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Playin’ cowboy

Erica Ramsey Louder for Progressive Cattle Published on 10 February 2021

My grandpa was a teenager during WWII. It wasn’t an easy time to grow up. His older brother was off to war, and he found himself doing the work of a grown man at an age when most boys are just entering high school. But, to ask him, he didn’t mind it much, especially when that work was cowboy work.

When he was young, he had some dreams of owning a ranch, but born poor, he knew that dream was probably out of reach. In his life, he did a lot of cowboying, owned some cattle for a time but was mostly a jack-of-all-trades. He shoed horses, cut meat and logged old timber forests. Late in his life, he took up the most Western of entertainments: cowboy poetry. It showed all of us that, had he been an educated man, he might have found a career in writing.

As a first-generation rancher and somewhat of an aspiring writer, I find myself thinking about my grandpa Ramsey a lot. I like to think I’m doing the work that, had he been born in a different time, would have suited him. Maybe it’s his legacy shining through me; I don’t know. But, I often turn to his anthology of poetry for inspiration for my writing. Today, as I flipped through it, a piece he wrote in August 1994 called “Playin’ Cowboy” made me smile. I think the appeal of the western lifestyle is as alive today as it was in that young boy’s heart nearly eighty years ago.

Playin’ Cowboy

When I was young, my goal in life was to be a cowboy.

To set on a horse, or pick up a rope would fill my heart with joy.


Why, I’d work for nothing both night and day and furnish my own gear 

To get to go and eat trail dust at a round-up every year.


Or help brand and dehorn calves and sort the cows and steers 

‘Till streaks of mud rolled down my face when brandin’ dust caused tears.


But we all grow up and the day did come I must face the facts of life.

It’s time I decide to settle down and get myself a wife.


Well, sure we would like to have a ranch and start a payin’ spread, 

But we realized after the interest is paid, we couldn’t buy a loaf of bread.


So, we’ll just work for some big outfit, they can furnish us with a home. 

Why not? Half the time I’m off driving truck, and my wife is there alone.


And there’s more time spent on a mowin’ machine than ever on a horse. 

Days don’t end and weeks roll by, and holidays worked, of course.


Can’t help but wonder why a man would want this way to live. 

Ain’t gettin’ rich and not gainin’ a thing, this job is give and give.


I’ve got a wife and little kids that would like some time with me,

And the boss has got a thousand cows tellin’ me where to be.


The first of the month I draw a check, and start all over once again. 

With twelve starts every year, no wonder I can’t win.


One day, I tell my wife and kids – “pack up!” I don’t see no other way. 

I’m going to tell the boss that tomorrow is my last day.


Then off to a forty-acre farm at the edge of town. 

Small payments every month and very little down.


That old farm had been for sale for a while, and they hadn’t got no bids, 

But we ain’t lookin’ for a place to farm, just a place to raise our kids.


So, I go to work in a meat-packing plant. It’s a job that I can do. 

That’s where them old cows wind up, why not wind up there too?


It’s some different than cowboyin’, quittin’ in the middle of the day.

No weekend or holidays worked, and bringin’ home more pay!


So, I spend spare time with my kids, raisin’ calves and shoein’ horses too. 

Buyin’ more horses and building corrals, a regular family to-do.


But I miss the horses and open range, the smell of sage and pine. 

These things that you just don’t forget, just by the passing time.


Now we’re breakin’ colts and ridin’ trails across the mountains high, 

And spendin’ some weekends campin’ out underneath the star-filled sky.


That same big sky cowboys sleep under with a saddle blanket for a bed. 

And we dream of the same old things as visions fill our head.


The girls ride in a 4-H group. Me and the boys go ropin’ steers. 

We pack into the mountains, huntin’ elk. We’ve been doing that for years.


So, you see, we’re all the same, we like the same old toys, 

Just leave that old cow out of it, and we are all just boys.

—Bill Ramsey, August 1994 

NOTE: Formatting of the poem was changed for viewability.

Erica Ramsey Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.