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Ralph Moody’s America

Lessons learned from a master memoirist

About a year ago my husband and I began reading a series of books by a man who belongs in the top rank of memoirists (and whose book titles come from the colorful periods in his life). 

Although born in East Rochester, N.H., in 1898, Ralph Moody’s formative childhood occurred in Colorado, where the family moved when he was 8 years old. There the boy learned to rope and ride, acquiring the nickname Little Britches from the local cowboys. Having failed at ranching, the Moodys settled in nearby Littleton, where Ralph’s father died after a horse/auto accident. As the 11-year-old Man of the Family, Ralph took odd jobs and even worked one summer at a neighbor’s Home Ranch, proudly earning a man’s wages. 

In 1912, for complicated reasons, Ralph’s mother abruptly moved the family to her hometown near Boston. Starting over with almost nothing, Mary Emma & Company established a laundry business while Ralph worked a number of side hustles. All perfectly legitimate, but somehow he acquired the reputation of a troublemaker. To clear the air, he went to New Hampshire to work with his cranky old grandfather in The Fields of Home. (That was the only book we didn’t finish: My husband got tired of Grandfather’s constant yelling.)

When America entered the Great War, Ralph’s ill health sidelined his efforts to enlist. Instead he worked in a munitions plant, which didn’t improve his condition (later diagnosed as diabetes). The family doctor prescribed that he move West, get plenty of sunshine, eat lots of green leafy vegetables, and not do anything crazy. Ralph obeyed every rule except the last. 

What we can take from Moody is the way he lived: with eyes wide open.

It wasn’t entirely his fault: The only job available after he arrived in Arizona was performing “horse falls” for the movies. The stake he earned from that brief venture began disappearing when he met Lonnie, an overgrown hyperactive kid who talked Ralph into buying a Model T they nicknamed “Shiftless.” Shiftless lived up to her name as the two young men tore across the Southwest, Shaking the Nickel Bush between breakdowns. They were flat broke when Ralph hit upon the lucrative scheme of molding plaster busts of bankers and lawyers in small towns between Phoenix and Santa Fe (one of his random skills, learned from an engineer at the munitions plant). The proceeds—almost $1,000 in cash—he carefully rolled into the cuffs of his extra-long Levis, intending to buy a small ranch. 

Unfortunately, when he and Lonnie parted ways the latter absconded with the jeans. Ralph was sure (pretty sure) it wasn’t theft—Lonnie had just snuck out in the dark with the wrong pants. And no forwarding address. With one dime in his pocket, our hero hopped a freight train for The Dry Divide in Nebraska. By luck and pluck and loans from an obliging banker, he owned eight horse teams and rigs by the following fall, just in time for the 1920 wheat harvest. The final volume, Horse of a Different Color, sees Ralph proposing to his boyhood sweetheart from back East: the traditional prelude to “settling down.”

All this packed into 25 years. For all his natural industry, creativity, and optimism, Ralph Moody never got rich, and the lean times didn’t end with his marriage. But I doubt he regretted any of it, especially those early years which he recalled much later in meticulous detail. Though he carried a Bible with him, his religion leaned more on can-doism than amazing grace. “God helps those who help themselves” might have been the Moody motto.

At the dawn of the American Century, that might have been his country’s motto too. I’m tempted toward nostalgia for the rough-and-tumble, snooze-you-lose, unpredictable, perilous, exhausting, and exhilarating America we probably won’t see again. 

But God has put us here and now. To look back with longing is a waste of time. There may be very hard times ahead, but we are part of a triumphant procession going ever forward with Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14). What we can take from Ralph Moody is the way he lived: with eyes wide open, observing, remembering, and appreciating.