How the Cowboys Lost Their Hats
Written Fall Semester 1998
By Tom Cole
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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 chowline 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 unmanly names 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 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 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, JACKASS!"

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.