I never in my life said I grew up anywhere but on a farm, but I have to admit I often wished it had been a ranch.
Lyman County, at least where I lived between Reliance and Medicine Butte, was farm country. People raised cattle, sure, but when I grew up they also raised wheat and oats and barley and milo and corn. Those crops took a lot of tending throughout the growing season, and when you’re riding a tractor or a windrower or a combine instead of a saddle horse, you’re a farmer.
You might say our spread was situated just to the east side of the line between East River farming and West River ranching. A guy didn’t have to travel much more than an hour west in a no-muffler pickup to reach ranch country, where (it seemed to me, anyway) people spent more of their time on horseback than in a grain truck. So, sure, I knew I was a farmer. But, man, did I ever want to be a rancher for a few of my teen years. Truth be told, I wanted to be a cowboy.
I’d been fascinated with cowboys from the early days, back when we’d walk from catechism class at St. James Church on Saturday afternoon down to the State Theater for the matinee. Those were the days when a quarter at the matinee covered the price of admission plus popcorn. Those also were the days of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, courteous cowboys who wore fancy outfits and never shot first.
About the time I entered sixth grade, the family purchased its first television set and grainy images of cowboys came right into our living room. A show called “Trackdown’’ premiered, featuring a Texas Ranger who chased cattle thieves and bank robbers and gunfighters from one end of the Lone Star state to the other. Robert Culp starred as Hoby Gilman, the ranger. Anyone old enough to have seen even one episode of “Trackdown’’ knows that Culp was the first of the truly cool cowboys on television. He had a loose-jointed swagger that kept his gun hand within easy reach of the six-shooter in his holster. I don’t know if any other television or big-screen cowboy ever walked as cool as Hoby Gilman.
The series lasted only a couple of seasons, but that was enough time for me to buy a Bailey U-Roll-It western hat, fashion a black vest from a cut-down old corduroy shirt and try to walk like Hoby Gilman everywhere I went for a couple of summers. I had to have looked like a fool, but nobody ever came up and asked, “You got a hitch in your git-along there, son?’’
After “Trackdown,’’ Culp took a starting role in a show called “I Spy.’’ He was kind of a crime-solving tennis bum who partnered with a young, semi-serious Bill Cosby. There being not a single tennis court in all of Lyman County at the time (to my knowledge) I didn’t try to mimic Culp’s character, although I did enjoy the program.
Another show featuring a cool cowboy came on the air a year or so after “Trackdown.’’ “Wanted Dead or Alive’’ starred Steve McQueen as the bounty hunter Josh Randall. In my mind, he wasn’t quite as cool as Hoby Gilman, but he did have a way about him, especially with that cut-down Winchester rifle he called a mare’s leg.
Good things come in threes. I was midway through ninth grade when “Rawhide’’ first aired. The show, about cowboys on a cattle drive, starred an actor named Eric Fleming as trail boss Gil Favor. He was cool, but not nearly as cool as the Clint Eastwood character, Rowdy Yates. He played a sharp-shooting, tough-fisted cowboy with a good heart that got him into a jam about once every episode.
I’ve always been sort of a romantic. How could I watch Hoby Gilman and Josh Randall and Rowdy Yates and not want to be a cowboy?
At some point in high school, though, I realized I really, really disliked cows. I still wore the hat, but I ditched the vest — and the goofy walk.