Memories of A Pre-Presidential Encounter
By John Taffin
One of the best things about my job is all the interesting people I meet. I first met Robert G. “Bob” Baer in the early 1980s and I’ve spoken of him several times before. Bob shared the following story with me and I now share it with you:
“After working and chasing cows on a small ranch out of Lander, Wyoming, in the summer of 1952, I was lucky enough to hear that summer temporary jobs were available for trail crew maintenance hands, fire control crewmen, pack string helpers, and individuals to man fire lookouts in Glacier National Park, Montana. I’d fallen in love with the Rockies working there in Wyoming, so I put in an application for the park job, never truly expecting to be hired. I was coming out of Texas and those jobs were highly sought after and mostly filled by young applicants residing closer to the park [and more likely to show up]. I really was surprised to get the hire notice. However, they’d determined to try to spread the jobs out more broadly around the country and I was actually one of several youngsters hired from Texas.
Three sixgunners: Bob Baer, Bart Skelton, John Taffin.
A Slight Hitch
“I had one problem I had to solve before entering into my employment at Glacier. I was traveling with my trusty little .22 High Standard GB Model semi-auto and my .44-40 Colt Single Action Army. Employees and visitors were not allowed to enter the park with firearms and I hadn’t come to Montana without them.
“After some discussion with the ranger at the entrance to the park, I was escorted to the office of the Chief Ranger. I told him that if I couldn’t legally store them in the park I would turn around and find a way to store them somewhere outside the park for the term of my employment. I fully intended on my off days to continue occasional target shooting and was sure I could find an appropriate range or wild space on the national forest adjacent to the park.
“My insistence amused him and he then asked to see my hardware. Bringing them into his office on federal ground seemed potentially risky to me, but he had an infectious smile. Bringing my two handguns into his office in a little zippered case I opened it and he immediately reached for the .44 Colt. Unloading it he turned it over in his hands in a loving and appreciative manner. It was a quality old sixgun and he recognized that, but he wanted to know why I would come to the park with loaded pistols. I respectfully told him that in Texas we considered unloaded pistols to be very poor trot-line weights.
“With that he picked up my little Hi-Standard .22, unloading it, then putting them both back in the zippered case and sticking them in his desk drawer. He was a very tall good-looking picture of what a ranger should look like and I can remember him sitting on the corner of his desk looking down at me grinning. He said, “Tex, if you’ll trust me with your firearms I’ll store them here for you during the week and you can check them out on weekends for use outside the park. I’ll show you several safe places to practice shooting and I expect I may join you occasionally.” He did and was an exceptional shot, especially with my .44-40.
Reagan’s riding partner, Bob Baer, and John Taffin
“I started my duties as a trail crew workman and was taught how to chase small lightning-started fires in those high mountains. For sizable fires they brought in the smoke jumpers from Missoula. About midsummer I was really thriving and enjoying the work when coming in from the day’s labors I was informed that I needed to report to the office of the Chief Ranger.
“I’ll admit this gave me pause. What could I have possibly done for him to request my immediate presence? Was there something wrong in Houston? Was there a problem with my gun storage arrangement?
“I immediately hiked over to park headquarters. Upon entering his office I was relieved to see him sitting on the corner of his desk again smiling down at me paternally; his first words were “Tex, I’ve got a job for you if you will accept it” (shades of Mission Impossible!).
“He told me that a motion picture company was about to move into the park and they needed a night watchman to be assigned to watch over their livestock corrals and their property trailers. The movie company normally hired local police officers on their shoots, but outside law could not be used on Federal ground and he could not assign any of his uniformed rangers to such a task. Since I had showed up at the park with a suitable sidearm and they were content with his judgment on whether I could perform such a task, would I be interested?
“I didn’t even question the pay, which proved to be about double my Park service rate. I would be relieved of my trail crew work for the term of the shoot [about two weeks] and all I had to do was sit on the top rail of a corral fence and keep an eye on the horses and the nearby property trailers each night.
“It did turn out I had one additional duty since I was up all night in the wee hours of the morning, I would have to make the before daylight wake-up calls to the various film crew chiefs and the appropriate actors going out to respective filming sets. That proved to be an interesting responsibility. It was difficult to keep up with the various beds most of the actors jumped between. There was one major exception however! The film being shot was Cattle Queen of Montana starring Ronald Reagan and Miss Barbara Stanwyck. Mr. Reagan was always alone and where he was supposed to be during sleeping hours, and it was pointed out to me that publicly discussing the strange sleeping arrangements of the rest of the Hollywood visitors might cost me my much-cherished job ( I’m slow, but I ain’t stupid). I got lots of smiles, thumbs up, and even little quick cheek kisses when I observed the various night wanderers slipping down the hotel halls to their assigned rooms after my wake-up knocks on doors of rooms where the cast and crew members were supposed to be, they realizing I’d been properly instructed in Hollywood etiquette.
“Along with my night watchman duties I was encouraged to show up on some sets where they hired locals who were at least semi-experienced horsemen to do light stunt work. They needed a couple of fellows to “get shot” and take the fall off running horses. As I’d taken part in amateur rodeos for several years and fallen off a lot of horses for no pay at all, this sounded like a cakewalk and it was. Five or six of us took practice falls for the camera people and they chose a young Indian boy and me to die on camera. We ended up taking three or four falls each at $75 per fall and I thought this movie business might be worth looking into. But after all the film footage of our falls ended up on the cutting-room floor, I decided to reserve judgement.
Hail to the Chief! President Ronald Reagan’s legendary “post-Hollywood” career.
“I was sitting on the movie horse corral fence rolling a cigarette one beautiful moonlit evening when someone slipped up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. Turning around I was more than a little surprised to recognize the star of the movie his ownself, Mr. Ronald W. Reagan. Reagan then admitted that he had taken pains to slip up quietly on me, and up to the time I had started rolling a cigarette he couldn’t have made the last 10 or 15 yards. That made me feel a little better for having allowed him to injun up on me so close. He said he’d witnessed our “falling off the horse” stunts and complimented us, saying the Hollywood professionals couldn’t have done them any better. Wow, now I knew I’d probably end up in Hollywood.!
“At that point Mr. Reagan had a surprise for me. He looked out over the horse corral and suggested we get a couple of ponies and take a moonlight ride up the trail behind the hotel. I reluctantly responded that I couldn’t do such a thing as I was there to guard these movie horses and their property trailers and I couldn’t desert my post.
“He said: ‘You do recognize me don’t you son? I’m a principal owner of this picture and theoretically these horses are leased to me, and if I want to pleasure-ride them and request your company, you’re free to do so if you care to.’ With that he slipped over the corral fence, pulling a rope off one of the saddles hanging there and proceeded to rope two ponies.
“Needless to say I joined him. He was a man who appreciated the wild country and we only spoke in hushed tones a very few words in that beautiful wilderness. He obviously was an excellent horseman and handled horses confidently, considerately and allowed them to rest and blow adequately while climbing that steep mountain trail.
“We rode about an hour out and about an hour back and we repeated that ride three nights out of the probably two weeks he was there. I found him to be exceedingly genial, polite, and humorous and not the least bit “Hollywood.” While most of the other actors and crew seemed to party each night away he always retired early to his motel across the highway from the hotel where most of the movie personnel stayed except on the nights we made our rides. He was always up before his call was made each morning. I was told by those who watched much of the actual filming he always knew his lines. He was a consummate professional. Suffice to say I developed serious respect for Mr. Ronald Reagan long before he became president.
And all of this happened because I saw fit to bring my sidearms on my trip to the Montana wilderness.
“By the way, Mr. Reagan always stuck my .44-40 in his belt on those rides saying it was up to him to protect me from any of the bears that did often frequent the area we were traversing. It’s more likely he was just being careful and preventing an almost teenage “Baer” getting too excited at some unexpected trail event and puncturing himself, a horse, or the resident motion picture star.
“Either way I was proud he chose my Colt to keep us protected and I still had my little Hi-Standard .22 in my saddlebag to back him up.”