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Nerves of Steel: How I Followed My Dreams, Earned My Wings, and Faced My Greatest Challenge
by Tammie Jo Shults
Learn More | Meet Tammie Jo Shults
UNDER ENDLESS BLUE SKIES
How is it possible to bring order out of
memory? I should like to begin at the
beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom.
I should like to say, “This is the place to start;
there can be no other.”
- —BERYL MARKHAM, WEST WITH THE NIGHT
My earliest memories are of wide-open skies. Big and blue, they sprawled over the small town of Farmington, New Mexico, where I was born. It was a land of painted mesas and arid plains boasting gorgeous sunsets and moonrises. I guess when you’re little you’re always looking up.
But it was my parents that I looked up to first. I remember thinking how tall my dad was and how well he could whistle. These were superhero qualities in my eyes. When I was a toddler, he managed a bowling alley and Mom stayed busy managing a house of five. Dwight was my older brother by thirteen months, and Sandra, my sister, was born a year and a half after me. From the beginning, we knew Sandra wasn’t like everyone else, but it wasn’t until she was nine that she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
As I started school, we moved to a five-acre farm near the farming and ranching community of Florida Mesa, Colorado, just outside of Durango. There Dad worked as a Caterpillar operator, grading country roads and making ski runs for Purgatory Resort. He was gone from home far too early each morning and came home far too late and seemed to always be working, but he found time to make child-size wooden guitars from strips of plywood, nails, and thin silver wire. My siblings and I took these treasures to our hideouts, where we strummed and sang like it sounded good.
Mom and Dad bought a couple of cows, a Guernsey and a Jersey that added to the cream sales. They took turns milking morning and night. Mom separated the cream from the milk and sold it, and that bought piano lessons, a true luxury, for Dwight and me. The day we got our piano was the first day we heard our mom play. It was drop-your-lunch-pail beautiful, even to a first grader. When Mom was a kid, she took lessons from Mr. McTaggart, who had been educated at Juilliard. We took lessons from the same Mr. McTaggart for three years. Each day we had to practice our piano lessons before we could go out to play. Mom sweetened her practice-before-play rule by saying, “Piano practice will make your fingers faster. You’ll be able to catch more frogs.” In our home you could change instruments, but you could never quit.
Mom was always cooking or canning, milking cows or feeding chickens. She also sewed most of our clothes, and if we needed a tractor driver while we loaded hay, then she drove the tractor too. To this day, I don’t know how she did it all.
Childhood was happy because my family was happy. In the 1960s we were a family ahead of its time. We lived on less, not because it was trendy but because my parents believed in living on less than they made. We ate organic, not because it was in vogue but because it was healthier and cheaper to raise and can our own food. “Farm to table” was real in our house. We were perpetually raising a runt piglet and calf. To keep questions about what happened to Pork Chop or T-Bone to a minimum, Mom and Dad made sure a new runt piglet or calf appeared as the older one got bigger.
One of the runt pigs we took under wing was cute, clever, and comedic because she loved chewing gum. When given a piece, she would pace and stomp at the screen door of our house with impatient little pig grunts, wanting to be let in. The family would gather for the show and then open the door while one of us gave a running commentary on her actions. After trotting in, she would set her haunches down in the middle of the hallway rug, put her nose straight up in the air, and smack loudly with a concentrated joy. Then, when the flavor was gone, she’d spit it out and head back outside.
When it came to chores, Dwight and I split them. We both bucked bales of hay on and off the hay trailer, mucked out stalls and spread the “organic fertilizer” in the garden, milked cows, and mended fences. When we were older, we moved sections of sprinklers across endless acres of alfalfa, swathed and baled hay, and on weekends ground our own livestock feed—wheat and milo with some alfalfa—the dustiest, loudest work on the farm. We could pick and choose some of the chores we did. Dwight leaned more toward the mechanical side of farming and ranching. I leaned more toward the animal side of it. But no matter what we chose, we had two solid hours of chores each day, year-round.
My parents gave us authority along with responsibility. I think that is why I look back at the farm and ranch work with the pride of ownership. Besides, both of my parents had a serious streak of fun in them. They knew the art of balance. There was always time made to discover, always room in our tiny house for tadpoles in a jar or an orphaned chipmunk. Mountain picnics were my family’s idea of a vacation, and homemade ice cream always sealed the deal.
If we weren’t at school, practicing piano, or doing chores, Dwight and I were out exploring. We dug for imaginary pirate treasure. We searched for magpie nests among the upper tree branches just to see what they had collected. We built forts between the juniper tree trunks, made mud pies, exploded dirt clods against the barn wall, and threw pitchforks into the haystack. Catching critters was our favorite pursuit.
Dwight and I played constantly . . . and we fought constantly. We had opposite personalities and wanted to approach tasks in opposite ways, whether we were talking about draining the sprinkler pipes or corralling the horses. I wanted to catch animals, and he wanted to let them go. He liked speed, and I wanted to take my time. Many times our differences of opinion turned into all-out war that involved throwing dirt clods or rocks at each other, and sometimes fists. But our arguments never kept us apart for long.
Every Thursday Mom baked eight loaves of white bread—one loaf for every day of the week and one to be eaten hot, right out of the oven, dripping with homemade honey butter. That was our favorite treat, far better than the snacks my brother and I would pilfer from the barrel full of dog food in the well house. We were never starving, of course, but we liked to pretend we were shipwrecked and needed food to survive. The nuggets gave us a sense of independence and also helped keep our German shepherd, Lady, close by on our adventures. I admit we tried a few bites as we wandered the woods of Florida Mesa. At least we knew if we were ever lost in the wilderness, we wouldn’t die of hunger.
My childhood home was full of love, but as early as first grade, I started showing signs of anxiety and nervousness, especially in regard to going to school. The prospect of a spelling test could bring on such severe vertigo that I couldn’t function. Throughout my life, school would prove to be a source of stress that I’d have to learn to manage. But my parents recognized I needed help even at that young age, and they took me to a doctor.
“She has a nervous disposition,” the physician told them. He recommended they medicate me with a prescription tranquilizer.
Had Mom and Dad filled that prescription, I have no doubt the trajectory of my life would have taken a completely different direction. The very canvas of my life would have been replaced and a much smaller canvas with restrictions put in place. Instead, they helped me in their own straightforward way. Whenever they saw my anxiety raising its head, my parents put me to work.
“Tammie Jo,” one of them would say, “I really need your help in the barn today. You can catch up with school tomorrow.”
This natural reality check—how to deal with nerves and stress—started me on a lifelong emotional workout program. Putting my body in motion was what I needed to keep my perspective in check. The physical work always calmed me and had a positive effect on my mind-set. How big was that trouble after all? My mom had a mantra: “No matter what, the sun will rise and the birds will sing.” Life would go on; the work would get done; the problems would pass. The following day I would go back to school and face whatever it was that had me worked up—only now I was ready to face it. And I always did.
When I was in fourth grade, we moved to Bayfield, a ranching town in southern Colorado. Mom and Dad had bought a sow with piglets and joined a hog cooperative, which held the promise of more cash. Though Dad still drove a grader in the Durango area, he and Mom worked from dawn to dusk around the seventeen-acre farm. For the first three months we lived in a camper while we made the old disaster of a house livable. Life in the camper thrilled me. As kids, Dwight and I ate, then scattered outside until the next meal.
The property was a treasure trove of outdoor adventure and exploration. We had a frog pond that fed into a larger pond, which had been stocked years before with brown and rainbow trout but had never been fished. Apple trees lined the west side of the fish pond, with a small dock at the south end. Dad built a raft for us out of barrels and planks. He attached it by a rope to the dock so we could fish from it or, when the weather grew warm, splash in the water around it. I couldn’t believe our good fortune. This was a kid’s paradise. Endless tadpoles to raise. Endless acres to roam. All the apples we could eat. The dog-food nuggets lost their luster.
As great as our new farm was, our new school was not. Everyone seemed unfriendly. The kids. The teachers. Even the fourth-grade fashion police were aggressive, appalled by my crime of wearing a skirt every other day. It was my mom’s rule: “If you’re a girl, you should look like one.” If I wore pants one day, I had to wear a dress the next. I didn’t mind. Well, I didn’t mind too much. I was never a tomboy, but clothes were not going to keep me from kickball or tree climbing at recess.
Mom and Dad realized Dwight and I were struggling in school and in our friendships, so they set up their first ever “carrot.” Making good grades in school had always been our responsibility, but they promised that if we made all As and Bs, we’d get our very own rifles. Dwight hit the mark, I came close, and they more than kept their promise. We each got a single-shot bolt-action .22. Dad taught us how to handle a gun safely before we earned the right to shoot it; then he taught us how to aim and hit the target. We weren’t allowed to use our rifles unless Mom or Dad was with us.
The promise of a rifle to kids may draw shock among parents today, but for a farm family in 1970, it made perfect sense. For me, it underscored the fact that my parents held me to the same standard that they held my older brother, with the same reward.
We had only been in Bayfield a year when Dad received an offer to partner with a cousin on a pig farm and cattle ranch in Tularosa, just north of Alamogordo, New Mexico. It was Dad’s dream to ranch full-time, so we moved again. Our new farm came with a brick house, a barn for milk cows, a hay barn, an equipment barn, a farrowing house for birthing sows, and various tie-post corrals for calves and horses. Around us the landscape was flat, with mesquite bushes and sandy soil. When the wind blew, which was often, the sand piled around the mesquite bushes, creating big mounds of sand and thorns.
We had no close neighbors, no television, and no phone. We were isolated in adobe country, but I loved this new chapter of life with Mom and Dad both working at home. To the west lay government property known as the White Sands Missile Range. Holloman Air Force Base lay to our south. Across Highway 54 and a little to the northeast lay the mountain wilderness of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. The sun rose over the Sacramento Mountains in the east, and far across the desert basin to the west, the San Andres Mountains framed our sunsets.
Pilots from the base practiced dogfighting (called air combat maneuvering) almost daily in the endless blue that was overhead. They tumbled through the sky, climbing and diving, chasing each other in simulated battles. I watched in awe, my mouth wide open. When pilots are dogfighting, they need a ground reference point, and their choice of our three-story hay barn anchored them overhead.
The noise from the jets would start as a distant rumble, then at times end with the crack of a sonic boom, which, on a few occasions, broke windows in our barn. One night we heard an extra-loud crack, and in the morning we found one of our corrals laid flat. The steers inside had been spooked and had busted out and run a mile down the road. Dad never uttered a harsh word when the noise filled our ears or caused the ground to shake. He’d smile and say, “The sound of freedom.”
Slowly Dad and his partner built up the farm. In time, we had a thousand head of hogs, fifteen hundred steers, some lambs, laying hens and banty chickens, geese, and turkeys. We used our horses the way people today use their John Deere Gators or four-wheelers. Besides running errands, we rode our horses to move cattle from the feedlot to pasture or from field to field where they grazed in wintertime. We also rode the fence line to check and repair it.
I loved school in Tularosa. My fifth-grade class was a friendly group, happy to see a new face. Amazingly, we all got along. We were diverse, mostly Hispanic, but if we ever had to call each other something other than “friends,” we used the labels “white,” “Mexican,” and “Indian.” In the early 1970s in New Mexico, political correctness was still decades away, and we fifth graders didn’t pay much attention to what race, color, or gender we were. All that mattered to us was whether we had enough people to form softball or kickball teams during recess. Could you hit, catch, and throw? That was all that mattered. During an inter-school track meet, different homerooms competed against each other. When it came to relay teams, I got drafted to run on the boys’ team. Our team won, and we each got a blue ribbon. I don’t remember it being a big deal. The boys just needed a runner and wanted to win.
While school was good, our new ranch was even better. It seemed new babies were constantly being born on the place. There were piglets, calves, and chicks everywhere. It should have dawned on us kids what was happening when Mom started looking bigger and skinnier at the same time.
Dwight, Sandra, and I drew straws to see who was going to ask Mom about her oddly increasing size. I drew the short straw. One morning before church, I made my way to her bedroom and complimented her on her hair and dress. Then I took a deep breath and mentioned that she seemed large. She just chuckled. That was in 1972, when I was eleven. A month later our little brother, D’Shane, was born.
In that arid land, where heat waves blurred the horizon, each kid in our family was given a pony. Sandra was first. Her pony, Brighty, was loitering in our alfalfa field when we moved in. Mine was a black-and-white Shetland mix we called Little Boy. A few years later I bought a beautiful but small sorrel gelding. I named him Peanuts, though for the life of me I cannot remember why.
Getting our own horse was like getting our first set of wheels. For fun and adventure, Dwight and I would ride in the boondocks around the ranch. Sandra was big enough to come with us, but she never liked to go far. Her pony knew the way home, so whenever she was finished exploring, she simply turned around, and Brighty would take her back.
Dwight and I would ride for miles just to see what we could see. Our goal was to someday ride all the way to the San Andres Mountains, or at least to see how far we could get before military helicopters intercepted us near the White Sands Missile Range.
It seldom rained in southern New Mexico in the summer, but when it did, it was often a torrential downpour: sheets of water, thunder, and lightning. Dwight and I would wait for the lightning to pass, then climb on our horses and go exploring. The hard-packed ground would flood, causing animals to pop out of their burrows in search of higher ground. Rabbits. Coyotes. Rattlesnakes. Tarantulas. Bobcats. Ground squirrels. It was like riding through a desert zoo. In the wintertime when it snowed, we’d follow animal tracks on horseback to discover where they lived.
As flat as our landscape was, gulches—little gorges that formed inverted mountains within the greater basin plan—lay sprinkled throughout the desert. Often a gorge would hold pools of water and salt cedars, tough grasses, and pancake cactus, a hidden oasis in the middle of the desert floor.
Rascal, another one of our German shepherds, would go into a happy frenzy whenever I’d bridle Peanuts for a ride. They both loved a good run, and chasing rabbits was their favorite reason to take off. Normally Peanuts was a wonderful horse, high-spirited and attentive to his rider. One day, however, when I was riding alone on the mesquite-studded basin, Peanuts and Rascal spotted a jackrabbit at the same time. It was as if a starter pistol had gone off. Peanuts bolted after the rabbit, with Rascal close behind. Galloping without any fences in sight can be thrilling, so I tightened my grip on the reins, let Peanuts have his head, and enjoyed the wind tearing through my hair.
Peanuts seemed to be running at the speed of light. He wasn’t out of control—at first. I think he just loved the thrill of speed and the allure of competition with Rascal. We both did. Soon the rabbit disappeared, and it became a horse-versus-dog race. I knew Peanuts could go a little crazy if I allowed him to run unchecked, so I started reining him in. I tried to slow him down, but he was having none of it.
I pulled on one rein to swing him into a tight circle. That didn’t work either. He opened up even more. Directly ahead lay a twelve-foot, sand-covered mesquite bush covered in inch-long thorns. Peanuts was charting a course straight into the thorny mound, with me on his back. No matter how hard I tried to turn him, his course was set.
My heart pounded. My option to jump off had long passed. I didn’t panic, but I knew this was going to hurt. I took my feet out of the stirrups and tried to maneuver myself sideways. Peanuts hit the mesquite and flipped upside down, tail over head, and I went underneath him.
When the dust cleared, I saw Peanuts far in the distance. He had somehow somersaulted, righted himself, and kept running. By the hand of Providence, I’d narrowly missed being smashed flat. Peanuts weighed about eight hundred pounds—heavy enough to have done real damage if he had landed on me.
Though I was scratched, bloody, and bruised, no bones were broken. Home lay about a mile away. On foot now, it was futile for me to chase after Peanuts. And at that point I really didn’t care if he ever came back.
Rascal was loyal enough to return and lick my cheek. We headed for home. Mom and Dad noticed my disheveled look, accented by the bloody scratches. Neither set down what they were doing, but they did inquire. Dad commented that I might be getting too big for Peanuts. The horse, it would seem, got the pity.
Life took a downturn when I was in junior high and my father’s ranching partnership folded. Dad lost everything but one old car and ten pigs. At age fifty, with a wife, three teenagers, and a one-year-old, he would have to start again from scratch. Our family stayed in the Tularosa area but moved to a smaller farm. It would be decades before I understood the full financial weight of those years on my parents, but I knew then that times had turned tough.
During those years, my sister began to feel the strain of being an outsider at school. Sandra was not a cookie-cutter kid. As she grew up with cerebral palsy, she developed a crossed eye and walked with a limp, tilting her head up so she could see the ground ahead. Sandra had the most beautiful honey-brown hair, brown eyes, and fair skin. She was small for her age but also quick-witted, with a cute sense of humor and a ready smile.
As a toddler, Sandra understood her colors and shapes and animal names; so when the time came, Mom and Dad didn’t think twice about sending her to public school with Dwight and me. But she struggled to learn how to read and write, and numbers meant nothing to her. Two plus two was a different number every day. Teachers sometimes called her slow, stupid, or defiant. Horrible names. They thought she was being ornery when she’d get up in class, walk forward, then stop and stare at the blackboard. Why didn’t they see she was only trying to figure out what had been written there? Mom and Dad were swamped trying to keep the new ranch afloat, so the costs of private school were prohibitive, and as far as they knew, homeschooling did not exist. Sandra struggled on.
When I was in middle school and Sandra was in grade school, some kid made Sandra his special target. He’d wait for her where she and I caught the bus to head back home, and sometimes he got to the bus stop before I did. Walking never came easy for Sandra, and this bully thought it was funny to trip her as she climbed the bus steps. Or he’d bump her before she got on and send her sprawling on the sidewalk. Humiliated and dirty, she’d struggle to get back up. He wasn’t the only bully who tormented Sandra, but he was the most predictable.
One night around the supper table, our family talked about bullying. My folks reminded us there are natural laws in life, and bullies are seldom bullies to just one person. When you stand up to a bully, you’re helping not only the victim but a whole string of future victims. They also told us that silence is consent. If you see injustice but don’t say something, then you’re part of the problem, part of the injustice. The right not to be bullied seemed like a pretty foundational law of human dignity to them and to me.
Two days later the bully was back to his old tricks. At the end of the school day, as I approached the bus stop, I saw him shove Sandra under the parked bus, then laugh at her and call her an idiot. I ran to Sandra and helped her get up. I dusted her off, gave her a hug, and dried her tears. She cared about her clothes, and now her dress was dirty, and one of her knees had been scraped up. I knew she felt humiliated.
“Don’t worry about it,” I whispered to her. “Small people have small ways. And I promise you—he will never do this again.”
Startled, Sandra looked straight into my face. She held my gaze a moment, then looked away. “Okay,” she said. Her voice was small.
By now the bully was on the bus, yukking it up with his friends, sneering and bragging about his mighty deed. That day I felt none of my “nervous disposition,” only total certainty about what I needed to do.
I helped Sandra climb aboard. After I had made sure she found a seat near the front, I walked straight back to the bully and clocked him upside the head with all I had. Then, making sure my instructions were as loud as his mocking had been, I said, “Never. Ever. Do that again!”
The bully and his friends were shocked into silence the entire ride home. His jig was up, and he knew it. The bus driver never said a word, but our eyes met in the big rearview mirror mounted above his head, and I saw a little grin tug at the corner of his mouth.
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