Cowboys and cowgirls

Cowboy Jay Birong at two or so
Cowboy Jay Birong at two or so…

As a youngster, there was never any doubt in my mind that I was supposed to grow up to be a cowboy. I watched Spin and Marty on TV along with the Cisco Kid and Pancho, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Roy was my favorite of all because, among other things, he had an incredibly cool cowboy hat. Roy and Dale even had a German Shepherd in the family just as we did. Roy’s dog was named Bullet and, from watching various episodes, one would be led to believe that that dog could run just as fast as Trigger, Roy’s trusty palomino. Ours was a female named Queenie. The only time I remember Queenie running much was when I called her for dinner.

Oaters were everywhere on the television dial back in those days (all three channels). Our family watched them all: The Rifleman; Have Gun Will Travel; Wagon Train; Maverick; The Virginian; Gunsmoke; Wild Bill Hickock (I was always amazed at how Wild Bill could ride his horse at thirty miles an hour in that opening sequence and never lose his hat); and Bonanza, my Dad’s favorite, to name a few. And, if my memory serves (you know the chances of that), the first novel I ever read as a boy was a cowboy story printed in paperback. All I remember is that there were lots of mesas involved.

George W. Bush, during his tenure as the 43rd president, had been accused by our nation’s enemies and certain allies of being a cowboy. Really? I mean, c’mon. Regardless of your politics, he’s a Texan, for cryin’ out loud. And besides, since when do Americans need Europeans, Middle Eastern sheiks and terrorists of one kind or another to help us be on the lookout for cowboys? They meant it derisively, of course, but, had they been referring to me, I would have considered it a compliment, as I am sure President Bush did.

Anyway, I was inspired to write this piece upon stumbling across a website that tells us precisely what the American “cowboy way” is and what a cowboy stands for. And the lore on that site is testament to why mothers should not discourage their children from growing up to be cowboys and cowgirls, despite advice to the contrary from Willie and Waylon. (Nevertheless, the lyrics of that song might be good warning to keep our little cowgirls away from at least those two dudes, in particular). The site, which is entitled Vaquero Enterprises (“vaquero” is, more or less, Spanish for “cowboy”) is supported by Ernie Morris and Ralph Pavey of Wilton, California, and I highly recommend it. It includes several variations of the Code of West, as proffered by the most popular cowboy characters of that era. It also includes some sage (pun intended) cowboy advice for us all, as follows:

An Old Cowboy’s Advice

* Keep your fences horse-high, pig-tight and bull-strong.

* Keep skunks and bankers and lawyers at a distance.

* Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.

* A bumble bee is considerably faster than a John Deere tractor.

* Words that soak into your ears are whispered…not yelled.

* Meanness don’t jes’ happen overnight

* Forgive your enemies. It messes up their heads.

* Don’t corner something that would normally run from you.

* It doesn’t take a very big person to carry a grudge.

* You cannot un-say a cruel word.

* Every path has a few puddles.

* When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.

* The best sermons are lived, not preached.

* Most of the stuff people worry about is never gonna happen anyway.

* Don’t judge folks by their relatives.

* Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.

* Don’t interfere with somethin’ that ain’t botherin’ you none.

* Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.

* Sometimes you get, and sometimes you get got.

* Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.

* Always drink upstream from the herd.

* Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.

* If you get to thinkin’ you’re a person of some influence, try orderin’ somebody else’s dog around.

* Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly.

A cowboy, indeed…

Clyde’s dale

I’ve always loved horses. Probably because, as I’ve noted in earlier essays, I was raised on a seemingly unending series of TV westerns during my childhood back in the 50’s (remember this? Cowboys and Cowgirls)…


If you have ever enjoyed a box of Cracker Jacks you may recall that each box includes some kind of semi-excellent prize. I quickly learned that those trinkets, along with the peanuts, usually settled to…


    Yeah…remember those days when we had only three channels and maybe a handful of radio stations. We shared a common experience and a common community as a result. Tailoring one’s own information and entertainment experience as we do these days via the plethora of electronic devices has us all going in individual and different directions. While not necessarily a bad thing I AM wondering, as a result, what this might mean for our notions of ‘community’ and ‘culture’…..or am I just sounding like a geezer here? I wonder what old Hopalong would think?

    “You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometime you just might find you get what you need.” Modern cowboy saying.
    What we really need is a unity of spirit. Reminding us of simpler times helps to make clear how far we’ve drifted as a society, not only in focus but our collective connection to the earth.
    Oh give me home where the buffalo roam and the skies are not cloudy all day. I’d take that again … if it doesn’t violate any type of political correctness. Yippy ki yo.

    I really liked your riff on “Cowboys and cowgirls,” Skip. As you know, I’m not that much older than you, and so remember all the same cowboy shows from the early years of commercial television. You, of course, were watching them in Buchanan, Michigan, and I was watching them just a few miles across the state line in LaPorte, Indiana. Boys from the Heartland.

    The “Old Cowboy’s Advice” from the Vaquero Enterprises website has a special appeal for me. Thank you for sharing it.

    When I was teaching literature courses, all those years at UNF, I called the form in which the old cowboy is expressing himself “lifelines,” or “words to live by.” I was getting the advice I was sharing with my students, and hoping they would take, not from cowboys but from novelists, poets, and playwrights. They did much the same work, though, and amounted to much the same thing.

    In a phrase made famous by Kenneth Burke, an American philosopher, such lines and words are “equipment for living.” They have the force of proverbs.

    Your essay, and the “Old Cowboys Advice” with which you close it, put me in mind of the UNF commencement address that I was invited to give at the old Jacksonville Coliseum in 1990, which seems a lifetime ago now. Doesn’t it? I’m moved by your essay to share the advice this old professor (now) gave on that ritual occasion… on the chance, however long, that it might be of some interest to you, and maybe even to other readers of your blog.

    All I’m going to reproduce here from my commencement address are my opening and closing statements. It’s the list or run of “lifelines” in my closing statement that seems to me to be in the spirit of your old cowboy’s advice, but I think you might find my opening statement useful, if not necessary, as a kind of set-up for that list or run.

    The title of my commencement address was “The Politics of Heart.” I had just returned from a year in China where I taught in Beijing, just before the Tiananmen Square Massacre, under the sponsorship of the Fulbright exchange program, and the substance of my remarks came from that experience.

    So let me sign off here, thanking you again for your most recent essay, Skip, and then off-loading some lifelines of my own.



    Opening statement:

    Every teacher needs a teacher. I don’t know much, but that much I know. Mine, for now, is Lao-Tse, the original Taoist monk, whose name, in fact, means “Old Master,” and whose book, the TAO TE CHING, which translates as “the Way of Virtue,” is one of the greatest books China has ever given the world.


In the TAO TE CHING, Lao-Tse says: “Those who speak know nothing. / Those who know keep silence.” And I’ve said, in a poem of my own, “I much prefer silence to speech.” History has it I’m supposed to say something unforgettable, wise, on an occasion such as this one. But I know myself well enough to know that I don’t have the “usual” commencement address in me. Is there anything I can say, or not say, that you’ll remember, and take with you, as you move on to the next part of your life?

    Closing statement:

    The T’ang Dynasty poet, Tu Fu, has a poem – “By the Winding River” – in which he says:

    All creatures pursue happiness.

    Why have I let an official career
swerve me from my goal? 
     I suspect Tu Fu always knew what I’m still trying, hard, to find out: There’s more to life than work. Who you are and how you get your living are not the same thing. There’s plenty of time to be had, but no money to be made, that really matters. “The true cost of a thing is how much life you have to spend in the getting of it” (Thoreau). Risk is all there is. “Try to be one on whom nothing is lost” (Henry James). Do not spend yourself carelessly. Live your life so that – at the end of it, looking back on it – you’ll not hear yourself say: “What have I done with my life? What have I done with my life?” Don’t take yourself quite so seriously. Comic relief from the tragic sense of life is yours for the not asking. Beyond the primal scream is the primal laugh. Laughter and prayer are twin sisters.

    That’s some of what I’ve learned since I made my way to China, climbed Lao Shan, and became a Taoist monk. 

I’ve spent my life unpreparing myself; I think I’m almost ready. Silence… is unforgettable, wise. 

    Without a doubt, your words that most stick in my mind:

    All creatures pursue happiness.

    Why have I let an official career
swerve me from my goal?

    Alas, I long for those days when I simply, well, “lived.”

    I remember Queenie well–was terrified of her–and poor old Herkie who was blind in one eye, if I recall correctly.

    Who was the very large man with the very high, wheezy voice on one of those old westerns? For some reason I seem to think of “Sugar Pops” cereal in some connection to him, but whether that has something to do with his name or they were just a sponsor of the show I have no clue!

    Loved the quotes and the memories. Thanks.

    The wheezy guy, I believe, was “Jingles” played by Andy Devine. He did do a Sugar Smack commercial or was pictured on the box.

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