Archive for June, 2008

June 29, 2008

A Cowboy's Life; 51…32…

by cowboylands

32. Life is more interesting as a Cowboy. 

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, you’ve got to be careful with this Cowboy thing, but with judicious application, the most mundane duties become charged with Mythic meaning. 

from Gunman’s Gold, by Max Brand

Pocket Books, 1960

illustrator unknown

Last Stand! Trapped! Brush Fire! or Die! When this is truly the case, you have a problem. Until then, when you find yourself in a pinch, try running those words through your mind to get the adrenalin going. But be careful, you might end up kicking out a window or something. 

Western popular novels are true romances and were practically eaten like sage-flavored candy by both buckos and buckettes. The story lines satisfied, momentarily but intensely, the yearning to be a real Man/Woman and kick a bully’s ass/take the love interest into your arms/own a big spread/look good in cowboy boots.

Pre-1960, these stories have heroes who are stone-rugged; their heroines are pliable yet composed. Problems in these pages were solved with a one-two punch and if that didn’t work, with a gimlet-eyed stare and threat of deadly aim. 

It seems that many problems arise when one realizes that making decisions and getting respect are not easy–rarely are decisions or people simply good or bad, for example, and our western culture is rabidly anti-hero and anti-respect.

So when the going gets tough, and I get mired down in my own wishy-washiness or faced with less old-fashioned kowtowing than I think I deserve, I like to appropriate pulp western moments. What would the Cowboy hero do? Drink a whiskey/kill; kiss/kill; shoot/kiss; ride/don’t ride; drift/stay… It makes things so much more interesting. And simple. 

Along with the prized back cover copy of the 1960 version of Gunman’s Gold by Max Brand (called the “Shakespeare of the Western range”) here are a few more epithets you might find appropriate. Use cautiously. 

[Why this is just a] TRAIL DRIVE TO HELL!

[insert name of town here] is BAD…devilish bad, dirty, evil, stinking.

My personal favorite: “I DRAW THE LINE AT DRINKING WITH A POLE-CAT!”

DRIFT OR DIE [makes any decision easy]

[I’m just a] LONE MAN against RANGE RATS!

And I’ll leave you as I: RIDE LIKE HELL!

P.S. Hand and gun illustration from Lazy H Feud by Ed La Vanway, published by Dell in 1955, with cover illustration by the great Robert Stanley.

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June 27, 2008

The True Meaning of Ka-ching!; or, 51 Cowboy Facts, Continued

by cowboylands

The End of the Trail, by Peter Field

cover illus. Earl Bergey

Pocket Book, 1945

from the collection of ES

 

36. Anybody can wear cowboy boots; it’s the person who wears spurs who commands attention.*

* Although, outside of a rodeo, a horse show, a trail ride, a ranch, or some serious two-step action, who would wear them? Never mind–go with it. 

35. The verb “to spur” hurts, just saying it. It has visceral meaning. Use it often. 

34. The sound of spurs makes everyone freeze and hear a western spaghetti western melody. Try it and watch your enemies fade into the sunset. Fast. 

33. Spurs are made of leather and metal shafts and spiked wheels and buckles. Yowza! 

The back cover of The End of the Trail says it all: “…back in action…AGAIN!”

That’s what spurs mean. 

 

I just got back from the West (okay, western Pennsylvania) and had a yearning to make things happen, hence the spurs. The above illustration is by Earl Bergey, who singlehandedly created the famed and censored “nipple cover” of Popular Library’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy.  [Can’t find an image of this–but you have to see it to believe it!] He knows how to titillate. 

Below is a much tamer version of a pair of spurs I bought at auction off a highway in Wyoming.  

Spurs, copyright 2008

I was titillated by their utilitarian heft and their spare and clean line. A pair of spurs makes things happen, no matter what venue you use to dig them in. Although I don’t recommend digging them into someone’s hand unless you have a “safe” word. Play nice, folks. 

 

 

June 19, 2008

51 Cowboy Facts; or, the Mythic Metaphor

by cowboylands

There are days when words come easy. There are days when words come hard. And there are days when other people come to you with the perfect words.

Cowboy metaphors are simple to use but harder to back up (see “cowboy diplomacy”). From the press statements of world leaders to casual water-cooler talk, the downright sloppy use of cowboy lingo and other western euphemisms, allegories, and analogies have marred, blurred, and fuzzified the Cowboy Mythos. It’s part of my mission to right those wrongs, and so when I find someone discovering an apt turn of cowpoke phrase, it makes my day.

This post by Suzanne Fox, called “So Much in Common: The Truth About Editing and Bull Riding” galloped through my handy RSS feed tuned to all things cowboy, and as it is about Cowboy–or Bull Riders–that means I can add another fact to my 51 Cowboy facts list:

37. Take off the civilized trappings from anything–board meetings, teaching, grocery shopping, roofing, or editing–and you find yourself wearing a pair of chaps, spurs, cowboy boots, and ten gallon. And hopefully, riding with Gary Cooper’s Virginian.

Here’s just one example:

1) In both editing and bull riding, you work in tight quarters with another individual who may turn out to be a sweetheart or may decide to stomp your guts out.

The bucking chute is a physical space, and the arena in which editor and writer work is a psychic space, but riders and bulls, and editors and writers, are pretty much on top of one another when they’re trying to get their work done. And in both cases, all participants are trying to get inside one another’s heads. The possibilities for stirring up trouble are endless. Some writers are easygoing and appreciative of editors’ suggestions, and some bulls just want to have their heads scratched when the ride is over, but both writers and bulls have sensitivities that astute people acknowledge and try to work with-or around. An insensitive editor (and there are some, unfortunately) may not break any bones, but broken and bruised egos go with the territory.

Yippee-yi-ki-yo! Happy virtual trails, all you editors and bull riders!

June 17, 2008

51 Cowboy Facts; or, Continuing the Countdown

by cowboylands

Bucko’s Boots. Photo copyright  2008 comoed

42. No other shoes do what cowboy boots do. 

41. No other shoes do what cowboy boots do.

40. No other boots do what cowboy boots do. 

 

OK, OK, that’s cheating. But it is a fact that bears repeating. 

 

41. Walking in boots makes you imagine the ching of spurs. All the time. 

40. Even when you feel like shit, cowboy boots make you a little taller. 

39. They make sleeping with your boots on a pleasure. 

38. A decision made in cowboy boots is a decision made for good. 

 

“Pull my boots off, will ya?”

“Sure, kid, sure.”

“I promised my mother I wouldn’t die with my boots on.”

–Tadpole (Clem Bevans) to Ike Clanton (Victor Jory), in Tombstone, 1945

June 15, 2008

Powboy; or, 51 Cowboy Facts

by cowboylands

Fifty-one facts about the Cowboy Myth:

51. The spirit of the Cowboy is alive and well, even when it shouldn’t be. 

50. The Cowboy makes people pose. 

49. Some people look better in cowboy hats than others.

48. Shredded computer printout paper does not hay make.

47. It’s best to be earnest about appropriating the Cowboy. 

46. You don’t have to sing country to dress like a Cowboy. 

45. Pretending like you’re shooting a gun with thumb and forefinger makes it look like you’re playing pretend, no matter how much money you earn a year, 

44. No one ever said you had to have a white hat or a black hat. 

Only how many more facts to go? I have to keep at it, as I still have forty-three to go. In the meantime, here’s an apt quote from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

43. “Put your drawers on and take your gun off.”

         –Clint Eastwood’s Blondie to Eli Wallach’s Tuco. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 13, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Fugly

by cowboylands

Historical museums take pride in displaying the good, the bad, and the ugly of Americana (cue spaghetti western soundtrack). They collect and preserve objects that are sometimes significant, but are usually the kinds of things found in the back of someone’s untidy closet. I admit that I was a voyeur at first, drawn to their quirks like a proverbial moth to flame, but I’ve grown earnest about these places that are much more than roadside attractions.

Museums connected to historical societies gather ephemera and cultivate something larger: a sense of history, community, and place. Take Florence, Arizona, a small town (population 17,504) poised to receive Phoenix’s urban sprawl. The state prison in town is a major employer and generous donor, and its gifts made the Pinal County Museum what it is today.

 Pinal County Museum

The Pinal County Museum. Photo copyright 2007

Inside is a vast landscape of battered stagecoaches, manikins dressed to the 1880s nines, rows of barbed wire, colorful Navajo rugs, cactus furniture…but then order asserts itself and what comes into focus is a cornucopia of town memorabilia: items from Mark Twain Clemens (no relation) who began the oldest continually sanctioned junior rodeo in the U.S., right in Florence; personal items of actor Tom Mix (he was killed in a car accident nearby); and items from the Arizona state prison (the door to a gas chamber, a special double chair for brothers who were legally slain by the state of Arizona at the same time, and rows of nooses, each with a photo of the executed nested within its coil).

Double Injection Chairs. Photo copyright 2007

A tourist guide calls these latter items “most popular with visitors”; Christine Reid, the only paid employee of the museum and one of its premier storytellers, winces when she hears this. She prefers to call them “intriguing.” She knows all the sensational stories but she is most animated when describing the book signings and lectures that the museum holds each month, in partnership with the Historic District Advisory Commission. The bullet hole in the window of the Tunnel Saloon quenches the thirst for the Wild West, but the monthly events are the community’s square meals.

 

Shootout at the Tunnel Saloon. Photo copyright 2007

I can imagine a volunteer docent with the sweet demeanor of a favorite grandmother leading tourists through this roadside museum. Wending her sure way through a clutter of objects, she points to a bullet hole in a door that has been enshrined in a case. She launches into a lurid, bloody tale as the chatty tourists fall silent. She next indicates a noose that had gripped the neck of the only female criminal put to death in the state. “They hadn’t planned on decapitating her,” she cheerfully informs the pale visitors. She then traces the provenance of rare Apache playing cards made of antelope skin and closes by giving the times of the next lecture on prehistoric Ho Ho Kam Indian irrigation systems. When she is done, the small group applauds.

Not far from the truth, buckaroos. And only in America.

Go visit, and tell them Bucko sent you.

  • The Pinal County Historical Museum
  • 715 S. Main Street
  • Florence, AZ 85232
  • (520) 868-4382
  • Admission by Donation
  • Open Tuesday – Saturday, 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM

  • Sunday: 12:00 to 4:00 PM

  • Closed: July 15 – August 31 and Major Holidays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 8, 2008

Cowboy Hero, Take 2

by cowboylands

Like a tumbling tumbleweed, a question or thought on one blog is is found on another. From High Country News (For Those Who Care About the West) comes the feature story “Why the West Needs Mythic Cowboys.”

Untitled (Woody Strode), copyright 2007

The author Jeffrey Lockwood argues, like Batboy42, that Myths (in stark contrast to myths) have power, and for the communities of the US West to work effectively, they need this power. Environmental issues, the rich/poor divide, disappearing jobs, and more can be dealt with well by the Cowboy who is independent yet compassionate, who recognizes that “quantity of possessions is no substitute for quality of life,” who recognizes integrity, so would “vote for a gutsy woman over a pandering male, ride with a capable minority instead of a competent white.” His words gain power by using the Cowboy avatar Conagher, one of Louis L’Amour’s heroes. Lockwood compares the insidiousness of the Myths of Capitalism and Scientism, and anyone who has been halted in his or her acquiring of a Decent Life by education, gender, or race or who has had to combat the disconnect that comes from the “pure” objective view, knows that these Myths can be just as insidious, left to fester uninvestigated. 

While I have my concerns that the impulse for social deeds is based on a fallible author’s interpretation of Myth (much as Louis L’Amour is compared to a deity), I do respect the idea that Story can bring meaning. 

Here’s the first paragraph of the article. Check out the rest here. Go ahead and sign up for a free e-newsletter–they’ll stop if you don’t want them. Also, I like the comments before mine. A huge range of opinion, in just two comments! From “Why the West Needs Mythic Cowboys,” by Jeffrey Lockwood:

The first Great Truth of contemporary life is that the West is changing. And the second Great Truth is that the Cowboy Myth is an anachronistic view that denies the first truth and assures that we will become a socioeconomic backwater. What we need to do, or so we are told by those who purport to know such things, is abandon our allegorical tales and face the real world. Inspired by constitutional contrariness, informed by 22 years of living in Wyoming (45 years in the West), and motivated by a desire to help find a viable response to the first Great Truth, I offer a succinct reply to the futurists, pundits and critics’ call for the death of the West’s mythology: Bullshit.

Here’s my reply: 

Mr. Lockwood uses Louis L’Amour’s Conagher to unfurl a cowboy’s heroic virtues. Good choice of an author, but I would argue that L’Amour’s relatively nuanced characters are rarely understood in all of their dimensionality. It’s crucial to investigate shadowy Myths, whether of Cowboy, Capitalism or Scientism. Left to lurk half-understood and partially digested, their tropes can lead to hypocrisy and appalling acts of uncaring and even violence. The details of all of these Myths are fuzzy for most people—a little out of focus—because they are gleaned from cursory perusal and little, if any, reflection or questioning. It’s frightening as hell to think people are getting their understanding of capitalism, science, and cowboys from reading only headlines, hearing political spin on talk radio, or reading badly written novels sold at half-price in grocery stores (next to the Cheese Doodles).

Which cowboy is the real Cowboy? The one of storytellers (scriptwriters) or the one of the common mortals who were neither as saintly nor as hellish as these stories describe? The stories have a truth to them, although they also hold the mortal limitations of the writers. Ultimately I agree with Mr. Lockwood: he worries that “without a story to guide the culture of the West,” the community (whether a local one or in  a broader national sense) will not be able to act effectively. Writers use “story” to bring together the elements of characters and actions and setting and the reader’s sensations to an end that satisfies. And something is satisfied, deeply so. Perceptions are honed by the rhythm and rhyme of “story,” so that an ordinary day, a death, or a moment can become imbued with comedy or tragedy. So I agree, Myth does direct actions, making the person the hero of his or her own story—the entrepreneur who cares for the environment, the rancher taking time to find one lost calf, the teacher who tries one more time, the community organizer who speaks for many…

To either excise a region’s and people’s myths or to substitute others seems a throwback to the conquistadors (or the early pioneers). Yet the Cowboy Mythos, in the hands of common mortals, is easily made jingoistic, sexist, narrow-minded, and violent. Not very relevant in today’s society, if that is where it stays. Only be seeing mythic functions or characteristics anew is it possible to move beyond the tired stereotypes to the vigorous thoughts behind them. By exploring them, and exploring how one might adhere to their principles, it is possible not only to perceive the hypocrisy mentioned above by SocraticGadfly, but also to make sure that the community or leader doesn’t just talk the Cowboy talk.

 


 

June 4, 2008

Who Was That Masked Man?

by cowboylands

A certain commentary conversation was getting veeeery interesting, so I have to bring it to the light of day. High Noon day that is. I had fingered Gary Cooper as a Man Worthy of Emulation (at least on the silver screen). Cooper’s Everyman Marshal Kane is willing to risk all for the sake of duty. And an unpopular duty it is: he is faced with having to confront the town bullies all on his high lonesome—the fine upstanding members of the community have abandoned him.

 The ending scene is striking: after the shootout the marshal strides out into the empty street to be with his wife. They are the only ones on the street, which becomes a stark landscape of harsh shadows and light, bringing their isolation into sharp black-and-white right/wrong focus. Doing the right thing has never seemed so thankless and so difficult. Yet so necessary.

Cue American presidents, who, according to the word on the range, choose this movie over many others to view and re-view (not Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? To Kill a Mockingbird? Rambo?). There have been pages and pages of High Noon/Cold War commentary, but what about this particular western grabs western world leaders by their virtual spurs?

People like the mysteriousness, the sense of knowing what they’re doing though no one else does, that happens in [High Noon]. The central character is the mysterious one. No one else in the movie knows what they are going to do, except the central character and the viewer. This opens up possibilities to those in power, like presidents… to feel like the all-knowing all-seeing viewer, along with the power to change the outcome that the central character has.Mythic power. The mythic power is something that has been lost with the onset of the new hero, the youthful and/or bumbling one, that is prevalent today.

 

 So spake batboy42.

On Marshal Kane’s furrowed brow is the mark of Cain—a mark that sets his moral persona off from the rest of bumbling townspeople-humanity. But he is not alone: he is joined by none other than the viewer, who has been tipped into Kane’s point of view by the subtle action of the camera.  And so the viewer feels that Kane’s choices—as difficult and heart-wrenching as they are—are choices that he/she would make. Is making. And will make. The Everyman becomes the Hero. We become the Hero. Life has meaning. Mythic power indeed, to instill such heady stuff into everyday life.

Then I have to take a stiff shot of whiskey because truthfully, I’d be the guy hiding behind the barrel of pickles in the general store, wishing I would have the guts to do the right thing. What would it be like, to feel so firmly, with such unshakeable faith, that my actions could have meaning? (On good days I feel they might, but on bad days, fuhgeddabout it, pardner.)

Is the reason there are so many movies with bumbling heroes nowadays because it is so hard for the everyperson to visualize one’s actions as having meaning? Do world leaders need a dose of black-and-white mise–en–scène to get them through announcing troop escalations or vetoing health insurance bills? Perhaps we all need to return to the time of myth and meaning. Is it possible? Or will we each be doomed to always be one of the townspeople, saying “Who was that masked [heroic] man?”

 

 

 

June 1, 2008

What Would Gary Cooper Do?

by cowboylands

When life appears frustrating, demeaning, terrifying, unfixable, and/or immutable, it is helpful to ask: “What would Gary Cooper do?”

His example—and that of other western celluloid heroes—provides an antidote to the life of the office drone, the frustrated housewife/husband, or the cog in the machine. Following the Cowboy Way allows one to stand tall in the land of mediocrity.

Why, with the herds of movie stars available, would I pick the Coop? Because he said it best in Along Came Jones (1945): “You gotta look like you’re somebody and act like you’re somebody….You do that, pretty soon you are somebody.” (OK, it’s a comedy and he’s spoofing his cowboy image, but still a good line, dammit!) 

 How to  look like you’re somebody:

  • The boots. Whoever has walked less than a mile* in cowboy boots knows that the steady thud of their stout heels provides a degree of self-assurance that borders on guarantee.
  • The belt buckle. When you wear one, you are the champion. Of the world.
  • The hat. You have to fill the dome with—if not brains—than hot air. Talk like you own the ranch and you will.
  • Which brings us to the talk. Do you have the garrulity of Andy Devine or the laconic impact of the Duke? (Note that one is always the sidekick, and one is the movie star.)
  • The action. Like a quarter horse, you’ve got to be able to turn on a dime and be ready for the shootout, the showdown, the barroom brawl, the attack (doesn’t have to be Apache), the wagons-in-a-circle maneuver, the cutting-a-bullet-out-of-your-leg routine, the lip-lock with the beautiful/handsome love interest, or the ride-into-the sunset trick. Life, fast and furious, isn’t scripted, so it’s good to bone up on the possibilities.

Katy Jurado’s character, the widow Helen Ramirez, describes Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane in High Noon (1952): He’s a man. And it takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man.

Following in the Coop’s footsteps is more than embodying a swaggering cowboy diplomacy, or carrying a big stick/gun/chip on your shoulder.  It’s about striving to take an idealized high road in conduct, as well as looking good on a horse. And not being a good rider myself, I have to add that you don’t necessarily need the other outer trappings (boots, belt buckle, hat), although they are stylish.

All is right in the Western World, then, right? Wrong. Trouble can ensue when following the Cowboy Way. But that’s a subject of another post…All images copyright 2008

Happy virtual trails. 

*If you walk more than a mile you aren’t really a cowboy, as you obviously do not have a horse, ATV, or pickup to your name.