[Note: This piece was originally written for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal on March 10, 2017]
THIS week, four West Texans demonstrated an affection for their place that proved more insuppressible than the wildfires that scorched enormous swaths of the Panhandle.
So insuppressible that they gave up their lives in the fires.
For Sloan Everett, Cody Crockett and Sydney Wallace that place was a ranch, north of McLean in Gray County.
For Cade Koch it was his home in Lipscomb.
Everett was a sixth-generation rancher from Stephens County and lived in Breckenridge, but he loved the Franklin Ranch. He also loved the daughter of the ranch’s owners, Liesl, to whom he proposed and married on the ranch.
Crockett, a McLean native, also from a ranching lineage, was the Franklin’s foreman. His girlfriend, Wallace, was a Monahans native and emergency nurse at Baptist St. Anthony Hospital in Amarillo.
When flames spread over the ranch on Monday evening, pushed by winds that had reached 70 mph earlier in the day, the three friends made a plan. They would rush to their place and open the gates for cattle to escape the combusting countryside all around them.
In doing so, the trio would succumb to the smoke and the flames — flames that would eventually destroy 135,000 acres in the area, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.
It was at the Franklin Ranch that Everett was laid to rest on Thursday.
Asked to describe their memory of Everett, two longtime friends from the Rolling Plains cited a portion of Joshua Deets’s epitaph in Lonesome Dove: “Cheerful in all weathers, never shirked a task … splendid behavior.”
Everett was 35 years old, Wallace was 23 and Crockett was 20.
(Kellie Gregorich’s detailed account of ranch events on GrowingGeorgia.com is highly recommended, as are funeral features by Lauren Koski of the Amarillo Globe-News.)
An hour northeast of the Franklin Ranch, another fire raged that same fateful evening. One that would eventually burn more than 318,000 acres, the third-largest fire on record with the Forest Service.
Koch, a 25-year-old father-to-be, was determined get to his place in order to evacuate his expecting wife, Sierra, from the growing threat near their home.
Rushing from his job at a Canadian lumberyard northbound on Highway 305, the east-moving fire apparently came too close, the smoke from which Koch couldn’t withstand.
He was found dead near his abandoned vehicle around midnight, a victim of smoke inhalation, the Globe-News reported.
This column space is reserved for political opinion. But this week, I don’t have much to say politically.
There’s too much gone in life and property, too much grief and smoke still lingering.
In time, I reckon the last week of fires in the eastern Panhandle, coupled with Goliath’s blizzard over a year ago in the western Panhandle, could be grounds on which the case for the Texas Tech veterinarian school proposal can be further argued. Perhaps the disaster will serve as a basis for Texas’ U.S. senators to support the 2018 Farm Bill, as well.
But now isn’t the time for such talk.
However, by the testimony of four young West Texans, it can be time to offer a philosophical suggestion:
To show affection for our place and for others as they did, regardless of the risks. Make a place and the people therein, a primary and predominant priority in all considerations.
On Friday afternoon, at a gas station south of Lubbock on U.S. 87, I met Ty Hartley of Midland. He was hauling a load of 11 large round bales of hay. I knew where he was headed.
Plenty of people have heard of Midland rancher Tallian Thompson’s donation of $30,000 worth of hay for charred areas of the Panhandle. Hartley was donating time and expense to haul some of it.
I asked him why he was helping.
“Because it’s the right thing to do; it’s the godly thing to do,” and with a pause he added, “because I know folks in the Panhandle would do the same for us in the Permian Basin.”
That’s West Texas-style affection.
Jay Leeson can be heard on the Other Side of Texas weekdays from 5-7pm on AM 580. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jayleeson.
This column first appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche–Journal.