Waylon Jennings warned us first:

“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys, don’t let them pick guitar and drive them ol’ trucks, let them be doctors and lawyers and such.” His message came with a vivid description of that great American institution, the cowboy.”

I heard his song the other day on the radio and started wondering what it was about the American cowboy that stirs the hearts of young girls and old ladies alike, strikes fear in the international community, and is imitated all over the world and in every karaoke bar in Japan. As my cowboy partner and husband Bill commented, “Wow, that’s a complex subject. You better give it some thought.” He was right. Let’s break it down to chewable bites, (and no spitting chaw in the house).

Cowboys as heartthrobs: Now I am not talking about the Midnight Cowboy of polyester fame in the 1970s, a disco-dancing kind of guy. I am speaking of real cowboys with Western cut shirts, dusty Levis and boots that have occasionally stepped in… well… you know. They sweat and they spit. They can ride horses, drive trucks with a rig, hunt, fish and are willing to step up to protect their women, their mama and their favorite dog with equal enthusiasm. Hard work is part of each day whether they own a ranch, farm or 12-feet of mean crab grass. They are respected by their friends, feared by their enemies and faithful to the ideals of family (even while their hands stray dancing with a good friend’s wife). Cowboys ain’t afraid of kids. They just rope ‘em, brand ‘em and turn ‘em out with the herd.

Cowboys can turn up all kind of places. Take for example the day I stood in line at the bank and made conversation with a tall, skinny cowboy who said he was new in town and did I know of any good watering holes. When I informed him of several, he kindly asked if I’d like to join him. After graciously turning him down and showing him my wedding ring, he remarked with a grin, “Is he a big guy?” Casually mentioning Bill could bench press 325 pounds, we ended our brief exchange. Next, he tried the same line on the bank clerk. I got to tell Bill, who laughed and said, “You have to love them for cowboy persistence.” Sigh! That was a few years back.

So much for the heart. How about image in the world? Picture the French beret, the Greek fez, the American Stetson—who do you pick to protect you? This has become the universal symbol of everything good in America. What comes to my mind is cowboy values: independent action, helping neighbors in need, voting their hearts and spiritual closeness to the land and God. The cowboy always tips his hat to the ladies before settling a score with a bully. You notice who the world calls on when there are bullies; ask Europeans about WWI and WWII.

Even growing up in Iowa, we had cowboys and rodeos. We gave our sons the opportunity to see the “Cowboy Way.” Our sons, Will and Tom, went to Moriarty High School when we moved here 35 years ago. They made friends with sons of cowboys who got up before sunrise and fed animals before they ate breakfast. They learned the term cowboy was not just for boys, but for girls as well. The Future Farmers of America, now simply FFA, and 4-H programs were the best examples of how young minds are shaped forever with cowboy principles of hard work, fair play, and teamwork that last a lifetime.

My go-to person when discussing this topic is Rita Loy Simmons. Our former town councilwoman has run ranches, worn the hat and knows, the “Way.” Summing it up, Rita Loy said, “Rural is not a place but an ideal.” Cowgirl up, with Rita Loy! Roaring Mouse, singing yippee kay-eyh… and out.

Jo White
Jo White

From 1966 to 1971, Jo attended the University of New Mexico and Memphis State University, earning degrees in Communications, English, Journalism, Speech and Drama with history minors. At UNM, her hero was Tony Hillerman. She taught high school and middle school in city, country, and private schools for 30 years. Roaring Mouse is in its 25 th year. She can be reached at jomouse@aol.com