September 5th……….GRANDPA, TELL US ABOUT A HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER THAT YOU HAD THE PLEASURE TO KNOW BEYOND YOUR HIGH SCHOOL CLASSROOM DAYS”.
The skrinch of saddle leather sounded out as Smitty stood in his stirrups, trying to get a glimpse of what was causing such a powerful noise nearby.
It was the summer of 1944 and America was still engaged in World War II while this young buck was doing some cow-hand work along the mighty Columbia River Gorge on the high plains of eastern Washington State. Not wanting to miss the intriguing moment, Smitty gave a right rein to his handsome mount and the two of them made a gallop towards the precipice of the cliff that dropped straight down hundreds of feet into the Columbia River Gorge.
Pulling his faithful steed to a sliding stop at the vertical edge of potential doom, Ralph Vincent Smith was captivated by what his eyes beheld. Far below him, the twin, 1600 horsepower, Allison engines of not just one, but two Lockheed P-38 “Lightning” fighter planes were flying wing-tip to wing-tip just a matter of a few feet above those blue waters of the Columbia River. The immense, propeller-churning sound of those four powerful engines bellowed like a megaphone off both the Oregon and Washington gorge cliff facings. The young horseman was in awe of all of the sounds plus the derring-do of those two United States Army Air Corps pilots. They gave Ralph a thrill as he watched these two warbirds then begin to climb back up into the azure blue of that Northwest sky and split off like two blithe spirits heading to their next war destination.
Like those two P-38 “Lightnings”, Ralph “Smitty” Smith was to experience his own version of a wild ride while flying low and high in his life’s conquests.
The slap on Ralph’s bottom from the attending physician caused the first gasps of air and a wail heard round the house for the Smith’s fourth-born child on May 24th, 1926 on the family ranch near Cheney, Washington (which is just south of Spokane).
Life on the Smith ranch, during the “Great Depression” years was about as much of a cowboy existence as you could get. The Smith brothers learned how to ride horses and tend to the chores that were a quid pro quo of family expectations as they gleaned their very existence by caring for the land and the livestock that grazed upon it. With each passing year of youth, Smitty’s love for horses (and all animals) grew exponentially. He was even a blessing to meet his parent’s needs by helping to man-handle a sixteen-horse hitch that pulled their wheat gleaning machine over the rolling hills of fertile eastern Washington.
When you put three rowdy brothers together that were only a couple years apart from each other…….well, sometimes exuberant sibling rivalries boiled over into downright donnybrooks of a fight, now and then. It was during one of those heated brother altercations that the elder brother, Robert, got ahold of one of their father’s firearms. Whether Robert knew there was a live round chambered in that gun, or not, he pointed that “thunder stick” at younger brother, Ralph, and pulled the trigger. The slug and report of the gun’s blast dropped poor Ralph to the ground in less than a blink as the bullet tore into his flesh. Mom and Dad Smith scooped up their son’s almost lifeless body while someone went to fetch the doctor. Young, thirteen year old Ralph’s life lay on the edge of eternity’s door, but, praise the Lord………..he pulled through; although the wounds he received plagued him for years and left him unable to serve during World War II. He carried the souvenir bullet of that incident which nearly punctured his pericardial sac, for the rest of his life.
When it came to education for two of the three Smith brothers, academic life was to be a “double-delight” in that both Ralph and his younger brother, Keith, enjoyed being Cheney High School Seniors and graduates together in 1944. Chronologically, Ralph would have graduated a year earlier, but was held back due to recuperation time from the shooting incident he had suffered at the hands of his elder brother, Robert. Even though younger by two years, Keith became his big brother’s advocate and protector as Ralph was eventually able to, once again, re-enter daily school life. Keith and Ralph continued as a team in that they both attended Eastern Washington University as well as Washington State University.
While Ralph’s heart was drawn, by his love of animals, to his hoping for a degree in Veterinary Medicine, younger sibling, Keith, was eventually drawn to the Marine Corps and became known as “A Marine’s Marine” with the rank of a three-star Lieutenant General. Even one of Keith’s sons followed his father into the Marines. Sadly, though, that son, Marine Corps Captain Vincent Lee Smith was one of the 220 Marines killed during the terrorist bombing of the Beirut, Lebanon Marine Corps Barracks on October 23rd, 1983.
With his various time investments into college life, Ralph garnered a Livestock Degree as well as a Judges’ Certificate for rating livestock in general.
It was May of 1956 when love bloomed in the hearts of Ralph and Miss Patricia Ann Collins. From their union, two lovely children came into the world in the form of Robin and Nolan Smith.
In the mid-1950’s, Ralph Smith went from riding horses to riding the wind while going to work for the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle, Washington. Starting as early as 1954, Boeing had been conceiving and designing what would eventually become America’s first jet engine passenger airliner………….the Boeing 707. Part of Ralph Smith’s new job, in this jet liner design phase, entailed his team creating a wooden mock-up of the aircraft to study its design characteristics. To be better suited in his new line of work, Ralph began attending the University of Washington and Seattle University to gain his credentials in Architecture, Drafting and Industrial Drawing. Little did he know, at the time, that this knowledge would open up a new world of his teaching those subjects as a staff member of the Battle Ground School District in Battle Ground, Washington.
It was here, in my student years at Battle Ground High School, that the juxtaposition of my life and that of Mr. Smith intersected. I was both trepidatious and excited as I settled into the venue of learning the very basics of what drafting was all about. Mr. Smith commanded respect and admiration from his students for his high standards as a teacher and person.
In those days, there were no fancy digital electronics to make your lettering for your blueprints and daily draft work. Mr. Smith taught us well the importance of proper pencils to use, types of lettering fonts, etc. Even Mr. Smith’s young daughter, Robin, when she was done with her own school campus for the day, would come over to her dad’s classroom and marvel at the intricate work he and his students achieved. There on the wall of her dad’s classroom was a magnificent pencil drawing of a handsome railroad train trestle. Robin’s young memory of gazing at that three-point, landscape perspective drawing stirs her heart’s appreciation for her father’s vocation to this very day. 😉
Once again, due to health issues, our good Lord closed the door on Ralph Smith’s teaching career, but He knew, good and well, that Smitty still had a great love for horses and also aspired to the reaching of young people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To this end, in 1978, Ralph and his lovely bride, Pat, were the first “Horsemanship Directors” for the newly established “Royal Ridges Retreat” Christian Horsemanship camp in the lovely forested hills near Yacolt, Washington. It was both a challenge and a delight for Ralph and Pat to impart both the knowledge of horsemanship and share the Good News that Jesus loved every camper that came under their care for a week of fun, learning and life changing times.
In 1987, while on a hike with his wife, Pat, Smitty suffered a stroke and was taken to the hospital. It was determined that surgery was needed to correct Ralph’s leaking heart valves. But, while on the operating table, Ralph had yet another stroke that was so severe, it robbed him of the ability to swallow (among other issues). It was at this juncture, in my former teacher’s life, that I had the opportunity to get to know him closer as a brother in Christ. Since it was hard for Ralph to get out and about in those days, three or four of us men from Battle Ground Baptist Church would drive out weekly to the Smith home and have a Bible Study together.
Like any of us on this earth, Ralph had issues in his past that plagued him deeply. I remember, on more than one occasion, when Smitty would say to us. “Ya know, fellas, in the New Testament, 1st Timothy 1:15 says, ‘This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief”!! Smitty continued, “And if the Apostle Paul called himself the chief of sinners, well, that makes me second in command”.
True, each and every one of us, in this life, have our failures and victories, our friends and our enemies. I, for one, saw this dear man realize his shortcomings. He was humbled by the Grace of God and strove to live a godly life by God’s mercy and love. I like what his gravestone says………“Truth Has Set Me Free”.
I look forward to Heaven someday and rekindling the fellowship of Ralph Vincent Smith, who was not only a fine High School teacher of mine, but a brother in the Lord to this Norwegian Farmer’s Son.