RAMBLINGS • Following The Cowboy Code

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Inspirations for my “Rambling” come from diverse places; this one comes from an ad for attorney services that appears on WAND, the Decatur television station that CTI sends into my home. (Would I prefer St. Louis stations? Several years ago, when St. Louis had pro football and before the pandemic stole the major league baseball season, I would have said yes. Now it doesn’t matter; I never travel to St. Louis or Chicago and seldom venture to Springfield, Decatur, or Champaign, so I can ignore most of the advertising, no matter its source. The local stations are more apt to cover our state government and any local accidents severe enough to draw attention, and the weather forecasts I now receive tend to be more specific than those of the metro stations.)

The attorney in the commercial is nattily attired in fashionable western wear, and an obviously well-trained if spirited horse circles him on a lead rope. The attorney claims he follows “The Cowboy Creed” as taught to him by his grandfather: “If it isn’t true, don’t say it; if it isn’t yours, don’t take it; if you owe it, pay it.” I don’t know the attorney in the ad, so I can’t judge the truthfulness of his claims of allegiance to that code. (A past son-in-law of mine accused me of being too judgemental, but his assessment changed neither my opinion of him nor of myself.) Besides, though my father held lawyers in low regard, I’ve had occasion to hire three in my lifetime and benefitted from the expertise of all three. Then younger daughter Jenni became a member of the Indiana Bar; after retirement from her accounting firm, she worked for a time as a public defender in Indianapolis. Eventually she gave that up too (tax law, not criminal law, is her specialty). For those and other reasons I’ve come to respect the profession.

For some reason, though, The Cowboy Code ethic stuck in my mind, to the point that it has explained a part of my admittedly at times judgemental nature. Generally I’ve always liked people, but there have been notable exceptions. I asked a co-worker at The Journal-News to Google cowboy code for me, and she printed two of the many versions that popped up. I was surprised at how many references she found; for an older person, I’m still surprised too often.

One of the findings was pretty close to the ad:

If it’s not yours, don’t take it. If it’s not true, don’t say it. If it’s not right, don’t do it.

If Judy were still alive, I’d have her cross-stitch that for me. I have a number of quotes that I liked that she cross-stitched, and I framed them to hang in the house. As I write this on the sun porch, I can see two examples–one she’d done for her dad when our kids were small that accentuated why grandfathers are grand–it was returned to me after his passing–and the other is a Churchill quote, “To be young and not liberal is to have no heart; To be old and not conservative is to have no head.” That has nothing to do with today’s political climate, by the way, in which the terms liberal and conservative are too often misused as labels by people who can’t spell or define either term. 

She stitched that one after she heard her father and I discussing how my personal philosophy of life was evolving into one more like his as I matured from an 18-year-old idealist to a 30-year-old realist of sorts. When I was 18, Judy and I were just perhaps developing an interest in each other romantically. Dean would sit in a rocking chair on their sun porch, sipping coffee or smoking a pipe as I was espousing a belief in pacifism (one topic I remember). He’d listen to me expound for a while until he had a chance to kindly share his WWII Marine veteran views based on what he remembered about his experiences on the Pacific front. My father wasn’t much interested in ideas, and we didn’t have academically-minded friends, so her dad was the only adult audience and responder I had.

Teaching school, having a wife and two little girls, and living in general had changed my views about the world in the 12 intervening years before a related chat. Judy always seemed to listen (and grin) as her dad and I talked; it was after the second exchange that she gave me the stitched Churchill quote for my Christmas present. (Funds were tight, but she always wanted a Christmas trip to PA and a big pile of presents to make the girls feel special, so she and I most often exchanged presents we’d crafted for each other.)

The other creed my friend found was longer but of a similar pragmatic nature–a cowboy finishes what he starts; always puts the welfare of his family above his own; studies hard to learn all he can; keeps promises he makes, etc. The latter line reminds me of Robert Service’s poetic line, “A promise made is a debt unpaid, And the trail has its own stern code” from “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

When I filter my past 76 years through the cowboy codes, I find some commonalities. Those people whom I most admire share those down-to-earth, appearance isn’t as important as substance traits. Those whom I have most disliked have violated those principles. I’ve always felt one of my strengths is the ability to spot the person who is genuine, no matter which side of the political aisle he or she occupies, as opposed to those who act from self-interest. As a society we tend to be too easily duped; I suppose bucking that trend makes me a cynic. So be it; to me self-interest is a turn-off.

That’s one of my many reasons to be wary of where technology is taking us. Our governor, among others, has promoted distance learning. It may work for some, but not for the majority. When I was a student, I could tell when the person in front of the room knew too little about the content in question to teach it well (that wasn’t always the teacher’s fault–for example, class work required for one who is to teach English should require more literature and composition work rather than educational philosophy and methodology). Also, those who knew the subject well often struggled to pass that knowledge along–that ability should be/has to be intuitive. It is for the good ones.

As a teacher, I could tell by body language and eye contact with the students when I was connecting and when I needed another approach. That isn’t possible in distance learning. I have this past summer participated in committee meetings by phone, and they were less than productive. Being in the same room is necessary for effective communications. Based on the uproar Twittered words have caused, I’d suggest banning that platform because it robs the consumer of the chance to challenge the messenger as well as the message. This cowboy finds that necessary for civil discourse, as counterintuitive as that sounds. I’m not accessible by texting; I don’t look at Facebook; I don’t trust phones, but I have one–at least I can sense much by the tremors in the voice I hear.

There are some counter-to-cowboy traits that I find especially offensive. I’ve really developed a dislike for those who lie in order to manipulate a situation. As soon as I hear, “Yes, but...” I think “Be careful with this one; there’s an excuse coming.” Often it’s an attempt to shift responsibility. Students most often lied to cover a lack of effort. If a student read a short story, poem, or essay, for example, and said he/she didn’t understand it, we could deal with it if the person had done the reading. However, if the lack of comprehension was because the story hadn’t been read at all, little could be done.

Occasionally I’d run into a character who would lie and then immediately and completely believe his or her lie was true. The more he’d tell it, the more convinced he became that his version was correct. It seems to me to be a trait that has become more common as the years have passed; perhaps fewer people take Sunday School lessons seriously.

Another element of the code deals with theft. Sometimes minor thefts bother me more than bigger ones, though it’s never all right to victimize anyone. One hot August day in my classroom, I watched a young man take a wing-nut off a pedestal fan I’d brought from home. It was pre-classroom air conditioning days, and I felt sorry for the students as the combined morning sun and too many hot bodies in a small, second story room made learning hard. The period was about over, and the kid was indifferent-at-best as a student, so I waited until the bell to confront him. I knew he’d stuck the wing-nut in his jean’s pocket, knowing the fan would fall apart during the next hour. He denied taking the part. At that point, my choice was to let him walk or rip his jeans off and recover the part, which most likely would have cost me my job. I don’t know (nor care) where he is now, but I know it was a hotter-than-necessary fall in Room 17 that year. I don’t like liars nor those who steal, and he did both that noon hour.

I also dislike intensely those who borrow money with no real plans to pay it back. I’ve known too many of those. I don’t like those who feel privileged by birth or position. In a semi-related manner, I once signed a letter to not disclose information given in a meeting. Basically, the meeting was a wake-up call for me as to how inept a state agency was (and probably still is). I wonder if there is a time limit as to how long I have to keep the malfeasance of the agency a secret. I don’t like people who think their physical appearance or their toys and possessions are more important than the way they treat others. I especially dislike those who would manipulate me.

I do wish our culture had more people who followed the tenets of a cowboy’s code.

Saddle up, politicians.

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