One of my dear daddy's favorite authors was Stephen Bly, who also happens to be a pal of mine. Steve and his wife, Janet, live in a tiny town where Steve is the minister, the mayor, the novelist-in-residence, and the justice of the peace. He writes westerns, and I've invited him to stop by to tell us something about his latest.
Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon/Novel As Memoir
By Stephen Bly
The Matador Hotel died on July 5th, 1965, but they
didn’t bother burying it until last fall.
The plot for Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon developed like homemade stew in a crockpot. A slow simmer. Then, the image of the 1950s kitchen filled with sweet aromas and sights and sounds. Hours later all the parts seemed ready.
The story grew out of fond memories from my childhood. What makes it real personal is that I was 10-years-old in 1954, just like the narrator. And I did hear numerous accounts about the “old days.” At that time, Johnny Appleseed was a legendary hero. I learned about him at the knee of my Indiana grandma. She figured anyone who dedicated himself to planting apple trees must be a good guy.
I often get asked where I grew up. Readers of my westerns suppose I was born and raised in some rough and tumble part of the west amid gunfights and wild adventures. Well, they’re somewhat right. Home for me was a ranch north of Visalia, California, in the great San Joaquin Valley.
“That doesn’t sound like the wild west,” they say.
They’re wrong. From Joaquin Murietta to the Dalton Brothers, Visalia Saddles to the Miller and Lux Ranch. . .that valley’s filled with western history. One of my favorite tales involved the gunfight and capture of Sontag and Evans at Stone Corral, a few miles down the road from our home.
Cribbage and cowboys. . .I figured I fit right in.
It seems quite natural for me to write about a grandpa and the game of cribbage. My grandpa taught me to play when I was 4-years-old. I played him once or twice a week until he died when I turned 15. In the book Pop’s name is Theodore and his wife is Katie, same as my grandparents.
Talk slow and think deep. It’s part of the Code of the West. Some scoff at the notion of an unwritten set of rules that honest men lived by. Politically correct history books deny the Code’s existence. Those authors and professors didn’t grow up in the West. I remember in the mid-1980s standing at the graveside of my uncle. At the time, his place encompassed around 14,000 acres. As I looked down at the coffin of my Uncle Buster, an old-timer slid up beside me. “He was a good man, son. He lived by the Code.”
There’s a quiet buzz from antique ceiling fans, like six thousand crickets, all out of tune. You don’t even notice, until there’s silence.
Woolworth’s department stores provided lots of pleasure for kids like me. Like a Dollar Store, they included a soda fountain lunch counter, better merchandise, and a friendly clerk behind every counter. By 2001 the company focused on sporting goods and changed its name to Foot Locker Inc. A classic example of a company that adapted to the market needs.
In today’s consumer shopping mall world, it’s hard for some to envision the incredible thrill of merchandise-packed Five & Dimes. I couldn’t believe so many products existed. I’m not sure kids today can experience anything near that excitement. A $.49 badge? That’s what Little Brother, the 10-year-old narrator, gets. A little spendy for 1954. I remember getting a 25-cent a week allowance, provided I did all my chores, in a time when $1.00 per hour provided a decent wage.
My bedroom teemed with White Owl cigar boxes, my granddad’s favorite cigar. He didn’t smoke them much; mainly he chewed them. And because I lived across the road from him, I got many of his boxes. Lots of childhood treasures can be stored in a cigar box.
Folks today think that 1954 existed in some other galaxy, on some other planet. Maybe they’re right. It’s hard to believe that world and this one are made of the same stuff.
I can’t tell you about television in 1954. We didn’t have one yet. Didn’t matter. Didn’t need one. When I came home from school, I did chores or played outside until dark and Mom made me come indoors. Now, that does sound like a century ago.
I did not know cowboys named Quirt, Bronc, Thad, Shorty, Coosie or Pop. But I knew men much like them. In fact, most folks called my Grandpa Wilson “Pop.” I once met an old-timer in Magdalena, New Mexico, who had been a sheriff in the 1930s. He still packed a pistol and watched the door, just in case someone he sent to prison got out and scouted him for revenge. I based my character, Quirt Payton, on him.
All the aged cowboys I ever met wore long-sleeved shirts, usually some faded shade of white, with the collar buttoned. This kept the dirt out when he rode down the trail or behind a herd of slow moving cows. Also, an old beat-up Stetson and yellowed cigarettes stained their fingers.
I don’t suppose the current generation has ever ridden in the open trunk of a car, nor let the air down in the tires to drive down a railroad track (and they call skateboarding an extreme sport). At one point, the six cowboys in the novel, plus Miss Diane Anderson, and the boy narrator, pile into a ’49 Plymouth, without seatbelts. I could have been the poster child for the need of such safety devices. I fell out of my parents’ car, going about 55 miles per hour, in 1949. I spent 10 days in the hospital nursing a major concussion.
At least one of the stories happened to me. In 1994, in Telluride, I was told by the hotel clerk I couldn’t get a room. He intimated I wasn’t their kind. My gruffy appearance after a week’s research in the wilds didn’t impress them. So, I drove all the way to Cortez for a room, arriving about midnight. To say I was ticked is an understatement.
It’s like I’m right there in the room with these old-timers. Some of these scenes I do recall first-hand. I remember going to see a friend of my grandfather’s at a 4-story hotel in central California in the mid-1950s. His room was carpeted with out-dated newspapers that he hadn’t got around to reading yet. Such images last forever.
My favorite things to do when the weather threatens and I can’t play golf: oil the saddles, clean the Winchesters, or write a novel about the Old West.
In Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon I discover that maybe I wasn’t born 100 years too late.