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OLD RANCH HAND DIDN’T WRITE SONG, BUT IT BELONGS TO HIM

SHARE OLD RANCH HAND DIDN’T WRITE SONG, BUT IT BELONGS TO HIM

FOR HIS OWN protection, I've changed his name to Dean here; though the only person who's pestered him much in five years is me.

He calls the nursing home "home," and though I can't say he's thrilled about that fact, I will say he's more or less content.His collection of Garfield cats was what caught my eye - he was an old ranch hand in cowboy boots and a yoked shirt with dozens of Garfield toys, stuffed animals and cards around his bed.

Up the hall was a sweet, 80-year-old widow who read Louis L'Amour novels day and night.

Figure that.

"It's no bed of roses in this place," Dean told me, tugging on his boots for a stroll. "But when I was a boy my dad said something I've used as a guide. I've lived my life by his words. Dad said, `Dean, que sera, sera.' "

The two of us made our way to the lounge to chat. When we sat down, a woman sitting nearby got up and moved.

"Think I want my hair pulled out?" she explained. "He belongs to somebody else."

I didn't ask who.

Instead, we talked about ranch life at the turn of the century. He talked about having a twin brother killed in a farm accident and how that twin brother comes around from time to time to hover over him and comfort him.

Then he sang me a song - a lovely little ballad about a long-gone mountain home. I was so impressed I brought a tape recorder when I dropped by again. We discussed getting a copyright for the song and maybe having my brother's band take a whack at it in their upcoming concert.

"You do have a beautiful voice, Dean," the woman who feared for her hair called from across the room.

Dean beamed.

"Actually I wrote another song that I like even better," he said. And with that, he cleared his throat and broke into his lilting tenor:

When I was a lad and Old Shep was a pup, over mountain and hill we would roam.

The song was "Old Shep," a cowboy tune from before Dean began singing. I'd heard it first in 1968 in Bolivia when Elder Ray "Twang" Sorensen sang it for some teary-eyed missionaries.

Now I was hearing it again.

Elder "Twang" hadn't written the song, however. And neither had my friend Dean. As I left, the idea of copyrighting his song about the old mountain home vanished in the breeze. And I found myself thinking about another old cowboy I knew, Don Getz.

Don had called me at the paper to recite the latest poem he'd written. He called it "A Walk Down Memory Lane." It began:

On the road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, and the sun comes up like thunder over China on the bay. . . .

"Don," I said, "that's `On the Road to Mandalay' by Rudyard Kipling."

"Correction," he'd said. "Was by Kipling. Kipling's work went into the public domain this week and I picked up that poem for myself."

A moment of silence passed.

"But Don," I said, "my dad's been singing that song for 40 years."

A longer moment of silence passed.

"Well," Don said, "tell your dad it's now on me."

And Old Shep was now on Dean. In fact, in many ways old, arthritic, good-hearted Shep was Dean. The song was his in ways the original writer could never know.

Que sera, sera.