Growing Up True

Lessons from a Western Boyhood


Frank and Erik thought that a person could become a man if he was to fix fence; pull wire, skin logs; wear out the gloves. My mother thought that same person would develop moral character if he would carry water to her maple saplings. Not the close ones by the house, she said, but the far ones, over by Savage’s wheat. My father said a small person should learn to plan ahead, think a problem through, be lighthearted, cheerful, ready to help whenever needed. It would also be good to do the algebra homework, and geography, too, and it would be good to clean the barn, and it would be good not to be so sullen on just any old gray February afternoon.

Which was fine. But a man needs the thin edge of the sword every now and then. My father said, well, forget the sword this is not Horatio Hornblower country. Swing a sword around here and you might stick a chicken. So there was the real world and there was my world. I was ready to cast away on a frigate for the Indies but the only water around was the Highline Canal which was dry all winter and in summer washed up at City Park lake in downtown Denver, definitely not the Indies. I wanted to twirl from a lanyard in a typhoon, maybe save a king. Nobody in Arapahoe County knew what a lanyard was, but it was right near there with great waves and winds and frigates and some kings and I liked the combination. Well, said the father—who substituted for king in most situations—the rains come and the winds blow and the universe does not stand still for small boys who swagger. Cheer up and pull the weeds in the asparagus.

This is to say that in cottonwood country there was no way for an ordinary boy to become a man without serious mental bending. Frank said to skip the Woolworth’s candy, “leave it lie,” he said, and “save your egg money for college.” Erik said that if a person was to clean his chicken coop and keep the boards tight on the hog pen and keep the irrigation ditch cleaned, all on a regular basis, this would be a person who pretty much had the makings. Work and Erik were like slop and hogs. He thought it would be honorable to die of exhaustion. “Get it done now ... won’t have to do it tomorrow,” he said.

It didn’t make any difference, as far as I could tell. Tomorrow, there was always plenty of wire still to pull. Erik just naturally liked to sweat and huff and pull and yank on things. My father was a victim of the same attitude. He said, “try holding off acting brave and proud, swaggering your hips when you are only carrying water buckets to the pig. Brave and proud is not needed to slop the hog.“

Out where we lived, the most important things were wheat and calves and a long walk under the cottonwoods to school. In spring the wheat greens up slow and in fall the leaves brown down slow. Summer races by too fast to get a grip before Fair is over and Curtis School begins its annual program of small boy mind numbing. I never saw a stage coach hold up or a real shoot out or a revolution to overthrow the Mexican government. We never discovered gold after 1858 and there had not been a calf rustling even in the memory of Mrs. Fredrickson. If Fredrickson did not know, it was not known. There was therefore almost nothing ever to be brave and proud about except sneaking up on ground squirrels or winning a horse race or surviving the great Big Bend disaster of Carlos Rhea.

Still somehow I eked brave and proud from nothing. This is the story of how I did it. Other people have the fortune to grow up deprived. They can complain and snicker and dishonor the rich. We grew up lucky. Enough money for weekly hamburgers. Snickering generally disapproved of. Every advantage except one and this was permanent. I was the youngest. The two older boys sat through and passed Mrs. Post's math class with flying colors, like they were born to know certain stuff. They could also turn a lathe and they could ride Smoky the gray mare like Apaches on the wind. I could ride that mare until I hit the sharp turn at the Big Bend and fell off. I could not pound a ten-penny spike worth a darn. It was too big and I was too small. Things like that upset a man. Over the years it was pretty much the same. No matter how much smarter I got, they kept out there ahead, like lead cranes in a “v” going south and I flaggle flapped along behind.

My father said I could learn how “cheerfulness comes from work,” sort of like freedom from slavery. So this book is about how cheerful comes when a person is corral gate high until he gets to about the age where he starts pressing his Levis to impress certain people of the other type who stand by the fence and watch when he goes past. This is cottonwood and wheat country, the 1940s, the Great War just over. The time we got was borrowed from a world that was always fighting. My parents were trying to make me reasonably honest, honorable, hard working and humble. I was just a little attracted by what is wicked and famous. It took awhile to get everybody stretching the same wire.