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Nerves of Steel, Young Readers Edition: The Incredible True Story of How One Woman Followed Her Dreams, Stayed True to Herself, and Saved 148 Lives

Nerves of Steel, Young Readers Edition: The Incredible True Story of How One Woman Followed Her Dreams, Stayed True to Herself, and Saved 148 Lives

by Tammie Jo Shults

Learn More | Meet Tammie Jo Shults


No Second-Class Citizens

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 in 1961. The gorgeous sun set and the bright moon rose over high, flat mesas that looked as if they’d been painted with watercolors. I guess most of my memories are of what was above me because when you’re little, you’re always looking up.

I looked up to my parents first. As I started school, they moved our family to a five-acre farm near Florida Mesa, Colorado, in the southwest corner of the state. Dad worked there as a grader operator, building country roads and making ski slopes for a nearby resort. My dad was tall and could whistle like no one else I knew. These were superhero qualities in my eyes.

Mom was always cooking or canning our homegrown vegetables, milking cows, or feeding chickens. She also sewed most of my sister’s and my clothes. If we needed a tractor driver while we loaded hay, then she drove the tractor too.

Dwight was my older brother by thirteen months. Sandra, my sister, was born a year and a half after me. From the beginning, we knew Sandra wasn’t like everyone else. But we didn’t know until she was nine that she had cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects a person’s muscle movements and brain development.

Mom and Dad sold the cream from our cows’ milk to buy 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.

Each day we had to practice 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. Sandra didn’t play the piano, but she loved to sing with others. Drawing and needlework were her style of fun.

Dad seemed to always be working. But he found time to make child-size wooden guitars from strips of plywood, nails, and thin, silver wire. Dwight, Sandra, and I took these treasures to our hideouts, where we strummed and sang as if it sounded good.

Childhood was happy because my family was happy. We lived simply on our farm, raising our crops, tending livestock, and being fed by both. We were always raising a pig and a calf, usually undersized runts.

One of the runt pigs we took under wing was especially cute and clever. She loved to chew gum! When given a piece, she would pace and stamp at the screen door of our house with impatient little grunts, wanting to be let in. The family would gather for the show, then open the door while one of us gave a running commentary on the little pig’s 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 her eyes closed. When the flavor was gone, she’d spit out the gum and head back outside.

When it came to chores, Dwight and I both bucked bales of hay on and off the hay trailer, mucked out stalls and fertilized the garden, milked cows, and mended fences. When we were older, we moved sections of sprinklers across acres of alfalfa and cut and baled hay. On weekends we ground our own livestock feed—wheat and milo with some alfalfa—the dustiest, loudest work on the farm. As hard as the work was, it was nice that we could pick some of our chores. Dwight liked the mechanical side of farming and ranching. I preferred the animals. But no matter what we chose, we each had about two solid hours of chores a day.

My parents made sure we had time for fun too. Dwight and I explored. We dug for imaginary pirate treasure. We searched for magpie nests among the upper tree branches to see what the birds 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 often approached tasks in opposite ways, whether we were draining the sprinkler pipes or corralling the horses. I wanted to catch animals; Dwight wanted to let them go. He liked speed; I wanted to take my time. Many times our disagreements turned into an all-out war. We threw dirt or rocks at each other and sometimes swung fists. But our arguments never kept us apart for long.

Every Thursday Mom baked eight loaves of white bread: one for each day of the week and one to be eaten right out of the oven, dripping with homemade honey butter. That was our favorite treat, far better than the “snacks” Dwight 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 any kind of food to survive. The nuggets of dog food gave us a sense of independence and also helped keep our German shepherd, Lady, close by on our adventures. I’ll 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.)

Our family moved a few times. When I was in fourth grade, Mom and Dad took us to Bayfield, another nearby ranching town. They’d bought a sow pig 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 repaired the house on the property to make it livable. Life in the camper thrilled me. We kids would eat and then scatter outside until time for the next meal.

The property was a kid’s paradise. We had a frog pond that fed into a larger pond. The big pond had been stocked years earlier with brown and rainbow trout, but it hadn’t been fished. Apple trees lined the pond’s west side, and a small dock was 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 around in the water. There were endless tadpoles to raise, acres to roam, and all the apples we could eat. We lost interest in the dog food.

Just one year later, Dad received an offer to partner with a cousin on a pig farm and cattle ranch in Tularosa, New Mexico, about four hundred miles away. It was Dad’s dream to ranch full-time, so we moved again. Our new farm had a brick house, a barn for milk cows, a hay barn, an equipment barn, a farrowing house where sows would give birth to piglets, and various 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.

Our house was isolated. We had no close neighbors, no television, no computer, not even a phone. But I loved this new chapter of life with Mom and Dad both working at home.

In that arid land, where heat waves blurred the horizon, each of us kids got a pony. A brown and white pony was loitering in our alfalfa field when we moved in. We named him Brighty, and he became Sandra’s. Mine was a paint-Shetland mix we called Little Boy. Dwight’s pony was a gray dapple named Maggie.

For fun and adventure, Dwight and I would ride for miles around our land. It seldom rained in southern New Mexico in the summer, but when it did, it was often a downpour: sheets of water, thunder, and lightning. After the lightning passed, we’d climb on our horses and go exploring. Rain would flood the hard-packed earth, 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. When it snowed, we’d follow animal tracks to discover their homes.

Sandra sometimes came on rides with us, but she never liked to go far. Her pony knew the way home. So whenever she was finished exploring, Sandra simply turned around, and Brighty would take her back.

It seemed new babies were constantly born on the place. There were piglets, calves, and chicks everywhere. So we should have realized what was happening when Mom started looking bigger and skinnier at the same time. Dwight, Sandra, and I drew straws to see who would 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 she seemed to be growing. She just chuckled. That was in 1972, when I was eleven. A month later, our little brother, D’Shane, was born.

Our childhood home was full of love. Our parents treated all of us alike, with respect, responsibility, and freedom. No one was a second-class citizen.

But school was an entirely different world.

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