In a world of Avengers and Iron Men, it is hard to believe that cowboys still matter. When you can be a superman, leaping tall buildings, fighting off extra-terrestrial ogres, what on earth is cowboy anyway? Boots and jeans, a rope and a saddle, a horse and a hat, all seem pretty tame, so to speak.
For most of us they are myth and metaphor at best, faint echoes of a distant past that seems far removed from the imaginative forays of the 21-st century. How many films are there in the theaters this week that are apocalyptic thrillers of the end of history? How many times will the White House blow up!? Even “The Lone Ranger” has been redone, attending to the creative requirements of young audiences. I have to confess that I never thought of the original as any other than “real,” the way the world really was—at least sort of. But now I know: smirk and snark are more true—if we only all really knew.
Last week I thought of all this again when a good man, my daughter-in-law Becca’s grandfather, was visiting from St. Louis. With his wife, they are the best of people. It is a truism, with far-reaching implications that mostly we do not understand when we become love-struck, i.e. we actually marry families, not sweethearts. Like it or not, when we choose to say, “I love you,” we are also saying, “I will take your family into my heart too, loving them as I love you.” When our son Elliott began loving Becca, it was a great grace for me to meet her grandparents, and to find them to be the most wonderful people.
Over the last few decades they have lived along the Mississippi River, because that is where the Ralston-Purina Company was headquartered. But that they moved there had a lot to do with cowboys and their cows. For a long time Mr. Palmer was a cattle buyer of a large scale, mostly in the Colorado/New Mexico region. He has tales to tell of finding his way up into the canyons of Colorado to see herds, buy them and ship them out with semi-trucks making their way along almost impassable old trails– and I could listen to them forever. In the years that he was finding his way into the cattle business, my grandfather was coming to the end of his 50 years of doing the same, buying and selling cattle all over Colorado.
Mr. Palmer and I found that we had something in common, beyond our children and grandchildren, and that was a love for the West– for the honest-to-goodness West, with its long history of cows and cowboys, of ranches and ranchers. If my elementary school teachers could still tell about my artwork from those years, they would say that every time I was asked to draw or paint, I chose a barn and a corral, cows and horses, and cowboys. That was my world, and it was the world I wanted to live in.
The Palmers brought me a book, one that has been in their home for a long time. Bigger than a coffee table, Texas-sized to be sure, it is “The Last of the Breed,” a beautiful collection of photos of the cowboys and cows of the West. Focused on one place, the panhandle of Texas/ northeastern New Mexico/ southwestern Oklahoma, it was a gift to him from the Texas Cattle-Feeders Association in 1988, for his good service to them as the man in charge of Ralston-Purina for the middle part of America, making sure that ranchers had the feed they needed for their herds, home on the range as they were.
I wonder what my grandson Gil Garber will grow up into? And what stories will be his? At four months it is hard to know much, but it is hard to imagine that he will avoid techno-superstars, though I admit that makes me groan. If I had my druthers he would find his way into the tales of his great-great Grandfather Gilchrist (which is his name) and his great-Grandfather Palmer. Their lives and the world they lived in still seem a worthier one, a more honest one, a more important one, yes, even and especially, a more real one.