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Paul Kern's writing often reflects a deep appreciation of his father, Reese Kern. Paul has shared photos, poetry, and stories about his father and family, and we invited him to share more for Father's Day, 2007. Below are some new and some previously-posted poems, photos, and commentary about Paul Kern's father, grandfather, and another important mentor in his life, Lee Jacobsen.

Reese Kern at age 84
Deep in the Yellowstone Backcountry
July 2006


Reese Kern – Atomic Cowboy
by Paul Kern


My father Reese Kern was born in his grandmother's parlor in Preston, Idaho May 5, 1922 to Alfred and Amy Kern, the first of four boys. Dad had a little bit of a wild streak in him from an early age. He loved fast horses and very naturally as a child became an expert bareback horseman. He likes to recount when he first sat a saddle—many years after he had acquired his riding skill. He and his buddies would spend long hours exploring the site of the Bear River Massacre and then would lie on their backs watching the sky as redtail hawks darted and dived through the river bottoms in search of prey. Before the age of sixteen, he had ridden and packed alone or with friends through the Franklin Basin Area east of Preston. 


Dad had a special touch with horses—to where local farmers would hire him as a pre-teen to drive their heavy hay wagons down precipitous, narrow dirt trails called dugways from the mountain hay meadows.  They would block the wheels of the wagons and skid and spark most of the way. Regardless though, the teams would reach a full gallop before they hit the level straightaway.  


School, church and tending crops and livestock were his primary occupations as soon as he was old enough to take them on.  My Grandfather told me once that during a church service he was conducting, a shotgun blast was heard just outside the window—much to the consternation of the congregation. It was Dad, pheasant hunting, when he should have been in the meeting himself. I found an old scrap of paper in Grandpa's papers that describes his philosophy about raising boys.


Building a Camp Fire /  Building a Man


Get down on your knees near the wood. If God is with you, you cannot fail.

Start with a little spark.   Be patient.

Blow Gently.  Give encouragement in a sincere and kindly way.  

If you don't blow gently you may blow it out.

Add fuel only as needed.  Do not smother it. It needs care.

Be attentive to it.

Let its warmth be yours to enjoy.  Feel the glow of the fire which you helped build.

(He who chops his own wood gets warm twice.)


Every boy deserves and needs at least one hour a day from his father.


I think Grandpa did OK raising Dad. He served with distinction as an officer in the Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater of World War II and then again in Korea. He has been active in his church.  He was the very first in our family to obtain not only a high school education, but a college degree—BS in Chemical Engineering (University of Colorado, Boulder).  Throughout his career as one of the leading atomic scientists of his time, he raised a passel of kids (seven) but always clung to his deeply held western values. He saw to it that we learned how to ride and shoot; that we helped out with the neighbors' livestock.  I remember from very early on, trailing cattle and sheep and wondered why we were doing it—they weren't ours after all! One time we were tied up at the corral and he looked me in the eye and said, "This is as close to the old west as you can get." It meant a lot to him that those old values be preserved, values such as self sacrifice. One Thanksgiving when he was driving cattle for a neighbor, he didn't come home. Blizzard conditions had set in and the cattle could not be left alone. They had to be pushed through deep snow to the valley. He stayed with it and probably saved the herd. We had our celebration a day or two later.

Dad and Mom hauled us kids into the wilderness areas of Idaho and Wyoming for extended horse packing trips starting when I was eight years old. They created memories that time cannot erase.


Dad is an expert horseshoer. Although he has taught me the trade, I still marvel at his skill with nippers and rasp as he prepares a hoof for the shoe.  He can trim and rasp to perfection creating a visual work of art when he is all done. I have never seen his equal in the many farriers I have known.


In his 85th year, he seems like one of the "cusses" in Kiskaddon's poem, "The Old Night Hawk":  "It must be true for I heard it said that only the good die young, The tough old cusses like me and Ed must stay till the last dog's hung."  He has had a torn rotator cup in his shoulder from throwing saddles. To cope with the pain, he overdid it on the ibuprofen and aspirin, causing a bleeding ulcer.  (I'm just glad he wasn't using bute!) After cauterizing his stomach, four transfusions and numerous abdominal scopings, the doctors discovered cancer in the initial and very treatable stages.  Now they say that once this is behind him, he's good to go for another fifteen years.  They say it was the ulcer that saved his life, but it really was the horses.


Dad helps me with our cattle in Island Park. Though he missed spring branding this year, due to time in the hospital, he'll be there for the fall gathering.  We have already mapped out this year's pack trips in the Yellowstone area. I have been blessed to have had such a father. Some of the philosophy that he has passed on to his children and grandchildren is found in the following poem.


A Horse Camp Has a Rhythm of Chores

A horse camp has a rhythm of chores,

The needs of the horses come before yours.

Unchanged since the dawn of creation,

It's been like this through each generation.


You unsaddle, brush down and check the feet,

Of horses who've carried you through the heat.

Then you turn 'em out in the evenin' to graze,

To water and rest for the upcomin' days.


It's only then that you can think of you,

When the horses are settled and cares are few,

Only then you warm by the old campfire,

'Fore your bedroll's undone and you retire.


This rhythm of chores where horses come first,

Teaches you fast that beasts ain't cursed,

And they ain't dumb though mute they be,

They ride high in the hearts of you and me.


Through hours of dark throughout the night,

You hear their movement and sleep is light,

As the new dawn breaks you take up your chore,

You're up waterin' horses and tendin' more.


Camp is broke, you're packed and rolled,

Ready to head out as in days of old,

You catch the horses and fit each one out,

They're rested and ready—there is no doubt.


This rhythm of chores don't allow much rest,

But it lives and breathes the Code of the West,

Some have called it the Cowboy Code too,

Look after your neighbor and he'll look after you.


It all comes from puttin' livestock first,

You're just second, so's your hunger and thirst.

From a horse camp with its rhythm of chores,

You learn—the needs of others come before yours.
 © 2007, Paul Kern
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Paul Kern's poem, "At Codding's Place," inspired by his father, was a Lariat Laureate finalist and is included in our collection of poems about Cowboy Dads and Granddads.

At Codding's Place

For just a moment I thought I saw,
Our brood mare lying in the straw,
Foaling a colt in the early morn.
Now the weeds grow tall where he was born.

The tack shed with the sagging gate,
Is where I learned to sit and wait,
As my father caught his horses at dawn.
It's quiet now - the horses are gone.

For just a moment I could smell it again,
That good horse smell in the old catch pen,
Same warm smell on both young and old.
You can't go back - the horses are sold.

It was the scene of a trailer fight,
Between Dad and Slippers - oh what a sight,
The rope took off part of his thumb.
Just maybe now, I should not have come.

At Codding's place was my first ride,
My father walking close beside,
He carved out memories for me his son.
Where he kept horses now there are none.

Those boyhood horses each had a hole,
That left a mark upon my soul.
At Codding's Place was my first ride,
My father walking close beside.

In another place and another time,
On a different farm that I call mine,
We keep our horses on that place,
A paint, a pinto and a bally face.

© 2003, Paul R. Kern
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

When we asked Paul how he came to write this poem, he told us: "At Codding's Place" is an intensely personal piece about how my father handed down his knowledge of horses to me. Although Codding's farm no longer has horses on it, my father now 82 years old, still keeps two head alternating between Colorado and Idaho.

Reese Kern
October, 2004


Paul Kern shared this photo and description, which are featured in our Picture the West feature as the photo of the week of June 11, 2007:

Lee Jacobsen and Reese Kern

This photo is of good friend Lee Jacobsen (left) and Reese Kern, my father (right). It was taken around 1998. We took Lee to a place he had not been to since he was a young man, when he cowboyed for the Railroad Ranch, owned by the Harriman and Guggenheim families of Union Pacific Railroad and Anoconda Copper Mine fame. The Harrimans would organize  an annual big game hunt just south of Yellowstone Park and took Lee along to wrangle the horses. 

This was a little bit of a ride through memory lane for him. I have had no better cowboy mentors in my life than these two men.

Lee Jacobsen

About the above photo, Paul commented, "Here is a nice shot of Lee. Even from an angle, you can see the grin on his face."  Read Paul's poem about this trip and see more photos here.



Three Generations of Kerns and Lee Jacobsen
From left: Reese Kern, Paul Kern, Lee Jacobsen, Peter Kern
Sunset Lake, Idaho side of the Teton Range



Paul Kern shared the following photo, poem, and information about his grandfather Alfred Kern in our Picture the West feature on March 19, 2007:


This vintage photo is of my grandfather, Alfred Kern, with his mule team and rural mail route carriage near Mink Creek, Idaho in Franklin County, Idaho. He is the one to the right  Note the sheep camp in the background. Grandpa used to go through a team of mules every three years.

Among other occupations common at the time my grandfather worked as a rural mail carrier to the ranches and farms between Preston, Idaho and Mink Creek. He had two teams, one based in Preston that took him the sixteen miles to Riverdale, where he switched teams to continue on to Mink Creek, up higher in the mountains and about another sixteen miles further on.  On the return trip, he would trade teams again at Riverdale and return home.  Each team went 32 miles each day.  At that rate the animals lasted only three years.

It's hard to appreciate the work of these beasts of burden from our perspective today—but they gave it all they had during their short lives of servitude. Through my entire life I have seen horses and mules give everything they have until they drop— literally.  And what do they get from it?  Some good treatment along the way - maybe - but not always.  They don't even get much recognition or remembrance once they're gone.  

Here in Utah we are surrounded by pioneer museums that tend to present the human side of things—but leave out the role that the beasts of burden played in the opening of the west.  One day, walking out of one of the largest ones in Salt Lake, the following poem just
struck me.  Though the names of the mules in our family picture are long forgotten - they themselves are not - and live on in the lore of my family. At least we have the photograph along with inherited appreciation and memories.

Nary a Track

The horses are gone and so are the oxen,
The mules are too—all long forgotten,
Within the walls of the pioneer museum,
There's nary a track or even a trace of 'em.

But there are dishes and hats and spectacles,
Goods hauled west in horse-drawn vehicles.
They even have lots of photos of those,
Who stared unsmiling in a photographic pose.

The musty smell of days since passed,
Lingers on saddles and an old boot last.
A single and a double-tree,
Cracked harness and a chair for three.

There's a prairie schooner by the wall,
And a surrey and sleigh just down the hall,
Covered with pictures of those now dead,
They didn't all walk—it has been said.

Most of those things as a general rule,
Were pulled out here by horse or mule.
It's odd how humans so quickly forget,
And take for granted the things they get.

What they have and what they've got,
Came through creatures of a lesser lot,
You'd think a horse photo or maybe two,
On the walls of the halls would be just due.

But the horses are gone and so are the oxen,
The mules are too—all long forgotten,
Within the walls of the pioneer museum,
There's nary a track or even a trace of 'em.

© 2007, Paul Kern
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Here is a photo of Alfred Kern in 1917:

My grandfather served as a US Army conscript in France together with millions of American mustangs.  Note the riding pants, boots and gaiters. 

The following is from Picture the West, November 19, 2007:

Thanksgiving is a time for families to gather, and Paul Kern has created a podcast, "Thanksgiving Tribute to Cowboy Parents," which includes his poem, "At Codding's Place," Diane Tribitt's "Half the Hand," and Latigo's "Cattle up the Trail."

Paul Kern's writing often reflects a deep appreciation of his father, Reese Kern, who is now facing serious health challenges.

Paul is an excellent photographer and has many photos of memorable times with his father and all of his family. This year on Father's Day, we were pleased to host Paul's tribute to his father, "Reese Kern—Atomic Cowboy." We asked Paul if we share some photos for Picture the West that are particularly meaningful to him and to his father. He did that, along with a moving poem.

Paul told us:


This photo with the buggy (this type is called a cabriolet) was taken a few years back when I was training the palomino to drive. Dad and I are exchanging views on the subject.


This photo was taken in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area to the north of the Teton Range in the meadows right before a place called Hidden Corral. This is one of Dad's most favorite places on the planet. The fireweed was in full bloom that day. When I saw him last, he just wanted to go and be with his horses at a place near Stringtown, Colorado we call "the homestead." This poem attempts to capture that day.


On Smokey Before I Go 

Eighty-five and still a horseman, been a good run these long years,

He’s owned a string of good ones, but as he reins it in he hears,

Just one last ride if at all I can, on Smokey before I go.

Doc says my days are short, I suppose he’s right—I know.


He keeps a saddle in his truck; it forks an old grain sack.

His wife says just take it in; put it up with the other tack.

Know what I would like to do? Since for today I can’t ride,

Go up to the old homestead and watch the horses hit their stride.


If I rest for a couple of days, and save up the strength I lack,

Maybe I can lift that saddle up, and throw it on his back.

For today just let me be, in cool grass just sitting down,

In the company of horses, miles away from the noise of town.


I’ll gladly trade just one good day, with horses and sky and grass,

For the chemo and the feeding tubes and clinic with walls of glass.

Cancer caught him in its snare—it came stalking an evil way,

Where some pray to heal and others just curse the day.


Eighty-five and still a horseman, been a good run these long years,

He’s owned a string of good ones, but as he reins it in he hears,

Just one last ride if at all I can, on Smokey before I go.

Doc says my days are short, I know he’s rightI know.

© 2007, Paul Kern
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

We will be together again over Thanksgiving.




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