I was born to be a cowboy. Trouble is: I was born 100 years too late. Wild West showman, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, died in 1917, the year my father was born. U.S. Marshal and later New York City newspaperman Bat Masterson, passed on in 1921. And Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp who went from OK Corral fame in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, to become a Hollywood western movie advisor, was laid to rest in 1929, fourteen years before I came into this world.
As a boy in the 1950s, I spent my Saturday afternoons at the Hub Theater in Sea Breeze, New York, a suburb of Rochester, which is where I grew up. For twenty cents I could watch Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, or Roy Rogers run a gang of desperadoes out of town or round up an ornery herd of stampeding cattle.
Later I became entranced with John Wayne, America’s real western hero. Today, when I watch the Duke’s old movies, I can still recite his lines before he does. Wayne, who met Wyatt Earp when they both worked for Tom Mix at Fox Studios, said that he had modeled his onscreen lawman persona based on the legendary gunfighter’s advice.
As I grew older—I never grew up—I became a student of the Old West and discovered some fascinating connections to Back East. For example: Buffalo Bill Cody, the illustrious frontiersman, Army scout, buffalo hunter, cowboy, wagon master, stage coach driver, Pony Express rider, and the grandest of showmen, lived in Rochester from 1873 to 1877. His only son, Kit Carson Cody, named after the elder Cody’s legendary frontier friend and mentor, died of scarlet fever at age five in 1876 and is buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery alongside two of his sisters.
Infamous Western lawman and gunfighter, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, performed onstage at a Rochester opera house along with Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro in Ned Buntline’s cornball production of “Scouts of the Prairie” for a spell in 1874. Several months before, Hickok had surrendered his city marshal’s badge in Abilene, Kansas, after fatally shooting his own deputy, Mike Williams, who he mistook for an outlaw. Wild Bill had developed glaucoma and didn’t recognize his deputy in the dimly lit street.
Hickok never drew his guns on another man again, but after causing a scuffle that resulted in a brush with the law in Binghamton, New York, 6-foot, 2-inch, Wild Bill Hickok became disenchanted with Eastern civilization and returned to the still-wild West where he was shot to death during a card game in Deadwood, South Dakota, two years later at age 39.
I’m in my 70s now and my dream has pretty much come true. I’ve owned five saddle horses over the years and have had plenty of range to ride. I own a hand-tooled saddle, three six-shooters, two lever-action carbines, a fringed-and-beaded buckskin plains jacket modeled after Buffalo Bill’s own, a pair of bull-hide leather chaps and matching saddle bags, five cowboy hats, seven pairs of pointy-toed cowboy boots, and a collection of twelve U.S. Marshal, Sheriff, and Texas Ranger badges. Occasionally I’ve ridden herd on my neighbor’s beef cattle, though not enough to run their weight off since they’re eventually headed to market.
Had life dealt a different hand, I might have headed West. But my roots are too deep. So now I’m content to ride the range where the Finger Lakes Region meets Western New York’s Southern Tier. Because I was born to be a cowboy. Yep. Sure was, I reckon.