Fontana Holt wanted nothing in her life other than to be a cowboy. To her, "cowGIRL" was an insult to the life and profession that was her life's passion. You either had the toughness, determination, and resiliency to be one or you didn't. She was attracted to them, and competed against them in the real life skills necessary.
She lost four of them by the time she was a young woman. Her brother, her father, her childhood best friend, and one who gave her the news of her true love's demise. Unwilling to love again, "because cowboys die on you," she still lives and prospers in the west, gaining the respect and admiration of all those who knew her. This is her story.
Because Cowboys Die
In 1967, as I was nearing the end of high school, I had an assignment to interview someone. The requirement for the interviewee was that they had to be “an interesting person,” and the report was to be two pages, typed. English was at the bottom of my favorite subjects list in school, as words came hard for me, and expressing ideas which might be considered original terrified me. Two pages was a lot to write about anyone or anything, and even more intimidating when the requirement was for it to be typed. My brain would always out pace my fingers, and I would reach the maximum number of acceptable erasures by the end of the first paragraph.
I had long ago learned that although my normal handwriting was small and concise, with no swirls, curls or twirls, if I doubled its size for reports like some of the girls already wrote, I also had halved the length requirements. I also could add a few long lines across the letter “t” when it ended a word, which extended the word even further. That, along with ending as many words as possible with “s,” bringing the last line out two or three times as far as normal, I could handwrite one page for scratch and then push it to two with the larger writing. In a few days, I could usually manage two pages.
The fortunate thing for me, and the one which I did not fully appreciate at the time, was that my great grandmother happened to be a woman named Fontana Holt. She was ninety five years old in 1967, and with a little help was still living in the same house in which she was born, west of Grass Range, Montana. I had not seen Fontana— it was a hard and fast rule that she be called by her first name by everyone, including me— in over five years. If there was a more interesting person, I had neither met nor heard of them.
I had considered everyone in my home town for the interview, and since this had been an assignment every year for nearly forty years in town, I could think of no one who was “interesting” who had not already been interviewed and written about a dozen times or so, and those people were already taken by someone who could actually write. Interesting people do not usually wish to be immortalized in a high school report by someone who can’t write eloquently and imaginatively.
It was then that I seriously considered Fontana. The fact that she was well over a thousand miles away did not seem a large problem, as you could fly nearly everywhere you wanted if you were patient with the connections, along with a couple hundred dollars. And, I had a three day weekend with Easter coming up.
My parents were not in agreement with my choice of people at first.
“There are plenty of interesting people right here, so you don’t have to be spending money that doesn’t have to be spent. And that’s final,” my father said. He only spoke in dictums, and each one ended with, “and that’s final.” He also wondered aloud why I didn’t choose him to interview, allowing that he could be as interesting as anyone else.
Sorry, but I’d have to start with ten pages of what you said, and then when I took the cuss words out, I might have two.
When I explained that I would be spending my own money and not his, and Mother pointed out that Grandmother Holt (in spite of Fontana’s insistence, my mother would never in a million years call someone older than herself by their first name) would not be around forever, and it might be a good experience for me to try to travel on my own.
“I said it’s final,” my father replied. “And that’s final.”
Mother would also never in a million years be caught disagreeing with my father in front of someone, but the next morning, on his way to get a haircut and play golf, he brusquely said to me in passing, “Go if you want, but not on my dime.” Mother winked at me from across the room.
So, plans were made. I would drive myself down to Des Moines, get on a flight to Denver, and make a connection to Billings, Montana. Uncle Reed, my father’s brother, lived in Roundup and agreed to meet me at the airport and take me to Fontana’s home up by Grass Range.
“As long as you pay for the gas. I’m not a bank, you know,” he said.
On Thursday, March 23rd, I was allowed to leave school early so I could get to Des Moines in time for an afternoon flight to Denver. I could stay all night at the airport and then catch the first of two daily flights to Billings on Friday morning. When apprised of this plan, Mother insisted that I stay in a hotel overnight. I told her I could afford the flight but not a hotel, she dug into her purse and gave me ten dollars.
“There has to be a Motel 6 somewhere close,” she said.
I pocketed the ten dollars and slept in the airport anyway.
When I got to Billings on Friday, Uncle Reed was nowhere to be found. I called his home, and he said something came up and he couldn’t come and get me today. I asked about Aunt Jen and he said she was working until five that evening.
I then remembered something Coach Barnhart was always drilling into us. He would say, “You can make things happen and you can prevent things from happening just with the sheer force of hard work, skill, and determination. If you don’t put in the effort, don’t cry about the results.” So, I decided to make something happen. I took my small bag and headed out of the airport. On the way, I managed to gather a piece of cardboard from one of the stores, and a magic marker, with which I wrote, “NEED TO SEE GRANDMOTHER IN GRASS RANGE.”
Armed with only a small brief case that held two extra pairs of undershorts, two pairs of socks, a rolled up tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush and a can of deodorant, I began walking. Down off the hill where the airport in Billings sat, there was a stoplight where the airport road met the highway. I stood right where cars stop when the light is red and held up my sign. Six cars later, I had a ride all the way to Grass Range with a man who was going to Lewistown. An hour and a half later, I was dropped off at what there was of Grass Range.
I walked into the small store there to get a snack and something to eat. I picked up a bottle of Coke and two packages of Hostess Twinkies, and took them to the counter.
“That looks like a good lunch,” the lady at the checkout stand said.
“Please don’t tell my mother,” I said. “Her last instruction to me was to eat right.”
“I just might,” she said, breaking into a nice smile.
“What is the best and quickest way to get to Fontana Holt’s place?” I asked.
Her smile turned serious. “If I might ask, what business do you have with Fontana?” she asked.
“She’s my great grandmother. I came from Iowa so I could talk to her. It’s for an assignment to interview the most interesting person you can find.”
“That would be her, alright,” the woman said. She then added, “Wait right here for a minute.”
She picked up the phone, dialed three numbers, and said only, “Please come to the store. I need you to make a delivery to Fontana Holt’s.”
She then hung up the phone and said, “That’s my daughter. She would be happy to take you to your great grandmother’s. Those two have been friends since Janie was old enough to talk.
A minute after that, an old green Ford pickup truck came skidding to a stop in front of the store. Out of it hopped a girl about my age. I remember that my first thought was, “Holy Smokes!” and that I only got more tongue tied after that. She had on old blue jeans which had obviously been involved in work. Even though it was getting warm, she had on a long sleeved light blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up just past her elbows. Leather gloves stuck out her back pocket, and a pony tail stuck out the back of her ball cap. She did not seem to care in the slightest that she had a smudge of dirt running from the corner of her mouth to her ear.
She walked in, letting the screen door slam behind her, and walked to her mother and said, “What am I taking this time?”
The mother nodded her head toward me. Before she could get a word out, the younger girl had already evaluated me head to toe, and said to her mother, “Forget it Mom. Not my type.”
She then turned and began to head out the door.
“This is Fontana’s great grandson. He came out here to pay her a visit. If you won’t take him, I guess I will have to call Sally Bickering.”
The girl then stopped, turned, and came back to me, evidently evaluating me in a different light. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” I managed. Those eyes were melting my brain. I hoped the conversation would end before I turned to a bowl of jello.
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” she asked.
“I didn’t really have the chance now, did I?”
She held out her hand to shake. It was not a girl’s grip, but as firm and crisp as any I could remember. “Janie Wall,” she said.
I gripped back, hoping she did not think me too frail to be her type. “Chris Kincaid,” I managed. I was glad my name was not Polish or Swedish or any of those that take a whole page to write.
“Let’s go,” she said, turning and heading out the door.
I looked at the older lady intending to thank her for the ride, and she said good naturedly, “Sorry. That’s the best I could do on short notice. When you are ready to leave, call the store and I will have her come pick you up.”
“Will do,” I replied.
Janie Wall is not a leisurely driver. We went slowly to the south end of town, where the road turns west along South Fork of McDonald Creek. She went through first gear getting to the west edge of town, and then stomped it into second gear, and then in third gear put her foot on the floor and kept it there. I was unsuccessful at trying to remain cool as the speedometer reached sixty and was still climbing on this windy, washboard gravel road.
Once we had reached full speed for the Ford, she turned to me and said, “Sorry for what I said back there.”
“About what?” I asked, not really wanting to remember.
“About you not being my type. Mom is always trying to set me up with some weenie or another. I’ll do my own picking. Guys around here have gotten use to me not being polite when someone else tries to set me up. If a guy needs my mom to do the arranging, he ain’t for me.”
“She didn’t tell me who she was calling. If she had said to dial this number and ask for Janie, I would have,” I said, even though I knew that both of us knew it was a lie.
“Do you like girls that drive fast?” she asked.
“Never met one before, so I’m still thinking on that one.”
I found myself wishing both that we would get to Fontana’s house and that we would never get there. Even at that speed, Janie pointed out a coyote half a mile away, a herd of elk up on the hill at least two miles away, and a single antelope grazing close to the road.
“Got myself a six by six bull with a bow last season,” she said. “Forty two yards, right in the heart. We were four miles in and I had to get the meat out mostly on my own. My dad said he’d bring out one hind quarter, but as for the rest, it was up to me. He’s pretty adamant that he’s not going to raise a prissy cheerleader for a daughter.”
“He seems to be doing a good job of that,” I offered, as I said it not sure of whether it would be taken as an insult or a compliment.
She laughed. “Yes, he is,” she said.
I’d take you home with me if I could.
We turned off the road onto a one lane driveway that looked more like a wagon trail than a road. Janie managed to slow down to about sixty on it. Two minutes later, we pulled up to my great grandmother’s house. She was sitting on the porch drinking a cup of coffee. She got to her feet and began walking to the truck even before the dust was settled. Janie was out before me, and the two of them exchanged a warm hug.
As I got out of the truck, I heard Fontana ask, “Did you finally find you one?”
Janie answered, “Nah. Some guy sitting on the side of the road claiming he’s related to you. He says his name is Chris.”
“Never heard of a Chris before,” Fontana said. “Take him back where you found him.”
“Are you sure? He seems like the kind that would sit down and cry. He says he came all the way from Ohio just to see you.”
“Not my type,” Fontana replied. Same attitude and tone as Janie had used.
“Iowa,” I said. “I came from Iowa, not Ohio.”
The two of them looked at each other, and shared some kind of personal giggle. Great Grandmother came and gave me the same warm hug she had given Janie. She kissed me on the cheek, and grabbing my arms said, “Hello, Chris. How long has it been? Two or three years? You were certainly much smaller and not nearly so handsome.”
I blushed at the compliment. It had been longer than three years. My father was not one for travel, so our vacations consisted of going to the lake for a day trip a time or two each summer. I had only been to Montana twice in my life.
“Thanks, Fontana. You certainly don’t look a day older than what I remember.”
She burst out laughing. “Once a person hits ninety, they have pretty much gotten as wrinkled as they are going to get,” she said.
She then took my arm and we all walked inside to have a glass of lemonade. Janie drank hers quickly and said that she had to be going, as she was loading and delivering five tons of hay to the Johnsons up by the Breaks.
Fontana said to her, “I’ll let you know when I’m done with him, Sweetie.”
“Okay,” Janie said as she walked to her truck. “But leave some for me, okay?”
What does that mean?
The two of us then brought our newly filled glasses outside, where she sat in her rocking chair and I sat in the guest rocker, which although identical to hers, was far less worn.
Great Grandmother looked at me and said, “I took the liberty of writing some things down so I wouldn’t forget anything.”
“That’s great, Fontana. May I see what you wrote?”
She handed me a single sheet of paper. On it was written:
She was born.
She lived a good life.
She will die someday.
Now, that’s interesting.
“Can we fill in some of the gaps?” I asked.
“Ask away,” she answered.
We spent into the evening, and nearly all of the next day, talking about her life and other things. I lost the idea that I was interviewing someone very early on, and instead sat back, listened, and became enraptured with this spry woman. “Interesting” was an understatement.
She did not tell her story in order, as is the case with any of us. Memories do not come in order, so neither do stories. She would remember something, start telling it, then jump back to an earlier time, then forward again, perhaps to another story. I was tempted to arrange everything in order, but resisted the urge to do so.
I visited Fontana several more times before she passed away at ninety eight. The second time I was there, I stayed for a week, mostly helping her out with whatever I could do, and catching bits and pieces of her life as they came up. She was patient with my questions, many of which had to do with my ignorance of ranch life, or of the people she talked about who are all well known in Montana. If I asked who a famous person was, she would answer, “He’s who you should be writing about,” and if it was an incidental person, she would answer, “He’s just a nobody, like you and me.”
It was on my way home after the first visit that the trajectory of my life changed. I wanted my children, if I ever had any, and their children’s children to ten generations all have the opportunity to know this woman. It would forever be a shame on me if I did not find out all there was to find out about her, and put it down on paper.
At the time, I was already accepted to the State College of Iowa, which used to be called Iowa State Teacher’s College and was being named the University of Northern Iowa later in the year. I had no particular passion for teaching, but the counselor at the high school looked at my grades and interests, and declared decisively that I wanted to be a teacher. My father was against it, harboring the vision that I might some day be a famous athlete, although I knew that was more in the wind than in the cards. “Teachers are teachers because they can’t get a job doing something useful,” he would say. Mother, of course, said that I would make a wonderful teacher.
On my trip home, I rationalized that this new found desire to know my great grandmother was perhaps a fleeting and completely irrational desire, and that to change my life on that whim was probably not in my best interests. However, as I had no passion for what the career that had been chosen for me anyway, I began researching colleges in Montana, and managed to get myself admitted to the Montana State University in Bozeman. I would choose a major once I got there and had a year or two under my belt.
I drove up to see Fontana whenever I could, always being required to do as much work as she did. Her stories continued to pile up. I would listen all day long and then at night I would write as much as I could remember from the day.
Janie Wall was also a frequent visitor. For the first few months I was in Montana, I assumed that Janie’s visits were normal since they had known each other for so long. One evening, however, Fontana let out that Janie was much more inclined to come for a visit when I was there, and that I should take notice that she was fond of me.
Over the course of my freshman year at college, I began to get fond of Janie also. There was no one like her at school, that was for sure. I even began to harbor thoughts that I might like to make a try at her for a serious relationship, although the truth was that when I was around her, I was too afraid to let on what my thoughts were.
After my freshman year, in the Spring of 1968, my own convictions of who had to go to Vietnam and who got to stay home got the best of me. I did not see a reason for us to be there, a thought that at that time had to be kept close to the vest, as people like my father, who considered anyone who questioned the government in any way to be traitors, were not to be trifled with. Fontana would have said that avoiding something because you can does not make it right.
I probably could have managed to keep my 4-F deferment had I tried, but, as some protested the war due to conscientious reasons, I enlisted for the same reason. Basing decisions of who goes to war and who does not have to upon things like how able that person’s parents are to help put them through college did not seem reasonable to me.
Before I left, in the early summer, I made one last trip to see Fontana. When I told her what I had done, she lost a degree of the sparkle in her eyes, but when I told her why, she patted me on the cheek and said I would have made a good cowboy. For her, that was the highest and best compliment available. Making a good doctor or even a good President held no candle next to making a good cowboy.
She made me promise to make it back, and not to do anything stupid like getting shot or blown up. We both knew such a promise was impossible, but I made it anyway, and it seemed to comfort her.
I had driven my own car to her ranch, so when I left her, I also left Janie Wall standing on the porch. I gave Fontana a good hug, and Janie a more tentative one, almost a church hug.
“You kiss her good now,” Fontana said to me. “A cowboy doesn’t go off to war without kissing his girl real good first.”
“He’s a chicken,” Janie said to her. “He’s wanted to forever, but he’s a chicken.”
I put down my bag, stepped close to Janie, put my arms around her, and planted one on her lips. It would have been a shorter kiss, but she had a grip around my neck that kept me where I was, not that I minded.
When we separated, she said to me, “You come back to me, Chris Kincaid, or I will hunt you down and kill you myself.”
“I will,” I promised again.
I left all of my my notebooks and tapes of Fontana with Janie. I told her they were not private, and I would welcome it if she would go through them and edit where I was wrong, or add details if she knew of anything that I had left out. She said she would.
“I will be back in two years,” I said. “And both of you had better be right here.”
Janie promised she would, but Fontana only smiled. I knew, but did not accept, that she was letting me know she would not be there in two years.
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