The Magic Spring—The
Realization—Who among Us Can Forget the Disparaging Remarks?—A Willful
New Path to a Bright New Destiny—Kinder, Gentler Cowboys—Burning Their
Agricultural Draft Deferments—Lonely Cowboys—A Bull Cowgirl—A Crate Of
Horseshoes—Feelings of Sexual Inadequacy—The Literate Rejoinder—A Shout
of Judgment—The Amnesia of Our New Times
It was late in the spring of 1973 and the cowboys were
about to lose their hats. The evidence was everywhere—evidence that
seemed so very plain and obvious to me as I breathed the thick,
intoxicating air of the approaching magic summer. The change was
coming. You couldn't miss it if you tried, and it was very fine to know
that it was finally—finally happening! In my enthusiasm, I spoke of it
excitedly to my friends and neighbors. I said, "Look, everyone—look!
The cowboys are losing their hats!"
But no one took notice. They did
not believe that such a thing could be, and it is only now that history
has born out the truth of my words that the doubters must admit that it
happened exactly as I said it would. And who today could deny it?
I watched it start slowly when
first the cowboys' hair sprouted bushily and began pushing—literally
pushing the hats off their heads. I didn't know what it meant at first,
for I was confused. Were these not the same cowboys who shouted their
angry insults at the very sight of the long-haired young men of the
time? Who among us can forget the disparaging and emasculating terms
they used? And now there were to be long-haired cowboys? Here was
something very new and something wonderful—wonderful because of what it
meant. And it meant that here were cowboys who would not—could not—yell
what they had always yelled before. It meant that the cowboys had
willfully—willfully mind you—chosen a new path in life that did not
include the angry insults. Here were cowboys who knew what they were
giving up to do this and cowboys who were doing it anyhow—kinder,
gentler cowboys who had made an overture—and made it on their own—to
join their brethren, burn their agricultural draft deferments and let
the dim past be forgotten. They were cowboys not afraid to be in touch
with their feminine side—real trailblazing American cowboys who had
made a giant leap towards a bright new destiny.
Oh, the cowboys weren't always as
you know them today. So often before I had seen them: lonely
cowboys—lonely in their own company for even as they hurled their
homophobic invective they knew as everyone else that there was never a
girl in their midst. Never. Not in the saloons where the cowboys
gathered young and gangly around the tables for beer. Not in their
pick-up trucks with the gun racks and the peace sign bumper stickers
labeled "Footprint of the American Chicken." Not in the chow line nor
sitting with them on the corral fence on those unmatched spring days or
visiting the bunkhouse on those priceless and irreplaceable spring
evenings. But I am unfair, for in reality there was one woman present
in every cowboy gathering. A stern and masculine woman was she—a
bale-hurling girlie-man who would give you a woolly look and yell, "Is
that a guy or a gal!" in her coarse cigarette voice as the cowboys
twenty strong went, "Yuck, yuck, yuck!" and, often as not, "Duh!" She
was there with them as you will recall, but I'm not sure whether she
ever lost her hat. And I'm not sure that she even stayed there with the
cowboys to witness their brave Metamorphosis.
As news of the sexual revolution
became old news, the cowboys realized that they had not been footnoted
in this part of history. One day, in a sublime moment of clarity, this
fact hit the cowboys like a crate of horseshoes. And it hurt. To solace
themselves, they took to putting bumper stickers on their pick-ups that
read, "Cowboys Make Better Lovers." But the façade was too
transparent. They weren't fooling anyone and the hippie men weren't
about to let them get away with it either—not after having been called
“faggot” umpteen thousand times. No sir. The next day dawned clear and
bright, and every VW Microbus in the country had a sticker on it that
read, "Cowboys Suffer From Feelings of Sexual Inadequacy."
The retort struck home and its
unvarnished truth was too much for the cowboys. Reeling beneath their
hats, hopelessly outclassed and overwhelmed by the sheer power of the
hippies' simple, literate rejoinder, the cowboys reassessed the
situation, reconnoitered, and decided to cut their losses by removing
the stickers the very next day. And at once the hippies responded in
kind. A day later, you could look at any microbus from Maine to
Albuquerque, from Taos to Bisbee, from Flagstaff clean to Klamath Falls
and there was no sign that the fierce rebuttal had ever been penned and
plastered there. "You don't beat a man when he's down," was the
hippies' reasoning. "Wage peace."
Miraculously this was not lost on
the cowboys. They mulled it over—this reciprocal overture to them—and
they continued their historic transformation and reformation. They
carried on with what was surely the most remarkable pilgrimage of
introspection ever embarked upon.
The cowboys began to learn things they had never known
before. They met new people. Soon the cowboys saw, yet dimly, that
there were other lives that people led—different lives from theirs, but
somehow inextricably linked to theirs. Sometimes, they found it was fun
to revel in their differences—more fun and rewarding by far than
shouting hurtful names at those who were somehow different.
Once, in the Palomino Club, I sat
as one new to the company of cowboys, a hippie losing his hair. The TV
blared above the bar and on it suddenly appeared the specter of the
police beating an African American man. It was ten against one, and the
clubs rained down. I dare not guess what the unreconstructed cowboy
might have said at this sight. All I heard, however, were the words of
one slow-drawling buckaroo who shook his head and said, "Hell's bells.
You don't beat a man when he's down."
Yes, the cowboys were learning and
they were growing, but they had not entirely lost their hats. Not yet.
The cowboys could still be seen in the airport waiting
gates when they traveled, sporting their biggest hats and jawing and
alolligagging and laying it all on just too, too daggunned thick. Each
cowboy was still too often attending his own private masquerade ball
and that would have to change. And change it did when law enforcement
cowboys somehow got permission to wear their hats on the job.
The cowboy cops were naive and
unsophisticated and they thought that the hats would please the public.
They thought they were providing a bit of welcome western color for all
to share. But the public had no urge to fantasize that they lived in
Dodge City. They were practical, hardworking folk and to them the hats
carried an entirely different connotation—one that they just plain
didn't like. They had all seen In the Heat of the Night with Sidney
Poitier and Rod Steiger, and they weren't about to brook any nonsense
in their town from any redneck cowboy cops who didn't have the common
horse sense to get rid of their hats before there was trouble.
The disapproval was directed at
the hats and it was nation-wide. Anger and resentment grew and the
cowboys were but faintly aware of it. When at last it came pouring out
in a collective American shout of judgment, the cowboys were
unprepared, and yet the message was loud and clear even to them and
they knew what they must do.
The cowboy cops attempted to work
and people would roll down their car windows and shout the message.
When the cowboys drove their trucks, people gathered at the roadside to
give the battle cry. There was no escaping it, and the words of simple
and unrefined disapproval were always the same. They were, "Nice hat,
And as if by magic at these words,
there was a mystical whooshing sound as the hats were swept from the
cowboys' heads. And along with the hats went the gun racks and the
intolerance and all the rest that had kept the cowboys from living out
their destinies as the true American Cowboys they were meant to be.
Whoosh! went the hats across the eastern seaboard over
the Adirondacks. Whoosh! across the South. Whoosh! Whoosh! went the
hats from the Iowa corn land to the lake country of Minnesota. Whoosh!
over the Great Plains and over the still, checkered fields and the
great granite mountains and the green valleys and the sandstone canyons
and the diamond deserts!
The transformation that day was at
last complete. The cowboys had fulfilled their quest.
I suppose there are more important dates in the
history of our great nation—more important turning points: our first
day of independence, the close of the Civil War, D-Day, the day that
Kennedy died, the day the Beatles invaded our shores. But there is none
so undeservedly shrouded and forgotten in the amnesia of our new times
as the day the cowboys lost their hats.