[This Commentary originally appeared in the May 24, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
The scrawny, recently-graduated Ivy Leaguer found life full of joy and happiness. With the magic of oratory, he astounded his elders who eagerly nominated and elected the young man as their state representative. Of course, he didn’t let this go to his head – he knew those in authority chose him in part because no one else wanted the thankless job. Still, he felt the position gave him the opportunity to show his true worth.
Then, at the tender age of 26, life as he knew it collapsed. The realities of the adult world consumed him. He lost his whiz kid innocence. Things seemed more difficult than they had been. He could no longer afford to think on his feet. Finally, with his life at a nadir, his young wife died.
Crushed an alone, Theodore Roosevelt left the New York Assembly and headed for the Badlands of North Dakota. The surrealistic landscape of the eroded prairie suited his disposition. He intended to lose himself among the bison, bighorn and antelope. He also aimed to start a ranch in this forsaken territory.
With him in this sparsely settled wasteland lived the experienced cowboys. They did not take an immediate liking to the foppish Harvard man. They saw him as just another Easterner with a lot of hope, no know-how and no stomach.
Yet Roosevelt’s spunk eventually won their pity, if not their respect. The cowboys quickly adopted this big city fellow as an honorary member of their esteemed society of chivalry, hard work and rugged individualism. What they taught Theodore Roosevelt would change his outlook and demeanor. For a man raised in the opulence of New York City aristocracy, the brutal honesty of manual labor proved quite enlightening.
Roosevelt never forgot the lessons of the prairie. Though he spent only two years of his life on that barren tundra of North Dakota and quickly re-entered the sophisticated world of Oyster Bay and national politics, he realized the cowboys would always be a part of his soul. To give thanks for their shared knowledge, President Roosevelt regularly invited his cowboy friends to the White House, to the dismay of the more established crowd of Washington, D.C.
Cowboys embody the American Spirit. They have come to symbolize that which remains unique to our shared continent. Wearing flannel shirts, faded dungarees and chaps, these isolated men roamed the wild west. They traveled light, often carrying their entire earthly possessions in their saddlebags and on their gun belt. Ever ready to take action – good or bad – they tamed a rugged land for the permanent settlers to come.
Our nation soon civilized the western frontier. Then, like his brother the knight-errant centuries before, the need for the cowboy vanished. The speed of the telegraph supplanted the Pony Express. The certainty – and safety – of steam locomotives replaced the stagecoach. Civil law superseded lynch law. The industrial age overcame the agrarian world of the farmers and ranchers. Finally, even the trusty horse fell victim to the automobile.
I wonder what it felt like to be a cowboy in the early decades of this century. No doubt one’s contemporaries would view you with the same disdain as those of Don Quixote. In an assembly line nation, individualism became an annoyance. Except for the industrialists, the creativity of solitary acts generally led to trouble. America had transformed itself from the land of self-sufficient explorers into a community of workers. The intellectual discoveries of the lone wolf had no place in the newly national economy – unless those inventions increased productivity.
If one believes Tom Wolfe (or any of John Wayne’s movies), the post World War II test pilots have shown us the cowboy spirit never left America. Though dormant for two generations, that chisel-chinned look resurfaced on the high desert of California. A silent creed of chivalry and honor bonded these men as they rode their aluminum horses through the sky and through the sound barrier.
It’s hard to find those kinds of trail blazers today. For one thing, it takes time for the deeds of the truly honorable person to surface. We cannot expect the genuine champions of our times to be revealed for another generation or so. Yet, we can rest assured men and women of honor do exist among us. At the very least, each of us have people we personally salute.
* * * * *
I saw an old friend the other day in Midtown Mall. He had played fullback on my old flag football team, the Bandits. Seeing him brought back many pleasant memories. About six years ago, still fresh from the university, I joined the Bandits. The men on that team had a lot of experience, a lot of guts and a lot of honor. Though I grew up with them, the men hardly knew me. They saw me as the naïve college boy I was, and I’m sure they probably wondered why I even bothered showing up at practice for what would be a rugged sport.
I never played much – back-up quarterbacks never do – but I regularly volunteered to play lineman during practice. With every year, I felt more a part of the team. After my fourth year, the coach, a man who I have great respect for, returned that honor by asking me to join his coaching staff. I only hope, in my efforts as offensive coordinator, I faithfully practiced what I learned from these fine men.
Oh, by the way, the team didn’t always call itself the Bandits. It’s original name? The Cowboys.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]