I was honored to be asked to speak about my uncle, Bobby Jones, at his funeral at. St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Sturgis, SD, on April 27, 2019.
My uncle Bobby was the consummate West River horseman and rancher, and for his first four decades a bachelor cowboy at that. The best photo I’ve ever seen of him is one that my cousin Anna took of him sitting up against a fence at the 2 Lazy J Ranch. Those long legs are all folded up like some cowboy origami, all elbows and knees. He has a straw cowboy hat on his head, a pair of black boots with scuffed toes on his feet, and a set of reins in his hands. With his long face and equally long beard, he’s nodding at the horse, and the horse nuzzling his hand seems to be nodding right back, as if there’s some unspoken language they both know – which wouldn’t be surprising when you’re dealing with a horse whisperer.
There’s a side of Bobby that’s well represented there: silent, stoic, thoughtful, still. This is the Bobby who would do his ranch chores with an eye to the horizon, watching for smoke to forestall the disaster of a prairie fire or the loss of a haystack that had been hit by lightning. Or keeping on top of the signs that his heifers were about to calve for the first time. Or silently stoking a stove-full of wood in the ranch living room to keep us warm at least until the wee hours before a winter dawn. No words. Just do the work. Git ‘er done. Do it all over again the next day. About the only time before he retired to town that I saw Uncle Bobby not actively taking care of the ranch was a 20-minute stint each day after lunch, when he and Grandpa Buster would take a quick nap on the floor in the living room and recharge for whatever haying or cattle feeding was in store during the afternoon.
I don’t expect that’s much different than it’s ever been for the men folk among the ranches of central Meade County, including Bobby’s best friend Floyd Cammack, or the Youngs further south, the Mikkudiks at the place north of ours, or the Bruchs and Vigs heading over to Fairpoint on the Old Stoneville Road. The ranch women had their extension club where they could connect. But the men would stand next to each other, leaning on their pickups after fetching the mail at the Stoneville Store, and say everything that needed to be said, but with as few words as possible. This is the ranching ethos, and Uncle Bobby served it faithfully.
Under that stoic demeanor there was a jokester and an imp. Bobby could get away with a quick-witted line under his soft voice. He’d say something about his beard covering up his turkey gobbler neck and then patiently wait for you to catch on. Healthy ribbing and leg-pulling were skills he’d mastered. The subtle joke was always better than out-and-out yuks. But when Uncle Bobby heard a good one he had a smile that stretched wider than a section of land, and he’d laugh with the best of ‘em.
Uncle Bobby was a steady presence in my life. He sat me behind the wheel of the old backward tractor and showed me the clutch and shifting lever, so I could help scoop up windrows and bring them to wherever he had the cage set up to stack hay. Later he taught me to drive the John Deere tractor with the hay fork on the front end. Still later it was that gold Chevy pickup with the plastic seat covers that left an imprint on your thighs. He trusted me to follow directions, be safe, and get my task done. It was from Uncle Bobby that I gained a love for peeing without walls. We’d be out with the cows, and he’d undo the four buttons on his Levis and let flow. This is an activity I believe we need more of in this world. He taught me to grab a cow’s teat just-so and showed me the rhythm of my fingers that brought milk squirting into a stainless steel bucket. He taught us kids to be careful in the granaries around the ranch and climbing stacks of bales behind the barn, so we’d be delivered back to our parents alive.
There are so many things in my life that continually remind me of Uncle Bobby. When I’ve let the lawn go too long between mowings and I think I could bale the grass, the smell of the new-mown grass takes me back to Bobby cutting alfalfa field across the road from the Stoneville School. When I catch a whiff of diesel fuel, I’m right back at the tank west of the garage with Bobby filling up the John Deere. Whenever I see the arc of something being welded on TV, I think of Bobby taking time to weld bolts, washers, and nuts together in the shape I wanted to make some goofball kid art project, which wasn’t far from how he created beauty from a strip of leather and a few tools. The feel of a rope in my hands takes me back to the contraption Bobby made to braid baling twine. And each semester he’s there when I tell my students about Christ the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, I recount how Bobby and Grandpa would save an orphaned lamb from winding up on the ranch’s bone pile, by skinning a dead lamb and jacketing its skin on the bum lamb and presenting it to the dead lamb’s mother.
And of course there’s Aggie. I don’t know if my bachelor uncle ever had other shots at love and romance, and he sure waited long enough. But I’m grateful he was slow on the marriage front, because he and Aggie gave me a model in their long and faithful commitment to each other. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis, once said that your love can’t sustain a marriage, but a marriage can sustain your love. That’s what I saw happening between Bobby and Aggie over more than just shy of forty years as they depended on each other, filled in the gaps, and raised their three kids, Patrick, Anna, and Ted. Bobby brought me an aunt who understood me, who could talk literature and liturgy and love of family each time we met up.
These last years haven’t been easy. Bobby and Aggie had looked forward to traveling. That didn’t happen, although seeing pictures from Anna and Mark’s Jamaica wedding proved to me that an old rancher can learn new tricks. From the waist up Bobby was all cowboy, complete with hat and western-cut shirt with pearl snaps. But go south from there and find shorts, white legs, and flip-flops under Caribbean skies. Bobby in shorts? Who knew that my uncle was capable of it?
Whenever I asked my dad about the ranch or relatives or the history of the clans of honyockers who homesteaded this West River country, my dad always said, “We’ll have to ask Bobby.” Uncle Bobby was an amazing repository of lore. He was the only person I knew who could keep track of who the Shaeffers, the Cales, the Braziers, the Crows, the Dows, and the Mutchlers in our extended clan were. With my dad, Aunt Ida, and now Uncle Bobby gone, all those stories have disappeared. With the lore gone, we’re left with my beloved Stoneville Steadies history books and whatever paltry information Ancestry.com can offer.
When my siblings and I were growing up there used to be a billboard for Rapid City Clothiers along I-90 south of Piedmont. It was a giant pair of bow-legged blue jeans and cowboy boots. Nothing from the waist up. Just a 20-foot pair of Levis. Every time we drove past we kids would point to them and say, “There’s Uncle Bobby’s blue jeans,” because he was such a tall and lanky drink of water.
It seems impossible that what we have of him fits in this little container. But we’ll take it out to Red Owl this afternoon and place it in the ground just a ways from the church where Aggie brought him Sunday after Sunday, like the paralyzed young man’s friends brought him to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. It’s the cemetery where Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Ida Mae, and countless friends and neighbors have been laid to rest. In a couple months that prairie graveyard will be surrounded by yellow clover and sit under wide open skies. In a way we’ll release Uncle Bobby to the elements, the land he loved, the countryside where he worked tirelessly. And we’ll give thanks for his twinkling eyes, his unassuming voice, his hands that could fix anything with some baling wire and a pair of pliers, and his gentle heart that loved with quiet strength. Blessed be his memory.