It wasn’t much of a contest really. Cowboys versus Army. I flirted with the cowboy thing but it just didn’t have the sustainable siren call that playing army did. Vietnam was in full-swing and Mangum’s Army-Navy store had military surplus piled to the ceiling and five bucks would load a kid up with gear. There’s something palpably exciting to an elementary school kid who gets to play with authentic stuff. Maybe if you were a kid in Arizona you coulda run up on something authentic to play with cowboy-wise. But not so much in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina so my giddy-up days were few.
And for some reason I equate kids playing cowboy with the 1950’s. Seemed more sustainable back then even though in my house we watched Bonanza and Gunsmoke…the 60’s and early 70’s western genre shows…every damn time they came on. Mainliest reason I now think is because my mama liked those men…James Arness, Michael Landon, Clint Eastwood and Pernell Roberts. My mom even liked Festus.
She and my aunt Kat liked to fainted when James Arness came to town to be the Grand Marshall for the Southern 500 Parade in Darlington. It was before I was born but for all my life, they talked about it like it was yesterday. Clint Eastwood marshalled it one time too. Oh, and we also watched Maverick and The Rifleman and Rawhide reruns. Anybody remember Sugarfoot? And my dad? If he was home he’d be slumped in a Scotch coma within fifteen minutes of one of those shows coming on.
Kids of my generation didn’t seem to have a sustainable affinity for playing cowboys and Indians. The Dennis the Menace show had Dennis in cowboy gear almost all the time and seems like Jerry Mathers in that gay sitcom, Leave it-it’s Beaver, mighta played cowboy sometimes when he wasn’t falling in that hot cup of coffee on the billboard. And when we played army a few kids would always reluctantly be the Krauts or the Yankees. But who the hell ever wanted to be the Indians? Nobody had the gear for it. The inner tube covered drums and the rubber tomahawks we all brought back from the Smoky Mountains usually ended up in the trash in no time. The redundancy of beating on that drum while riding in the back of my mom’s station wagon on the way home from the mountains had me tired of that toy before we got there. And who the hell knows what happened to the tomahawk. I’m mawkish and maudlin as hell now but at seven years old, the idea of me and my buddies putting on a Trail of Tears pageant across the front lawns and driveways of our neighborhood didn’t resonate.
Ian from Downunder…one of my friends and readers loved Chuck Connors and the Rifleman when he was a kid. I wonder if there was something more alluring, more magical about such things when you watched them from Australia. I know that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was an absolute over the top attraction in London during the late 19th century. What with all the savages and rough-trade buckskin types from America doing pyrotechnical and twisty-turny things on horseback. But Australia itself seems a bit wild west-ish in its own right.
So Ian and I were exchanging emails last year and he told me that the only thing he wanted one Christmas was the special rifle that Chuck Connors used in the Rifleman. You know, the short barreled one that had the big 0-ring cocking lever that Connors could with the flick of his wrist, cock and shoot in one motion. Seems that kids in Australia wanted the same loot for Christmas that we did.
And Ian got his Rifleman 0-ringed, short barreled Chuck Connors baby one Christmas morning. But with a freaking white stock on it. What kind of bad Japanese manufacturing joke was that? Can you imagine the gut-punch of Christmas morning excitement gone south when seeing your…the only thing I want for Christmas…one item—a wrist flicking instrument of alpha-male death and destruction…tainted with a molded plastic stock in the same color as your sister’s freakin’ Princess Phone? Damn.
But I had some cowboy stuff. One Christmas I got the entire kit similar to this little poke. Chaps, vest, cowboy hat with the roped-trussed decorative fabric around the edge of the brim like Woody’s from Toy Story. Matching six-shooters too…and a bandana. This was in the late 60’s when synthetic materials were in full force and my vest and chaps were vinyl. Tan vinyl with those silver concha medallion things down the side of the chaps and on the vest. Each concha spinner had a brown fake-suede fringe strip spouting solo from it and I swear that those conchas were stamped from Japanese coffee cans. I know the sheriff’s badge was. They only color plated the fronts of such things.
I’d yet to become a Cub Scout so the cowboy bandana that my mama helped me cinch-up felt more foreign to me than any other part of the rig. And I wasn’t goin’ for no jaunty neck dressing sprezzatura per-damn-say. All I knew is that on TV when the cowboys were parched, they’d take to one knee and with a little bit of water from one of those Indian blanket covered canteens, wet their neckerchief and sooth their parched, momentarily troubled cowboy brows. I say momentarily because most of the shows were thirty-minutes so whatever was troubling them usually resolved quickly.
So I couldn’t possibly walk up the street to my best friend Randy’s house that Christmas morning to see what he got from Santy without my cowboy kit being complete. Neckerchief included. I mean really…what if I got half way through the two block walk and got parched? Even though I didn’t have a canteen, I could stop at Miss Violet’s house and use her spigot to wet my bandana and sooth my troubled cowboy brow. Hell, we drank outta any and everybody’s spigot on the side of their house anytime we were thirsty. And we put our mouths right smack-dab on those cast iron spouts. How else were kids in Florence, South Carolina gonna get their mineral supplements? We didn’t get fluoride in our water till ‘82.
I saw Randy a few years back and he swears his parents have a photo of me at their front door bedecked in my vinyl vest and chaps. Boots, cowboy hat and neckerchief and dual six shooters strapped to my probably elastic waisted at least on the back-half, jeans. I’ve gently nudged him a few times to track the photo down for me but he’s yet to produce.
Even though the full kit cowboy phase was short lived, I got a pair of cowboy boots every fall from Phil Nofal’s fine shoes. Once a year, every year till I was probably twelve or so. And I’ve shared that my ten years younger brother destroyed all of my toys but the highlight of my Christmas this year was the recovery of a pair of my childhood cowboy boots.
I’m not certain that these are the same pair that I’m sporting with my creased Wranglers in that old photo but I’m tickled to death to have them.
We moved into the house I grew up in when I was four and I don’t recall having a say in what kinda light fixture I wanted for my bedroom but I think my mom did ok by picking this one. My mama is the baby of ten kids and I had zillions of older cousins. And the oldest got married when I was still a tyke. Her new husband, Bill was one of my idols and I can remember him explaining to me that the symbols on my light fixture were ranch brands. Cowpokes would brand cattle and even their personal horses with the symbol for their ranch. Cattle rustling and horse stealing were serious offenses he said and you needed to know which animals were yours.
And for some reason when he told me about the R atop the u-shaped cradle…the “Rocking-R”, I took to that one especially. And he got a pencil and in his newly graduated from architecture school architect handwriting, meticulously branded my Johnny West horse with the Rocking-R Ranch brand.
I would lie on my twin beds from time to time and stare at that light fixture from age four till I moved out at eighteen. Sorta like being in the ranch bunkhouse butcept I didn’t have to share it with anyone save for my dad when my mom would lock him out of the bedroom…until age ten when my brother came along and ruined everything. It was unsettling when I was a real little kid and I’d wake up to the sounds of my liquor smelling dad snoring in the other twin bed. I think I was about five years old when one morning his snoring in the bunkhouse woke me up and I looked over and my still dead to the world daddy was on the top of the covers in his boxer shorts…sporting (it runs in the family) gigantic…gigantic to my five year old eyes…morning wood. I’d never seen anything like it. It seemed bigger than my whole body…big enough to have its own Social Security number. It appeared as if a purple, German helmeted alien had overtaken my dad and now periscoped out of his underdrawers. I panicked and ran to my parents’ bedroom door and beat on it till my mom appeared.
“Mom, mom, something’s wrong with dad!” She peeked in the door to the bunkhouse and took one look at it and slinked back to bed without any effort to calm me down or to mitigate what I thought was my dad’s “oh shit he’s gonna die” terminal tumescence. I now know that the reason that he was my roommate three nights a week was the result of my mom’s curfew. If he wasn’t home by the time she went to bed, he knew to head straight to the bunkhouse
The light fixture is still there and I looked up at it from my twin bed this week. All these years later it still looks too new, too sixties-ish to be almost a half-century old. I looked up at it over forty-five years ago when I tested God and prayed that he’d leave under my bed, the Safari gear set with Stanley's…"Dr. Livingstone I presume” pith helmet included…from page 137 in the Sears catalogue. He didn’t. I remember looking up at it, awash in tears that blurred my view as I heard parental footsteps bounding with authority down the hall to tell me to “dry it up or I’ll really give you something to cry about” even though my ass was still stinging from what I thought was plenty of f_cking reason to cry.
The Rocking-R Ranch brand and its cohorts lorded over me the first time I came home high. It was there when I rolled in after kissing a girl for the first time and it supervised me as I saw for the first time in my life, a real-live boob. Two of ‘em actually—attached to my first girl. I got to briefly touch one of them and the only thing that coulda made that moment more surreal would a been if I was high.
I sat below it when Ted Walker, one of my surrogate fathers on loan from around the corner came over to talk with me when my dad died. It was awkward. But different awkward than when I touched first girl’s boob.
The other thing I remembered this week when I looked up at my light fixture was how safe I always felt as a kid not only in the bunkhouse, but in every way. And my dad gets no credit for it. My mom was the female Ben Cartwright archetype. She ran the ranch…our Ponderosa…like clockwork and she protected all the dudes and dudettes who worked there. She purveyed love, structure and discipline situationally; whenever one of those parenting hat tricks called for it. And she was as close to perfect at it as anyone will ever be.
The ranch is full of visitors right now but to me it hasn’t ever seemed emptier. I’ll be back there in a few more days probably and there will be no hurry for me and my sibs to decide what to do with the little Ponderosa…the Rocking-R Ranch that we grew up on. We are all too raw right now…still waiting for the seemingly cruel triumvirate of God, medical technology and heartbroken ranch hands to decide on a final note. But one thing’s for certain regardless of whether my Rocking-R matriarch ever runs the place again, this city slicker is bringing the light fixture from his bunkhouse home.
Onward…In nauseating circles.