1958. Steve McQueen shot to stardom with a TV Western about a bounty hunter named Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive. The tool of his trade was a sawed-off rifle which he carried in a holster on his side. That Christmas, two little 7-year-old boys -- cousins -- could dream of nothing greater than getting one of those rifles.
When Christmas morning arrived, they each got their prize. Made by different toy manufacturers (copyright infringement on toys wasn't as big a deal back then), they spent Christmas day hunting bad guys.
Christmases were usually spent with extended family in those days. And Thanksgivings. And Easters. It's the way the cousins grew up. Even though they -- my cousin Gary and me -- gradually developed different interests, they would go on to complete Elementary School together. Then Jr. High. Then High School.
One of the first pictures taken of us was with his older sister Charlotte and older brother Larry. It was snapped at our grandparents house in the rugged mountains along the Continental Divide in New Mexico. I am on the left, then Gary, Larry and Charlotte. I think Gary and I were about two when it was snapped.
Gary was different from most of us as kids. By the time we were entering adolescence, he started spending more and more of his spare time working. Why? Because he wanted to! When school was out during the summer, he was driving tractor, hauling hay bales and doing other manual labor. When we got to High School, he was a good football player. We lived in the days before teams would spend weeks in the weight rooms to get ready for the season. He had his own "weight room", throwing around bales of alfalfa.
As a young adult, Gary (naturally) got into the farming business. It was a time when farming in his region of the country required more than a little luck and skill to make a living. Gary kept adding to his business, always looking for other ways to make ends meet.
As he kept working, he developed another skill, welding construction. He built steel post fences -- the pretty white ones you often see on horse ranches. He kept finding similar work and kept busy, even in a struggling economy.
I left my hometown when I went off to college. Gary stayed, married (the first wedding I performed as a young minister) and raised a family. He spent great lengths of time with his kids, teaching them skills and the same value for hard work he carried. In addition, he did what he could to make that struggling old town a better place to live.
Gary was a man of few words. He wasn't stuck up. He just thought carefully before he said things. Every time I saw him in recent years, I was moved by the kind of man he had become. Someone you would be proud to call a friend.
My friend, my cousin -- Gary -- turned 59 last Saturday. Just a month ago we found that he had an extremely rare and fatal disease that attacks the brain. He passed away on Wednesday.
His wife, Vannetta; his children, Galen, Dustin, and Brette; his parents, my Aunt Betty and Uncle Glen; his siblings, Charlotte, Larry, Shanna and Cheryl are saying goodbye this weekend. I know they would appreciate your prayers.