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home : insight & opinion : guest columns
August 21, 2019

3/29/2007 12:14:00 PM
Guest column
A confession: In praise of cowboys
For the Daily News

I've got a confession to make: I am not a cowboy - and never was.

Oh, I wear cowboy boots, Levis, Western belts and shirts and don't get my hair cut much. But I am not a authentic cowboy, even though I got my first pair of cowboy boots when one of my father's friends gave me a pair of his when I was about eight and helped out on the farm.

And I've always had a pair or two since, even though they've always pinched my toes and were meant for riding horses and digging your heels in to bulldog a steer and protecting a cowboy's legs against rattlesnake bites and not just to walk around in for looks.

Nor am I a cowboy, even though I've worn Levis since I was 14 years old and won two races at the county fair as a camel jockey, one race in the afternoon and one at night against another wannabe cowboy whose camel couldn't keep up with my camel as he loped dizzily along in front of the grandstand with me hanging on for dear life and screaming like an old Gaelic banshee.

Nor am I a cowboy, even though I went to Wyoming in my Western regalia one summer when I was 16 with four other boys from high school to work on a ranch. We never got a job. Actually, we never got far from Heartbreak Hotel where we bunked in Casper for a week or so, milling around town and acting as though we wanted a job on a ranch until school started in the fall.

One of my buddies did get a chance to work for a sheep rancher when he was neutering his male lambs. He needed an extra hand to catch the lambs and hold them upside down by their hind legs to be banded. When the rancher ran out of rubber bands, though, and he started removing the lamb's manhood with his teeth, Charlie decided he didn't want to be a sheepherder. Neither did I.

But I've pretended to be a cowboy all these years. I guess because I admired them - how they lived and worked and died by an honorable, unwavering code. And, consequently, I pranced around in my boots like I'd just come off the range.

Truth is, I haven't even ridden many horses. My grandfather tried to give me one when I was 11 or 12, but my mother wouldn't let him. She was afraid I'd get kicked in the head. (Later, she speculated on more than one occasion that I must have been kicked in the head somewhere along the line, anyway.)

I did go riding with friends a few years ago. I had a frisky quarter horse I'd ridden once before but didn't put the neck strap on when I saddled him to keep him from putting his nose to the wind so there would be no stopping him.

Near the end of the ride, I came up out of a streambed and saw a quarter mile straightaway along an open field. I let out a banshee yell, gave the horse his head and leaned low in the saddle. Old Duke's head was up, all right, headed for the barn, and I was along for the ride.

The lane turned a sharp right - and so did the horse. I went flying off the saddle and barely hung on by grabbing the saddle horn as I was about to go airborne. With no neck strap to hold his head down, I wasn't about to rein the horse in or get back in the saddle and pictured him dragging my bouncing body the rest of the way to the barn. So I slipped my foot out of the stirrup and dove outward toward the ground.

I was on my feet, blood streaming down the side of my face, when the others rode up, whooping and hollering about my awe-inspiring ride across the field. I was reluctant to tell them what had really happened.

All that aside, though, I'm more mature than in those days when I could pose as a cowboy and parade around like I'd just come to town for the first time in a month. I've tried to rationalize and tell myself that what I was doing was just like I used to teach, that art only reflects life, holds up a mirror to reality for those who weren't there or come later. But in the end, I was driven to doubt.

After having years to reflect upon what an imposter I've been and not wanting to offend a worthy group, I've been inspired to make this public confession. Cowboys were and are honorable men (and cowgirls, too) who ride horses and herd cattle and deserve our respect.

My deepest apologies to those whom I impersonated.

Not being an institution, you may say my action makes no difference. Well, it does to me. I want to honor the cowboy and to show my integrity by doing the right thing in their name.

I hope my confession is a step in that direction.

And from now on, I'm going to follow the guidance of my paternal grandmother, who had a great deal of American Indian blood running through her veins, and my next-door neighbor while I was growing up, whose father had been released from slavery during the Civil War,

I used to ask them both about their heritage after I'd heard people refer to my grandmother as "an old squaw" and my next-door neighbor as a "n----r."

Grandma just said, simply, "I'm an American, son."

When I told my neighbor what Grandma had said, she, too, agreed. "Yes, we're Americans," she said." And don't you ever forget it."

Ray Elliott is a former Crawford County resident. He founded the "Tales from the General Store" cultural journalism project in Bellair and has written two books, "Wild Hands Toward the Sky" and "Iwo Blasted Again." He co-wrote "Bittersweet: The History of the Heath Candy Company," with Dick Heath. Elliott now lives in Urbana.

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