I’ve been chewing on the benefits of storytelling recently. I follow in the trail of some fine storytellers. My Great Uncle Rocky Reagan was one of the last of the hard-scrabble South Texas cattlemen. Born in 1883, Uncle Rocky survived the transition from horse and buggy to automobile to jet planes and rockets to the moon. Along the way he picked up stories of the old west and passed them on to those of us who were blessed to know him.
He and his wife, Annie Lee lived by themselves in a former hotel that sat on the stage line that ran from San Antone to Corpus. Stagecoaches would come to a dusty stop on that hilltop in the middle of mesquite and cactus country about 60 miles north of Corpus. In the late 50’s and 60’s the old clapboard hotel was home to my Uncle Rocky and Aunt Annie Lee – and the scores of relatives, most of whom were cowboys and cattlemen who dropped in for unannounced visits. They came to visit because Uncle Rocky knew more about raising cattle than anyone in Live Oak County – or most other counties for that matter.
The reason I loved going to visit Uncle Rocky (he was about 10 minutes from our ranch) was different. I went for the stories. Every Sunday evening, Dad and Mom would take Debbie and me over to Uncle Rocky’s place for a visit. Dad went primarily to get advice on raising cattle, since he was a petroleum engineer by trade and had only recently ventured into the cattle business. Uncle Rocky and Aunt Lee would turn off Lawrence Welk, and visit.
But before the grownups set to business, Uncle Rocky would invite Debbie and me to sit by his rawhide rocker beneath the wagonwheel chandelier and listen to his tales of the old west. Of his friendship with J. Frank Dobie, another great S. Texas yarnspinner. Of lost gold, Commanchero raids, and ghosts that rambled through the thicket on moonlit nights.
Then, he would dismiss Debbie and me to the kitchen, so the grownups could talk cattle. There, we would sit at the kitchen table and visit with a gray-headed old black man who worked for Uncle Rocky. “Tender” (the only name we ever knew him by) was either the son or the grandson of a slave. I wish I could remember. Even as an older man, he helped keep the place up, work the cattle during spring roundup, and do a few chores. He was the embodiment of his name, and he delighted in telling us stories about cattle drives, and the not-too-scary “ghosties” that inhabited the attic of the old house.
Uncle Rocky eventually recorded his stories in three volumes, each published by Naylor Press in San Antonio. The three books are, G.P. Reagan, Country Doctor, Rocky’s Yarns, and Rocky’s Chuck Wagon Stories. If you ever see one in a used book store, pick it up and travel with Uncle Rocky back down the dusty trails of old S. Texas.
Ours was the last wedding Uncle Rocky attended, December 28, 1974. He drove all the way from George West to Waco on a wet, cold December day. It was the last time I would see him, as he passed away in April of 1975. The last thing he said to me, after I thanked him for coming all that way was, “Glad to be here, son. Wouldn’t have missed it.”
I was so proud that he came. He was a walking legend. Story personified. The essence of a not-too-tall tale. As I reflected on Uncle Rocky this morning I tried to reduce his influence in my life to some bullet points. But storytellers and Powerpoint don’t mesh that well. It wasn’t that I didn’t learn some lessons to pass along. It’s that I learned them in the context of a relationship that’s impossible to express in an outline. I heard them from the lips of a man with whom I shared common blood and beef jerky. I worked cattle with him, worshipped with him, and immersed myself in the mythical tales he told so effortlessly and with genuine joy. I learned more biblical truth from Uncle Rocky in his tales of the west than I remember hearing from the pulpit of the church where he served as an elder for scores of years.
He lived out the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 in the homespun narrative of a cattleman. Uncle Rocky taught me as I sat in his house, as I rode alongside him during spring roundup, as I lay down beside him and all the other cowboys in the bunkhouse looking at the moon-striped ground through the chinks in the board floor, and as I rose before sunrise to saddle my horse for work. His stories were tethered to my saddle horn, and fastened as symbols in my hatband. They were branded into the lentils of my homes and my heart.
I learned because Uncle Rocky was there. And, thanks to my wise Dad, I was there with him.