I’ve never particularly liked cows. They’re not very smart and they are fairly rude creatures. For years, my father wanted to get out of the cow business. But even on the day he died, depending on where you stood and how the wind blew, you could smell and hear and even see cows from his front porch.
As for the choice of “Cowboy” as a characterization for religious ideas, I can only defend it as descriptive of my personal voice. These written words are chosen because they sound like what’s in my head. “Cowboy” also describes an authentic American sentiment: a perceived attitude of rugged individualism, of self-sufficiency and autonomy that is a vital part of the psyche of American culture. It is also a voice that lets me speak with the full range of personal experience.
Real cowboys are as likely to come from Boston, Baton Rouge, Bombay or any other place far from the big skies of the western United States. Real cowboys range from nearly illiterate to Shakespearean scholars. They can be plainspoken or incomprehensible.
By speaking honestly, without an affected voice of scholarship or piety, I’m most likely to tell the truth.The author’s purpose is first of all self-serving. This is a test, designed to answer the painfully difficult question: Do I know what I am thinking? Or am I so into my own internal dialog that I can not stop to ask if it has any consistency? Is there a reliable thread to this unspoken conversation that if told aloud would be anything other than the streaming ranting of a madman?
If I write it down then I, and others, can form some judgment on this subject. I have always subscribed to the notion that if I can’t explain an idea then I probably don’t understand it.
Secondly, my purpose is to give my children some tangible evidence of their father’s interior dialog. Like every parent, I expect my children to do more and know more. Like my father before me, I want my children to figuratively stand on their father’s shoulders.
But they don’t have my hard-earned experience. They avoided the gift of a forced education in religion, and the lost years of dead-end searching for spiritual enlightenment. They have yet to discover the ultimate revelation that the hardest work is in creating a self of principled character. They have yet to find a path to successfully escape the blinding entanglements of just getting by.
If you want to know more about your author then read the autobiographical PREQUEL that follows.
Lastly, what is written here is for people I’ve never known who, like me, have been disaffected or turned-off by the flood of words that do not provide any lasting comfort, by pious hypocrisies, and by obtuse, obscure and messy logic presented as sacred counsel. It is for any whose experience of life may have been too close to the flame.
It is also possible that as a “Cowboy” I might grab the attention of some charmed or unsuspecting soul who might otherwise never be exposed to the ideas offered here. I hope that these words speak to some suffering souls, struggling through the travail of life, in need of an inspiring, amusing, illuminating insight. May some find solace here.
Sam’s mother died when he was ten. But she had been lost to him the year before when he and his father Frances had been forced to leave Mississippi. Frances had been run off, or escaped. It seems his in-laws never approved of their daughter marrying Frances Marion Edwards. Maybe she never should have married anyone. Was she already ill, or was she so weak of heart that separation from her husband and children killed her? And on what pretext did Frances agree to go? Perhaps he pledged to make a new home far from the reach of his wife’s family. Maybe he intended to fetch the mother of his children, to rescue her on another day. But that day would never come.
The last sight Sam had of his mother was her sobbing as the riverboat pulled into the Mississippi carrying away her husband and sons.
Mother was dead, but a dozen years later Sam would act to fix the pain of loss when challenged to save another woman in distress. He would do what his father could not do.
Sam thought he had lost his true love to a more dashing cavalier. Some say Linnie had just run off; others said she’d been all but sold by her brothers to settle a gambling debt. At any rate, by being the only daughter in a family of spoiled boys she had little to say about her life even as the brothers boozed away the family fortune.
But Sam retrieved his darling Linnie from old Mexico where her first husband abandoned her with a newborn girl. And it was Sam, a decade later, who shot the town drunk dead, killed the man for the crime of accosting Linnie and their babies. Sam spent a lifetime defending the honor of women.
But Sam was more of a romantic than an adventurer. He was a cotton farmer. At least that is the person he became to keep his Linnie and a dozen children in food and shelter. His brother Walter was more adventurous. Sam was laconic; Walter was a more loquacious rover.
Walter had been a real cowboy out in the territories. But eventually he settled down near Sam and his brood. But you could never really make a country farmer out of someone who had seen so much more of the world.
It was at least a rumor that Walter did have a family, that is they think there was a wife somewhere, and children. But no one knows who or where those folk might be. We only know that Walter was a constant presence for Sam’s family, right up until the day when the only truck to pass down the road that morning managed to strike him dead as he walked to the mailbox.
Sam and Linnie had four more girls before they started having boys. Of course, the first born son was named after Sam. It was only when they got to the eighth live birth that Linnie consented to naming one of the boys after Walter. So Walter was the middle son of five boys, preceded by five girls. And despite her displeasure at his name, maybe even because of it, Linnie put all her hopes on this boy. However, she also insisted on calling him by his middle name, Ross, and never, never Walt or Walter. She just couldn’t do it.
Despite his kindness, gentle wisdom and patience, Linnie suspected that underneath it all Uncle Walter was a scoundrel. But then she was pretty much distrustful of men in general. She made a special dispensation for her husband. And she assumed she could save the everlasting souls, if not the fleshy spirit, of her own sons. However, she was determined to make at least one of her sons into the righteous and dignified gentleman she wanted all men to be.
So we have these two strands that weave their way into one human being. Walter told his tales, the rough and serious truth of how the west was won. And how the battle just might not have been worth the fight. And Linnie laid on her full share of shame for the sins of the world. It was quite a character these two opposing forces were shaping. What resulted was the well mannered and ambitious son that Linnie wanted, but deep inside was a restless and unsatisfied rouge, ever watchful, and more than a little cynical about the human beast. As an adult, his psyche housed an uncomfortable truce between earthy realism and utopian aspirations.
He found his mate in a perfect opposite. She was a woman committed to the ideals of an achievable better life, but confounded by her insatiable desire for proof in a more refined and genteel style than either of them had ever known as children.
At about the same time that Linnie was settling in with a house full of girls, Grover was saying good-bye to his infant daughter in what was still the Oklahoma territory. His Native American wife had divorced him. He saddled-up to make his long trip home back to Bradley County, Arkansas. There, he set-up housekeeping with an energetic girl named Eula Dixie Plunk. They soon had a daughter, and then two sons. Their first born, Lorraine, was like her mother, very comfortable telling men what to do.
She charmed her father and bossed her brothers. She understood all too well that she had been born into a new age. Here women could aspire to something other than servitude and childbirth. Her childhood was comfortable. They were the rich of the working rural poor. They had land, and horses and cows, and daddy worked as a machinist in a mill town filled with lots of opportunity. They were also the practical poor, that is they made no show of want for higher status or desire to compete with the small town’s little elite of shopkeepers, bankers, and the like. At least that’s the way Grover wanted it. What was in his only daughter’s heart was something quite different.
She aspired to a better life in a better place. At the public school and the Baptist church there were no visible lines that separated the social classes. So school was an easy escape and the church was almost as easy because her parents remained mostly un-chuched. In those domains she was free to invent her own person. And in those places she found freedom to express her aspirations. This is where and how she found a career and a husband and the rest of her life.
Lorraine said that Ross proposed on their first date and that she held him at a distance for two years. Maybe. Ross told the story as having been forced from his fevered sick bed to an impromptu marriage altar. Both stories are probably true.
In the ninth year of their marriage, they made a son. They loved this child very much. It was easy, as it always is with a bright-eyed happy baby. On this child they fixed many hopes and dreams. They hugged and cuddled and cooed and did all the things that make a baby feel loved and secure and that help little children grow to feel appreciated and capable. They did all this because it felt good and it was the natural thing to do.
They also committed themselves to the enterprise out of guilt for having failed so miserably at caring for their first born. A daughter had been born six years earlier. She was the victim of her parents’ eager and well meaning attempt at scientific child rearing. They’d been seduced by the pseudo-science in a popular book published in the 1930’s.
This was the era in which the rise of Nazi power was bolstered by many false claims made with the language of science. It was a modern age, and modernists were often seduced by bogus ideas couched as scientific theory. Today the advice offered on child rearing would be considered nothing less than abuse. Among other ideas on human development, it counseled that picking up a crying infant would spoil the child, that cuddling was coddling thereby producing a weak and inferior specimen of the human race.
What all this nonsense did was break the otherwise natural bond between mother and child. Now, we know that this approach produces lifetime scars. And the arrival of a new child, when desperate remedies might have helped, only deepened the wounds for this poor girl. Her parents would anguish for the rest of their lives over this failure.
The male child received the benefits of a more natural and loving environment and when he responded gratefully he was honored, praised, trusted and otherwise gifted with the responsibility to fill his own bottomless pit of guilt.
All in all, it was a shining example of the modern mid-twentieth century dysfunctional household.
It was a fine mixture of co-dependence and malformed egos.
Of course, this happy male child grew up to become your author. I have taken some liberties with this story out of artistic license and because everyone else in the family lies to make it fit their own view of who they want to be and the character they want to see in the characters that populate our family tree. I can only testify to the hearsay as told to me about anything that happened before I was born.
Some of it sounded pretty convincing the first time I heard it. Other parts had the ring of well-worn fiction, and most are merely fragments of memory and nearly illegible scribbling on odd envelopes and the backs of ancient photos. None of which takes a whit away from the psychological truths that sweep across multiple generations.
This is my story, and this is how I choose to tell it.
From beginning to end we quickly touch three centuries. I can see all the way back to the middle of the 19th century. I have held the hand of my grandfather whose own father left a plow and mule standing in a Mississippi field to answer the first call to brave duty in the great war between the states. Four miserable years later he was freed after four months in a Chicago prisoner of war camp. Things could have been worse; Francis Marion had survived the war with only a leg wound that did not require amputation. In 1872, his son, my grandfather, Samuel Jon was born; in 1910 my father, Walter Ross, was born; in 1946 I was born, and in 1991 my son Dylan Ross was born. That list covers only some of the male children and there are as many, or more, women in this family tree.
I have my own small cluster of biological children, and you too dear reader, to carry this story well into the 21st century. That isn’t exactly immortality. It is a decent remembering. It is a good grounding to start the reflection that each of us is a genetic thread that ties together our particular family story and stitches that group of folks to the rest of the human family.
None of us cropped up all new and unrelated. Whether out of malice, or lust, or desperation each of us arises out of a huge complex of dependencies. Not what might have been, or what we wish it had been, but what it was and is, outside of our control.
The biology that makes us human, and the psychology that makes us so amazingly unique, spring from connections so ancient that they are never well remembered. There is no spontaneous arising of people or any other thing in the universe. The dependencies are the connections that tie us, and everything, together. The mystery is that it can’t be seen clearly and that we are always so surprised when the connections are revealed.
For all of human history it has been the business of religion, and science, and the general discovery of knowledge, to unmask these connections. We claim that our search is for meaning or truth as if they could be abstract, independent and outside the act of knowing. But the real need to know is a quest that at best can reveal the endless chain of dependencies between all of creation and that highly prized example of creation we see when we look into the mirror.
original from an introduction to Cowboy Religion, 1991 Douglas Edwards