Growing up in the Adirondack foothills, with its massive conifers and mountainous terrain – not exactly the open range – didn’t teach me much about cowboy life.
My earliest recollections are of watching black and white re-runs on Saturday mornings, a masked hero rearing up on his majestic white horse, exclaiming “Hi-ho, Silver!”
My big sister had a southwestern style tapestry hanging on her bedroom wall. The image was of a Mexican perched on a split rail fence watching obliquely as a gringo tried, unsuccessfully, to break a bucking bronco.
By the time I got to college, country music was entering its Golden Era. The baseball team I played for traveled south for a tournament somewhere along I-4 between Lakeland and Orlando. Team rules against drinking didn’t deter us from hootin’ it up at a genuine honkey tonk across the highway from our hotel. We were a bunch of Yanks, shooting pool, sucking down PBR and locking arms with real cowboys, belting out the chorus to “Low Places.”
I guess from the mid-90s on, I always only ever thought of country music as big business. How many country stars had actually mucked a stall (not that I had), versus playing the part to sell platinum and gold records?
Nowadays, I don’t begrudge country singers for faking it, after all, we’re all guilty of appropriating cowboy culture for our own purposes.
Like in the film Die Hard, when Alan Rickman asks the mysterious off-duty cop come to foil his plans, “Do you think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?” To which Bruce Willis responds, “Yippee Ki Yay (expletive).”
One time, when I was working in the medical device industry, they flew me to Dallas for training. As we barreled down the runway and made our initial ascent, the pilot hollered “Yeeee haw!!!” over the intercom.
This made everyone laugh, albeit a bit nervously.
From Yosemite Sam to Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” cowboy culture has infiltrated virtually aspect of American life.
But I never gave it much thought as to what it meant to be a real cowboy. Until now, that is.
According to my research, the term cowboy first appeared in the English language in 1725 as a direct English translation of the term vaquero, which is Spanish for an individual whose job it is to oversee cattle while mounted on horseback.
If you grew up in America, you have a general sense of the role cowboys played in the era of Westward Expansion.
They spent all day in the saddle, herding and tending to hundreds of cattle. They monitored range grasses and the fertility of the soil. As technology evolved, they learned how to operate farm equipment.
Back in the day, when a man’s principle ambition was to own, reap and sew the land, I imagine the cowboy life was a pretty fulfilling one.
And there are still cowboys around, vis-à-vis Texas cowboys and Florida Crackers. Their ranks also include performers who give exhibitions of riding, roping and bull-dogging at the rodeo coming to a town near you.
For my purposes, it would be difficult to experience the cowboy lifestyle in one week. I mean how could I be a cowboy when I’ve never even ridden a horse, not to mention learned how to saddle, groom, feed and ride one?
So this week, I will pay homage to the profession in small ways. Maybe buy me a hat or some Wrangler jeans. Cook my food over a campfire and sleep out under the stars. Head over to the Strawberry Festival in Plant City.
I’m smart enough to know that being a real cowboy is a young man’s game. I’d last ½ a second on a bull – real or mechanical.
There is one thing I can do, though, and that’s uphold the Code of Honor, as it was defined by the late Gene Autry.
Cowboy Code of Honor
- A cowboy never takes unfair advantage – even of an enemy.
- A cowboy never betrays a trust. He never goes back on his word.
- A cowboy always tells the truth.
- A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals.
- A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances.
- A cowboy is always helpful when someone is in trouble.
- A cowboy is always a good worker.
- A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and his nation’s laws.
- A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed.
- A cowboy is a Patriot.
Until next time, y’all come back now, ya hear?