Cowboys, Cowgirls, Childhood, Montana

Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys and Cowgirls

The author and his sister Virginia at the family ranch in Montana.

Finding Susie, by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is ostensibly about a young girl’s desire for a pet “to hold, talk to, and take care of.” Little Sandra lives on a working ranch and after several unfortunate choices–including a fearful wild rabbit and a young coyote–she eventually acquires a puppy named Susie. In truth, however, this picture book is less about pets and more about O’Connor’s memories of growing up on a ranch near the border of Arizona and New Mexico. In that way, her old photographs on the book’s flyleafs may be more interesting than the sometimes awkward drawings for the story by illustrator Tom Pohrt.

Finding Susie reminded me of the first picture book I was ever given: Berta and Elmer Hader’s Little Appaloosa, a book I loved because it was a mix of fact and fiction, my life and my wishes. Growing up in Montana an hour away from my grandparents’ cattle ranch in the Bear Paw Mountains, my own circumstances were not so different from those of Little Ben in the book (who had been in the saddle ever since he was a baby and who had Indian friends). On the other hand, alas, I didn’t have an Appaloosa pony named Pal that I rode to school every day.

A mix of fact and fiction is the very hallmark of the Western Story. Buffalo Bill Cody was, for example, an actual frontier hero but later he put together his Wild West Show where he staged re-enactments of battles between cavalry and Indian warriors using some of the actual participants (Sitting Bull, for example) as actors. Annie Oakley, General Custer, Geronimo–these names are so legendary that the characters they refer to may seem unreal. But my mother was friends with Kit Carson’s granddaughter and a friend of mine, a Native American, had a cavalry pistol his grandfather found at Little Big Horn.

Cooper Edens offers this mix of fact and fiction in his terrific new anthology Classic Western Stories. Conspicuous among the seventy or so items Edens collects are dozens of songs. Here are actual cowboy standards that we sang on family car trips (“Git Along Little Dogies,” “I Ride Old Paint,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Buffalo Gals”). Here, too, are tunes that I now realize were composed by Hollywood types for cowboy movies (“Red River Valley,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” and that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’ favorite “Happy Trails”).

Dale Evans and Roy Rogers

Growing up, Roy and Dale were important to me — as was the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and the Cisco Kid and Pancho–because they made my own everyday circumstances seem the stuff television programs were made of; I didn’t realize that the frontier where these actors’ horses galloped was within an hour’s drive of Burbank, California. Edens’ Classic Western Stories suggests how much movies and television contributed to the lore of the West by printing publicity stills of Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry alongside Edward S. Curtis’ historic photographs of Native Americans and paintings by genuine Western artists like Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell (a friend, incidentally, of my Montana grandfather).

Nowadays, of course, kids are more likely to associate the word “Montana” with Disney’s celebrity darling Hannah than with cattle ranches and round-ups. So, we might wonder:

Will all this Western lore remain in the distant Lands of History and Nostalgia or will figures like the Cowboy and Cowgirl re-emerge some day and regain among youngsters the importance and popularity they once had in my childhood?

My hope is that with pirates making a comeback, cowpokes can’t be far behind. All it really takes is a few parents ready to provide a stick horse, a cowboy hat, and stories like these.

Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (September 2009). For a discussion of “Little Appaloosa” and Berta and Elmer Hader, click here. And in another place, I mention a new book about Charlie Russell.

Of course, another part of Western history is the Native American. When I was twelve, my parents took me to the Grass Dance in Northern Montana. It was a time before tourists came to these ceremonials. My mom introduced me to the chief, Windy Boy. He was friends with my grandfather and they had worked together on the family homestead. Now, some fifty years later, I met his great grandson, Wesley Windy Boy, at the 2011 Cabazon Pow Wow where he was the singing judge. I introduced him to my grandson, Itzak. Comes full circle.

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23. August 2016 by
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