Previously Published in the February Edition of the Caldwell Perspective.
I slid the derringer up my sleeve and patted my breast pocket. The miniature deck of playing cards was inconspicuous. I brushed the wrinkles off of my polyester shirt, smoothed my hair back one more time, and gave myself an approving nod in the mirror. It was Sunday, and I was going to church dressed as an Old West gambler. I was eight years old. This childhood obsession with Westerns was not out of rebellion, nor was it in any way an idea of my own. Since my birth, my parents had manipulated my every taste in music, books, and television so that I would find tales of the American West attractive. Before I could even read on my own, my mother was reading Louis L’Amour to me and my brothers, and before I turned seven years old, I watched John Wayne toss his reins between his teeth, and race towards Robert Duvall with a six-shooter in one hand, and a rifle in the other, calling him a “Son of a–”. This moment was always muted for our little ears, and it wasn’t until I hit puberty that I found out the end of that phrase.
No, I didn’t choose to become infatuated with the Wild West. I was trained for it. My brothers had a rodeo-themed birthday party. For Christmas, we got a set of rodeo rider action figures. We listened to cassette tapes of Baxter Black in the van, and to this very day my brother can recite verbatim “A Vegetarian’s Nightmare.” We made meals from a “Cowboy cookbook.” We had bouncy horses, and when we got older, stick ponies to ride around our backyard—catching stray cattle, and keeping them imaginary heifers away from imaginary harm’s way. When it came to basketball, we rooted for the San Antonio Spurs. If, dear reader, you are finding a common thread, raise your hand. By the time I came into this world, my manifest destiny had already been chosen. I was going to love all things cowboy, and my parents were going to make darn sure the boot did, in fact, fit.
Because I was homeschooled and rarely hung out with kids who weren’t, my family’s obsession didn’t strike any of my pardners as odd. In fact, all homeschoolers are big fans of the Western genre. The girls read “Little House on the Prairie” and the boys read “Hank the Cowdog.” Show me a homeschooler who has never seen a Roy Rogers film, and I will seriously question their parent’s capability. While some may strive to instill in their children a love of classical music, or a dedication to the study of science, my parents made sure I knew the difference between John Wayne and John Wesley Hardin. Parents often want their children to be doctors, and lawyers, and such. But not my parents. They wanted us to be sons of the pioneers. But I never understood why. That is until my family went on a vacation to Cody, Wyoming.
My family and I had never been on a vacation before. Oh sure, we had made day trips to Silver City, and we had done the annual three-day camping trip, but never a vacation. So you can imagine our shock, and excitement when my brothers and I were told that we were headed to the Disneyland for Western fans: Cody, Wyoming! We gleefully loaded up our fifth-wheel trailer with as much food as it would carry, my father borrowed a portable DVD player and a ten-inch black and white television set to make our trip more enjoyable, and we headed out west! Well…East to Wyoming. As the landscape began to change from thick, mountainous forest green, into the great plains, my brothers and I watched episodes of “Stories of the Century” an old TV show about two railroad detectives who tracked down the most ruthless outlaws the West had ever seen. By the time we stepped out of the truck into the streets of Cody, Wyoming, we were saddle sore!
Named after Buffalo Bill himself, my brother Cody was the ultimate suburban cowboy. He immediately wanted to go through all the museums and read. Every. Single. Sign. My brother Michael on the other hand was the only one in the family who didn’t fully embrace the code of the West. Unlike the rest of us, he did not wish he was born in the 1800s. In fact, he wished he was born in the year 2050! Obsessed with all things technology, Michael’s favorite western became Cowboys & Aliens. But even this tech-savvy brother found himself forgetting computers even existed when he saw his first herd of wild American Bison roaming the Great Plains. He cheered just as loud as the rest of us when we watched a live performance on the streets of Cody, complete with actors and real working guns filled with blanks!
The town was close enough that my mother’s parents came to visit. It was here, seeing my grandparents in their element that I began to realize the true reason my parents loved this genre. My mother immersed us in the Western Fandom not just because she grew up on Johnny Cash and John Wayne. After listening to the stories from my Grandpa about his adventures raising sheep and cattle, how much he loved horses, and how my uncles had ridden in the rodeos, it dawned on me: my Grandpa was a cowboy. A living, breathing, relic from the Old West. He could rope and ride. He wore boots, a cowboy hat, and a bolo tie. The cuss words that my mother muted on the television, would fly out of his mouth when he forgot we were within earshot. He carried a small Gideon’s Bible in his breast pocket where a pack of cigarettes used to be. He was rough on the outside, and tender on the inside. Full of the wisdom of uncomplicated men. His eyes held a twinkle brighter than Santa Claus himself.
My mother didn’t listen to Willie or Waylon. She instilled in all of us a love of the West not because it was escapism from our suburban lives. But because she wanted us to see a different side of our family tree. She wanted us to become cowboys just like her father. This was her way of showing us a side of our heritage that we rarely got to see. My Grandpa stood six foot tall, weighed over two hundred pounds, and had big sausage fingers. Here in Cody, Wyoming, my brothers and I didn’t just get to see animatronic cowboys in museums or hear stories of a breed of men who had ridden off into the sunset. For those days with family, we got to see something else: Grandpa in his natural habitat. While I didn’t get to see it on this trip, I later saw my Grandpa deliver a sermon in a Cowboy Church one Sunday. He brought the same wit and wisdom to his sermons that he did in everyday conversation. He was a man of great character. Kim Darby may have even called him a man of “True Grit.”
As I walked into my church that Sunday, dressed as a gambler, I felt proud. And a little sneaky. I pocketed the cap-gun derringer that I had bought in Wyoming, showed my friends the deck of playing cards, and never told a soul that I was pretending to be the great Bret Maverick: gentleman gambler. Apart from the covert piece of self-defensery up my sleeve, and the Baptist cardinal sin of bringing a deck of cards into a house of worship, I looked like every other well-dressed kid. But in my king of hearts, I knew that when I got home, my bunkbed would become a riverboat or a dimly lit saloon where a deadly game of cards was being played. I would set myself down, and ante up. Because life was a game to be won, and I knew I had an ace up my sleeve—I came from a long line of cowboys. My Grandpa’s legacy of his gentlemanly character was what my mother always wanted to brand into our hearts. Why she loved stories of men standing up for justice when no one else would. Of men protecting innocent women and children, and riding off into the sunset. We, in our three-bedroom suburb house, were cowboys.