Saturday, July 14, 2007

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

Jack Palance, playing the role of Dad

My dad, who died five years ago Wednesday, was a cowboy. A real one, complete with beat-up Stetson and muddy ropers and a Ford pickup and an ancient blanket-lined Levi's jean jacket that smelled of manure, leather, horse sweat, and tobacco -- the distinctive aroma of all cowboys, the one that's rubbed so deep into their sunburned hides that it doesn't come out no matter how long they spend in the shower or how much Old Spice they try to mask it with. Dad's been on my mind a lot this week -- well, Dad, Jefferson, and George W. Bush.

Dad never owned rangeland or cattle -- though we were never without horses. He was a schoolteacher by trade, but he preferred to spend his summers in the company of livestock: running strings of pack mules up to the Sierra peaks, working roundups, doing journeyman farrier work, catching and breaking wild mustangs for sale, working as a field assistant to the local large-animal vet, and riding in the occasional rodeo. He gave up riding saddle broncs when I was born (too dangerous -- cowboys are frequently crippled or killed when they get a boot caught in the stirrup, fall off, and end up being dragged under the back hooves of a bucking bronc), opting for the safer but trickier bareback broncs. I remember sitting in the grandstand at the county fairgrounds watching him come out of the chute, right arm up, mouth set in intention, that dirty beige Stetson taking yet another beating as it sailed into the dirt and got trampled under the feet of his flying mount. There would be a buzzer, and then Dad pulling his wiry frame up out of the turf -- though not always in that order.

Dad was a horse-whisperer before there were such things -- though the things he whispered weren't usually printable. All the time he was working around an animal, he'd keep up this deep, quiet, calming, almost seductive mutter: "All right, you big ol' bastard. Gonna go for a ride, you hammer-headed son-of-a-bitch. Thought you'd kick me, didya? Oh, no no -- come on, give me that ugly foot...." The tone flowed like warm honey, all sweet and loving...until you actually overheard the words. All the while, his hands would be gently stroking, patting, soothing -- everything in his easy, confident body language belying the downright profane content of his constant horse-patter.

For Dad, there was no point in being a cowboy if you couldn't be a singing cowboy. On summer evenings, he'd sit out on the back porch with his friends, a case of beer, a pack of Camels, and his big old 1954-vintage Martin Dreadnought guitar, his Montana drawl dropping into a plummy baritone that could charm the bullfrogs in the pond into listening silence. Mom would wander out to add the alto part; friends and kids would chime in, and when we sang "Strawberry Roan" (a classic cowboy song written in my own hometown in 1912), it was something just this side of the angels.

Dad lived a Marlboro Man's life, and died a Marlboro Man's death: it was, of course, those mangled packs of unfiltered cigarettes that lived in the front pocket of his jacket that got him in the end. The last few months of his life, I moved home to see him through, and we spent a lot of time talking about life. Among those last conversations were a lot of reflections on cowboys, 9/11 (which had just happened), America, Jefferson, and George Bush.

Daddy hated George Bush. Loathed him to the marrow of his cancer-ridden bones. He'd spent a good portion of his 32-year teaching career imparting American history and civics to high school students, becoming a California Master Teacher along the way. Jefferson was his personal hero; that quote about the tree of liberty needing frequent watering by the blood of patriots and tyrants his favorite quote. A child of the Roosevelt era (he was born just three weeks before the 1932 election), he knew a corporate royalist when he saw one. And he also knew from Day One that this guy was trouble -- that, in fact, that he was likely to bring about the biggest Constitutional crisis in the history of the country. "America may not survive him," he warned me. "You may live to see the nation's last days."

But in Dad's eyes, Bush's biggest crime was what that dude (back home in Miles City, "dude" was an epithet that started fistfights -- it was calling someone "all hat and no cattle" in the most derogatory way possible) had done to the image of cowboys, both in America and abroad. To Dad and his friends, the cowboy code was sacred and absolute. Guys who spend weeks out in the wilderness with large quantities of other people's capital have to be trustworthy, honest, and self-sufficient. You screw up, you fess up. You take on a responsibility, you see it through to the end. You are awe-struck by women, tender with children, and hospitable to strangers as long as they're hospitable to you. You don't start fights -- but you better be able to finish them. To that end, you're proficient with your firearm; but you never, ever fire first unless lives hang in the balance. You are modest, underpaid, usually broke -- and number yourself among the luckiest people in the world anyway.

There's also the fact that cowboying, at its core, is a nurturing trade. You have to care about your livestock enough to notice when something's not right; and be smart enough to figure out with some accuracy what the problem is. You're birthing calves; hand-raising foals; making sure the critters in your care get polled, branded, castrated, and vaccinated; keeping them out of the ditches and barbed wire; and seeing to it they're getting enough of the right kind of nutrition to make it through a hard winter. If you're wise enough (and not all of them are), you're also looking after the range, to make sure it'll be there for your cattle next year and the year after that. Keen observation and quiet right action are the keys to doing the job. On the range or in the corral, people who go off all half-cocked and selfish are serious trouble waiting to happen; and real cowboys, like soldiers, have no mercy to waste on such people. In fact, they'll go out of their way to teach them a lesson -- the easy way if they like them, the hardest way possible if they don't.

This reality is at considerable odds with Hollywood's version of the cowboy-- that gun-slinging provoker of high noon confrontations who shoots first and asks questions later. (The only time Hollywood ever got it even halfway right was in the character of Curly, Jack Palance's taciturn and surly mad monk in City Slickers. Dad, with his squint and ever-present cigarette, was rapidly turning into Curly as he approached his seventies.) Unfortunately, Hollywood, behind the faces of John Wayne and Glenn Ford, has spent 75 years selling this id-driven hothead image of the cowboy to the rest of the world -- so it wasn't surprising that when George Bush rounded up the posse and rode off to Iraq, guns blazing and facts by the wayside, the world instantly recognized that what they had on their hands was an American cowboy -- the Hollywood kind, which was the only kind they knew -- at his dangerously irrational and combative worst.

That's what pissed Dad off. Bush was no cowboy. Not ever. (Laura even admitted as much this year at the White House Correspondents' dinner, when she dusted off the hoary cowboy groaner about her husband's attempts to milk a male horse.) He was an Eastern-bred oil-patch phony in thousand-dollar boots -- someone who never in his life had lived up to the almighty Code, who'd shirked every responsibility he'd ever had, and never owned up; who was incapable of tuning in to the needs of his herd, let alone figuring out what had to be done to get everyone through in one piece. But, still, there he was, that proud and ignorant....dude, that was the only word for it....being projected around the world as America's Number One Cowboy. It was, in Dad's mind, an irrecoverable slander against his friends, his lifelong passion, his chosen culture, and everything that had given his nearly seventy years as a cowboy grace and meaning.

It pissed him off until his dying day. It still pisses me off. Some might argue that there's no room for cowboys in the 21st century anyway -- that it's one old American legend that we're better off without. The frontiers have all closed; we are now, for the first time, an urban people. We don't need to be perpetuating that kind of machismo, which we believe always comes at the expense of women (although nobody who's spent time with cowgirls could make this assertion with a straight face). We need team players, not self-sufficient loners who thrive on wilderness. There's little call any more for people who can take on that kind of responsibility on their own, and regard it as a charge of honor; in our modern work systems, people who are too keenly observant or want to run their own show just upset the order of things and make trouble for everyone.

But, even so: my heroes have always been cowboys, though they didn't always wear boots and Stetsons. In the 60s, I was in love with space cowboys -- an astronaut junkie who rousted the folks up at 2 am to watch a Gemini liftoff on black-and-white TV. In the 80s, when I moved to Silicon Valley, I was drawn to to the emerging game industry's coding cowboys, brash and fearless young geeks-with-attitude who were exploring the limits of a new form of entertainment, bringing in the herd by the seat of their pants and the edge of their wits. (In the end, I married one of these -- a big strapping boy off an Oregon sheep farm who was cowboy heart and duty to the core. Dad's ultimate endorsement of this choice was to leave my husband his beloved Dreadnought: on summer nights, I can still hear Dad's voice coming through from eternity between the strings.)

I think we do need cowboys -- real cowboys who aren't afraid of risk and edges and the big wild places that still exist; who are mindful of their responsibilities, who tell the truth, who don't take what's not theirs, who don't take aim unless they sure of what they're shooting at -- and, more importantly, who know for sure that they can take the target down with the first shot. We're entering an era of rapid change, full of new frontiers that will need to be explored and turned into fertile resources if we're to continue as a civilization. To survive and thrive, we're going to need our fair share of cowboys (and cowgirls, too) -- people with the guts needed to break the path, deal with whatever trouble comes, and move the herd to safety and rest.

And when we're finally clear on what a cowboy is and is not, it'll be all too clear to everyone that George Bush is not. He's just a two-bit drugstore shitkicker in a too-big hat, rough in the saddle and mean as a rattler on a hot day to boot. He's a little boy playing dress-up: fighter pilot, baseball player, astronaut, Commander-in-Chief, cowboy. Most people know he's a pathetic wannabee when he's playing the first four roles; but not enough of us understand what a fraud he is when he's wearing that cowboy persona, too.

We all know they way he's lied, swindled, and squandered away our national honor, our last bits of frayed trust in our government, and our Constitution. But most of us don't realize that he's also made off with one of our deepest and best national archetypes as well, single-handedly turning "cowboy" into a bigger epithet of scorn than "dude" ever was. It's past time to stop pissing away the honor of that noble legacy by letting this rube claim it for his own. We need to hunt him down and get it back, just like we need to get the White House and the truth and our self-respect back. Because the day we lose our love for cowboys -- the real kind, like Dad -- is a day we lose something essential to the American character, something we're going to miss desperately as we try to meet and master the next stage of our future.

I know cowboys, and believe me: George W. Bush is no cowboy. Rest in peace, Dad.