This weekend was the “celebration of life” ceremony for my father. My family and a ton of friends and neighbors met in Redstone, Colorado for hour-long program at the Church at Redstone, followed by a catered BBQ lunch with lots of cookies and ice cream for dessert.
Dad was so loved that three different pastors traveled from various parts of Colorado to speak. Also, I spoke to the group, as did my cousin Dawn, and a former neighbor of my parents.
Below are the notes I spoke from. It took me a while to write this piece. It seemed well received. The standing-room-only audience in the church gave lots of laughs and applause.
Ernie Bradley Celebration of Life Talk
by Todd Bradley
Delivered in Redstone, Colorado on June 26, 2021
Hi, I’m Todd Bradley. For those who don’t know me, I’m Ernie’s oldest son. Or, as Dad sometimes called me… Matt, Kent, Missy, Todd. Remembering people’s names wasn’t Dad’s greatest strength. He was much better at remembering the names of fish or birds or creeks. But that’s another story, not what I’m here to talk to you about today. Instead, I’m here to talk to you about Willie Nelson.
When Mom started organizing this Celebration of Life event a couple months ago, she asked if I’d like to say a few words. Her only request was that it couldn’t be too sad, since we all want this to be as happy of an occasion as possible. Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to or not, or even if I would be able.
So I asked myself, “What would Dad do?” And of course what Dad would do is to write a 27 page story that would take roughly an hour to tell, and include a half dozen twists and turns that eventually end with ice cream. So that’s what I did. And that’s what I’m gonna do. And here we go.
When I was a kid, the family lived in Casper, Wyoming for a few years. That’s where Matthew, my youngest brother, was born, in fact. Well, being in the middle of Wyoming, there were lots of pronghorns around. At the time, we called them antelope, though I later learned that biologically they’re not true antelope. True antelope live only in Africa, and scientists say the nearest living relative of the pronghorn is actually the giraffe, believe it or not. Whatever. Dad, as everyone here knows, was an avid hunter, and so he wanted to hunt these things.
I’ve seen a photo or two of Dad and his father, Cecil, hunting pronghorns in either northern Colorado or Wyoming in the 60s or maybe early 70s. So I know it wasn’t a new thing for him. But once we lived in Wyoming, Dad wanted to hunt them every year.
Now if you’ve never hunted pronghorns with a rifle, it’s quite a bit different than hunting deer or elk. Deer and elk like to stay in forests and brushy areas, where they can stay somewhat hidden from predators. So hunting them requires some sneaking around in the aforementioned forests and brushy areas, maybe on foot or horseback. Pronghorns, though, live out in the wide open plains. Their defense strategy isn’t to stay hidden in vegetation, because there isn’t any vegetation tall enough to hide in! Their defense strategy is to see predators coming from a long ways away, and then run like the devil to escape. They can run up to 60 miles per hour, and they can keep up that pace for a long time. You know what also goes about 60 miles per hour over flat ground? An automobile. Maybe you can see where this story is headed.
Anyhow, as the oldest of us three brothers, it was my job to go along with Dad on trips to scout for and hunt pronghorns. I was too young at this point to hunt big game myself, but not too young to go along for the ride.
I don’t know if this is how everyone hunts pronghorns, but the way Dad felt was best was like this: We’d drive around the prairie hour after hour until we’d spot a herd. Then he’d slam on the brakes, throw the gear shift into Park, and look at the pronghorns through binoculars or the scope on his rifle, to see if there were any suitable adult males to shoot. Sometimes there weren’t, so we’d move on. But when there were, then the pursuit was on.
In some cases, the prey was within rifle range, and he’d try to shoot one. But most of the time when we first spotted a suitable buck, it would be too far away. So we’d close range in the truck. If the geography was suitable, we’d sneak up closer to the herd for a few minutes, maybe driving out of sight on the other side of a hill from the pronghorns. And of course, we’d hope the pronghorns hadn’t moved during that time. And of course, most of the time they had moved. So we’d repeat this process over and over.
Occasionally, though, Dad would get excited about one particular buck and instead of creeping along out of sight from the herd, he’d stomp on the gas and try to chase the herd down. Now something you’ve gotta understand about this is that there was never a road that led to the herd, because we were out in the middle of nowhere on the short grass prairie. So Dad would just point the truck at the herd and floor it, heading cross country over rocks and brush and cactus and small creek beds, and so on. Everything in the truck would go flying around as we hit rock after rock at about 40 or 50 miles per hour, so I learned to hold on for my life.
grrrr BOOM there goes lunch flying across the cab of the truck…BOOM as we hit another rock, and there goes Dad’s rifle lurching through the air…BOOM another rock, and there goes my canteen. I learned that when we were in pursuit mode, I better roll up the truck window. Otherwise, half the contents of the truck would fly out during the bumpy chase. And some of that stuff was important, such as my lunch!
Anyhow, that’s what pronghorn hunting was like, for the most part. But there were also times where it was very quiet, as we took a break and waited in the truck for the herd to move. During these quiet times, I liked to read and would sometimes have a book along. When I didn’t have a book, though, and when Dad and I ran out of things to talk about, it could get really boring.
However, there’s one special thing the truck had that was something of a saving grace, and that was an 8-track player.
Some of you are too young to have ever used or even seen an 8-track player, but it’s how people played music in the car when you were out of range for the radio to work. Imagine a music cassette that’s the size of a tuna sandwich. Now Dad wasn’t the kind of person who would go buy music from a wide variety of artists in different styles. To use a joke from a movie, he liked both kinds of music – country AND western. (Can anyone name that movie?)
As I remember it, when he bought the truck, the 8-track player came with one tape, and Dad never saw any reason to buy another one. So that was the only music we ever had to listen to as long as we had that truck.
And that one 8-track tape? It was Willie Nelson. As a child, I had no interest whatsoever in Willie Nelson or his music, or really in country music at all. I liked rock and roll, pop music, and later disco, like what I heard on Casper’s Top 40 radio station. That’s what the other kids at school listened to. But any music – even country music – was better than no music, I guess.
One difference between Dad and me, at least at that age, was our approach to music. I had the very simple opinion that if a song sounds good at one volume, then it’s gonna sound twice as good at when you turn it up twice as loud.
Dad did not agree. Dad felt like the best volume was when the music was turned down so low you couldn’t understand the words, and could barely tell there was music playing in the first place. You might wonder if that was just his way of expressing that he really didn’t like Willie Nelson that much. But he treated all music like that. It should be quiet and in the background. Besides, if he didn’t like Willie, he could’ve bought another 8-track tape.
Anyhow, time passed, we moved to Colorado, and I eventually grew up. I didn’t think about Willie Nelson or country music for most of the next 20 years. Then I heard a song from a band I liked that triggered a wave of changes. The band was named Cake; the song was titled “Sad Songs and Waltzes”. Now by this time my taste in music had expanded quite a bit. In college, I started to appreciate classical music, bluegrass, a few styles of jazz, show tunes, progressive rock, heavy metal, and so on.
During those next 20 years, I learned to play a half dozen musical instruments and I wrote and recorded about a hundred songs. So naturally, as part of all this, I gained an appreciation for how difficult songwriting is.
After I heard this song by Cake a couple times, I thought, “Wow, that’s some really good songwriting. It’s witty, it’s poignant, and it tells a great story.” This tune, “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is about sad songs and waltzes, AND it is both a sad song and a waltz. That really impressed me, for some reason. But I realized this song seemed a bit out of place for the band Cake. It’s just not really their style. So I read the liner notes of the CD, and that’s when I learned the song was a cover tune. It was actually written by none other than…you guessed it, Willie Nelson.
And so it was that 20 years after antelope hunting, excuse me, pronghorn hunting in Wyoming, I was reunited with Willie Nelson. What else did I miss by writing off Willie Nelson all those years. That spurred me to dive deep into Nelson’s work and life.
I learned that Willie was a native Texan. His first music breakthrough was in Nashville in the 60s, but he retired and then moved to Austin. Unable to stay away from music, he un-retired and founded the “outlaw country” musical genre there with a few friends. I learned that he ran into trouble with the IRS because his manager failed to pay several million dollars of income tax. Oops! I learned that he’s been such an avid user of cannabis that at the music hall in Austin where the famous Austin City Limits television show is filmed, when it smells like pot smoke back stage, people say “it smells like Willie around here.” I learned that he has been playing the same guitar, named Trigger, for 53 years. His guitar is older than me!
But most important, I learned Willie is a gifted songwriter. As with all artists, his style has changed over the years. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, he sang songs about cowboys and women and whiskey. But in his later years his focus changed to themes like acceptance, animal cruelty, tolerance, and gay rights. Willie started off conservative and ended up liberal, an unexpected transition for someone born in the 1930s in rural Texas.
But enough about Willie Nelson. I volunteered to come up here today to share a memory or two of Dad.
What interesting things did I learn from him that the rest of y’all might not be aware of? Well, I learned something about hunting pronghorns, as I already mentioned. I’ll leave it for Kent, the son who inherited the hunting and fishing genes, to tell you over some barbecue what he thinks of Dad’s pronghorn chasing techniques.
I also learned that when using a knife you should cut away from your body, not toward it. That’s a good Dad lesson I use a few times every week. And unlike the accidental lesson about Willie, this is one Dad actually meant to teach. It took me a couple tries to get it right, though. Here’s another little story to illustrate what I mean.
After we had moved to Grand Junction, one night Dad and I were the only ones at home. I can’t remember why, but we were making supper as we were both hungry. We decided to make something that required grated cheese; I think it was tacos. Anyhow, Dad was cooking the meat and I was prepping the toppings. There was a block of cheddar cheese in the fridge, and I needed to open up the thick plastic wrap so I could grate it. I remembered my lesson from Dad and cut away from myself, but unfortunately nicked myself in the finger pretty hard with the knife.
Within a couple seconds, it became clear this wasn’t just a minor cut, as there was an arc of spattered blood across the counter and refrigerator door, just like in a horror movie. And then the pain hit. I was lucky I didn’t cut the whole thing off. We ran it under the cold water in the sink for something like 15 or 20 minutes, applying constant pressure. Finally, the bleeding slowed enough to wrap the finger up in some bandages.
I always assumed Dad would know what to do in these sort of situations, perhaps some sort of standard protocol written down in a book somewhere. Like: If the bleeding stops in under 5 minutes, use a bandage and carry on. If the bleeding continues longer, go get stitches.
But Dad looked at me for guidance. “Do you want to go get that thing stitched up?”
And I remember thinking, “I’m just a kid, how am I supposed to know whether this cut requires stitches?” We discussed it a bit. I learned there isn’t a 5 minute rule for blood loss, or anything like it. Or if there is, Dad sure didn’t know it. However, one thing we were both certain of is that we were even hungrier after all this than before.
So we skipped the hospital so we could eat those tacos. In hindsight, I probably should’ve gotten stitches. That cut kept partially healing and then cracking back open for several weeks, and I still have a visible scar from it that’s numb 40 years later.
Looking back now and trying to figure out what it all means, I guess there’s three different ways Dad taught me things. One was traditional lessons, like “cut away from your body so you don’t stab yourself if you slip” or “this is how we hunt pronghorns from a truck.” Another way is to accidentally plant a seed of an idea and then just stay out of the way and see if it grows. That’s how I learned to appreciate Willie Nelson.
And the third and final way was this: just provide the room for kids to be independent and learn their own lessons. That’s how I learned that when you almost cut your finger off, seeing a doctor really is more important than eating tacos. Looking back now, I think that’s probably the teaching technique Dad was best at.
Speaking of eating tacos, I think it’s getting closer to lunch time. Good thing, because that’s all I’ve got to say. Thank you all for coming and listening politely.