October 4, 2016

CNF/Essay by Sharon Tewksbury: "The Greatest Cowboy I Ever Knew"

Sharon Tewksbury is totally blind. She writes essays, short stories, poetry, and is a lyricist and musician.


The Greatest Cowboy I Ever Knew

Thinking back over my life, I remember my dad's positive influence.    28 years after his death, when life throws its surprises in my face, I ask myself what he would do in a particular situation, and I can almost hear his commonplace advice.
"Don't let anyone walk on you, stand for what you believe in, and never break a compadre’s trust."

He taught me to tell the truth, especially to him and mom. He would say, “don't ever lie to your old dad. I don't care how old you are, you're still my daughter, and you're never too old to spank."

He demonstrated that fact to me when I was in my 30's with a husband and kids of my own.

Thinking I had lied to him, he spanked me on my bare legs with a fly swatter.

 Though I felt his disciplinary actions were  comical, and laughed all the way home, when he addressed me that day I promptly apologized, saying yes sir n no sir, and  after that, I made sure I didn’t fudge the truth.

I know he felt a lot of guilt about my disability,  and making  my childhood better  was one of his  main missions.

Since I was totally blind, he tried to make typical  visual experiences more graspable.  When I was 8 years old, I asked him what a boll of cotton looked  like. he brought me a little boll of cotton he had taken from an actual cotton field, and I treasured that little boll keeping it  with my keepsakes until it disintegrated.

Occasionally,  he and I  went walking   somewhere on an errand. I felt so proud when we were holding hands instead of going sighted guide.

 I remember His hands were large  and Callused, telling the world he was a   Jack-of-all-trades,.       Those hands built chicken pens, barns, cabinets  and the little house I and my siblings grew up in.

, Little scratches and skinned knuckles told the world he worked as a  hard laborer.  Being a roughneck, on evening tower and laying pipe on the drilling rigs all over West Texas, he contributed to the oil barrens’  successes.

Besides his hard  hat status, dad was an excellent carpenter.  In 1947, a brother whom I never met, drowned in a caliche  pit outside of town.
Despite his grief and anguish after my brother's death, dad  kept right on going until my  family had a place to live, finishing the house he had started building earlier in 1946.

Before he built the house, our family previously lived in a tent, and I know they were relieved when it was finally done.

The little shack told of his resolve and hard work.  Though simple and crude, with sheet rock walls, it still provided stability.

Its makeup was a wooden frame, 3 tiny rooms and a  small bathroom with   no vanity. Still,  the bathroom housed a shower with a rough concrete floor, which never was changed.  

 I remember the rest of the floors were wooden planks until linoleums and carpet were added by my siblings’ spouses.

  Though paneling was added years later to the other rooms, a screened-in porch was left the same as it was when the house was built, and  the bathroom was never paneled either.

I asked him once why he built the screened-in porch. He said he built the porch  so he could see the dawn from a window by the bed he slept on. At night, he could see the moon rise, and hear his backyard roosters announcing the coming day.   

 At some point, after I was a toddler, indoor plumbing was added, and a gas hot water heater was installed later.
An air-conditioner   cooled by wetting pads was not inconvenient, it was just a way of life, and light switches were not used in that little house. lights were turned on by pulling strings, and central heating was not used either. Gas heaters in different rooms, and mom's kitchen range heated our home in the winter.   

  Although the little house’s lowly amenities are probably forgotten, its walls and foundation have lasted almost 70 years.

The folks who bought the house after my parents' deaths, stated the city gave its approval upon inspection, giving its assurance the foundation would last even longer.

The new owners were doing renovations, and glad they    didn’t have to completely tear the house down.  They could build on the foundation and still use the walls, and the city said whoever built the house knew what he was doing.

remembering the smells coming from that little shack, I can't help but think how contented I felt as a child.      A pot of simmering cowboy beans, coffee being made in an old-fashioned percolator, and a pot of just made spicy chili might fill my nostrils as I came home from school.  years later, after I left home, I would walk up the sidewalk to my parents’ front door, and Those same smells wafting on the breeze would bring me back to a simpler time.  Sometimes he would make something different, and my family and I couldn't wait to taste his cowboy stew, and drink the sun tea he had brewed all day in the front yard.

 Though dad could do many things, his true passion was being a cowboy, and a down-to-earth philosophy was his motto.

He loved John Wayne movies, and Gene Autry films, but said other stars were drugstore cowboys because they didn’t portray the image of the real west. He said those films featuring Wane and Autry depicted what it would have been like in the 1800’s, and he said the code of the West was what we’d seen if we’d been living in the past.

If he were in a life-threatening situation, he believed he had the sovereign right to defend himself, his loved ones and property. Yes, when he was alive, he had the attitudes some have today. Taking his guns away made him extremely angry. Once or twice, he actually defended himself, stopping would-be robbers from entering his house, and the police took his guns.   But then he went to a local pawn shop and purchased other ones, carrying one with him at all times.  

He would have been satisfied with a horse and wagon for transportation, but instead he drove an old Cadillac, and a ford pickup truck.  

Overlooking his quirks and shortcomings came easy for me.     I was able to forgive his mistakes because my unmitigated love for him made him a real hero.

He was a champion in my eyes because of his persistent struggles, and how he tried to overcome them.  He was a hopeless alcoholic, constantly resisting the    horrible demon, and even when he failed, he tried again.

  Trying to ignore the urge to drink was a mountain he climbed daily, because         physical addiction started at a very early age.  I blame part of his alcoholism on my grandparents’ negligence.  Unsupervised, and   Left to his own entertainments, he drank his dad's liquor, causing    persistent instability throughout his life.

In pre-drinking cycles, we walked softly, not daring to cross him because Fighting that battle made him depressed and irritable.  Defeated, he would eventually say an excuse for going to town and go to his favorite bar, sometime riding a wild horse he had broken several years before. Usually, we knew when he rode Lightning to town, he would be coming home drunk.

   In his younger days, he worked on ranches busting wild broncs and castrating bulls.   He tried to win money on a bull for 8 seconds or less at nightly rodeos all over the US in the 30s and 40's. Even before I was born, he would be gone from home, like he had disappeared into thin air.  

Riding rails, or hitch hiking to wherever providence led him, he was a free spirit, leaving all ties and responsibilities behind.     Living off the grid, he was like some lonesome tumbleweed, and This continuous love for livestock and rodeos coursed through his veins along with the alcohol he drank.  His drifting never stopped until he finally came back home to his household. Though mom   didn’t know where he had gone, he was always forgiven when he came home. She welcomed him with open arms, and her family and my siblings were never allowed to criticize him.   No matter what he did, love covered a multitude of sins.  As soon as he walked through his front gate, Equilibrium was restored and domestic life would start all over again.

He never showed much affection, he didn't believe it was important. In his cowboy logic, you didn't say I love you, you just showed it in other ways.

Once I typed him a letter when I was barely in my teens, stating I wished we could spend more time together.

After I wrote the letter, we began doing more things with each other. On warm summer evenings, we would ride bare-back on a gentle old horse named Midnight.

As I heard the clip clop of the horse's shod feet on the newly paved road in front of our house, I knew dad loved my companionship at those times. Then, he was just a man of few words, enjoying the moment.

when he passed, someone remarked about his unknown sentimentality when the dog-eared letter was found in his wallet.  I cried when I heard about it.

In his final years of life, he was still a tough act to follow.  His active lifestyle had slowed down considerably, but cowboy ego never let little aches and pains get in his way.

Though most of his emotions were private, his love for my mom never wavered, and my parents' marriage was solid until the end.

Dad said you could look the world in the eye if you were square with it, and Though he hadn’t been the best husband and father, he stepped up to the plate when my mom had to live in a nursing Home. Rain or shine, he went to visit every day, driving that old pickup truck.  He never considered it an inconvenience.  Bringing a bowl of butter beans along with His gallon of sun tea was a privilege and honor. He always brought the tea in an old Marigold milk jug, and carried the bowl of beans in an  old paper sack.

   On one such visit, the home's dietician told dad mom couldn’t eat the food he had brought.

He said “Like …  she can’t.     get out of my way, my wife can eat anything I bring her. My beans are ten times better than what you give her up here." And with that, he flounced off to my mom's room, his head held high.

Believe it or not, the dietician let him bring anything he wanted afterword, and the staff never tried to supervise his actions.  

after mom died He was never the same.  His vulnerability and loneliness ate away at his armor, and he passed 14 months later.

But he was very calm the last time I saw him. There was an understanding between us he would soon die. We had spent Thanksgiving day together, just the two of us, and we knew we were saying goodbye. That December, on Christmas eve, he was living at my brother's house, and the family had gathered there to celebrate the holiday.

 That night he had a light stroke and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. Since there was no available babysitter, I stayed there with my kids, nieces and nephews, so the other family members could be with him.  As 911 EMTs were wheeling him out of the trailer, he looked at me, called me by my nickname, and said, "be careful." he didn't say I love you, but I knew he did.

The next day, one of my sisters had come to visit him right before he died. He looked at her and said, “Well, I think I’m going to take a nap.” The next morning, he was gone.

He could take his nap knowing he had taken care of unfinished business, and he was sure when he passed he had made up for the things he had done wrong, and the mistakes he had made.

He finished his life with a smile on his face.  Hoping my siblings also knew he loved them, and asking God’s forgiveness for what he had done to others, he died peacefully and with no worries.

At his funeral, we played the song "to old to die young". We felt the song’s lyrics stated his feelings perfectly. He had lived to see his kids rise to their own potential, and even held  some great-grandkids.

Months after his death, I almost lost my sanity. I didn’t think I could go on without him. But he always said if you fall off the horse get back up again. He always said I had grit, and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t give up then, and why I don’t give up today.

, I write this memoir feeling pride and humility, and I know I’ll see the greatest cowboy I ever knew someday.
Dad, rest in peace until we meet again

~Sharon Tewksbury

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