I have always known my father-in-law was exceptional! For twenty-two years I have witnessed his ideas take shape with a genius only time, trials, and wisdom can perfect. Life’s experience is that clay that we shape, chisel, and mold continually. In this deeply personal and honest writing you can see that Jack’s mold was complex but it has created something of the utmost beauty for us all. Enjoy this writing and take away what you need to continue to shape your mold. I know I certainly will.
I hope the exposé to follow will be helpful to those out there who have struggled with unreasonable fear that diminishes joy and quality of life. I hope you will find comfort and strength from some of my struggles so that you might better deal with your demons.
What you think about me is none of my business…
My first encounter with sheer terror took place when I was about 8 years-old. The year 1943 my family was in the town of Garden City, New York, during World War II. As gas was rationed, long trips (meaning 25 miles or more) were out of the question. My dad came home one day after work and announced that he and a friend from his work place– Sperry Gyroscope Co.– had learned of an old abandoned gravel quarry that had closed because of a high water table. A good sized pond had formed that was at least 20 feet deep and perhaps a quarter mile wide. Our soon-to-be swimming hole for the duration of the war was but about 5 or 6 miles from our home. I was a pretty good swimmer and always looked forward to our summer outings there.
One particular summer evening I swam out toward the middle of the lake and was in the process of turning back toward the shore when this overwhelming feeling that something was grabbing my ankles and was going to pull me under the water overcame me. I began to scream uncontrollably. My father immediately dove into the water and came to my rescue. As he approached me the fright that had engulfed me subsided as quickly as it came on, leaving me embarrassed and ashamed.
The next time I was overtaken with unreasonable fear was that same summer. My sister and I decided that it would be fun to gather some rocks and throw them from the roof into a puddle that was left over from a thunder storm the night before. My sister was sitting on the roof above me. As I stood up to throw a rock my sister had just released her rock which struck me in the back of the head. In an instant blood was gushing from the wound. I asked, “Am I going to die?” Her reply of, “I don’t think so,” was of little comfort. It wasn’t until my mother washed off all the blood, assured me that I was not going to die that a feeling of relief came over me. In the end, I was left with another questioning thought: Am I a coward?
It was several months until a new paranoia took center stage; this one only happened when it was time to go to bed and I was alone. I realized there must be something under my bed that was going to grab my legs. So for the next several years I would run from maybe a three feet distance to jump into bed. This had to be kept a secret because my father was so brave that I knew he would be disappointed.
I felt like now I needed to sustain some injuries that could show myself and my peers that I was not a coward. Broken bones would be the answer. So in my teenage years I managed to break my arms three times by skiing, falling out of a tree, and falling off a horse.
It was in my teenage years that being popular in high school became very important to me. One of my self-imposed conditions for being cool was to get poor grades, but at a subconscious level I knew I was pretty smart. I slid through high school with a bunch of C’s and some B’s (enough to get me into Cal Poly college).
In my senior year, fear still lurked in my being but I had ways of disguising it. One way was to always take my car when it was time to go cruising and looking for girls. Sports came in the form of being on the swim team. I was average. I could still be cool and not be a jock. My summer job working on a cattle ranch further endorsed that I was no coward, but secretly I was a closet one. I was even afraid of the dark.
The year is 1957. In order to meet my selective service commitment, I joined the Army Reserve that summer and reported to Fort Ord, California for 6 months of active duty training. The first 8 weeks of basic training went well; after the first week of training I was given the duty to be the platoon guide for our company. This gave me a certain amount of authority that I tried to use judiciously over my fellow grunts (as we were known by our drill sergeant) and my own private room. The next 8 weeks I was to spend in advanced infantry training.
Paranoia again overwhelmed me, but in the army you don’t just walk away to be out of harm’s way. Somehow my mind washed my memory clean of the event and that placed me in the Ft. Ord psychiatric ward. What a devastating and disgraceful time this was. The doctor who came to talk to me about what to do next thankfully had an answer.
“Are you mechanically inclined,” he asked.
I replied,” It’s right up my alley. “I loved working on cars in high school.” Well that sealed it, and the next day I found myself in a motor pool unit classroom learning to repair trucks the army way.
However, panic would not let me go, and a claustrophobic fear overwhelmed me again. Back to the psychiatric ward again, where my same doctor came to visit me.
This time he said, “You know, Jack, the army isn’t meant for everybody, so I’m going to discharge you. I know that you can do more for our country as a useful citizen.”
I doubt if the famous World War II General George C Patton would agree.
I was discharged with a small suitcase that contained some clothes, a bar of soap, and my toothbrush, and a great dearth of emotional baggage. That baggage would later lead me down many roads in search of peace and usefulness.
The fall quarter at Cal Poly was about to start. I knew that I wanted to finish school. Zero, my wife-to-be, hung in there with me. On June 21, 1958, we were married in Corona, California. After a few more weeks of summer school, I graduated from Cal Poly with a B.S. in Animal Husbandry.
With some help from my folks, Zee and I were able to buy a 2,700 acre ranch west of Paso Robles CA for $70,000. This purchase proved the old saying “you get what you pay for,” which in my case was not much. I was like the young man digging in a pile of horse manure and was heard to say, “What, with all this poop there must be a pony here someplace.” Zee and I looked for that pony for three years and never found him, so we decided to look for greener pastures before we went broke.
We spent a couple of weeks looking around our western states but the thought of spending six months of each year shoveling snow didn’t sound very appealing. So, home to California we came. We were home barely a week when a friend of ours who was also in the cattle business said that his realtor brother had a listing on a ranch near Parkfield, California. Compared to the brush pile we called home, this was Camelot! Fifty-one years later I can tell you with confidence that we couldn’t have made a better choice.
In spite of a beautiful wife, family, and a great ranch to ply my ranching skills, unreasonable fear still haunted me. A still hidden demon turned every moment of triumph into a moment I felt I didn’t deserve. A graphic example of that feeling happened in the spring of 1978. It was a wonderful year because of generous amounts of rain and a very strong cattle market. Phil Stadtler was my man who could buy all my cattle and make me enough money to pay off both ranches and deposit a million dollars in the bank.
Instead of hugging Phil when he said, “I’ll take them,” I replied, “I think I need to talk to my accountant.”
Phil said, “The offer goes with me and it may not be there when you get done talking to your bean counter.”
But I was in a cavalier mood and replied, “We’ve got a great market and all experts say it should last.”
You guessed it, the market proceeded to take a dump along with Phil’s offer but I was still full of bravado and told all in earshot I’m going to feed them out and sell them as fat cattle. It took 20 years to heal my pocketbook but there was a silver lining for me and eight years of anxiety for my family while I traveled down a lot of dead end streets.
To all the players that helped me search for meaning and to feel worthwhile in my skin, thank you. Each helped me to expose my demons that have caused me to do lots of stupid, absurd, stupefying deeds. Thank God that what came next was a belief that it was my responsibility to change how I react to life situations. What followed for me, were piles of self-help books, psychiatrists, psychologists, religion, biofeedback, yoga, exercise, friends, work, and most helpful of all, a teaching called Support Group Network as taught by Dr. Robert Simmons.
Dr. Simmons lectured the group for the next several months on how we might fulfill our expectations toward a more satisfying life. After our formal training was complete, we broke up into groups. There were thirteen people in my group. The first order of business was to have a name for our group that we could rally around. How do you come up with a name that everybody from different walks of life could agree on? Well it was easy, after one of my new friends– a lady with no makeup and hair in her armpits– stood up and said “Let’s be EGG BOKS. It stands for everything is going to be okay. We all agreed that name would suit us. This started my five-year journey of every Monday night meetings that started promptly at 8 pm and ended at 10 pm with a rotation to each member’s house that could accommodate all thirteen EGGBOKS.
The first year of my journey was illuminating, as I was to learn that other people in the group had problems besides me and that each of us was encouraged to discuss any and all problems and situations with no judgment. There was one exception and that was criminal behavior was not to be brought before the group.
For various reasons, six people left the group within the first year. I was hooked, and looked forward to each Monday night and always felt that my time was well spent. By the end of our fifth year, there were five of us left in the group. With many of our group’s personal demons now lying dead or dying it became obvious by some grand design each of the last of us decided that we had gained enough life skills to venture out on our own new worlds, with views quite different than the old ones we once held.
I believe the year the EGGBOKS disbanded was 1987. I was ready to turn 52, and still had a large debt with Farm Credit to cure. I was just about ready to present to the public the Varian Ranch, a new way to develop land, and hopefully pay off my debts. My vision for this development was to leave a much smaller footprint on the land. The homes would be clustered on one corner of the ranch to leave 98% in tact to retail its agricultural value.
With just a couple of months needed to complete the project I received a call one day from the new manager at Farm Credit to inform me that I no longer had the line of credit that I needed to finish the project. In the 1980’s the U.S. farm credit system was in just as bad of shape as I was. That meant anybody that didn’t fit their new formula for credit worthiness got the ax.
What to do! What to do! First you gulp, then gulp again. Then you ask the caller, “Are you sure you have the right Varian?”
The voice replies in what I was sure had a gleeful tone to it, “Your line of credit is cancelled as of this moment.”
Jack, remember all the old sayings that you thought so much of? Well, you better hope they work! And you can start thinking of them right now. Winners never quit, and quitters never win. Never yell whoa in a bad place. When you’re at the bottom the only way is up.
I’m sure that each of you out there in blog land have your own way to make the best of a bad situation. My mantra must have worked, because I found financing and finished the project that went on to win “The Best in the West 1988 Gold Nugget Award for a Residential Land Plan on 25 Acres or More.” The project was well received by the buying public, so Farm Credit got paid off completely and all the rest who put off collecting their bills could now take their checks to the bank.
To the many that supported me as I worked to implement this new and kinder way to have people who work in the city but want to live a rural lifestyle, a heartfelt thank you to all!
It was now time to get back to doing what I enjoyed most, running our home ranch in Parafield. The 1980’s were a very enlightening time. Decision making could no longer be dogmatic or “it’s my way or the highway.” I knew that I couldn’t find the answers I needed in the traditional cattle world.
The year is now 1991 and California has been plagued with six years of subnormal rainfall. I had cut the numbers of cattle that I stocked the two ranches with significantly, but Zee and I knew we had to find new ways to keep the wolf from the door. Much to my good luck, I received a phone call from a close friend of mine. He asked if I would like to attended a seminar in Paso Robles on new ways to make decisions about how you manage the land you steward. The name of the organization was Holistic Management. It was founded by Allen Savory, who hailed from South Africa and saw things in a totally new and refreshing way. After the seminar, I was free to look in all directions for other ways that didn’t violate my holistic beliefs that could add income to pay the bills.
Again, luck was with me as Zee and I had just recently watched the movie City Slicker starring Billy Crystal. “Zee we can do that; we have the horses, the land, and the cattle.”
This year will be our 20th year having guests contribute to our economic well-being. In return, our family, the beauty of the Cholame Valley, and lots of nice horses and cattle to work with leaves most knowing they had just participated in something meaningful, unique, and fun.
The 1990’s saw the passing of our dry years and into a decade of friendly ones that had lots of rain. This afforded me running room to practice throwing all those methods out that no longer met the goals of Holistic Management and replace them with ones that did. After several years I was able to come up with a simple sentence that made the ranch management decision making process easier to monitor… SLOW DOWN WATER. If the decision that you made increases the velocity of water, it’s most likely wrong. Likewise, if your decision tends to slow the speed of water, it’s most likely right.
My demon that has caused me a lot of grief in my life is probably deep in my subconscious laying in wait like a dormant virus. It’s waiting for the right circumstance to show itself. But what it doesn’t know is that over time I’ve developed new ways to cope. That way when it shows itself I can recognize it early on and knock it out of my mind before it gets a head of steam. I’ve got the tools to send it back into hiding. Each time it shows itself, it’s much less the grand combatant and more a tired warrior whose time has passed.
My hope is that for those of you that could be suffering from any or all of my now receding travails might find one or two pearls of wisdom for your life’s puzzle and feel the wind at your back more often.
P.S. If the time comes when it is necessary for me to act bravely, I think I will. But I could falter. I dearly hope not.