About year and a half ago, I poked my dad in the shoulder. “Dad, I need to go on a—“ I held my fingers in the air—invisible quotation marks. “‘Research’ trip to Texas.” He stood up and ran his fingers along the inside of his belt. “When’re we leaving?”
My dad grew up the son of a Texas barber. To find and keep steady work following the Depression, my dad’s parents stayed close to military bases in and around west Texas. That meant that my dad grew up working the oil fields and playing football on dusty stretches of pasture. Which meant I grew up listening to stories about Texas.
As a kid, all I ever wanted to be was a cowboy. Some of my earliest memories include me wearing boots, a hat, a two holster belt and footed pajamas. My favorite book was The Brave Cowboy by Joan Walsh Anglund followed closely by Louis La’Mour and The Sacketts. Wasn’t long after that I graduated to movies—I remember watching Rio Lobo with a bucket of popcorn on my lap in the San Marco theatre. I cried the first time I saw John Wayne die in The Cowboys and when the bartender shot him in the back in The Shootist, I sobbed so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. As a teenager, I teared up when Josey Wales rode off into the sunset, the blood dripping off his boot. And as a freshman in college, my heart broke when Tommy Lee Jones lie in the river and held Robert Duvall’s mummified body at the conclusion of Lonesome Dove.
Let me put this in perspective for you—when I was about ten, give or take, I was in my room getting ready for school and listening to the radio. The station was set to the same station all my friends listened to cause that was cool—some rock station with an obnoxious DJ. Anyway, I was rocking out when my dad passed by my room en route to the kitchen. He stuck his head in my door, listened, then adjusted the dial. “Son, you can listen to this—“ If I remember right it was Sandy Patty on some Christian station. “Or—“ He turned the knob and, said, “This.” So help me, this is what I heard. “Cowboys ain’t easy to love and they’re harder to hold.” (For those of you who don’t know, that’s Waylon and Willie singing, ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.’) I nodded at the radio. “That.” And it stayed there through high school and college and if you press me I can still recite most of Garth Brooks‘ ‘Cowboy Bill‘ by heart.
Cowboys with their stubborn notions and their slow-moving ways weren’t just a passing fancy at my house and if you think this affection has left me, it hasn’t. Last year, when Jeff Bridges starred in the remake of True Grit, my boys and I were sitting in the first showing opening night.
We drove west on I-10 out of Florida, through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana,then on into Texas, through Dallas, Fort Worth, and finally onto old Highway 180 which took us through map dots like Weatherford, Mineral Wells, Palo Pinto, Caddo, Snyder and then up to Post and Fluvana. We drove slowly, took our time, and stopped at every historical marker we saw. I quit counting after fifty. The further into Texas we drove, the more stories I heard. We passed the great Fort Worth Stockyards, the small building where my grandfather had his barber shop and where I—in the recesses of my mind—can remember sitting in his chair while he stropped his razor and then rubbed that warm cream on my neck. We drove past towns and fields where dad had played football, dated girls and survived a car wreck caused by a drunk man on a horse.
We detoured south to Waco and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame. Then San Antone and the Alamo where I remembered my fist visit there as a kid when I stared out across that little wall, standing alongside Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston as Santa Anna and all of Mexico bore down on us.
Several days into our trip, somewhere out Hwy 180, in a section of highway known only to deer and God, we stopped to read an historical marker at a fallen down windmill and an upturned piece of stone. Shrub brush, tumbleweeds, barbed wire and the smell of cows. Sat up on a small rise, Texas stretching out for sixty miles in either direction. Turns out that watering hole was once a stop on the Pony Express. The Pony Express! I remember tipping my hat, staring east, then west and imagining a lone rider, armed with little more than a couple of pistols and a rifle, maybe a days’ rations, dust swirling behind him, a girl somewhere waiting for him—the wind tugging at a yellow ribbon in her hair. I remember hearing the echo of Glen Ford quoting Tennyson to Tom Selleck and Ben Johnson in the made for TV movie, Sacketts: Fill the can and fill the cup, all the windy ways of man are but dust, that rises up and is lightly laid again. Then I remember taking off my hat and thinking, “This right here—this is Texas.”
When my dad and I got to Fluvana, he began looking out the window and then said, “Slow down.” From there I followed his finger. “Pull off.” We drove up a narrow, red dirt road barricaded by rusty, slow-moving oil derricks. Silent sentinels. Dad nodded. “We built that one. And that one.” I took his picture. A few hundred yards later, he pointed below the truck. “After work, I’d put on my cleats and run wind sprints right here.” (Dad later earned a scholarship to the University of Florida—which explains why I’m writing this from Florida and not Texas) Out the windshield, the Llano Estacado, the southern tip of the Great Plains, rose up like a giant wall climbing several hundred vertical feet in the air. Around the next turn, a dilapidated, white bunk house, sat concealed and flaking in the brush. A well, outhouse and windmill off to one side. Dad smiled.
Back in Fort Worth—on what happened to be the night of the historic Fort Worth Rodeo—we starched our Wranglers, polished our boots, pulled our hats down tight, ate a steak and clanked our beer bottles at the Stockyards Hotel bar before hitching a ride downtown to the same coliseum where my dad fought in the golden gloves sixty years prior.
In two weeks, we put over four thousand magical miles on my truck.
As a kid, I placed the cowboy on a pedestal for the same reasons that all of us did. As an adult driving across Texas, I began articulating a question that had been on the tip of my tongue for the better part of a couple of years: what good is it if he (the cowboy) is real good at fighting with his hands, but can’t hit the broad side of barn with his heart? I operate on the fundamental assumption that the most powerful weapon in the universe is not a man with a gun, or a tank, or a nuclear bomb, but that pumping thing in the center of our chest. Battles might be won with weaponry, but wars are won with heart.
Us guys like to watch movies and read books about the baddest dudes on the planet who can fight all of Russia and China with one arm tied behind their back. Admittedly, I am one of them. Ask Christy, she will confirm this. We’ll be lying in bed, I’m flipping channels, and I turn and say, “You want to watch xyz movie?” She lifts one eyebrow, glancing over the page of her book. “How many people die?”
Admittedly, when the movie ends, we are left with a man who is good at fighting with his fists. Not his heart. (Yes, there are exceptions.) And while that is cool, it is of limited value.
We forget this part.
So, driving east on I-10, Texas in my rear view, I got to thinking—What if I could write about a guy who is wrestling with that very idea and, yet, sees his own weakness—that he only lives out of half his heart? Who knows that despite his professionalism and proficiency and accomplishment, he is, at best, half a man living with the constant ache and knowledge that he is half-dead. (There is a reason for this.) Before I’d crossed the Texas/Louisiana line, I’d decided that that man’s story would be a story I’d like to write.
“Thunder and Rain” is that story.
You might find my romantic notions a bit corny, but it’s out of that romance that “Thunder and Rain” grew. It’s wrapped around my DNA. Unwind it and you might as well take the words out of the book—leaving you with a sketchpad.
For those of you that I’ve turned off with the knowledge that I’ve written a book about a cowboy, don’t worry. Christy liked it and she’s s tougher critic than most of you. (Note: I said, ‘most.’)
The cowboy, both the real one and the idealized one inside my head, spoke something my insides needed to hear. Something I’ve tried to put into the pages of this book. It’s a story that’s been bubbling in me a long, long time. Readers routinely ask me, ‘What’s your favorite book?‘ My answer is simple—You might as well line up my three boys and ask me who I love the most. An impossibility. But, I will say this—finishing “Thunder and Rain” did something deep in me that no book yet has done.
“Thunder and Rain” is on shelves as of April 1st, 2012.