Those were the Days: Cowboy-In’ 1953


Texas is a beautiful state. It is diverse in scenery and culture, but it is best known around the world as the home of the cowboy. Anyone growing up in Texas (called Native Texans) also has a little cowboy in him. I mean wearing boots, jeans, and the big belt buckle. Then there’s riding a horse with spurs. And most importantly, the hat…a big cowboy hat that only you can pick out! After all, what’s a cowboy without his hat?

Once, in the dead of winter, I got a taste of what a real cowboy does…well, sort of. My ol’ buddy, E Jay McIlvain, had this chore and asked me to give him a helping hand. Now E Jay lived eight miles outside of town in the tiny community of Kingsmill. It was so small that he was declared the mayor of Kingsmill while still in high school. The total population of 50, plus the chickens, cows, and horses, needed a representative for their fine community. E Jay’s family had a couple of horses, a few chickens, and a pig. The chore he had to do was to repair a barbwire fence that kept the horses inside their pasture. It seems they had gotten out a few times and gone next door to eat the neighbors’ hay bales. This practice was not well appreciated amongst most farmers. So, E Jay had this chore to do and had enlisted me to help him. I did not know the first thing about setting fence posts and stringing barbwire, but I figured it couldn’t be all that hard….and I also rationalized that if there were horses and with a fence to mend, I would get to be a “real cowboy” for the day.

I always emphatically believed in looking the part, too. Ever since I was old enough to play outside, I always believed in wearing the garb, whether it was Captain Marvel shouting “Cha-z-a m”, Tarzan (“A-aaa-aaa”), or being a cowboy like my hero, Roy Rogers! So with E Jay’s invitation at hand, I got to be a “real cowboy,” and I was goin’ dress appropriately…on goes the jeans, boots, buckle, and hat. I looked pretty cool.

Since the first grade, E Jay and I had been through “thick and thin,” and it was not a problem for me to help him with this little chore. I mean, what’s so difficult about building a fence? Did I mention this was in the dead of winter? Did I tell you there was snow on the ground and freezing temperatures? But, hey, we cowboys are tough! Also, E Jay and I had an excellent ol’ Texas Barbeque to go to at 5:00 pm.

That Saturday morning, I arrived at his house nice and early after slipping and sliding all over the road in my ’38 black Ford coupe (which had no heater). E Jay had already loaded the wire, cedar posts, nails, and a posthole digger into his ’48 Chevy pickup. We were both dressed warmly in our long johns and cowboy clothes. After driving a short distance to our destination (about 100 yards), we set about digging the new postholes. Oh boy, we had ourselves a problem right off the bat… the ground was frozen. This presented us with a dilemma ‘cause the posthole digger wouldn’t dig. So, we ended up using a pick and sharpshooter (special shovel). Thank goodness we only had eight holes to dig. We accomplished that by noon, and Mrs. McIlvain had us an excellent hot lunch waiting back at the house.

Two tired, cold cowboys with blistered hands were happy to step into that warm, good-smelling kitchen. We dragged lunch out as long as we could, but the time came for the inevitable setting of the posts. So back to the fence section we went. We set the posts, stretched the wire, nailed it to the posts, and “presto,” all was done by 4:00 pm. But, you say, how did you set the posts since the ground was frozen??? I am glad you asked. We took an old wooden crate that we found in the barn and used it to block out the wind; then, we took the old fence posts to use as firewood; and built a fire over each posthole, thus thawing the ground and making it possible to pack the dirt around the new posts…. But, hey, all of us cowboys ain’t dumb!

Looking at our Timex watches, we had one hour to burn before leaving for the barbeque, so I suggested to E Jay, “Hey, let’s go horseback riding.” Two horses were up by the barn, and we had just driven the pickup there to clean out the back of it. E Jay said okay and gave me his funny-looking grin. Then, he pointed to the saddles and told me to take one while he grabbed the other, along with the blankets, etc. I didn’t know the first thing about saddling a horse, so I watched as E Jay placed the bridle, blanket, and saddle on “Jenny.” He then put the bridle on “Samson” and said he would hold him while I tried my hand at “doing” the saddle. He didn’t tell me that “Samson” was the most ornery-biting-mean-sorry horse in all of Gray County (which I was about to find out). I had the blanket on ol’ Samson and then threw the saddle over his back, bending over to reach for the cinch belt when, “chomp”… Samson took a-hold of my left butt cheek, causing me to holler and, upon straightening up, drove my head into the belly of that no good fleabag of a horse. Well, old Samson let out a ninny and sprang about two feet straight up in the air. At that point in my life, I was hoping he would break his leg, and we would get to shoot him right there on the spot!

Old E Jay is propped up against a post laughing his head off, and now I know why he had that funny grin on his face…His only comment was, “Never show your backside to a horse!”…Now he tells me! Well, I finished putting the saddle on, and we headed down the snow-covered road in a trot. I then noticed my saddle was beginning to lean to the side. After about thirty yards, I was sitting caddy-wampus on old Samson, and with every step, it was sliding more and more, and oops, I’m lying in the snow on my back, which actually felt pretty good, especially on my left cheek! Now E Jay is laughing again and tells me another trick old Samson just pulled on me. It seems that a horse will suck in his breath, making his belly bigger, so when you strap on a saddle, it appears tight, but when he exhales … wah-lah. So, after tightening the saddle, we finished our ride and, after removing the horses’ gear, made a mad dash for the house.

We thawed out and freshened up by applying some “Old Spice” aftershave, and it’s off to town we go. At this point, I was following E Jay in my auto. Since my car didn’t have a heater, we thought it best to use his pickup, so we left the ‘38 Ford parked at the local drive-in, Caldwell’s. I joined E Jay, and it was off to the barbeque, where there would be abundant food and lots of pretty girls.

The barbecue was held at the rodeo grounds on the opposite side of town. As we made our way through the frozen streets of Pampa, I told E Jay about my Granddad King (on my mother’s side) being a cowboy with horses, and I remembered how he liked to chew Bull Durham. He could hit a chicken upside the head at twenty feet…Pa-tu-ie…right on the bull’s-eye (or chicken head). Those chickens kept their distance around my granddad.” We then decided it was time for us to experience the delight of chewing tobacco, as most cowboys did, so we stopped at Wilson’s Drug Store on South Cuyler, hoping no one would recognize us. We meandered into the store, looking around to see if we knew anyone, and saw no one. So we went to the counter where the boxes of cigars and chewing tobacco were and ended up buying two Roytan cigars for five cents each and a pouch of Beechnut Chewing Tobacco for a quarter. We hustled back to the pickup, lit up our Roytans, and popped a chew into our mouths.

The two of us headed south on Cuyler Street. It was now snowing steadily, and the wind was blowing pretty hard, as it always does in that panhandle town. In short, it is COLD outside, the heater was on full blast in the truck, and we had the windows rolled up tight to keep in the heat. We decided to finish off our cigars before we headed out to the barbecue. That took some heavy puffing. So here we sat, riding along with puffing and rotating our chewing tobacco from one side of our cheek to the other. The pickup cab gradually filled with smoke, and we two “greenhorns” (that’s cowboy lingo) were turning pea green!!!

I vividly remember we were right in front of Baker Elementary School when I looked over at E Jay through the haze of smoke, and he looked terrible. At that point, I hollered, “STOP!” as I fumbled for the door handle. I didn’t quite make it out of the pickup! Right there on E Jay’s floorboard, the deed was done. I mean, I turned my stomach wrong-side-out. That was all it took for E Jay to join me. At least he did get his door open and rolled out on his hands and knees. In eighteen years of my life, I had never felt so sick. E Jay felt so bad he didn’t even holler at me for messing things up…. he simply drove to the “filling station” on Brown Street, and we used their hose to wash the floorboard off. We also bought a coke to try and settle our stomachs.

Well, it was back to Wilson’s Drug Store, this time to buy a small bottle of Skinbracer Aftershave, which we used on the floorboard. So, a little more on us, and then it was off to the FFA barbeque.

We were 30 minutes late by this time, but shoot, we were just happy to be there. The food was delicious, and we enjoyed it, but we noticed that not many people would sit close to us!

What a day. I got to act out my dream of being a cowboy; I even got to ride a horse. As far as taking up the fine art of smoking cigars and chewing tobacco…. well, I’ll just let some other cowboys do that. At least we didn’t try any “red-eye,” but that’s another story!


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