Lessons From the Past: The Abernathy Brothers

The statistics are appalling.  According to a 2015 national survey, teens (13-18 year old’s) spend an average of 9 hours a day on media use.  Tweens (8-12 year old’s) aren’t much better, spending an average of 6 hours a day on media use.  Most kids and young adults today don’t like to read actual books, but when they do, their choice is usually dystopian fiction (i.e. Hunger Games), sci-fi or fantasy.  Most teens and tweens today aren’t being equipped to live and function in the real world, but instead live in an alternate reality provided by the media and entertainment industry that bombard us today.  It wasn’t always this way.  There was a time when teens, as well as children, were taught and expected to be responsible, have a good work ethic, contribute to their family and community, look a person in the eye when speaking and give a firm handshake.  These teens and children dared great things and accomplished much.  There are many incredible stories throughout history that demonstrate this.  The following is just one of those stories.

In the summer of 1909, Bud (Louis) and Temple Abernathy rode horseback from their home in Oklahoma to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The brothers were nine and five years old – they did this alone.  The boys were greatly influenced by their father whom they described as being an extraordinary and courageous man who was spirited, adventurous, and lived life to the fullest.  Jack Abernathy, their father, was also known as “Catch ’em Alive Jack” because of his incredible ability to catch wolves alive with his bare hands.  Mr. Abernathy was a U.S. Marshal from Oklahoma whose close friends included people such as Theodore Roosevelt and the last chief of the Camanche, Quanah Parker.  Bud and Temple thrived on their fathers stories of adventure and wanted to see the things that he had talked about for themselves.  After much planning, the boys asked their father permission to ride to New Mexico.  He told them it wouldn’t be an easy ride, but he’d consider it and let them know the next day.  After careful consideration, permission was granted.  A few days later, Mr. Abernathy opened up a hundred-dollar checking account for both Bud and Temple for food, lodging and any emergencies they might meet with along the way.  As they saddled their horses to leave, Mr. Abernathy gave Bud a New Testament Bible and gave them three specific instructions.  First, he told them to carry the New Testament with them all the time.  Secondly, they were to never push their horses.  Finally, above all, they were to never forget to say their prayers.  Bud rode Sam Bass, his father’s white Arabian while Temple rode a half-Shetland named Geronimo.  One night along the way, Temple was awakened by a loud explosion next to his ear.  As he sat up he saw Bud beside him with the shotgun – they were surrounded by wolves!  Bud kept the shotgun raised to his shoulder while he told Temple to quickly gather wood for a fire.  As soon as the fire was blazing, Bud told Temple to go back to sleep.  Later, Temple said that Bud sounded like a grown man in control and that he must have stayed awake all night.  The next morning they discovered paw prints all around their camp, but the boys managed to remain safe.  After riding for two weeks the two young boys arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico and rode straight to the capital building.  The Governor, George Curry, wired their father to let him know that the boys had arrived and invited them to stay at his new mansion.  Governor Curry was a former rough rider who had previously been with Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.  Mr. Abernathy caught the next train to join the boys in Santa Fe and then rode the first few days with them, before getting on a train again to come home.  Bud and Temple were met with many difficulties on their trip to and from Santa Fe which included drinking gypsum water (which made Temple sick), navigating quick sand pockets in the Red River, Temple spraining both ankles, and experiencing a dangerous hailstorm and sandstorm that nearly suffocated them.  As they arrived back home in Oklahoma they were welcomed as celebrities.  In Oklahoma City they were met by a parade and asked by the mayor to speak.  Their biggest surprise though was when they reached their home.  Their father handed them a letter written with the lead of a bullet on a brown paper sack.  The letter was addressed to, “The Marshal of Oklahoma,” and read, “I don’t like one hair on your head, but I do like the stuff that is in these kids.  We shadowed them through the worst part of New Mexico to see that they were not harmed by sheepherders, mean men, or animals.”  It was signed, “A.Z.Y.”  The man who wrote the letter, an outlaw named Arizona, had been in a shoot-out involving their father only a few months earlier.  Temple later said, “Bud and I learned a lot from that first trip.  For one thing, most folks are willing to lend a hand when they can.  Also, there is a lot of help people can give each other.  And, we found even though we were often tired, dirty, and discouraged, we could face tough situations and solve our own problems.  Our experiences would serve us in the years to come.”  On this trip they managed to travel an astounding 1,300 miles.

The Abernathy brothers made two more trips on their horses.  With the first of the two trips they rode from Oklahoma to New York in 1910 – over 2000 miles.  Their purpose was to simply welcome home former president Teddy Roosevelt upon his return from an African Safari.  When Roosevelt saw Bud and Temple, he said, “You made a long ride to see me, bless you.”  In the parade that followed, the boys were asked to ride in a position of honor behind the carriage that carried the former president but in front of the Rough Riders – Roosevelt’s old cavalry unit, and the Spanish-American War Veterans.  Additionally, on this particular trip, as they traveled through Ohio, they were given a tour of the Wright Brothers’ Aeroplane Factory by none other than Wilber Wright himself.  When they were ready to leave New York, instead of riding their horses they put them on a train and purchased a small Brush motor car which took them the entire 2,512 miles home in just 23 days – a cross country record at that time.

The second of the two trips, when Bud was eleven and Temple was seven, was their longest and hardest.  They were challenged to ride from New York to San Francisco in 60 days with a prize of 10,000 dollars if they made it.  The conditions of the agreement were that they could not eat or sleep under a roof the entire time and only one change of horses was allowed.  They rode the 4,500 miles in 62 days and after losing their trusted horse, Sam Bass, getting food poisoning, encountering a snow storm and barely surviving the vast expanse of the salt dessert, they arrived in San Francisco.  The only previously known record was an army officer who had ridden coast to coast in 182 days.  Although they didn’t get the prize money, they still thought it was worth it.  Before they left on the trip Teddy Roosevelt told them, “…I want to see you brave and manly, and I also want to see you gentle and tender.  Be practical as well as generous with your ideals.  Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.  Courage, hard work, self-mastery, and intelligent effort are all essential to a successful life.  Alike for the nation and individual, the one indispensable requisite is character.”

The last cross country trip that Bud and Temple made was actually not on horseback, but on a motorcycle.  In 1913, the Hendee Manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, makers of Indian Motorcycles, offered to give them a custom designed 1913 twin-engine model with two seats if they would ride it from Oklahoma to New York and advertise along the way.  In Indianapolis they were able to ride their motorcycle on the famous Indianapolis speedway.  Once in New York, they spent two weeks advertising then took the train home.  Temple, when looking back on his and Bud’s adventures said, “It’s clear that there were many lasting lessons on those bumpy rides.  We learned to look a man in the eye, and judge him by the grasp of his hand.  Wealth and education aren’t as important as the way a man approaches life, and we came to appreciate a willingness to help.  Some of the people who had the least to give, were the ones who gave us the most along the road…And when we looked for some good in everyone we usually found it…Geography came alive for us.  Each trip was an expedition of discovery…We learned to endure hardship with patience…We made it through, stronger for having held on.  We could, we discovered, do almost anything we set our minds to.”

After their adventures, the Abernathy brothers went on to live normal and successful lives.  Bud become a lawyer and served his community as both district attorney and county judge.  Temple went into the oil and gas business.

The following quote from Theodore Roosevelt aptly describes the Abernathy brothers, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither suffer much nor enjoy much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”  Remember, we will all one day give an account for our time.  How will you spend yours?


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