3: My Cowboy Name

7 12 2012

For a time as a child I went by Bart, which is short for Bartholomew, my middle name. The time I went by that name was short, too. 

I was a student of television cowboys, having become one even prior to the start of my public schooling. You’ve heard it before. Those were the thrilling black-and-white days of yesteryear, when household televisions had a selection of three or four, maybe five stations.  We accessed the stations by physically approaching the set and manually turning a heavy, clicking knob.  That after turning the set on and waiting a minute or two for the vacuum tubes to warm up. 

As for the thrilling days of yesteryear depicted in the television westerns, one was not supposed to notice that the programs usually lacked historical authenticity, that the westerns were more mythic than realistic.  It was sit down – usually with everyone else in the family watching the one set in the household – enjoy the show, and be glad that all did not have to go to a theater and pay to see it. 

Many TV cowboys existed back then…. 

Something may need to be noted before I continue. Here in the United States, we have a well-known and often debated right to privacy. Less well known is the right to celebrity. People who have become so famous or infamous that they can earn money because of their celebrity status have a legal right to do so without infringement. They and their officially-designated heirs or trustees can enjoy something similar to copyright and trademark protection so that they can continue to earn as much money from their status as possible, and so that others cannot do so in any way, shape, or form without a selected celebrity’s permission. 

Discerning the difference between infringement and fair use these days usually requires the services of an entire law firm, so I’ll avoid mentioning the names of actors or their fictional characters. 

As I said, many TV cowboys existed back then.  The list can start with the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Wild Bill Hickok.  These people, who really did exist in history, didn’t give permission for their names and likenesses to be employed in profit-making enterprises because they had died long before. 

The starting list can also include one female figure from history: Annie Oakley.  I didn’t watch the show unless I was sick and couldn’t do anything else. 

Cowboys.  Now that I think about it, relatively few of the guys who starred in TV westerns actually worked cattle. There was the father and three sons who ran a huge ranch on the shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada, though they were rich enough not to have to do much of the dusty work. There was the father of the one son who had a smaller spread in New Mexico; he was the guy who used a custom-made rifle and not a pistol. There was the outfit that went by a title derived from the name for untanned bovine leather. 

Many of the other TV cowboys were lawmen.  One was a bounty hunter.  Another wanted to be a lawyer.  Still others were drifters who did odd-jobs. 

I thought that the name Bart had a cowboy sound.  It helped when a character appeared who was named after a stray and unbranded calf or colt.  He wore the hat and the six-gun of a TV cowboy, but he was more of a roustabout who gambled his way into making a living, just like his brother and his cousin.  

Of all the TV cowboys, however, I preferred those less prodigal, those characterized by more probity.  

I liked the man in black who liked chess, and especially the piece called a knight.  Never mind that he was homely.  That nifty outfit more than made up for it.  And he was really smart. 

The ex-Confederate soldier was a loner with something of an attitude, but he also had a certain independent integrity about him. 

The big guy whose character was named after a famous tribe of Great Plains Indians? Now there was a real man.  As a friend of mine would say, “He’s a moose,” and he didn’t mean the famous, funny cartoon character that appeared a bit later.  Reportedly, the actor was as chivalrous off-screen as his on-screen character.  I liked his hair, which he wore rather long.  He kept it combed, of course.  Somehow, TV cowboys typically didn’t have to worry about their hats messing up their hair. This guy’s hair was long enough, though, that it couldn’t be kept from falling out of style if his hat was off and he was in a wind or in some kind of strenuous activity. 

I liked long hair and sideburns because of TV cowboys. My mother did not. “Too coarse and crude,” she would say.  “Not clean-cut enough.”  She liked crew cuts, a style that reminded me of a brush for currying horses.  My father didn’t wear his hair in a crew cut, and I was glad.  It wasn’t long, and it wasn’t short.  It was just there, blond and wavy. 

Wild Bill Hickok, in my mind, really had the look, though.  He wore a fringed leather shirt and a white hat.  (At least it looked white on black-and-white TV.)  He rode a distinctive horse having a spotted rear end called an appaloosa.  And, for some reason that evaded me at the time, he holstered his two shiny six-guns backwards. 

I had a shiny six-gun made by one of the most famous toymakers of the time.  It looked very much like the Colt Peacemaker M1873 revolver of the Old West.  And it wasn’t a cheap, easy-to-break, throw-away thing, either.  It was metal: stainless steel and chrome.  Of course, Samuel Colt didn’t have stainless steel for use back in the 19th century.  The toymaker mimicked the look of nickel plate.  The pistol grip was pretty good plastic made to look like stag horn. And the gun fired exactly six shots, not the fake fifty shots contained on the standard roll of caps.  The toymaker provided brass cartridges containing tiny springs, and into those one could press lead-gray plastic bullets.  On the butt ends would go single caps manufactured with adhesive backings. 

The gun did actually shoot.  The bullets weren’t lethal, of course, but that didn’t keep my father from saying, “Check your gun at the door there, pardner.”  That was anytime I entered the house or the woodshop. 

My grandfather and grandmother – my mother’s parents – had given me the pistol, complete with leather belt and holster, plastic hunting knife, and cardboard bad guy, as a birthday present.  My mother approved.  She figured, “Boys will be boys.” She also figured that boys must become men, and men should be chivalrous, valiant, and puissant.  My mother taught me that last word and saw to it that I understood the definitions of all three, especially with so many Communists loose in the world. 

My father was a man.  He served with the United States Marine Corps in the Pacific theater during the Second World War.  He approved of chivalry, too, but he had come to take seriously “Blessed are the peacemakers….”  Pistols and missiles might force the peace; they might enforce the peace.  But they do not really make peace.  The various other aspects of chivalry, as Bernard of Clairvaux might explain it, are necessary. 

I liked my revolver.  I liked TV cowboys.  I thought it would be manly for me to go by my name of Bart.  But as I said, not for long. 

One year, at the start of my 4th grade, the teacher began school by taking the roll.  She asked, in the process of going through the list of formal names, whether we had any personal preferences.  William or Bill?  Cynthia or Cindy?  John or Jack?  Cassandra or Sandy?   I said Bart. 

The other kids hadn’t heard me go by that name before, not in 1st grade, not in 2nd, and not in 3rd.  And just a few weeks into the school year, the lack of chivalrous behavior on the part of certain pupils put an end to that.  Children can be uncannily cruel and creative at the same time.  They mutated Bart into Brat in a hurry.  Then, they married Bart to the rhyming word for flatulence, and that was enough. 

Too much, actually.  Children can be stubbornly steadfast in their cruelty.  I dropped the name, but that didn’t matter. They kept on.  Before September was out, I had punched my way out of the public schools of Port Edwards and into a parochial school.  

“Never mind that it’s a Lutheran school,” my father said to my mother, who was Baptist.  “Never mind the cost,” he said to himself, referring to the addition of tuition and fees to the burden of supporting the public schools through his property taxes.  “The cost of his fighting his way through the next nine years for nothing but pride is too much. Fighting for pride is the genesis of murder.” He referred to Cain killing his brother Abel. 

Cowboys fought a lot.  At least, the ones on TV did.  That was the manly thing to do.  My father told me, however, that I lived neither in the television set nor in the so-called Wild West. 

woodcraft 7




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