Willie Nelson said it well with the words by Sharon Vaughn;
“I grew up dreamin’ of bein’ a cowboy
And lovin’ the cowboy ways.
Pursuin’ the life of my high ridin’ heroes
I burned up my childhood days.”
–“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”
Before I discovered astronauts, it was cowboys for me. I wanted to grow up to wear a mask and have an Indian sidekick.
I wanted to ride a palomino and have girlfriend named Dale, and a sidekick who drove a jeep named Nellie Bell.
I wanted to wear a black, beaded outfit with a floppy hat and be called; “The Robin Hood of the West”.
I wanted to be Gene Autry, play a guitar and sing while ridin’, and live by the Cowboy Code;
- The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
- He must never go back on his word or a trust confided in him.
- He must always tell the truth.
- He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
- He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
- He must help people in distress.
- He must be a good worker.
- He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
- He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
- The Cowboy is a patriot.
Yeah, THAT was the ticket.
It still is.
I understand that “cowboy” has come to mean a few different things than it did when I was a cow “boy” and my bike was my palomino. I have great affection for the cowboys of Clint Eastwood;
- Rowdy Yates in “Rawhide”
- The “Man With No Name” in various spaghetti westerns
- The revenge-driven shooter in UNFORGIVEN.
Ditto for the cowboys described in the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Ian Tyson.
Ben Johnson and Clu Gulager in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, Robert Duvall in HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, James Garner in “Maverick”, Richard Boone in “Have Gun, Will Travel”, and John Wayne in just about whatever film you’d care to name (he was pretty much always a cowboy)…all of these mean much to me.
But the cowboys that reach me most immediately have always been in the pictures of children in their cowboy outfits, with or without the itinerant photographic pony. Those pictures always trigger (pun most definitely intended) my remembered cowboy aspirations.
This week, I attended the memorial service of a friend and fellow actor.
Why should I praise him? What were my path-crossings with him that were so inspiring that I should shout hosannas?
- He enlisted my help to fleece an innocent man in a real estate deal.
- When I was in charge of a city, he flaunted and mocked my every effort.
- He spit in my face every night for a month.
Off stage…there were nights when I wanted to strangle him over political differences…
…but he never wanted to strangle me.
I believe he forever “had my back”.
I believe he was deeply wrong about many things, and so he believed about me.
I believe he made the world better for having been in it, and suspect he believed that about me.
That’s called “civility”.
It’s also, in my mind, the cowboy way.
At the memorial service there was an array of pictures from Tom’s life. One of them was a picture of him as a child in his full cowboy regalia. Yes, it triggered my own atavistic career urges. I was un-surprised, but profoundly moved.
“Them that don’t know him won’t like him
And them that do sometimes won’t know how to take him.
He ain’t wrong. He’s just different,
But his pride won’t let him do things to make you think he’s right.”
–“Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” – Ed & Patsy Bruce.
I still have my yellowed copy of the Cowboy Code and still harbor hopes…hopes that may flicker a little brighter…