When you’re young, you think only of the future; when you reach 50, you tenderly remember your history. There are people who shine on in your soul long after their spirit has soared away. Patricia Hensler’s lives on in my most cherished early memories, and remains among those who filled me with immense happiness at a very impressionable age.
I had the golden opportunity to live on a remote ranch with my father for two years. Dad worked for the State of Arizona, and was assigned over 100 miles from the family home. Rather than disrupting my older brothers’ high school years, my parents agreed Dad would live there during the week and come back home for weekends. After months of being cooped up alone in our camping trailer, he learned of a cabin for rent on a ranch. He fell in love with the place immediately. There was a tiny school about 20 miles away, at the base of a majestic ‘sky island’, the Pinaleño Mountains. The range’s highest peak is Mt. Graham, at 10,720 feet in elevation. When the desert floor below is baking at 105 degrees any July afternoon, it’s easily 30 degrees cooler on the mountain.
My mother was alone with her four sons during the week. Nearing my 11th birthday, I was feeling lost in the crowd and missing Dad. Four years younger than my next older brother, I was no match in the sibling rivalry games. My parents decided it was a perfect time for me to spend more time with my father, and the setting could not have been more ideal. So they uprooted me and sent me to Bonita School to begin sixth grade.
Dad was a pilot who owned a two-seater Cessna 120 at that time. We would get up early Monday morning, if the weather was good, and head out to the airport for our weekly commute. Flying over some of the roughest air in the state, we’d sail southeastward over the desert and bounce over the mountains to a tiny airstrip just behind Bonita Store. With 100 foot cottonwood trees and power poles on one end of “Bonita International” Airport’s short runway, he’d come in just over the tree tops, then drop onto the dirt strip, taxi to the end and I’d jump out. He’d throttle up to the max and soar away to Safford with a wave as I walked the short distance to school. On Fridays, I’d catch a ride into town with one of his Ft. Grant co-workers and we’d fly back home for the weekend. Although I didn’t realize it then, this was a unique and coveted life my young peers envied.
Having visited the ranch a few times, I too quickly became enamored with the place. The vistas were spectacular, and an endless array of adventures beckoned to this curious boy. It was exciting to live there, yet I was nervous to be in my fifth school in nearly as many grades. The enrollment was so tiny that fifth and sixth grades were combined, as were seventh and eighth. If I didn’t “fit in” right away, it would be a rough year. However, I seemed to make friends fairly quickly and my initial fears were soon put to rest. The teachers were top-notch and were able to provide each student with ample one-on-one instruction. Although my home town’s school wasn’t huge, Bonita was tiny in comparison. Just another rascal thrust into a group of like-minded kids, I fit right in.
While school was fun, I couldn’t wait to get home every afternoon. The ranch was rich with possibilities of exploration and mischief. There was a mostly abandoned barn, a 400-foot hill next door which offered incredible views of Sulphur Springs Valley from its peak, and the Galiuro Wilderness just across the road. I would spend happy hours wandering with my dog, pursuing childhood fancies and just being a boy.
The ranch consisted of a main house, a water tank and pump, and two small cabins, one on either side of the house. At about the same time Dad moved into our cabin, one of his colleagues rented the other cabin, and another rented the house. Shortly thereafter, the former imported his young wife from the Midwest. Our “ranch” now had a population of five people, three dogs, and more to come!
Pat arrived with a cheery laugh that punctuated nearly everything she said. A lovely, petite 23-year-old with sunny blonde hair and eyes that brightened the angriest monsoon, we quickly bonded. I’d never had a sister, and she fit the bill perfectly. Every day, as we waited for our respective men to return home, we explored together. We’d take walks with the dogs or just sit and play Monopoly. Her joy and laughter were infectious, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was the happiest I’d ever been. She would say something silly and set me to giggling. She’d reach across the table and push the hair out of my eyes as I studied the game board, or chuck me on the shoulder when I bought a coveted property. Having a younger brother about my age, I think she missed him.
One day Pat surprised me when I walked through her door. She had a charcoal pad out and had been sketching. Pouring me some lemonade to take the edge off that hot day, she posed me directly across from her. She asked me to sit as still as possible, which is nearly impossible for an 11-year-old boy, while she sketched my portrait. We talked quietly about our day, she asking me how school was and I grilled her about anything new she’d found on the ranch. After an hour, she showed me a nearly perfect rendering of my face, with my comically curious tilt of the head. There is not enough money in the world to match what I would pay to have that drawing today.
Some days I’d jump off the bus and hear odd screeching sounds coming from the barn. Miss Pat had taken flute lessons before she moved to Arizona, but her efforts were torturous to Ron’s ears. He banished her from the house when she practiced. We both loved the flute, and she worked hard to improve. I’m not sure her musical efforts endeared her to the pigs and chickens who resided there.
As sixth grade came to an end, I was sad to leave the ranch for the summer. While I missed my friends at the home base, life at the ranch had been spectacular. I missed my buddy I now reverently called “Miss Pat”, the dogs, the stream across the road, and the countless trails I’d come to cherish. For once, I couldn’t wait for school to start in the fall.
My confidence had grown along with the rest of me as I returned for seventh grade. Elated to be “home” again on the ranch, I resumed my antics with renewed enthusiasm. Played tricks on Doc the Gentleman Farmer, with Miss Pat as a willing accomplice. Learned how to groom a horse, feed Doc’s chickens (a related story soon to come) and pig. Since we lived a mile from our nearest neighbor, I bugged Dad to let me drive at every opportunity. My life was blissful, sweet and full of fun. After Dad’s interesting attempts at dinner, we’d settle down for quiet time. Sometimes we’d all sit outside and chat. There was no television, as the remote location wouldn’t allow a signal to penetrate. I’d tune my radio to KOB in Albuquerque and either do homework or read a book as we enjoyed popcorn before bedtime.
While it was rare, sometimes a stray storm would dump snow on the valley floor. One morning I awoke to find a glorious school-cancelling white blanket outdoors. Quickly donning several layers to fight the 25-degree blizzard, my feet were soon sinking into about six inches, my face tilted up. My tongue darted out to taste the flakes. Searching for my exploring partner, I found her tracks leading out of the ranch gates and heading across the road to the fields beyond. Heavy snow obscured my vision, but her tracks were fresh and I came upon her a half-mile later, kneeling as if in prayer. She would dip her hand into the snow, bring up a handful of powder and let it sift through her gloved fingers. I knelt silently beside her. Her face was serene, her manner solemn, she spoke not a word. We were alone but for the wind silently blowing snow all around us. Normally, I would have playfully chucked snow at her, but I sensed it was not the time for frivolity. She frowned as she played with the flakes. After a few minutes, she sighed. “Snow is weird” is all she said. While it was an odd thing to say, I thought it profound as well. Having lived in the desert the past seven years, Illinois winters were a distant memory. The clouds hung low on the foothills, completely obscuring the Galiuros. It was so eerily quiet I could almost hear each flake meeting the ground. A few moments later, the dogs found us and demanded we throw sticks for them to argue over. Pat grinned mischievously at me, then flung a handful of snow in my face. I laughed a surprised “Hey!” and grabbed a retaliatory fist of powder, but she was already running away, her laughter echoing off into the distance.
In addition to my Piece-o-Cake (the fastest tongue in the West), Doc had two purebred black Labradors named Sig and Samita. Sig had been professionally trained and was well-behaved and dignified. Samita, however, was playful and adept at annoying her brother. ‘Cake’ was the long-haired daredevil who ran rings around them both. Miss Pat brought a puppy home one day, a Shepherd mix she named Fritz. He brought her so much joy, and seemingly would fit right in with the older dogs. Tragedy struck one night, however, and she knocked on my door one night in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. When she came indoors, I saw she was sobbing. Never having seen her sad, I asked what was wrong. Fritz had gotten into the turpentine in the shed, and had just died she managed to tell me. She abruptly asked if I had a small box she could bury him in. Finding one, I asked if I could help but she quickly turned and left. She mourned for a few days, but bounced back quickly, spending more time with the canine “trio” than usual. If I ever had to leave the ranch, I knew I couldn’t bear to separate her from Cake.
In January, Miss Pat informed us she was due to have her first child that August. We were all overjoyed, knowing her sunny personality would make her a wonderful mother. I was looking forward to being an honorary uncle, and life continued merrily. That spring, my father received notice he’d been transferred to Casa Grande. As it was much closer to the family home, I would have to complete my elementary education at my old school. This was devastating news, but Miss Pat helped me accept the reality. She promised to write and encouraged me to visit, especially after the baby was born. “Good friends are never more than a phone call away,” she said, covering my hand with hers. “You’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
The last day of school came too fast that year. I said cheery farewells to my new friends, then boarded the bus for one more ride to the ranch. As we put the final touches on what had been a grand time, tears escaped no matter how brave I tried to be when I bid Miss Pat adieu. She hugged me with a few tears of her own, but quickly found something to joke about. As usual, her staccato laugh brought out a smile in us both. We promised to keep in touch and to visit whenever possible.
Months seemed to drag by. I called her a few times, but was only able to squeeze in one visit to the ranch a few months after Baby arrived. Miss Pat was delightful to watch mothering James. They were beautiful together, and I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. Yet she still found time to spend a few hours with me, in between chats with my parents. For a moment, the “crowd” was back together. We enjoyed reliving some of our fun times, laughing at our antics and catching up on life’s previous months. It was fun to see my dog, Piece-o-Cake, and play with him again. Climbing “my” hill, I once more gazed upon the majesty of Mt. Graham 25 miles distant, turning around to admire the rugged Galiuros and their grassy foothills spotted with oak trees. The next day we bade farewell to the ranch again, and I remember the ride home fondly. I thanked my parents for bringing me, and asked we do it again as soon as possible.
Miss Pat and I exchanged some letters. One of them survived the long journey from 1973, and it remains a valuable link to my childhood. She described life as usual on the ranch, and sounded full of happiness and hope for a bright future.
“The pigs are enormous — well-fed animals. I don’t go up to the barn often — would rather not make friends with the doomed beasts.
“Piece-o-Cake is delightful. I watch him a lot — his curiosity is fascinating. My latest treat for the pups is to drive them up to the dip near the Wear Ranch and drop them — they’re exhausted when they get home. Piece-o-Cake often leaps out of the car before we reach our destination — a little over-enthusiastic!
In one more month, Ron and I will have our baby. We are looking forward to the event. Poor Doc — three of us and one of him. He’s going to need some backing to survive!”
From the perspective of a 12-year-old, my love for Miss Pat was immeasurable. I suppose some would think it was a schoolboy crush. Actually, it went deeper than that. I looked up to her as if she really was my sister. She was smart, fun to be around, and her laughter was infectious. Her companionship meant more to me than that of friends my age. Granted, there were times when we each needed alone time. Young boys like to explore hidden places, charging up and down hills or canyons, testing the limits of gravity. So there was room for solitude, and then there was “Pat Time”. We shared a common name, we enjoyed each other’s company. Considering my penchant for being a pesky pest, I probably enjoyed her company more than she did mine. Miss Pat had plenty to keep her busy, but always made time for this ornery kid.
As I neared the end of eighth grade, my world was suddenly shattered beyond recognition. On that beautiful April 19th in 1974, my father received a phone call after he returned from work. Speaking in hushed tones, I couldn’t make out what he was saying to his former secretary. When he hung up, his face was ashen, contorted in a manner I had never seen. Quietly, he told us Miss Pat had been killed that afternoon in an automobile accident, on a road my school bus had regularly traveled. The breath instantly left me and I felt overwhelmed with the worst agony imaginable. A howl of anguish of an indescribable depth and tone escaped me as never before or since. Tears stream down my face still, as I relay this horrible memory. It was unfathomable that this gentle soul, beloved by all who knew her, could be ripped forever from our lives. The next few days I was inconsolable.
Over 100 people filled the gymnasium at Bonita School to say farewell to this beautiful life. Numb with grief, I chose to sit in the back with my former schoolmates. I couldn’t bear to sit next to that box which held my beloved Miss Pat’s remains. Twisted with numbing grief, I sobbed quietly through the entire ordeal. At the gravesite, I reverently patted her casket and turned away so I wouldn’t have to see her lowered beneath the Earth she had graced for 25 short years.
At the ranch afterward, I timidly approached Ron. He hadn’t seen me until then, and the last time I had been firmly attached to his wife’s side. He winced in pain and closed his eyes as he said my name. We embraced, but what could be said? Miss Pat and I were nearly inseparable an entire year; Ron would have to chase me off when he came home in order to have time alone with her. As he hugged me, and in a moment of bravery I’ve always admired, Ron assured me it would all be okay, someday. Other than that, we were both simply lost for words. Doc also consoled me, even though he had adored her as much as anybody. Not wanting anyone else to see my tears freely flowing, I made my way up to the barn to say my final goodbyes. Miss Pat’s brother joined me, and we silently made our way up the path. I don’t know what we said to each other, but surely it was awkward.
Throughout my teenage years and well into adulthood, this tragedy haunted me. I made countless pilgrimages to her graveside and visited Ron a couple of times at the ranch. These meetings were usually very hard on us both, but I couldn’t let go of the wondrous times we had all shared. Wanting desperately to believe her ghost was always nearby, I begged her to visit me. Depression came often, especially around April 19. Gradually but painfully slowly, time began to heal this jagged wound in my soul. Mom taught me to remember her laugh, our fun together. She believed my remembering how Pat died, rather than how she lived, was causing my continuing grief. Miss Pat wouldn’t have wanted me to be so damn sad, so I learned to smile at her memory rather than sob.
Six years later, I married a girl who was remarkably similar in some ways to Miss Pat. Ron by then had remarried, and they came to our wedding along with Pat’s parents. It was very humbling to me that they would attend, and it felt as if Miss Pat were there as well.
Now that four decades have passed, I remember my time at the ranch with wistful fondness. What a wonderful experience it was to have lived among such wonderful people in a ruggedly beautiful setting. While it took some soul-searching, as an adult I was finally able to let go of the youthful bonds of tragedy and embrace the joyful memories. Understanding that Ron had a new life, a wonderful wife and family with whom to move forward and beyond his earlier tragedy, I came to realize any contact with him was selfish of me. There was no sensible way to have a relationship with him or Doc without bringing them unnecessary pain. Even though I knew her only a few years, Miss Pat and I had forged a bond that would have lasted a lifetime, had she lived. Loving Ron as I would an uncle, I could not bear to cause him any further misery. The very sight of me surely brought back memories of Miss Pat. When I finally came to peace with this fact, I stopped trying to make contact. He’s raised their son, and another with Anita, who are now both adults with their own families. Surviving such a tragedy was tough enough for Ron without being reminded of it through my wanting to keep in touch.
Incredibly, I have only one photo of my beloved friend. Although I was always a rabid photographer, somehow we never ended up together in any picture. The years have nearly erased her face from my memory, but her laughter rings loud whenever she enters my thoughts. Because of her joyful presence in the most magical time of my youth, part of her lives on in me. I’ve always loved helping people laugh. Finding the lighter side of life was her specialty, and I’ve tried to emulate that trait.
This piece has been incredibly difficult to write, not just because of the emotional factor, but because I’ve always wanted to properly memorialize her. There have been many people who influenced me, but she was easily the most joyous person I’ve ever known. The two years I lived on that ranch were the happiest of my childhood. They would have been wonderful regardless of knowing her, but Miss Pat made each day spectacular and infinitely memorable.
I can hear her now, telling me how silly it is to write this. But nobody else has, or will, for that matter. So hopefully this does her justice. Her soul is resting for eternity, but her memory lives on in the wind, the snow, and the joy she brought us all.
Text and photos © 2014 by Patrick B. Coomer. All rights reserved. May not be used without express written consent of the author.