Sadly life is not a movie.
The ideal of the American cowboy, the tall white man riding high in the saddle who knows right from wrong, works hard and fights harder against injustice, is a complete and utter myth.
The real cowboy who ran cattle on the Great Plains a century and a half ago was no hardy, rugged individual. No sharp-shooting savior. No gun-toting hero.
Cattle were always driven by a group of drovers. Cowboys would be ordered to roundup wandering steers back into the herd. Cowboys were usually from the fringes of society. More than a third were formerly enslaved, poor Black farm boys and downtrodden Native Americans and Mexicans. They enjoyed little autonomy on the trail.
Herding cattle was numbing, dirty work. It was considered beneath the dignity of respectable folk. Cowboys took orders and worked for lower wages than factory workers. They were the shit kickers of their day. Biscuit eaters.
Shooting Indians! That was for the movies. In real life, trail bosses required cowboys to keep their pistols in the chuck wagon. A cumbersome six-shooter was heavy to wear and next to useless on the trail. Besides, carrying pistols was illegal in Texas settlements and in the Kansas cattle towns at the end of the trail.
Buffalo Bill Cody romanticized the cowboy in the 1880s when he hired Buck Taylor to perform riding and roping tricks for Eastern audiences in his Wild West shows. Dressed him in ten-gallon Stetsons, fancy shirts, leather chaps, star-topped boots, and sometimes a fancy pistol.
Lanky and handsome, Buck quickly became known as King of the Cowboys, a moniker he kept when he became the model for dime novels, written fast and sold to millions of readers seeking escape and adventure. He was the Fabio of his day.
Hollywood picked up the reins and made the cowboy larger than life. But in truth director John Ford who fashioned those epic westerns was almost legally blind, John Wayne was an effete who hated horses, and Gary Cooper was the son of British immigrants.
Meanwhile the cowboy myth spread even further with television and endless episodes of “The Lone Ranger,” “Roy Rogers” and “Gunsmoke” in black and white.
Marlboro and the Marlboro Man embedded the strong, silent type into culture with giant billboards and multi-million dollar advertising campaigns of lone men atop a horse contracting lung cancer from the cigarette hanging from their lips. All in gritty color.
Ronald Reagan - actor and former head of the actor’s union - leaned on the cowboy tropes to propel himself into serving two terms as President of the United States.
George H.W. Bush moved from New England where his father was a banker to Texas where he bought a ranch and became Vice President under Reagan until becoming President himself.
His son, George W. Bush, got an even bigger ranch and bigger cowboy hat to become President.
All the while, the Republican Party patterned their ideal man on this mythology of the American cowboy. Men who could protect their families and communities if only the damn government would get out of the darn way. If only they could buy more guns for chrissakes.
This mythology is killing innocent Americans by the hundreds of thousands.
This mythology is killing us.