended up at the Lazy B he never left. The children loved him and it was a special treat to spend the day riding with Rastus. They learned from him "the contentment of doing the best you can with what you have." The description of Rastus' final hours is one of the saddest passages in the book. Clearly he was adored and he took with him many wonderful memories when he died.

Larger than life is Jim Brister, who arrived at the Lazy B in 1924, with his wife Mae. He too ran away from home as a young boy, and never spoke of his abusive childhood. He never went to school and had no relatives to speak of. His first job involved doing the menial tasks for a Wild West Show in Texas. He learned to ride and rope and soon became a performer in the show. Attendance at the old style shows dwindled, and was replaced by local rodeos. Jim would ride hundreds of miles for weeks to compete in a rodeo show. He was a first rate rodeo performer: "If he had a fault, it was that he made things look too easy. Audiences preferred seeing cowboys bucked off, or chased off by a wild cow" Jim sometimes won every single event and was a legend on the rodeo circuit. Mae, Jim's wife, said he married her when she was eleven! DA built a small house for them at Willow Springs, the prettiest place on the ranch, ten miles from the ranch headquarters. The Bristers lived there for 49 years.

Each of the cowboys had their own special skill to offer, even if it was not to Jim Brister's standard. Bug Quinn was the indispensable master of the "chuck wagon," which always arrived in time to quench parched throats and rumbling stomachs after hours of back-breaking work in the blazing sun; often he even managed hot biscuits. He had greater difficulty handling his wives over the years or they him because he had a drinking problem and was not cut out to be a good husband.

Claude Tippetts "measured himself by how well he could build a fence, construct a corral, or lay a water pipe.He was as strong at 60 as he was at 40. He taught us a thing or two about stamina." Claude worked at the ranch from 1918, aged 29, till he retired in 1984, leaving for a short time during World War II. The army pulled out his teeth and gave him a set of false ones, but he threw them out when he left: "It took him a little longer to eat than most people," wrote Sandra and Alan. Claude gave his spurs to Alan in 1986: "I won't be needing these any moreIt was an emotional moment. When a cowboy gives up his spurs it is usually the beginning of the end." Alan was with him, holding his hand for a few moments before he died in hospital. "Alan was grateful he could be with Claude because Claude wanted it that way. We were proud to know him."

In 1929, right before the Depression, the water dried up at the Lazy B, and DA decided to lease a ranch in Sonora, Mexico, 120 miles away. The 2000 head of cattle were driven (by cowboys on horseback, not trucks) to Animas; the animals stampeded, the weather was horrible, and there were no accommodations along the way. They left at Thanksgiving and arrived just before Christmas, returning to the Lazy B a year later. Rain had restored the ranch and grazing conditions improved, but DA never moved the cattle again.

An entire chapter is devoted to rain, which is all the more poignant after this writer spent a week in March (considered the "cool" season) in Tucson, Arizona; wherever we went, I looked for a river, stream or lake but found none. On an off-road jeep excursion in the desert, wide gullies of earth emerged from time to time: "That is from last years' rain," explained the guide: "It comes in torrents in the rainy season." All around us, in a "Mad Max" landscape devoid of human beings or dwellings, were gigantic Sauguro cacti, limbs arching up skywards like primeval creatures begging for rain. Everything was as dry as a bone and glowing orange as the sun finally let up for the day. Tucson has a far kinder climate that the area occupied by the Lazy B ranch.

The authors describe the uplifting feeling in the aftermath of rain: "Then came the crack of lightning touching something on earth with all the electric fury of the universe. Seconds later the incredible sound of the thunder, the sound produced by the lightning bolt rolling through the clouds above. And then wonder of wonders the first few big wet drops of rain forming muddy places on the dusty windshield. Then more and more until we would just stop the pick-up truck and sit inside it, unable to see even the closest objects outside because the rain would come in waves, sheets, torrents. Joy, wonder. Incredible gift from above. Our salvation. Rain"

Alan with the horses

Alan with the horses

Breaking in young horses, roping and branding young calves, selecting and separating weaker animals for sale, leaving the strong to breed next season's calves, was the ranch cowboys' responsibility. Young Alan grew up alongside these men, and received no special treatment or leniency because he was the bosses' son. He paid his dues in sweat and toil like any other cowboy. In his thirteenth year Alan learned to break horses; Jim Brister would have helped him, but he was away most of that summer: "The other cowboys would just smile and say that these horses really needed breaking and that they were glad Alan was doing it. They might ask how their favorite colt was progressing, but they never gave him any advice on how to do it. Every day, Alan learned more from the horses than they were learning from him."

Cousin Flournoy and Sandra Day were inseparable during the summers it was 100 degrees in the heat of the day (no air conditioning!), and typical amusements were reading and swimming in the tank not a fancy, chlorinated, filtered swimming pool surrounded by lush landscaping. The tank, 6ft.-high and fifty feet across had murky green water, infested with algae and a few goldfish, but it was a blissful, cool oasis in the searing temperatures. When their parents had to go into Lordsburg, the girls had to accompany them because they were never left alone. The small town errands of post office, bank, grocery shopping the shop was owned and run by a Chinese man called Fat Hoy who came to the United States to build the railroads and onward to each place where a bill had to be paid and supplies ordered. In these days of internet bill paying, such human connectedness is both quaint and refreshing. The Days knew the managers and owners by name, and it was more personal than the next-customer-please attitude of today.

Alan with MO and DA in 1981

Alan with MO and DA in 1981

Finally, when the business of the day was done, they would retire to the Hidalgo Hotel the children to the lobby to "people watch" and MO and DA to the bar, where they enjoyed the company of local friends like the attractive widow Clayton, the lawyer Forrest Sanders (for whom Sandra would work after earning her law degree) and his wife, local ranchers, mining engineers and businessmen. Once back at the ranch everyone helped unload the groceries: "As soon as we had done our part unloading, we would dash to get the Saturday Evening Post or "Life" or "Time," to read about what was going on in the world outside the Lazy B. We were all glad to be home again."

Jim Brister, "the toughest cowboy we ever saw at the Lazy B," has two entire chapters to devoted to him. His early, abusive childhood "forged a man of singular strength and determination, one as rare as an honest politician," write the authors. At seventy-five, Jim was still breaking horses: "One day Jim was out at Antelope Well on the black horse and was teaching the horse how to drag. Jim had his rope around a piece of pipe. The rope got under the horse's tail, and the horse began bucking violently. Jim went off and landed on his head. Jim's neck was broken and he died instantly." Jim was remembered by all who knew him as the most skilled cowboy and rodeo star they had ever seen.

Jim's second wife, who was an alcoholic, drank away all the money Jim left her and pawned off every single championship belt buckle and saddle, (including the 1947 World Championship Saddle), bridle and spur he had collected over the years through trade or prizes. She even gave away some of it, leaving nothing at the Lazy B. The Graham County Historical Society erected a commemorative plaque where Jim fell, and that is all that is left.

Until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, all federal land in Arizona and New Mexico was open for grazing without fee or supervision, which resulted in severe erosion through overgrazing of the public lands.

The Lazy B Ranch was allocated about 160,000 acres of grazing rights. "Of that amount, 8560 acres were owned by the ranch corporation, almost 30,000 acres were leased from Arizona, and almost 22,000 acres were leased from New Mexico. The balance was federa land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The entire area consisted of roughly 250 square miles," the authors wrote.

The Gadsden Purchase area was vulnerable to floods because the highways and railroads were built at lower elevations and water accumulated there. The Lazy B ranch lay in the drainage basin of the Gila River, and the Southern Pacific Railroad traversed the ranch for 18 miles. Levees and diversions built by the railroad company formed gullies and steep canyons; floodwaters found these channels and did not spread out over the ranch, and there was less forage for the cattle. This state of affairs continued until the 1950s, when Boo Allen, Chief of the Stafford Grazing District, came up with a plan.

Boo's plan required the building of twelve dams on the ranch so the water could be released slowly and spread out to irrigate the land. DA loved the idea but did not have the money: "MO had listened quietly. She loved DA and loved the ranch. She said she would contribute her own money toward Boo's plan. She thought the ranch would benefit greatly from the flood control. Abashed by MO's offer, DA then agreed that Lazy B would put up its share of the costs. He said later that `MO might look like a frail, little middle-aged wife, but those looks are deceiving.'" Boo also proposed that the Bureau of Land Management put up the initial construction costs with the Lazy B supplying 15% and agreeing to maintain it.

Both the Bureau of Land Management and the local ranchers proved to be a hard sell, but the Lazy B produced dramatic results and the ranch became a showpiece for the soil conservationists. Alan took things a step further, deciding that periods of rest from grazing were better for the long-term health of the grass and vegetation - or "timed grazing." Alan implemented these ideas at the Lazy B, once again producing dramatic results. Production on the range surpassed DAs, and the average weight of the calves increased by more than a hundred pounds. Amazing what juicy grass will do.

Sandra Day entered Stanford in 1946; her parents drove her to Palo Alto, and from then on she returned to the ranch at Christmas and for summer vacations: "There were heated discussions at the dinner table with DA. The Keynesian economic theories I was learning at Stanford were not consistent with DA's pay-as-you-go economic theories." In her third year, she decided to enter law school at Stanford for her fourth year as an undergraduate: "DA said he wouldn't mind having a lawyer in the family whom he could consult. Stanford Law School accepted me and I began the studies that would shape my life."

The summer before law school Sandra persuaded Forrest Sanders to let her work in his law office in Lordsburg as a secretary and receptionist a job continued the following summer, so she obviously did okay. The small town legal practice involved representing defendants in some of the major criminal cases in the county from illegal gambling to prostitution: "I saw a side of Lordsburg I had not know existed," writes the once-sheltered ranch girl.

During her first spring break from Stanford, Sandra brought three friends home with her - Beastie, Barbara and Calista. DA talked non-stop to them out of nerves and even the cowboys liked them. The following summer came another friend and fellow law student, John O'Connor, who knew nothing at all about ranch life. DA's way of initiating poor John O'Connor has to be read to be believed; he must have really loved Sandra Day because he stuck around.

John O'Connor and Sandra Day were married at the Lazy B on December 20th, 1952. The rector of All Saints Church, El Paso, performed the ceremony. Neighbors and ranchers drove miles to attend the wedding, bringing salads and casseroles to contribute to the meal: "The men wore their fancy boots and best Stetsons. Grandmother Wilkey attended, along with other Wilkey and Day relatives. All the cowboys were present and one of them even danced with John's mother.the dust didn't settle on the ranch road for days after the wedding."

The O'Connors lived and worked in Phoenix, and visited the ranch with their children for Thanksgiving, and often for Christmas, "and one or two sons were deposited at the ranch for long visits during the summer. Finally, mention is made of the "big position": "In the summer of 1981 life changed dramatically for me and my family," writes Sandra Day O'Connor. "President Reagan announced my nomination as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. It did not seem possible that a ranch girl would grow up to serve on our nation's highest court." The ranch, which had always been a quiet backwater, suddenly became the focus of national attention."

Letters, reporters and well-wishers descended on a bewildered MO and DA at the Lazy B: "They traveled to Washington, D.C. to see me take my oath of office. The terse ceremony brought tears to my eyes as I looked down from the elevated bench in the courtroom to see my husband, our three sons, MO and DA, Alan, Ann, and President and Mrs. Reagan seated and watching the proceedings. It was a moment suspended in time, bringing together the life in the harsh desert terrain of the Lazy B and the fast-paced sophisticated life in Washington, D.C."

Without further ado, the story plunges right back to the ranch and Washington seems worlds away: Alan assumed more and more responsibility as DA grew older and frailer. The older rancher also found the changes in government policies regarding land management irritating. Soon most of ranch matters were left to Alan.

Gradually the Bureau of Land Management and its well-intentioned paper-pushers wrought changes in the way things had been done for decades: rules and regulations superseded on site range improvements, cutting back the rancher's ability to turn a profit. Grazing fees and monthly expenses off-set the improvements in land and grass. The Lazy B was designated for stewardship due to the improvement in the condition of the range. Only eleven stewardships in total were granted by the BLM. There were not many ranchers of the caliber of Harry Day or Boo Allen left, and prospects looked gloomy.

Alan Day had met Barbara Mellick at the University of Arizona, and they were married soon after he graduated. MO loved having Alan and his family at the Lazy B, but for DA it was a mixed blessing. Help with the arduous physical labor was welcome, but DA was not used to sharing management decisions, and Alan was also a lot more easygoing than his father! DA worried about the future far more than Alan, with justification. Perhaps he saw the demise of a way of life he had worked all his life to create.

One evening, after going over papers in the ranch office, DA went to bed at around 9.30 and never woke again: MO was beside him and bed and found him dead in the morning. The house was empty, with Alan and the crew out rounding up cattle. DA's memorial service was held at the ranch, and baskets of red poppies DA's favorite flowers were placed beside photos of him. DA's ashes were taken to the top of "Round Mountain" and placed in a hand-built cairn piled up by his family: "We knew the rattlers would guard DA's remainswe also knew that DA was where he wanted to be a place where all the ranch could be seen, a place where the wind always blows, the sky forms a dome overhead, and the clouds make changing patterns against the blue, and when the stars at night are brilliant and constant, a place to see the sunrise and sunset."

Bureaucratic overkill drove many ranchers out of business; grazing of public lands became unpopular with the general public and even though the Lazy B was the largest permit holder in Arizona, Alan was concerned that it also made the ranch a bigger target. The Federal Government also became an opponent of grazing on public lands, along with several private organizations that expended a great deal of time and energy on it.

Reading of the calves roaming freely on the Lazy B with their mothers drove home an image imprinted in my mind (from a TV program about the meat industry) of baby calves kept in pens till the day of their slaughter, never seeing the light of day or smelling fresh air, so that their flesh could be preserved as "muscle-free" as possible, to fetch the maximum "milk-fed veal" price in our nation's supermarkets and gourmet butcher shops. Somehow it is impossible to imagine that Harry Day or his son, Alan, would ever have resorted to such a barbaric practice to turn a profit. It is a darn sight harder to go chasing after calves and corral them as the sun set each day than it is to imprison them in a pen.

MO lived trough all the changes, was gracious to all, and died at her beloved Lazy B without ever having to enter a hospital. Her ashes joined DA's at the top of "Round Mountain;" they were as inseparable there as in life, and there is no place they would have liked better.

In 1986 a tough decision was made by Alan, Sandra, Ann and their cousin Donald Mason, stockholders of the Lazy B: ranching was increasingly difficult and no one after Alan would take over the ranch. It had to be sold. It was divided into five units and sold separately to different buyers. The process took seven years. "Round Mountain" was the last to be sold

Another Wallace Stegner quote, from "Wolf Willow," offers a perspective on the way of life once - and maybe in isolated cases, still led in the United States: "frontiers, like wars, are said to break down established civilizing restraints and to encourage demoralization. They are also said to engender in people, by freeing them from artificial restraints and throwing them into contact with clean nature, a generosity, openness, independence and courage unknown to the civilized."

If Rastus and Jim Brister are examples of "demoralized" souls both running away from homes young because of abusive family situations to live life among strangers with whom they felt completely comfortable on a ranch - why then is it that their spirits loom so large and linger so long in our hearts after the final page of the book has been read?

"Rastus died the next day. None of us were with him when he passed away, which made us especially sad. We got his good suit, which had been made in El Paso in 1945 and had never been worn. Rastus was buried in the cemetery in Duncan in his gray suit. His grave is near the ranch, which had been his home and his life for most of his seventy-five years. The cemetery is rather rocky and barren, but there is a quiet dignity about it nonetheless. Somehow it is the proper resting place for Rastus. Nearby are the graves of Mamie Scott Wilkey and her parents, Andrew and Evelyn Scott all of them hard working, good people, weathered by the sun and shaped, like Rastus, by their understanding of life in that dry, harsh land."

Like the creatures of the desert he knew so well, Rastus's survival instincts were pretty well honed; he knew a good family when he saw one, decent, classy people who cared about him and the ranch they worked tirelessly to hold on to; a ranch in one of the last places on earth where he was able to live the life he valued most - as a ranch hand and cowboy in the wide open spaces of the frontier. Smart guy and far from demoralized. As for Jim Brister, hopefully there is a great rodeo in heaven.

The whole world is familiar with the work of Sandra Day O'Connor, and she is rarely out of the public eye; her reaction to visiting the World Trade Center site in Manhattan was as open-hearted, sympathetic and direct as her delivery in this book: "I cried," she said simply to a reporter, "It was so devastating in person." Her brother, Alan Day, who lives in Tucson, after managing the Lazy B for thirty years, purchased and ran ranches in Nebraska and South Dakota, where he has established a wild horse sanctuary that, under contract with the United States government, has cared for fifteen hundred wild horses.

There is a great anecdote in one of the final chapters of Lazy B which demonstrates how ridiculous albeit well intentioned and far from demoralized bureaucratic bungling can be:

" A humorous example of bureaucratic overkill occurred one day when four trucks stirred the dust up on the ranch road and arrived at the headquarters with eight people on board and various funny-looking things loaded in the back. Alan asked what was going on, and the BLM employees replied that they were going out to select sites on the ranch to build hawks nests. Alan asked why new, artificial hawk nests were needed. The reply was that someone in the local office had developed the idea and hoped to get a good write-up in his personnel file when it was installed. Alan asked if hawk numbers were declining, and the reply was that they didn't know. Alan asked if they had done a census of hawks to see how many there were. Again the answer was no. "Well," he said, "how do you know the hawks will like these nests?"

"We don't know, but it seems like a good idea."

It took the eight men six days to install the six hawk nests they had constructed in their shop. They were essentially just large birdhouses on fifteen-foot poles. The BLM set these poles in concrete, and the nests are still there years later. No one has ever yet seen a hawk on, in, or near any of the nests."

Sandra Day O'Connor and H. Alan Day

Sandra Day O'Connor and H. Alan Day, photo courtesy of Margaret Plunkett Lord

In their epilogue, the authors wrote the following:

"The value system we learned was simple and unsophisticated and the product of necessity. What counted was competence and the ability to do whatever was required to maintain the ranch operation in good working order - the livestock, the equipment, the buildings, wells, fences and vehicles. Verbal skills were less important than the ability to know and understand how things work in the physical world. Personal qualities of honesty, dependability, competence, and good humor were valued most."

Justice O'Connor retired from the court in 2008.

Click here to go to this book's page at amazon.com where you can order it for 30 percent off its list price

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at www.amazon.com and at www.ashraya-ny.org


Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

 

Home Page of The City Review

©The City Review Inc 2002. Written permission to use any part of this article must be obtained in writing from The City Review or Michele Leight