All The Things Left Unsaid
By Bob Strand
Lee Coleman was one of the most interesting men I ever worked with on the ranch on which I was raised. And this story about him is probably the saddest story I will ever tell you.
Because of the large amount of work to be done during the summers, it wasn´t unusual for the outfit to hire a number of extra men for just short period of time. Lee was one of those men.
And so he came to the ranch each summer—to help put up the hay that we needed for winter feed—and then left again in the fall. He was too old by then to get on a horse, and so my acquaintance with him came in the hay fields after spring roundup.
I never knew where he went each year, but I was always glad to see him in the spring. Lee was different from all of the other men with whom I had worked. And he had seen and done things that seemed to excite my youthful imagination.
I would hear him tell about his experiences as a young soldier on leave in Paris. Or about his early life as an oil field engineer working in the fields at Brownsville, Texas. And even about his wife and daughters, all with whom he had long since lost contact.
For a young man being raised in the wilderness of Wyoming, Lee was a welcome window to a world I had never seen. I couldn´t imagine how one man could crowd so many experiences into one lifetime and then end up working summers in the hay fields of a Wyoming ranch.
And Lee was well educated it seemed to me. At night, in the bunkhouse, or when we worked together in the fields, he would often take the opportunity to quiz me about what I was learning in school. We would talk about chemistry and mathematics, and he would sometimes recite poems to me that he had learned in school. He taught me the meaning of words I had never heard before, like “cosmopolitan” and “vicissitude”.
He was one of the few ranch hands that made me believe that there was much more to life that I could possibly imagine. But still. I wondered why he was here in this place working the way he did.
It wasn’t long before I realized that it was liquor that stood between Lee and the world he had left behind. If he was sent to town for groceries or other supplies, he would invariably get very drunk. And then his drinking would lead to depression. And his depression would incapacitate him for several days or more.
He had chosen to work on ranches far from town to separate himself from that face of his life with which he could not deal. And, as it turned out, neither could anyone else in the worlds he had left behind; not his employers or his wife or his children.
But when he was at the ranch and when he was sober, Lee was a hard worker and an inspiration to me. Out of this short, pot-bellied and balding little man came several challenges to me—work smarter, not harder, find out more about yourself, pay attention to what’s going on right now.
Looking back on it all now I think that Lee just got tired of trying. Or maybe there just wasn’t anybody left in his life for which to try.
I do know that his bouts of drinking led to longer episodes of depression and he more than once spoke of ending his life.
My father often cautioned all of us about leaving our loaded guns lying about the bunkhouse when Lee had been drinking. Maybe his warnings went unheeded or maybe we just took Lee’s episodes of drinking too much for granted.
One late summer day, after Lee had found a bottle of whiskey in a ranch hand’s pickup, he went very quickly from drunk to depression. And from his depression, he went to the bunkhouse table where a pistol was left lying, used that afternoon by one of the cowboys for target practice.
Lee moved from the table to a nearby wash basin, and while he stared at himself in the mirror above the sink, raised the pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. As he fell, he dropped the gun in the sink and died there by himself on the bunkhouse floor.
I often wish that I could go back in my life and say things to people from my past, things that I think they should have heard. If I could, I would go tell Lee that he made a difference in my life. And that I think that part of the person I have become today has made his trying worthwhile.