Eight Seconds on the Back of Old Labelmaker ...

Recently I mentioned to a friend of mine that I'd just returned from a fishing trip to Colorado with my oldest boy, Bren, and another friend, Cowboy Bob.

"You have a friend called Cowboy Bob?" she said. "That's so cool!"

It is cool, but he's not actually called Cowboy Bob – leastwise, not by anyone but me and my kids, on occasion. In fact, I just learned a little more than a week ago that he wasn't entirely enamored of that handle when I used it the first time (and considering we've known each other 13 years now, that's saying something).

I also learned, during the course of this trip, that he wasn't entirely taken with the notion of meeting me at all. I'd taken a summer job at the world-famous Wall Drug Store after my second year of college – I was assigned to the western boot department (with occasional stints in moccassins; two products about which I knew very little) and worked next-door to Bob's wife, Cindy, in western wear. We got along pretty well, and apparently she told Bob there was this Yale student working in town that he should meet.

In as close as I can recall to Bob's own words, here's what went through his mind at the time: "Yeah, that's exactly what I need to do: meet some snotty rich kid who thought it'd be a kick to spend a summer in South Dakota."

But because he "ain't got no weak nerve nor fear," he came into town anyway, and spent an evening with us kids picking songs out of his guitar – mainly cowboy songs I enjoyed but didn't know.* Then he broke into Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" – a song I knew, to my own surprise, nearly verse for verse. (I was surprised to hear a shipwreck song on the edge of the Badlands, but just yesterday, another friend described how the great wide open of Lake Superior made him homesick for the Plains, and now it all seems to fit.)

"Now that's a song from my neck of the woods," I said when he finished – and just like that, a friendship sprouted. That friendship led to my dad, my three-year-old son and I visiting Bob's place during a branding back in 2001, and got me to thinking about A) how labels rarely do justice to people, and B) how quickly we make our marks on each other. And I wrote about it, in an essay called Brandings.

I'll warn you: I tried to write very matter-of-factly about the actual branding, done more or less the "old fashioned" way, with horses, ropes and hot irons. I was surprised, even shocked, at times – but it was clear to me that these men were doing their work in the best way possible. I've seen bull calves castrated in a couple ways now, and I can't see that a tight rubber band and slow withering (or even anesthesia and stitches from some pet vet) would've been any less stressful for range-raised critters.

And if your response is that they shouldn't castrate them in the first place, I've got a couple questions about your "companion animals." If everything checks out with them, I'll gladly discuss the rest.

By the way, Bob came to terms with the nickname after thinking through who was saying it and how it was meant: equal parts respect and tongue-in-cheek affection. Sort of like the way he still sometimes uses variations of "smart-ass Ivy Leaguer" to describe me ...

Here's the essay. Let me know your thoughts.

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* The quoted bit, or something like it, is from Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven. Bob can't remember the phrase, but never tires of getting me to say it. So there you go, my friend.

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