The “Old West” is passing into the history pages. We still have cowboys in the west, but their numbers are but an echo of what they were. The Old West was a popular topic for 1950s and ’60s TV episodes, but in contrast to reality, little of the actual West made it onto the black and white screen in those days.
Over time, books and movies have chronicled the passing of the cowboy chapters of our national past. Not long ago, my wife and I watched (for the fourth time) Monte Walsh, a Tom Selleck movie set in the late 1880s. Tom Selleck’s character laments that the world no longer needs his horse-centric ranch hand skills.
A friend recently loaned a book to me. It’s called The Cowboy Way and is a tribute to the legend of the American cowboy. The author, David McCumber, writes about his 12 months on a 30,000-acre Montana cattle spread as a ranch hand/cowboy.
Author McCumber begins his odyssey helping to find and feed marooned cattle in three-foot snow drifts, in driving winds and in temperatures of minus 30 degrees. Any man who would wolf down his breakfast porridge and head out into the teeth of a Montana winter before daybreak is a better man than I am. I’m not fond of getting up at five on a winter morning to attend my weekly Lions Club breakfast meetings here in Chino Valley. And I don’t have to fight my way through three-foot drifts of anything.
McCumber spent very little time on a horse, but he did learn how to pull a calf, run the squeeze chute, improve his wire splices, use a torque wrench, use lighter fluid to pop a bead on a tire and throw a Houlihan loop.
He also learned how to stretch fences, repair fences and set fence posts. He learned how to castrate, inseminate, inoculate. To clean cow sheds, tractor sheds and oat bins. And how to fight a range fire. It took some painful practice, but he eventually learned how to avoid being kicked in the private parts by a calf during any number of mandated wrestling matches.
The extent and breadth of the cowboy’s daily to-do list was entirely new to me. Based on my avid television viewing back in Indiana as a child, I had some vague notion that in addition to being legends of the time, the western stars depicted on TV were of the “cowboy” genre. These so-called legends spent a lot of their time jumping onto horses and riding into the dust chasing bad guys.
I wasn’t concerned whether these people were real — they nevertheless represented a far more exciting slice of life than I was experiencing in the “wilds” of northern Indiana.
It should have occurred to me that if a fellow had “cowboy” on his business card, he probably maintained more than a passing working relationship with, uh cows and cattle. I wasn’t as analytical then as I claim to be now.
As I think about how to describe “cowboy-ism,” two words come to mind that have no strands of DNA in common: raw and magnificent. Fighting to save a calf during a difficult birth at three in the morning is an inelegant, visceral exercise, but it is also an uncommonly noble complicity of man and animal.
I thank Tom for loaning me a book that taught me a little of what many around these parts already know from personal experience about living and working as a cowboy.
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