When I was a young boy, there was no greater adventure in the world than visiting my grandparents’ ranch in Eastern Montana. Among the things that made this place magical were the people who populated the area, including a kid my age named Kelly Kornaman. Kelly was a typical ranch kid…tough but shy, quiet but very easy to talk to once you got to know him. He had a perfectly round face, and a high cackling laugh that always made me laugh along with him.
Once when I was about eight, my grandfather dropped me off at the Kornaman’s to spend the day, and Kelly asked me whether I’d ever ridden a calf before. I had not, but was always eager to try something new, especially if it would give me the credibility I craved from someone like Kelly Kornaman.
He decided we were going to have our own little rodeo, fixing me up with chaps and spurs, then guiding one of their calves into a chute behind their barn and instructing me on how to clamp down with my knees and get a good grip on the strap he’d attached around the calf’s torso.
I smashed my straw cowboy hat tight onto my head, and when I gave him a nod, he threw the gate open. The calf bolted out of that chute like a racehorse, and for the first thirty feet, although it was a rough ride, I hung on. But all of a sudden, the calf stopped dead, and I went flying over his head, landing flat on my stomach. My legs flew up behind me, and my spurs smacked me right in the back.
The impact knocked the wind out of me to the point where I couldn’t breathe in or out at all. Kelly rolled me over onto my back, and I was convinced I was about to die. I think he must have agreed, because the next thing I knew he was crying. What happened next pushed this story into family lore on both sides. For some reason, Kelly decided to take off my boots. His father was watching the whole thing from the barn. From then on, with a hearty laugh, Mr. Kornaman told the story of how Kelly wasn’t about to let me die with my boots on.
I always considered it nothing more than an amusing anecdote, but the older I get, the more I recognize that it was just one example among many of what a unique experience it is to grow up in the West, especially as a man.
My father spent a good portion of his young adult life dreaming of being a cowboy. It was a dream he inherited from his own father, who moved his family back and forth from Oregon to Wyoming several times during my father’s childhood, alternately taking jobs as a welder in the shipyards in Oregon, and surrendering to the allure of making a living on the back of a horse. This was during the Depression, and my grandfather’s inability to stay in one place put a constant strain on his family as he carted his seven children from the good pay of the shipyards to barely scraping by breaking horses and working as a ranch hand wherever he could find a bunk. It’s hard to imagine now how they managed to survive.
When I was ten, my father followed in his own father’s footsteps, walking away from a good job teaching sixth grade in Sheridan, Wyoming to manage a ranch owned by construction magnate, Peter Keiwitt. It was a beautiful ranch tucked into the Big Horn Valley between Sheridan and Billings, Montana. But what my father didn’t know was that the hands who had worked for Keiwitt for years expected one of their own to get his job. The rest of the community knew this as well. We were not greeted warmly. In fact, with the exception of a handful of kind people, we were snubbed from the moment we arrived. Some of it was blatant, such as not being invited to functions. But mostly it was subtle, with the locals treating us as if we were invisible. As if we simply weren’t there.
Just before we found out we were moving, I had convinced my mother to buy me my very first pair of loafers. Because I had narrow feet, and my mother was very diligent about getting shoes that fit properly, I had been relegated to wearing the only shoes that came in narrow sizes in our little shoe store in Sheridan, Wyoming: black oxfords. But that year, they finally got a shipment of loafers in narrow sizes, and I was so happy. When I walked into that one-room school on my first day, I looked around to see that all of the other boys were wearing boots. It was just one of many ways that I stuck out as different in this community.
But it was worse for my father. The men working for him often simply ignored his instructions. Or did the work half-assed so that he had to re-do what they’d done. Being his oldest son, I can imagine how he approached the situation. He was uncomfortable with authority, and didn’t like telling people what to do, or confronting problems directly. He wasn’t even well suited for the job. I’m sure he approached these men with humor, and a quiet charm. They may have even liked him, but their behavior indicated that there was no respect at all. I knew him well enough to know that this ate him up inside.
To make matters worse, my mother had grown up on a ranch, and never wanted to live on one again. When she met my father, he was studying to be a teacher, and that suited her aspirations perfectly. My mother liked card parties, and other social gatherings. She was very happy in Sheridan. This move put a strain on their marriage, much as my grandfather’s decisions had done all those years before.
A few years ago, my father told me that the pressure of the situation got so bad that he drove to Sheridan one day, to the VA hospital, and told the woman at the reception desk that he needed help.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just need to talk to someone.”
The receptionist was apparently not the sympathetic type, because she told him that if he didn’t know what was wrong, there was nothing they could do for him. My father was not the most assertive man under the best of circumstances. He didn’t insist. Instead, he left the building and broke down crying on the front steps.
Thinking back, I have often wondered what it would have been like if my father and I had the kind of relationship where we talked about how hard it was not being accepted by the people around us. Instead, both of us carried the burden of loneliness and rejection as if we were in a solitary cocoons, feeling flawed for having perfectly human emotions.
The fact that my father asked for help shows how different he was from most men of his generation. This was the 1960s, in rural Wyoming, a place where men are expected to pull their boots on every day and show up. My father struggled throughout his life with the stereotypes that we grow up with in the West. He joined the rodeo team when he was in college, and when it became clear that he would probably never be one of the better riders, he instead took on the role of the rodeo clown. It suited him perfectly, because he was an extremely gifted athlete, and a man of great humor. He became very popular on the college rodeo circuit until a bull stepped on him and broke his ribs. I was a baby then, and my mother put her foot down and insisted that he give it up.
One of my father’s favorite routines was coming out with a big fake gun and bragging to the rodeo announcer about what a great shot he was. Of course the announcer would question him about this claim until he finally took aim and fired the gun. He performed this routine in the Bozeman Fieldhouse, an indoor arena. After he fired, he would point to various parts of the arena as if he were following the path of the shot. And finally, a friend who had climbed up onto the catwalk above would drop a couple of fake ducks that my mother had made out of corduroy and feathers. This was a perfect fit for my father. It allowed him to become accepted by the men who were idolized for their courage and skill, while also poking fun at the macho image that is so pervasive here. He always talked about it as one of the best experiences of his life.
Although my father and I later became much more adept at talking about things, there was always a certain cowboy mentality that provided a quiet undercurrent to our lives, both as father and son and as men alone in the world. The fear of being revealed as human beings with deep feelings kept us silent far too often, and also led others to believe that we were just fine, even when we weren’t. That we didn’t need anything. That we would eventually catch our breath, pull on our boots, and get back to the business of living. It’s a quality that is prevalent here, and I think it carries with it a heavy price that has yet to be properly acknowledged or explored. Montana, the state where I live, has the highest suicide rate in the country, despite its reputation for being one of most beautiful places in the world. A lot of it, I think, has to do with the fact that we in the West are expected to climb back on that calf and ride it again, without complaint, without any talk about how much it hurts. We’re expected to keep our boots on and just keep riding.