Posted by: trevormeers | July 18, 2011

Used To Want To Be A Cowboy

One of the ornery runaways that set off the stampede at the library.

For the record, six-shooters and libraries are a bad pairing, even in small-town Iowa, and even during cowboy story time. But if you’re the guest cowboy storyteller on a Saturday morning in Prairie City, and you happen to own a custom, tie-down holster rig with your initials on it, cowboy code more or less requires you to wear it. I tried a plastic revolver, which is harder to find on short notice than you think and drew this advice from Allison: “Dad, do you think a gun at a library is a good idea, even if it’s fake?” So as I slung a massive duffle of cowboy gear over my shoulder and headed for the door, I grabbed a banana from the counter, jammed it into my holster and rode for town.

While the kids filtered into the story area, I spread out every item of cowpoke paraphernalia I’d been able to lay hands on in the last week. Gearing up for the story roundup had revealed just how long it’d been since I’d worn leather off the tree (cowboy subtitle translation: “Sat in a saddle for long periods of time”).

My oilskin duster was an easy grab, hanging in the front closet next to the Gore-Tex jackets that have seen far more use recently. But most of the serious gear was stashed in my parents’ barn. While visiting there last week, I went to the tack room and found that simply getting the door open required shoving aside a dusty tangle of vinyl deck parts, broken-down haybales and barn-cat food dishes. “I’m pretty much out of the horse business now,” my dad said later that day from a lawn chair. “I’m just feedin’ ‘em until they die.”

The tack room had the musty smell of a forgotten tomb stuffed with enough gear to keep a cowboy supplied on a ride into the afterlife. I pulled down my old lariat, bridle, yellow riding slicker and chaps. I couldn’t find my spurs, so I borrowed my dad’s, the rowels jingling as I dragged everything out into the bright sun. Most of the gear wore the gray pallor of mildew, but as I rubbed it all down with cloths in the sunshine, the familiar old browns, yellows and silvers reappeared, and my days holding these reins returned as strong as the smell of someone cutting hay at sunrise.

The part where I demonstrate why cowboys wear high-heeled boots instead of basketball shoes.

To be fair, I never really earned the title of “cowboy,” which those who know its worth reserve for people who have proven proficient among horses, cattle, barbed wire and bankers demanding payments on the trailer. But I do know horses, cowboy gear and Western lore. And I’ve logged enough time riding pastures and mountain trails to speak with some personal authority on the right way to smack lazy cows with your quirt and tilt your hat in a rainstorm to keep rain off your hands. Still, it’s been a decade since I moved away from my cavvy in Nebraska (subtitle: “horse herd”), and my old horse Camma died about three years back. The cowboy’s restless spirit had carried me away from the saddle itself to other hobbies (hobbies with the side benefit of requiring nither constant feeding nor vet bills).

But true to the song, my heroes have always been cowboys, and Sue the librarian’s call for someone to talk ropin’ and brandin’ proved irresistible. “We’re short on space but big on heart,” Sue said. I liked her try (“can-do spirit”) enough that I wound up standing before a herd of kids to share gear demonstrations, Pecos Bill stories and a reading of Do Cowboys Ride Bicycles?.

Even though most of these kids could probably overhaul a combine head, cow-ology seemed new to them. Except for one girl. When I asked why a cowboy might need a gun, a couple of boys said, “Fighting!” So I took a moment to explain the difference between cowboys and gunhands. Then a shy girl in back raised her hand and said, “Well, they might also need a gun for when a cow is having a calf and gets sick, and the cow isn’t going to live, and you have to shoot it.” I hesitated for a moment, then said, “You live on a farm, don’t you?” She half smiled and said, “Um, yeah.”

I tested the generation gap when we talked about the difference between a cowboy’s functional hat and the downturned “dance hats” of country music stars. I took a chance by asking whether any of the kids knew who Garth Brooks was. Crickets. But you know those surveys you read about showing that John Wayne is still America’s most popular movie star? When I asked the kids to name a famous cowboy, the first name they came up with was The Duke’s. That’ll be the day, Harry Potter.

As story time wrapped up, we put the kids’ newfound trail savvy to work in our own stampede. Three kids played the rampaging herd while the rest used the cowboy gear to race out in front of the herd and turn it back to camp. As I packed up my coffee pot and bedroll, the boys were still running around with cardboard horns on their heads and making thunder sounds with the little gray cloud.

Packin' heat from the produce aisle.

“I love these bull horns!” one kid said.

“You can take them home if you want,” I said. “I have a whole herd at my place.”

“Really? Thanks!” he shouted and ran off bellowing and goring bookshelves.

Hearing that, another kid peeked into my gear bag, pulled out my handmade chaps and said, “I’ll take these!” and lit out for the territory.

Fortunately, Sue caught him at the door like a bouncer guarding the saloon exit with a scatter gun. I wrangled the rest of my gear before anyone else made a run for it, zipped up my bag and looked up to see one of the bulls staring down at me.

“You’re the only cowboy I’ve ever met,” he said.

I tried to think of some cowboy-ish thing to say to inspire the greenhorn about heroes, role models and what a real cowboy stands for. But all I came up with was, “Well, pardner, I hope you meet a lot more,” then I climbed into my truck and headed home. When I unloaded the bag, I saw the banana gun had gotten pretty flat and dark when the farm girl used it to scare the lead cattle in the stampede. But I tore down the peel and ate the banana gun there in the driveway anyway. Some things just won’t keep until the next time you get to play cowboy.

* This post’s title comes from a song by Chris LeDoux, a Wyoming singer/songwriter who gave voice to my love for cowboy life in college and who is still pretty much the only celebrity whose death ever dampened my spirits.

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Responses

  1. Trevor,
    Thank you so much for your visit to the library! We all had a great time and I think we all learned something! The kids are still talking about it!

    Please visit us anytime you’re in town. We promise not to make you perform!

    Sue

  2. Was that a banana in your holster or

  3. Was that a banana in your holster or were you just happy to be there? Sounds like you had a good time. Was your dad stirring the fire when you got home. Next time you are home, I hope you can get away for a few minutes to stop by and say hello…you can leave the banana at home though. Our boys would actually like to see the real gun…that would make their day.

  4. I really enjoyed this blog…each and every one is a joy to read. Me thinks you are a teacher masquerading as a writer/editor. Hopefully, you’re teaching Sunday School. You have a very special gift!!


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