DRYER THAN GRANNIE’S BLOOMERS ON THE TOP RAIL
BY Jim Nichols
I really didn’t know my grandfather who was my father’s father. Not that he wasn’t alive during most of my life, he just wasn’t that friendly a guy. He was a Cowboy from nose to toes. He was born in Oklahoma then migrated to Texas before ending up in Alamogordo New Mexico. There he married one of the local Oliver girls to the dismay of her parents. They were educated respected New Mexicans who owned the General Store. Papa, my grandfather, scruffed out a living working cattle on the local ranches. When not in the saddle he sold meat all over southern New Mexico. My Dad used to laugh and tell my brother sisters and I about Papa, his “traveling salesman” dad who was not shy about buying his compadres (including painted ladies) drinks in the various towns and hamlets in the desert southwest. His favorite story involved a family trip to Silver City New Mexico. Papa pulled up in his dusty car with his wife and four little boys in the back seat. He nosed into the curb outside a local saloon just as a woman walked out of the swinging doors to smoke a cigarette. She looked at my grandfather with a smile and said “hi ya Nick”. My grandmother went full throttle wacking my grand dad with an umbrella yelling at him “hi ya Nick, (whack), hi ya Nick (whack)”. Dad said he and his little brothers couldn’t figure out why their mother beat the crap out of their Dad just because a nice lady smiled and acknowledged him in front of the Rusty Bucket.
When I was seven my parents put my older brother and me on a train from Los Angeles to Alamogordo. I remember my Dad tipping the black porter fifty bucks and telling him “look after my boys. Don’t let them get off the train before they reach Alamogordo and don’t let them disturb the other passengers”.
In Alamogordo we were picked up by my great Uncle, G.B. Oliver and driven in his truck out to the White Sands Ranch. I have a clear recall zipping along a narrow highway before pulling off on a dirt road which seemed to go forever. It was much like a scene out of the movie Giant which was written about the King Ranch is south Texas.
G.B. was not a rich man, but his deeded land along with the government land provided him a fiefdom of about a hundred square miles. Looking back, he needed that much acreage to run a successful cattle operation. In the draws and behind some of the mesas there were areas of good Pasture. However my recall is most of the ranch was sand and dirt with very little forage. There were dirt cow tanks strategically gouged out of the earth all over the ranch where the cattle were salted and could get a drink without walking off most of their weight.
Eyes wide open I thrilled at the rooster tail of dust which shot out of the back of the truck as we closed in on the Ranch house.
My brother and I spent the whole summer on the White Sands. My great uncle was a marvelous story teller and wonderful to be with. He had a pet deer named Buck that wandered around the ranch house yard. He let us make forts in the hay stacks and taught us to swim in the cow tank behind his house. He gave us each a horse we could call our own and we spent a lot of time in the saddle pleasure riding and gathering cattle. He taught us to say “yes ma'am and no ma'am” and to behave in church, which was in his living room on Sundays. Local ranchers and a handful of towns people made the dusty trip to hear “Brother Offerd” deliver The Word. The collection went mostly to Brother Offerd to pay for his gas since he preached for free.
One Sunday the preacher singled my brother and I out with the question “are you boys believers?” What could one say with all eyes on us? “Yes sir” were our responses which, came in unison. “We were dunked in the cow tank an hour later with everyone saying “hallelujah!” A good experience for me perhaps not so much for my brother who was always kind of a delinquent.
On one occasion while we were there, Papa, my rounder grandfather, and my grandmother showed up for a visit. G.B. was my grandmother’s brother. As Papa sat on the porch sipping iced tea, probably with a boost from a hidden flask, I heard him and G.B. talk about the drought. “It’s bad” said G.B. “ Tularosa Basin was once a garden” he said. “Little or no rain for ten years now, perhaps you should sell” said Papa. “IT’S DRYER THAN GRANNIES BLOOMERS ON THE TOP RAIL” volunteered Papa. I had absolutely no clue what that meant, but remember that phrase to this day. Thinking about it, I recall my great aunt hanging ranch laundry to dry on the top rail of the little fence by the house. And it did, quickly in the hot New Mexico sun.
Drought is an ugly thing to a rancher. Cows need grass and grass needs water. I am a rancher and in California we have been in a state-wide drought for several years. California’s 2014 water census was the third driest in 121 years. I sold most of my cows and I’m letting a neighbor run his cows on my spread to help him out.
The University of California, Davis, recently published a report stating our drought has cost the state of California 2 billion dollars in lost revenue. Interestingly their publications reveal California and Arizona are not new to drought.
Tree ring studies show there have been multiple droughts in the past two centuries. Several lasting up to two decades or more. Surprisingly there was a 240-year-long drought in the 9th Century. That’s scary! So, as my late Uncle G.B. would say, “ in a drought trust in God and pray for rain.”
That is what they did in 1861, which was the first year of the Civil War. Up to December in ‘61 California and Arizona were droughted out. Then the heavens opened up. Pacific storms swept in and it rained for months. Thousands of cattle were drowned. Towns were swept away. Fruit trees, crops and vineyards were destroyed.
Large portions of the Mojave Desert, not far from my Sierra Nevada Mountain ranch, became impassable mud flats.
The Los Angeles River and Santa Ana River, both of which I have crossed many times on my horse, overflowed their banks. The beautiful Owens Valley on the eastern side of the Sierras became a big lake.
My Piute Indian neighbors talk about the stories which have been passed down by their ancestors. They tell me their people in late 1860 had premonitions of the massive storms which were about to hit. They started moving higher into the mountains to the puzzlement of their white neighbors whose holdings got wiped out by the sheets of rain. There were 69 days of rain between November 1861 and January 1862. Los Angeles suffered major damage with close to 40 inches of rain recorded. Landslides wiped out many of the costal communities and mudslides destroyed several mining camps. Over turned trees blocked roads and bridges were washed away.
The Yavapai River in Arizona jumped it’s banks and travel between Phoenix and Yuma became precarious. Many people were drowned. The exact number of deaths is unknown because a lot of them were undocumented miners day laborers and drifters.
The rampaging Bright Angel, Gila and Verde rivers in Arizona blocked passage to many areas. The swollen Colorado River made Fort Yuma an island.
Cottonwood Creek runs right through the middle of my JN5 Ranch. Not long ago my Piute Indian neighbor, Brian Weldon, said “Jim, you better start building up your creek crossing with dirt and railroad ties.” “Why?” I asked. “It is drier than Grannie’s bloomers on the top rail” I said. “I don’t know anything about bloomers and rails” he said, “but my insides tell me I need to start moving my cows off the flats and into the mountains” he said. “ Insides?” I asked. “What kind of barometer is that?” I chuckled. He didn’t laugh or even smile. I wonder what, if any, this Indian’s connection is to the supernatural. I’m thinking he might benefit from a dunking in the cow tank. I’m just saying……
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