“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys….”
Most of life is autobiographical, and that’s as true of me as of anyone. Simply said, I am my grandfather’s grandson, and he was a hero to me for all the days of my life.
I still remember seeing him ride off on his horse in the morning, spending the next hours with his cattle. Mostly I didn’t get to go with him in those four and five year-old years, having to content myself with playing “cowboy” for the hours of the day. But most of life later the pastures that run through the Mancos River Valley still awaken me like almost nothing else. There is something deeper than I know about that part of America, where the mesas of the Four Corners meet the mountains of Colorado.
People often ask me why I care about vocation as I do. I could say a lot, I suppose, but more often than not I talk about my grandfather. It was watching him live his life that first awakened me to the reality that life was more than labor, that vocation was more than occupation— but also that the work we do matters, it matters very much. When I was ten, I didn’t have those words or categories, but I began to think about things I never had, especially about the meaning of the work we do.
In those summers of my boyhood I took the Santa Fe Chief, a train that once served the southwest of America, from my home in California to New Mexico; an all-night trip across the great Mojave Desert through the vastness of northern Arizona, finally waking up in Gallup, the Navajo capitol of America. My grandfather was there to meet me, and we would drive up the long road to Colorado, past Shiprock and more, coming to the livestock auction in Cortez before noon. And I remember him sitting in his truck before the sale began, listening to the stock reports— not the sale of commodities in Chicago or money in New York, but of cattle in Colorado.
One afternoon we were sitting beside each other in the sale barn, the colloquial name for livestock auctions, and the auctioneer, a long friend of my grandfather’s, was moving through his call, selling the livestock of the day.
“45 dollar 50 now 50 dollar 50 dollar 50 dollar 50 dollar give me a hollar 50 dollar Who will bid it at a 50 dollar bill? 50 dollar 55 55 make it 55 and a 55 make it 55 and Sold that horse for a 50 dollar bill” (“The Auctioneer’s Song” Leroy Van Dyke, 1956)
Sheep and goats, hogs and horses, then baby calves, their mamas, the yearlings and feeder cattle, and finally bulls. Along the way, he stopped, looking out into the barn, and asked my grandfather, “What are the price of these cows today?”
A question, an answer, only a few seconds. What was clear to me, even as a ten-year old, was that the auctioneer knew that my grandfather would know the price, and he knew that my grandfather would be honest about it. My grandfather and I never talked about that interaction, but I listened and learned. Years later, I would use words like “competence”and “character” to describe my grandfather’s reputation among his peers, though at the time I had nothing more than simple pride in my grandfather’s life and labor.
In those years I spent my summer days with my grandfather and grandmother, taking into my heart the things they cared about. In a certain sense, what they cared about, I cared about, what mattered to them, mattered to me. And so when we watched “Gunsmoke” after supper, followed by family worship, it was written into my being that good people read the Bible, sang songs of love for God, and got on their knees to pray for everyone and everything. My grandparents were Scottish Presbyterians, coming from centuries of belief and behavior born of that tradition, and in their generation, they lived into it with honest hope.
And I am their grandson, having taken their lives into my life. I didn’t become a cowboy, though I still yearn for more of that world than is mine. But their place is still very dear to me, and given a good choice, I would first choose the land where the mesas meet the mountains. When I decided to write the book that is now Visions of Vocation, I chose to place myself in their place, beside a small creek not so far from where they lived their life, breathing their air, watching the aspens tremble just as they did.
A few days ago, Meg and I drove through Cortez, and stopped by the sale barn. We looked around, seeing some sheep and an Angus bull, and not much more. (The sale day is Wednesday, each week, and we were there on Monday.) But a man walked out, wondering if he could help. I told him that I had spent summer days there a long time ago. He asked me who my grandfather was, and I told him. With a big, wide, Western grin, he said, “Sure I remember your grandfather….” and went on to tell me stories that I knew and didn’t know. We talked about years ago, about his own life working at the sale barn, about my grandfather and his friends, him naming names of my grandfather’s colleagues— cattle buyers from Denver to Albuquerque —that I hadn’t thought of for most of my life. As we walked through the office, I saw a wall full of newspaper clippings, the stories of people I had known when I was ten— and I saw a whole row of lariats, coiled as working ropes would be, on the wall too. He must have seen my interest, and asked, wonderfully he asked, “You want one?” Of course I did.
Why do I think that vocation matters so much? While my grandfather spent years asking me questions, mostly about life and the world, wanting me to take both seriously, he never gave me a lecture on vocation. It is likely that he never used the word; I don’t know. What he did was live a life, a coherent life in which what he believed about God and the world was worked out in the way he lived in the world. Begun on his knees, he stepped into his work day by day over sixty years of cattle-buying, contributing to his community with a far-ranging influence, offering an unusual blend of competence and character to the watching world. He was good at what he did, and he was also a good man.
In the years since that ten-year old summer, I have come to call this “common grace for the common good”— and yes, I saw it first of all over my grandfather’s shoulder and through his heart, learning the deepest lessons. The truest truths are always learned that way… even if we don’t grow up to be cowboys.