Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Look Back and a Family Hero

The summer of 1947 I turned fourteen and my father decided to take my mother and I to visit a cousin of his and her family who lived in Bandera, Texas. Bandera is a small town on State Highway 16 fifty miles northwest of San Antonio on the beautiful Medina River. It was founded around 1853 although ranchers and farmers had lived in the area since the 1830s. After the Civil War the town boomed as a staging area for cattle drives up the Western Trail. Later it became famous for it’s Dude Ranches, actually it still is.

The cousin we were going to visit was named Ouida and she was married to a member of a family that had lived in the same house since around the 1840s and his name was Frank “Big Daddy” Montague. It was a large ranch where they raised mostly sheep at the time. They also owned the one bank in Bandera. They had four sons, Charles, who had died on Tarawa during WW2, Bruce, who was a fighter pilot in the Marines and who had just come home shortly before we arrived. Then there was Frank Jr. , the oldest who ran the bank and the youngest, George was studying to be a priest. Ouida’s mother, Laura was my grandfathers sister and was in her ninties, but still very active. She taught her great grandchildren French and also how to play the piano.

The old ranch house had been added on to over all those years and had grown from a tiny two room cabin with walls two feet thick, to a sprawling two story home that maintained the original two rooms with narrow slits on either side of the fireplace that they had used to shoot at attacking Indians. The door frame into that orignal part of the house had all manner of interesting things carved in the surface. It was a fascinating place and I remember being totally awed.

Our first night there, they served dinner out on a broad screened in porch. Young Mexican girls that worked for them scurried about setting the table and then serving us, bringing the next dish whenever Ouida gently rang a small silver bell.

Just as we were finishing dinner, a racy little Ford convertible with its top down pulled up out front and a tall, lanky guy in jeans, a white shirt and a white cowboy hat and boots climbed out and headed for the door to the screened in porch where we were eating. I remember thinking that my heart had stopped beating because with his jet black hair, blue eyes and deeply tanned skin he was the most handsome man I was sure I had ever seen. He was Bruce, Ouida and Big Daddy’s third son and he had just returned from the war, he was a Marine pilot and cousin or not, I was in love!

Later that evening after dinner, Bruce invited all of us to go with him to one of the restaurant/bars in town where he said he would teach me to dance the “Cotton Eyed Joe”! and he led us out to the convertible, but instead of opening the door for me, he lifted me up and set me in the front seat. I was certain that I had died and gone to heaven – anyone who could lift my long legs off the ground had won my heart forever. Grinning, my parents then climbed into the back seat and we headed for town. I did learn to do the “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, the “Put Your Little Foot” and a couple of others I can’t remember and it was the most exciting and fun night that I had ever had.

Bruce was also a world champion calf and trick roper and he was getting ready to compete in an event at Madison Square Garden and the day after our night on the dance floor I got a clue as to why I had gotten all the special treatment. He was practicing roping calfs and he really needed someone to open the gate and shoo the calf out of the shute. It was August, it was hotter than hell, but I happily spent the entire day in the heat and the dust shushing calves out for him to rope. I was a little put out when I learned that he had a real date that night, but we were leaving the next morning and my parents wanted to get to bed early anyway. Next time, I thought to myself.

I did get back to Bandera years later and I even worked on one of the Dude Ranches one summer and was surprised to find out as I did some research for this piece, that it is still operating. I also bumped into Bruce years later, he was married and had children of his own by then, but we both laughed about that night years earlier. The years slipped away, I married and had four children of my own. But soon after we married my husband and I spent a weekend on the ranch that they had converted into a dude ranch and my cousin, Ouida, was my first daughter’s godmother. And time slipped by, there was Vietnam and then Europe. We ended up living in Montana and we never made it back to Bandera.

As I was doing the research I also came across an obituary for that tall, dark and handsome first love. He had a remarkable life as you can see.

Obituaries for Sunday, February 19, 2006

As a member of one of Bandera's pioneer ranching families, Bruce began his ranching duties at a young age. It was in these childhood years that he was taught the art of trick roping. This became a lifelong pastime that he shared with thousands of people all over the world. Entertaining others was encouraged by his parents. ...Bruce grew up a member of the St. Stanislaus Catholic Church and attended St. Joseph's Catholic Grade School in Bandera. After graduating from Central Catholic High School in San Antonio, Texas, he was drafted at the age of 18, and chose the United States Marine Corps to serve his country. After boot camp, Bruce received 'high man' honors at ordinance school in Norman, Okla. He then would serve as an SBD air gunner in World War II and later flew Corsair fighter-bombers in post-war China. During the Korean War, Bruce flew 147 combat missions with Marine Fighter Squadron 311 and then, as an exchange pilot with the USAF, became a flight commander flying F-86 Sabre jets for the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing. During this conflict, he had the responsibility of leading Ted Williams (Hall of Fame Boston Red Sox) and friend John Glenn (first man to orbit the Earth) on their first combat missions. In addition to flying, he was involved in ground combat as a forward air controller, in which capacity he played a vital role during the first battle of The Hook. He received the bronze star for directing more strikes than any other Marine forward air controller. On one occasion he directed 48 air strikes within a 48 hour period. At the end of the war he is believed to have had the most jet combat time of any Marine. After Korea, Bruce attended Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Md. He then served as a test pilot, among other duties testing air weaponry at the Naval Ordinance Test Station, China Lake, Calif. He also served as executive officer of Marine Fighter Squadron 114, assigned to the carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Vietnam he was commanding officer of Marine Fighter/Attack Squadron 122, flying F-4 Phantom's from Da Nang. He flew 188 combat missions over Hanoi, over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and while providing ground support at battles such as Dong Ha in 1968. He and his squadron played a vital role in the defense of Da Nang during the 1968 Tet attack. He then became air officer in charge of Marine air support in the Khe Sanh area. In all, Lt. Col. ...Having received a business administration degree from St. Mary's University, Bruce then pursued a career in real estate as a land broker in Bandera for 30 years. He was also a member of First Baptist Church Bandera. He took particular delight in entertaining children with his trick roping at schools, festivals and community events. He was an inaugural performer at the Texas Folklife Festival, where he participated for more than 21 years. Bruce loved roping, flying and spending time with his family. Many of his daredevil airplane antics and tricks are ingrained in local legend, such as buzzing Main Street, the Montague Ranch and other Bandera landmarks with planes. In his last years, Bruce dedicated much of his time as a board member of the San Antonio State School, serving in all the different officer capacities. He also spent a great deal of time writing a military memoir with his son Bruce Jr., titled "The Hook."


clairz said...

Sylvia, your blog just keeps getting better and better. I hope that you will keep writing these entries about the past.

patsy said...

happy trails to you.

Judy said...

WOW Sylvia. I loved this post. I could just imagine your eyes when you saw this guy drive up in his convertible being a young girl. Isn't it strange the twists and turns our life seems to take on?

Rain said...

What a neat thing to discover about your family. The ranch house sounds like some in Arizona with the same starts and your cousin is a real American hero. I can imagine what it must have been like to be young and see him in all his mature glory :)

Margie's Musings said...

They are very interesting. They remind me of the memories I am writing for my children on CD to put in their Heritage scrapbooks.a