Tuesday, March 23, 2010
On Being A Closet Cowboy
The above photo by Craig Varjabedian. More from Craig by clicking the above photo to NPR's story titled Ghosts, Dudes And Ranches: A Large-Format View Of The American West.
I'm a Southern Boy at born and bred, I know every back road between Boone and Beaufort, and every small town from Transylvania County to Tallahassee Florida. I can talk like a redneck with the best of them, and frankly it comes so easy it scares me.
I know the difference between a Heifer and Hereford, polled and not. I can tell by feel if hay is ready for bailing, and I've had my arm up past my elbow in the back end of a cow just to check the health of an unborn cafe. I can steal a tractor with a penny and I know why a bush hog is fun and a hog in the bush is not.
I can ride and shoot, but I draw the line at skinning a deer, but I've always considered myself a cowboy even if only the closet variety.
Now for the last 25 years I've worn a suit and tie, my Lexus SUV is about as close to driving a Ford 150 as I could get. The family farm, about 16 miles south of Charlotte was sold in 1989. But my mind clings to the sounds, and smells of farm life and I long for days of tractors and fresh cut fields.
So, when it comes to farms frankly the bigger the farm the better and I've always thought bigger as in Texas bigger would be best.
But a few years ago this Carolina boy and Texas had a meeting of the minds, some people would call it a "God Smack" a point in your life when realize you have it pretty good and you step back and say damn!
I was hired to conduct a number of meetings for a large international company. The meetings were to be held in person and at a time most convenient for the employees. So part of the deal meant that I would conduct meetings at the end of a dozen or so 3rd shifts.
The company made things easy. paid all of my expenses and even agreed to fly me to the most remote parts of "West Texas" in one of the company planes.
Odessa was the closest commercial airport, I took a Southwest flight and set up house keeping in the airport hotel. The plan was simple, starting early on a Monday morning, one of the company's corporate planes, a twin engine Beechcraft Baron would pick me up and start flying me to several smaller airports during a week long "roll out" in Texas. The Baron is a fast and stable way to get around a state that is just plain big.
The first day my pilot Tom Crawford picked me up in his Ford 150 super cab for the short drive to the corporate aircraft ramp on the other side of the airport. Along the way Tom offered little conversation.
A short while later we were flying across the pitch dark state of Texas.
The Baron isn't quiet but any means but after climb out conversation is easy enough. In the red glow of the cockpit lights Tom's face showed his age, I'd guess he was about 60, the tooth pick in his mouth I was convinced was surgically implanted since it never never fell out even when he spoke.
Where you from? Tom asked
"Charlotte" I answered.
"North Carolina huh?" Asked Tom.
"Never been there" Said Tom.
"How about you Tom where are you from?" I pressed as if his accent could be from anywhere but Texas.
"Here" Said Tom.
Nothing was said for the longest time as the two Continental twin engines kept the plane soaring across the darkness of Texas. Small clusters of lights followed by miles of nothing not even farms just mile after mile at 200 miles hour of nothing.
What did you do before you became a pilot? I ventured.
"I was a cowboy in West Texas". Replied Tom looking out into the darkness.
"And before that?" I asked hoping to keep the conversation going.
He paused and looked my way. It was that Billy Crystal meets Charlton Heston moment in City Slickers.
He smiled paused and finally said:
"Before that???? I was a cowboy in West Texas".
It took him a while but before we started to land I learned he had served in Vietnam, had married his college sweetheart. They met at the University of Oklahoma, where they both had a full ride on of all things a Rodeo Scholarship.
And I remember thinking "My God this is a real modern Cowboy". Calf roping, bull riding, Ford 150 driving, Beechcraft Baron flying toothpick chewing Cowboy!
Tom turned the digital dial on the aircraft's radio keyed the mike button and announced his intentions over the small airport's unicom radio frequency speaking to no one, since we were the only ones in the air for at least 100 miles in all directions:
"Number Two Dog Catcher inbound for runnnnnnway zer-ooooh five"
2DC was the tail number, officially called two Delta Charlie by the FAA.
The call is meant to alert any other traffic in the area of our position and direction, no response meant we had the entire airport to ourselves.
I glanced at the altimeter we were at 2500 feet and losing altitude fast. He banked the plane right to enter the landing pattern, changed radio frequencies and double clicked the mic which turned the lights up to medium intensity along the runway. I saw nothing but darkness for miles around as we rolled out on a heading of 050, far off the horizon offered the faint hint of the approaching dawn, down below nothing but desert darkness and thankfully a well defined and bordered in white lights a strip of ashpalt that was fast approaching.
The piston engines slowed to a low rumble as we touched down so softly I wasn't sure we had indeed landed. This was not USAirways slam it to the ground and announce your arrival flight, this was how a plane should land, the transition to earthbound life from flight was imperceviable.
A company truck pulled up to the plane as we exited I watched Tom make a mental note that I had opened the door to the Baron without effort. The overhead latch goes forward, and the car like side handle goes back. If you've done it enough it becomes second nature. If you're wet behind the ears you can lock yourself in and the corporate pilot has to reach across your lap to unjam the door.
On exiting a Beechcraft Baron you step out on to the wing, and that takes a little getting used to, and because the pilot climbs out after you, a number of first time passengers tend to take a fall. Before he could caution me I was standing on the tarmac.
In the airport lights Tom was now sizing me up.
"You a pilot?" He asked.
"Damn I would slept the whole way had I know that." Said Tom.
The drive to the company operation took less than five minutes and the meeting lasted from 6:00 until the start of the next shift.
At 7:30 I walked out into the light of a West Texas morning to find a parking lot of asphalt streaked with blowing sand. The two lane road was bordered by telephone poles that stretched as far as the eye could see. Scrub brush, tumble weeds and sand dunes flanked both sides of the road, in a never changing pattern of brown, tan and more brown speckled with catus.
I looked over my shoulder and with no one in sight I crossed the road to have a look.
If you stood looking down the road you would swear you were in North Carolina, somewhere along the outerbanks, a place where telephone poles are encircled by sand and just over the dunes the ocean.
On the other side of the road I followed a small gravel path up and over the dunes and on the other side for miles and miles there was nothing but West Texas desert. It was as impressive as in was stunning.
From the top of the dune, a good ten feet above the road, I turned to find Tom walking my way with tooth pick, sunglasses and his well stained cowboy hat.
"What ya looking for?" Asked Tom.
I laughed and told him the ocean
"The ocean? Son there ain't no ocean out there".
And I started to explain:
"You see where I'm from on the other side of sand dunes like these, there is an ocean. I know there wasn't one but just had to see for myself. If you where in North Carolina and climbed a dune like this on the other side for as far as you can see there is the Atlantic Ocean".
Tom pointed out there's an ocean out there, oh about 900 miles to the southeast and if I was thinking about walking there I better think it over just a little more.
I looked out across the very flat landscape knowing somewhere out there sat the Gulf of Mexico and I suddenly realized I was a long way from home.
West Texas is about as different as a place as I have ever been. West Texas is a big and empty place were people like Tom will tell you they were a cowboy in West Texas which means they are real coboys and chances are they were born that way.
And I'll tell you another thing there are no closet cowboys in West Texas.