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Hail Guest, we ask not what thou art.
If Friend, we greet thee, hand and heart.
If Stranger, such no longer be.
If Foe, our love will conquer thee.
-Old Welsh Door Verse

Friday, February 22, 2008

Crush on a Cowboy

Well, not really.

But I sidebar surfed (yep, I'm still at it) into Sawdust and Cowpies by Jace and have been enjoying the nice memories it brings up.

About ten years ago I was teaching "core." That's where you put the same group of students into Language Arts and History classes back-to-back and integrate the curricula. I didn't have a credential for Language Arts, but I was very proud when ALL of my students passed their proficiencies (and a large number of "honors" students did not) because I taught them to stay on prompt and use supporting details.

My mentor and best friend, Skip, suggested one year that we do a unit on Cowboy Poetry.


I was open-minded and went along with her. I totally fell in love with the stuff, especially the part where if you tell it right, it sounds like the clip clop when a horse walks along. Anyway, we read it to our eighth-graders and had them write some (gawd-awful stuff, but they had fun.) We even had The Riders of the Purple Sage come and do an intimate concert for our two classes (Ghost riders in the sky..... yippee-yi-yo...). At our last meeting of the unit I blacked out my windows, had the kids come dressed as cowboys (sort of) and we had a poetry reading around a campfire made of crumbled up black butcher paper piled over a half-dozen glowing flashlights.

There are a number of cowboy poems I enjoy but my favorite is "Barn Cats" by Vess Quinlan.

It's funny, the things you remember;
Like accepting without question
That it was your solemn duty
To study hard and earn big money
Because parents suffered the depression.

How on your tenth birthday
You walked down to milk
With a staggering headache,
Sat on the one-legged stool
And pressed your forehead
Against her silken flank.

How you remember dull ringing sounds
As the first squirts hit bottom;
How the sound changed to a quiet hiss
As foaming milk filled the shiny bucket;
How the smell of fresh warm milk
Rose to mingle with the clean-cow smell;
How the barn cats sat half-circled
Mewing politely, insisting there was enough
To fill their little pan.

How the gentle cow responded
To warm brown hands
And let down her milk;
How calmness and forebearance
Were transmitted through your skull;
How your pain was drawn
Into the patient cow.

And now, years later
You stare out a city window
And ask yourself if big money
Is really better than barn cats
And cow-cured headaches.

I only taught core for two years before I went back to straight history (NCLB and State Standards were the death to units like Cowboy Poetry) but I bring out my poetry books every year when we spend our day in frontier history learning about the old trails and cowboys. I still read "Barn Cats" and others ("One Way o' Proposin', "The New Hand") and pop in my videotape of one of the Elko gatherings (and let Ian Tyson sing "Horsethief Moon; can't play "M.C. Horses", though, 'cause it makes me cry every time.)

Years later we flew to Reno to watch the boys compete in the International Jazz Festival. We were riding in the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, chatting with the driver when he suddenly recited a beautiful piece. My mouth hung open-probably to the floor-I was so surprised. "You're a cowboy poet!" I practically shouted. He just grinned and confirmed that he'd placed as high as second at Elko. The ride was too short (and his tip probably too small) but I couldn't get over it. I know these talented folks have to make a living to support their poetry (like musicians, it's the rare one that can live of his art), but I never imagined them driving hotel shuttles.

Somehow, I always imagined them like Jace, trekking the pastures in freezing temps to shoot pictures of newborn calves taking their first poopie.

One of the things I look forward to the most about relocating to Utah is enjoying the annual cowboy poetry gathering in Ogden.

I'm gonna have to buy me a hat.

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