"That’s what you get for having bad taste, Mom," said George as he tossed the ashtrays into the bucket of my Uncle Clifford’s front end loader. The ashtrays were a perfect set of three in graduating sizes that nestled inside one another. Greeny-blue with scrolled brown edging and white notches to hold burning cigarettes, they were somewhat the shape and color of Gumby’s head on a bad hair day. The set was in mint condition: Nobody in our family smoked. The ashtrays had rested on our living room coffee table for as long as I could remember in preparation, I suppose, for a visit from a group of three smokers who had aversions to sharing the same ashtray, and who needed something really hideous into which they could tap their burning ashes.
When I was kid, I didn’t think about whether or not the ashtrays were stylish or ugly, whether we needed or loved them. I never once thought about whether or not having a set of three ashtrays of any description sitting forever on a the living room coffee table in a house full of non-smokers made any sense at all. The ashtrays were just there, along with a zillion other things piled, stacked, and messy in our home. And, now, here they were, fodder for the 47 yard dumpster.
Our hearts ached as we watched them hit the bottom of the rusty metal loader scoop. All four of us, Clark, George, RoxAnne, and I stood speechless, gazing down dumbly at the ashtrays. They didn’t break, at least not right away. I yearned to reach in and snatch them back. After all, they were still good. Somebody might want them. I might want them. They were a part of my childhood, not a significant part, but they had belonged to my precious departed mom and dad. Throwing them unceremoniously into the bucket of a rusty old tractor seemed almost sacrilege. I resisted my urges and returned to the task at hand: hefting a green metal teacher’s desk and a 1955 set of New Standard Library Encyclopedias on top of the ashtrays. When the bucket was full, my nephew, Justin, backed up the front end loader, raised the scoop, and headed for the dumpster.
My dad, a widower, had passed away three months earlier and had left behind a twenty-eight by fifty foot shed which was filled from the floor up to its sixteen foot ceiling with stuff. He had even taken the time to build shelves up in the rafters. With barely a pathway to move through the building, my siblings and I had but one weekend to deal with his stuff. Boxes of stuff. Crates of stuff. Shelves of stuff. Bins of stuff. Old high school lockers filled with stuff. Some of it, like my mother’s silver tea service, were valuable. Other things, like stacks of apple boxes filled with photographs, held our precious childhood memories. Many items, like the set of three 1950's nesting Gumby-head-shaped ashtrays tugged at our hearts. Most of the stuff, however, like the locker filled with broken vacuum cleaner parts and tractor gears, made no sense whatsoever. Daddy was gone, and his children had to deal with what he left behind.
My dad was a rancher. Ranchers are the most amazing people on the planet: They know how to do absolutely everything. If the crew of Apollo 13 had had a rancher on board, they never would have spoken those immortal words, "Houston, we have a problem" because the rancher would have come up with a solution and fixed it before Jim Lovell would have had the chance to pick up the radio. Those of you who have known ranchers know what I say is true. If you have never experienced the pleasure of a rancher's acquaintance, I highly recommend that you rush right out to the country this weekend and meet one. You will quickly find that they are more dependable than the auto club, more knowledgeable than a Harvard professor, more helpful than an Eagle Scout and more ethical than most clergy. My dad was such a man. If you needed your cow butchered, your fences mended, or your chickens caught, my dad was your man. He could adjust a rooftop TV antenna in the middle of a snow storm, and fix a sewage pipe down in the place where even angels feared to trod, the crawl space under our house. The man was the Superman of self-sufficiency. He built our entire house out of surplus World War II ammo boxes in the days before the county enforced strict building codes. Once while on vacation, on the side of a winding mountain road in Yosemite National Park, he replaced the rear axle of our family station wagon filled with four kids and a hysterical wife. He could tar paper the roof, chop the firewood, get up several times each night to keep the fireplace stoked in the winter, milk the cow, slop the pigs, plant the garden, groom the horses, repair the swing set, tend the sick, bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and fall asleep in the Barcalounger during the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday night.