She’s singing the cowboy blues

When I was a kid growing up on a Saskatchewan farm there were no colleges offering a two-week course in wilderness guiding and wrangling even if you had the $3500 tuition fee. So the Saturday I came home from a Roy Rogers’ matinee wishing I could live the life of Dale Evans without the fringes, I was on my own.

When I was a kid growing up on a Saskatchewan farm there were no colleges offering a two-week course in wilderness guiding and wrangling even if you had the $3500 tuition fee. So the Saturday I came home from a Roy Rogers’ matinee  wishing I could live the life of Dale Evans without the fringes, I was on my own.

Between the movie and reading westerns such as Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” (available as a pocketbook from Kellogg’s in return for 25 cents and two cereal box tops) I figured cowboys rode horses, played guitars, and drank their coffee black. Who couldn’t train to do that?

Dad had upgraded to a John Deere D tractor but still owned seven draft horses, each weighing slightly less than a CNR steam locomotive with hooves the size of its drive wheels. These Percherons and Clydesdales had three speeds — park, plod, or gallop if a horse fly blundered into their nose bag during haying or harvest.

Nonetheless, this was to be my remuda. I chose as my mount Dolly, a six-year-old mare with a placid demeanour.

Not only was I oblivious to horse size, (I had only one size to choose from) but my knowledge of saddles was even skimpier. In a back shed hung the saddle Mom had used in her single days when she rode a pony to visit neighbours or to herd cattle.

Had I been able to sling the weight of the saddle to the mare’s back it would have perched there like a circus clown’s tiny bowler hat. Her suspicious snorting led me to conclude she did not aim to be helpful.

But surely a saddle didn’t make a cowboy? I would ride bareback. My sister, six years younger, rode bareback. Why couldn’t I? Well, for starters, she could leap and lift her weight off the ground. Not me. On trips to the city I took along a stool for climbing curbs.

Undeterred, I bridled Dolly and by crowding her close to a barbed wire fence managed to climb on… only to fall off her other side.

After regaining my breath and a horizontal horizon, I got up and tried again. Ditto outcome. The mare’s Jumbo-wide back made my legs stick straight out. My only grip was a fistful of mane.

Repeated falls shifted both my spine and my strategy. I would instead approach my goal in stages. First I would learn to drink my coffee black.From the day we graduated from the high chair we drank breakfast coffee, mixed for us by Mom or Grandma, with plenty of sugar and milk.

Like all families of the time, Mom boiled coffee in a coffeepot each morning adding more fresh grounds and water, until by week’s end there was little space for more of either. Only then was the pot emptied and washed.

Our coffeepot, brought from Sweden by emigrating grandparents,  was made of aluminum with an arching handle and a flange around the bottom so that if you removed the stove lid the pot fit down snugly an inch closer to the coals.

My family was not one to remark on every little thing we did, so no one asked why I was scrunching up my face as I choked down black coffee.

Weeks after switching to black coffee I had a chance to visit a guitar-playing cousin for several days during the Saskatoon Exhibition. She taught me to chord sliding a bar up or down across the neck of the instrument. She also taught me to finger several chords by holding down individual strings. Depressing fine wire strings without protective calluses was more painful than doing without sugar and milk in my coffee. Returning home, my dream was now thwarted  by lack of a pony, a saddle, and a guitar.

Fortunately, our parents supported us in our musical ambitions, no matter how embryonic. Soon I was building calluses practicing on a secondhand guitar. Lucky for family, singing wasn’t mandatory to achieving cowboy status.