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Long Time Gone and The Good Son

The Kiowa Healthmart Presents:
Long Time Gone and The Good Son

Vic WeedThe role of the first born son of a determined, ambitious and powerful man is a theme that has surfaced in both literature and real life for centuries. Part blessing, part curse, being born the eldest often brings responsibilities, duties, obligations and, at times, complexities that continue throughout life for the two are bound together in a multitude of ways. For, although it may be unintended, although it may even go unnoticed at the time, the path of the eldest son often resembles, in one fashion or another, the path taken by the father, suggesting that heredity goes far beyond the color of one’s eyes or the joke that elicits a chuckle. And although it may look very different from one family to another, those similarities of fate are often there, whether a man is the son of a king in some distant land or the son of a banker in a small town on the eastern plains of Colorado.

Lou Weed was born to Victor and Leona Weed in a small town by the name of Sharon Springs on the plains of western Kansas. The year was 1936. The nation was in the grip of the Great Depression, and barely a year had passed since that Black Sunday when a massive front from the northwest moved across the entirety of the Great Plains, carrying with it four years’ worth of dry top soil that was at the mercy of the fierce, relentless winds.

But both Victor, who came from a “tough and sometimes violent” family with nine children, and Leona, who came from a staid, German family of fourteen, had tenacity in their bones and a plan for the future. While others around them moved on literally in search of greener pastures, the tiny Weed family weathered the drought. As Lou took his first steps, turning from baby to toddler to young child, Victor took his first steps toward putting the family’s plan in place. He learned the banking business from the bottom up.

It was not until the dirty thirties were behind them and a new decade had begun that Victor, Leona and Lou made their move, packing up and heading 24 miles to the west and settling on a small farm and ranch south of Arapahoe, Colorado. It was the beginning of a whole new life, and they had no intentions of turning back.

At 83 years old, Lou Weed is a slender, spry, clear eyed, straightforward, occasionally irreverent man who’s slow to take credit for his accomplishments, quick to admit his faults and equally
quick to tell the truth—with neither apology nor malice—about people and situations he’s known over the years. He’s talented at one line jokes but a true master at telling stories and what profanity he uses is dropped in just the right place for the sole purpose of emphasizing the point he’s trying to make.

He begins his story in Arapahoe.

Once his family had settled into their new place, Lou, who had started school in Sharon Springs, was enrolled in Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in nearby Cheyenne Wells. He was about seven years old at the time. “The nuns were our teachers,” he says and then laughs. “I think they were better at keeping discipline than anyone I met in the military. If we did something wrong, those nuns let us know right away.” Then he pauses and laughs again, and it’s easy to imagine Lou as a boy filled with more than a hint of mischief. “We deserved everything we got. The rooms all had radiators and, sometimes, when nobody was looking, some of us boys would pee on ‘em. It made the classroom smell like hell.”

As Lou describes it, Cheyenne Wells was a lot bigger in the ‘40s than it is now. Even so, Sacred Heart didn’t have any sports teams except for basketball. Lou played on the team. “At half time,” he recalls, “Father Keiffer would come in and pray for a blessing over the team.” Again, he chuckles. “I don’t think it ever made any difference. I don’t think we ever won a game.”

Father Alfonso Keiffer, known by many as the “Padre of the Plains”, was a close friend of Victor’s and a large presence—literally and figuratively—in Lou’s life when he was young. Father Keiffer had been the parish priest in Cheyenne Wells since 1918 and was responsible for building the rectory as well as Sacred Heart School. He also had a reputation for having a bit of a temper with the size to back it up, and Lou has more than a few memories of Victor and Father Keiffer getting into fights when the situation warranted it. Sometimes, it was just a case of some men getting out of control on a Saturday night. But, sometimes, the problem ran much deeper. “The Klan was in Cheyenne Wells back then,” Lou says, “and the Klan hated Catholics, you know. So, Father Keiffer would go down to where they were having a cross burning, and, with all those Klanners standing there, he’d walk right up to that burning cross and kick it over with his foot. If any of those Klanners didn’t like it…well…after Father Keiffer was done with them, they wouldn’t disagree with him again.” Lou pauses briefly and adds, “Things were a lot different then.”

A few years after the move to Arapahoe, Victor sold the farm for $8,000 and, along with $17,000 he’d raised from investors, opened a bank in Cheyenne Wells. Two previous banks had failed in the town, with the last one closing more than ten years earlier. Victor was determined to make it work, and, from that point on, the bank was the focal point of the family. Even when his younger brother, Jim, was born a few years later, the focal point of the family was still the bank.

“Things were really tight those first years,” Lou says. “We just didn’t have any money for anything. We lived on about three or four hundred pounds of canned beef from an old cow we’d had on the farm plus maybe thirty gallons or so of butter. My folks had everything figured out down to the last penny.”

That was also when Victor set out to teach Lou the value of hard work. “I learned by working,” Lou says. “I can’t say I liked it so much at the time, although I didn’t really know any different. But, looking back, I’d have to say it was a good thing—learning as a kid that you have to work in life.” He stops then, looking for the right words. “My dad grew up in a tough family. I mean, they were tough. They couldn’t get together because a fight would always break out. That’s the way his father was, so, that’s the way he was, too. If he told you to listen, you’d better listen. And if you didn’t, well, you wouldn’t do that again.”

Sacred Heart School only went through the eighth grade, so when it was time, Lou went to the high school in Cheyenne Wells, which was big enough for eleven man football. Things weren’t hard for the banker’s son, but they weren’t exactly easy, either. “Some of us caught some flack from the other kids,” he says. “The son of a doctor or an attorney or…if Dad had turned down a family’s loan, I’d catch some flack for that, but it was never nothin’ too bad.”

But being the bank president’s son didn’t buy Lou any privilege from the bank president at home. “We had an old milk cow, and in high school Dad made me milk her every mornin’ and night,” he says. “Even if I came home drunk, he’d still make me get up at five o’clock every morning to milk the cow. I think he was probably doin’ that to get me to stop drinkin’—I did a fair bit of drinking in high school. Even so, I had to do that every day for all those years.”

Neither Victor nor Leona had ever had the chance to go to college, so they were set on Lou continuing his education. In 1954, Lou went to Colorado State University in Fort Collins where he majored in Agriculture. “It was like ‘old country kid come to town’,” he says, “and different from anything I knew. It would have been easier if I’d come from a larger school. Cheyenne Wells had about a hundred students, and some of those other kids came from schools where they had thousands students. Still, there were lots of small town guys, and we kinda found each other. So, that made it easier.”

Difficult as adjusting might have been, when Lou joined R.O.T.C. at CSU, he discovered the first thing that he would have ever considered doing other than farming and banking. “I had a lot of uncles that served in World War II,” he states. “Both of my parents came from big families. A lot of my uncles served, and they all survived.” But there was one uncle—Uncle Joe—Lou particularly admired. Joe Meis had entered the military as a private. When it was discovered he was fluent in German, he became an interpreter. By the time he retired, he was a Brigadier General. “He spent some time at the Pentagon,” Lou says. “He’d liberated a few of the concentration camps in the war. He didn’t talk about it much, but I listened to every story he told.”

More than a half century later, there still remains a bit of wistfulness in Lou’s voice when he speaks of a life spent in the military.

However, in 1957, Lou’s life changed in a fundamental way, and that change came in the form of a young woman named Judy from Estes Park. Lou met her at a fraternity party and, four months later, they were married. “Once she saw Cheyenne Wells and how flat it was,” he says with a laugh, “she probably had second thoughts. But she’s still here, so I guess she thought it turned out okay.” Toward the end of January in 1958, Lou and Judy were expecting their first born with plans for Lou to graduate from CSU the following June. After that, Lou was seriously considering the military for a permanent career. He was already a Lieutenant; there was no telling what the future might hold for him.

But then, as often happens when we least expect it, Lou learned that life had other plans.

On January 25th, just hours before his first son—whom he’d name Victor, after his father—was born, Lou got a phone call that his mother had been killed in a car accident. And in the moments that followed, Lou saw the trajectory of his life change forever. With his mother gone, his father would need his help in the bank. His father would need help with Jim, Lou’s 14 year old brother. Lou would return with his family to Cheyenne Wells. He would help his father in the bank. Perhaps, he would farm. But his father needed his help, and he would be there to do it.
As far as Victor making the request, Lou just says, “Dad always expected me to come back. I don’t think he ever thought anything else.”

In 1959, Lou officially returned to Cheyenne Wells and became an employee of the bank. One year passed and then another. Two years after the birth of Victor in 1958, Casey was born. In 1962, Shannon was born.

Seasons came and passed. Crops were planted and harvested. Loans were made and paid off. And then, in 1971, hard times knocked at the door once again.

Lou and Judy had bought a small motor bike for their two boys, Victor and Casey, but the bike needed new brakes. The only place the parts could be bought was Denver, so the couple took off for the city. While their parents were gone, Victor, 11, and Casey, 9, got out the bike and were riding it around town. They were approaching the highway with no brakes to stop. Coming in their direction was a water truck, which, as coincidence or fate would have it, also had no brakes. Just as the boys were crossing the highway, the water truck came upon them and struck the boys.

Casey was killed instantly. Victor lost a leg and had head injuries that he would suffer from seizures for the remainder of his life. “Dr. Keefe at the hospital said he had to start Victor’s heart three times,” Lou says, quietly. They flew Victor out to Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Denver.

Knowing that Lou and Judy were headed back from Denver, two friends from Cheyenne Wells took off for the city, hoping to meet the couple on their way back to Cheyenne Wells. They came upon them just outside of Limon, where they broke the news.

There’s a long pause before Lou continues speaking. “If you look around, people have all sorts of bad things happen, and it makes you wonder why,” Lou muses. “Why did we leave them alone? Why would they take out the bike? Why did the water truck not have any brakes? You can ask why all you want, all day long, but there isn’t any why.” He grows silent again or a moment. “I think that’s just the way life is. Things happen. They just happen. There isn’t any why to it.”

Lou and Judy had another son, Christopher, the following year.

In 1985, Lou’s father passed away, leaving him as president, a role he filled much as his father had done. He fought with bank examiners, not physically throwing them out of the bank, as Victor had threatened to do, but managing to make the list of “bank officials who were tough to get along with”. He stretched things as far as he possibly could for the folks he knew would pay back their loans given enough time to do so. When an examiner told him, “You may work in a bank, but you’ll never be a banker,” he didn’t disagree. When the phone rang at two o’clock in the morning and someone called him a “son of a bitch” for not making a loan that was requested, he took it as part of the job. And even when he occasionally thought of how his life might have been had things not happened the way they did, he never let those thoughts go too far.

“It was a good job,” he says. “I was able to buy a house. I could send my kids to college. Maybe I wasn’t always politically correct, but I ran the bank the way I thought it should be run.”

In 1999, 40 years almost to the day, Lou sold out his shares in the bank in exchange for the family’s farm and ranch and walked out the door.

“I wouldn’t do anything different than I did,” he says, and it’s clear he’s done telling his story. “I might have done what I did for different reasons than I had at the time…but I wouldn’t do anything different than I did.”

Lou now spends his days working on his cattle ranch (“as much as an old man can”) and taking life at his own pace.

Of course, it’s mere speculation, at best, but it’s probably a good bet to say that, if Victor had the chance to be told of Lou’s perspective on his life, he would have wanted nothing more and nothing less for Lou, his first born son.