Monday, February 15, 2010

When Life is Unfair

If fate had played fair for a change, he would have been a cowboy. As it was, even though a back injury incurred on a troop train put an end to the dream of life in the saddle -- and nearly his ability to walk -- he just didn't know how to quit. So, he became a maker of saddles. 

In those days, saddle making was a "guild" craft. You began as an apprentice and eventually, became a master craftsman. As an apprentice, working under the guidance and instruction of journeymen and master saddle makers, my father learned the basics. But he had his own ideas, one's he'd developed riding the high country and laying in a hospital bed. It was inevitable he'd break out on his own, making saddles by hand, each one unique and bearing his signature, not that of another.

It wasn't an easy life and he frequently came home for dinner only to return to his shop until midnight. There were occasions he hated the pressure and limits on his time. When asked about his days off, he laughed and said, "I don't get them. I have to work Sunday to buy a Saturday to take my son fishing." But every Friday evening in the summer, he got out his coping saw and a plywood board to make the sword or pistol he couldn't afford to purchase.

He had faults, sometimes glaring ones, and he would have been the first to enumerate them, but not in public and not for the sake of the spotlight. You know how some revel in confession. As if commission wasn't enough, they hang their sins to dry for the whole world to see. But the most difficult absolution to obtain is the one we need to give ourselves. It took some time for him to figure that out, as it does for most of us. What he did afterward is worth remembering -- he looked for opportunities to do things differently.

The word repent comes to mind, a change of attitude that produces a change in behavior. For him, there was no wallowing in the muck of self-remorse, instead get up and get moving again, no matter how badly it hurts, because eventually it will stop hurting and you'll realize you're okay after all.

That's the lesson he lived, learning from apparent failure how to avoid the same mistakes if not twice at least thrice, deciphering how to make his place in the world and not merely find it -- whether anyone else approved or not. Making saddles that would eventually take his name where he'd never go himself and sharing the faith he discovered in mid-life as the father of a recalcitrant teenaged me. It was never hard to know which of those was most important.

The saddle you see in the photo (go ahead, click on it) was ordered as a gift by the Mountain and Plains Appaloosa Horse Club for the late Larry Lansburg, director of the film Run Appaloosa Run (1966, Walt Disney Pictures). Dad made many more before he was done, some for rodeo or horse show competition, others for roping, pleasure, or ranch work. but I think he regarded this one as his best. It was certainly his favorite.

Near the end of his life we talked about what it all meant for him, especially when life is unfair. By then we both knew the mixed blessing that comes with self-employment and I wondered if he had any regrets. His response led me to believe it was something he'd been thinking about and waiting for the right time to reveal. He said he'd come to view saddle-making as an extension of his faith. It was the way he'd been given to show gratitude for his life and the family he'd been allowed to raise. I realized at that moment, there would always be so much more to him han I'd ever know. He was still growing and I, as always, would have to do my best to keep up.

(Photo copyright 2013 by the author; saddle by The Conway Saddle Company, William L. (Bill) Conway, maker)

Note to the reader: Although web search engines connect my father's name with the Frazier Saddle Co. of Pueblo, CO, my father was never professionally associated with them. Either the reference is in error or there was, in fact, another Bill Conway with whom that connection ought to be made.  

Please feel free to leave questions, comments, or relate personal experiences with my father in the comment section, or if you prefer, send them to me by email: Thanks!
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