What’s better than an old cowboy telling stories? Two old cowboys egging each other on!
In October, I was in Oklahoma City to speak at the Women Writing the West conference. One of the best parts of the WWW conferences is the field trips they include, usually to museums or art galleries that dive into the history and culture of that year’s conference host city.
That’s how I came to be wandering through the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum one chilly, bright morning. This huge museum explores multiple aspects of Oklahoma and the American West, from recreations of dwellings used by the many different indigenous cultures in the area, to a recreation of a frontier/pioneer town, to guns and cowboy hats used by famous Western performers, to artwork including some beautiful Remington bronzes and paintings.
I had let my group get ahead of me, and I was lingering in the section that focused on the uniquely American film genre of Westerns. Display after display showcased iconic Westerns and the actors who starred in them.
I had just admired a well-worn cowboy hat worn in several movies by Sam Elliot (he of the famous mustache and “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” voice) when I turned a corner and encountered a couple of western-attired gentlemen walking towards me. Museum credentials dangled from lanyards around their necks.
“Would you like to hear some cowboy stories from a couple of old cowboys?” one of them asked, his smile sunny and broad as the Oklahoma sky.
Would I? WOULD I?
I’m a writer of stories. I live and breathe stories. And I was there for a conference with a hundred other writers of stories.
So yes. I would love to hear stories from a couple of retired cowboys, thank you very much!
It turned out that the two of them not only knew their western history, but they also knew John Wayne’s granddaughter (who is on the board of the museum), who had shared plenty of stories about her famous grandpa with them.
One of my new cowboy friends was the more talkative of the two. The other, who looked like cowboying had taken a toll on his body over the years, didn’t say as much, but didn’t hesitate when the first said something he didn’t think was quite right.
Over the next 45 minutes, the two held forth for a captivated audience of one (me). They shared a trove of movie lore about John Wayne and his compatriots “back in the day,” pointed out a few “Easter eggs” to look for in certain of the Duke’s movies, and commened on some of the mistakes and myths Hollywood perpetuated about the American West and its people.
Occasionally, another museum-goer would wander by, dawdle long enough to eavesdrop for a story or two, then go on their merry way. But for the most part, I had these two friendly docents all to myself.
Eventually, I had to tear myself away from them in order to reunite myself with my fellow conference-goers on the tour bus.
Now, when I think of that morning in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, it’s not the displays I remember with clarity. It’s not even the details that those two retired cowboys told me.
It’s the way they told their stories that has stayed with me. The way one would start a story and the other would interrupt with a missed detail or misremembered fact, like long-time friends telling favorite stories. They way they seemed so happy to find someone willing to stop and listen to a couple of old cowboys. The way the talkative one laughed, and how the quieter one would look up at me from the corner of his eye to see if I believed his story or not.
The exhibitions and artifacts in that museum are important and valuable, and they help give us a sense of the different aspects of the American West. But artifacts are just objects behind glass.
The meaning comes from the stories attached to those artifacts.
And the magic and wonder come from the storytellers.