Cowboy Hat Story

In 1968, the pop-art maven Andy Warhol famously predicted everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Five years before that, I had experienced my first fifteen minutes. I didn’t like it much.

In 1963 I turned twenty. And sold a 120,000-word novel to the first publisher I showed it to. Since my family was what you’d call working-class poor, I was laser-focused on the money — a $2700 first check, two hundred dollars more than my annual newspaper copy-boy salary. It never occurred to me news of my feat would subject me to close, and not completely flattering, public scrutiny. The sudden attention made me uncomfortably self-conscious. The first bright glare of publicity — and the discomfort — was delivered in a column by the newspaper’s Sunday editor.

Charlie was a Sunday fixture with a wide following, smugly certainty his own writing was good as Hemingway’s, whom he tended to emulate. When he learned the copy boy had sold a novel, it affected his world-view. Overnight he graciously accepted me as his equal, confessed his own long-held aspirations to being a famous novelist, and confided every hack in the building secretly harbored the same dream despite lacking the requisite artistry he — and I — possessed. When he interviewed me for his column he positioned himself as my avuncular advisor, cautioning some resented my success so much they’d try to tear me down. While others would suck up, basking in reflected glory. I may have been very young but I was not an idiot, and I assigned him to the latter category.

Then the Sunday column hit. For the first time I saw myself described in cold print by an expert in condescension. Did Charlie have to mention my belly bulging over my Western belt buckle? It was only a slight bulge, and only when I didn’t sit up straight. Was I really sullen and remote in my answers? Worst of all, the “candid” shot by a staff photographer made me look like a chinless country bumpkin in a cowboy hat and plaid shirt.

Yes, I wore my cowboy hat on my drive to work in the city though I lived in a beach town two doors from the Atlantic, not on the lone prairie. But why was that anybody’s business but mine? And if he wanted a cowboy-hat picture, I had more flattering ones at home.

A PHOTO OF ME IN MY COWBOY HAT I LIKED A LOT BETTER THAN THE ‘CANDID’ THEY USED FOR THE MAGAZINE ARTICLE, SAME HAT, SAME YEAR, BUILDING TREE STANDS FOR DEER HUNTING IN CENTRAL FLORIDA.

But Charlie was very proud of his headline: Science Fiction Writer in a Cowboy Hat. And the damn moniker stuck. Hell, people recognized me on the street. By the time Doubleday asked me for a dust-jacket photo I was resigned. Even bought a brand-new Stetson for it, something I never could have afforded before I sold the book.

When Charlie persuaded the newspaper’s executive editor to promote me to Sunday feature writer, he asked a state-senator friend of his who owned a large cattle ranch to let me ride with his real-life cowboys for a feature story. I wore my new Stetson, and bought new Acme cowboy boots. A traumatic childhood experience where my shoe slipped through the stirrup, I lost my seat, and clung desperately to the neck of my panicked horse on a mile-long gallop until I could free myself and drop away without being dragged, had taught me beyond forgetting why cowboy boots had riding heels.

MOUNTED ON MIDNIGHT BISHOP, PLAYING COWBOY WITH ‘SPEEDY’ AN AGELESS ‘CRACKER’ WHO EXPLAINED THE TERM REFERRED TO THE LONG BULLWHIP HE USED TO RICOCHET LOUD CRACKS OFF STANDS OF PINE TO TURN STUBBORN COWS BACK INTO THE HERD,

Riding the Range, Florida Style” was one of my most popular magazine stories. I was assigned Midnight Bishop, a state-champion quarter-horse retired from competition. By the time I left the ranch, his saddle felt more familiar than the bucket seat of the Barracuda I bought with book money. To me, it was like a circle come full after a childhood of riding lessons and guitar lessons and cowboy hats.

In the post-war forties my grandmother was a devoted member, and officer, of the Gene Autry Fan Club. The only movies she took my brother and me to see were Gene Autry movies. She and my mother took us to various Southern cities for his personal appearances. Crowds were enormous; some later said in his heyday he was bigger than the Beatles. He toured with sidekicks and a band and Plains Indian ceremonial dancers; a slimmed-down version of Buffalo Bill’s earlier Wild West Shows.

GENE AUTRY ON TOUR. MY BROTHER, RIGHT, AND ME.

We stayed in hotels his troupe stayed in, ate in the same dining rooms, were welcome backstage. In a hotel lobby once, Pat Buttram and Smiley Burnett competed in trying to get my grumpy toddler brother to smile. Pat said they’d never faced a tougher audience.

Gene’s trademark white Stetson was always in evidence in the Kodak snapshots of us. My grandmother’s insistence on riding and guitar lessons were part of her plan to send me to Hollywood once I was old enough. She had asked Gene to give one of my uncles a tryout for a TV series, but my uncle balked. Josh Mahoney got the role, and my uncle came home from the Navy to drive a bus, before going to work in a federal nuclear facility that probably occasioned his leukemia and killed him early. My grandfather retired and we moved to Florida. Lines of communication frayed and parted. I resisted, and finally halted, guitar lessons. “Adult” westerns replaced singing cowboys. Gene went on to be a successful businessman in a number of fields. My preference for cowboy hats was the last echo of those times.

All of which was too complicated to explain to Charlie when he launched my first fifteen minutes of fame. Fame as ephemeral as those long-ago days with Gene Autry.

HUNTING WILD HOGS IN FLORIDA. MY FIRST STRAW STETSON, ONE OF THE BEST-FITTING I EVER HAD. BUT HURRICANE DORA SNATCHED IT RIGHT OFF MY HEAD AND PINNED IT SEVEN STORIES UP AGAINST A BUILDING IN JACKSONVILLE WHILE I RAN DOWN AN ALLEY UNDER IT. FINALLY THE WIND RELENTED AND IT DROPPED — NONE THE WORSE FOR WEAR.
SOUTH CAROLINA QUAIL HUNT WEARING THE STETSON I BOUGHT WITH NOVEL MONEY. THIS WAS FOR A MAGAZINE SPREAD OF MY OWN DURING A BRIEF POST-ARMY STINT AS YOUNGEST SUNDAY EDITOR IN GEORGIA.

The fabulous writing career for me Charlie envisioned never came true. My checkered newspaper career came to an end with an unfortunate career choice; no editor would hire me after I worked for a labor union. As if they feared I would infect staff with a craving for Newspaper Guild representation. Eventually my then-wife and I loaded pickup and boat trailer and headed for the Northwest like modern-day Conestoga pioneers. We stopped in Amarillo long enough for me to buy a new straw Stetson.

UTAH ON THE WAY WEST. WTH HARRY THE DOG.
CAMPING ON THE BIG WOOD RIVER IN IDAHO. BACK FROM FLY FISHING AND A VISIT TO HEMINGWAY’S GRAVE. MY AMARILLO STRAW STETSON WAS OLIVE DRAB, FOR WARM-WEATHER DOVE-HUNTING.

After a year unemployed, I lucked into writing for a specialty outdoor publication in Seattle. Herter’s, the famous mail-order house, had a retail store near Olympia. It was there I discovered Akubra, a hatter famous in Australia as Stetson in the US. They called this a “slouch hat” and it even had a brass gizmo for pinning one side up, Aussie style. I reshaped it to suit myself.

LAKE POWELL, ARIZONA:FIRST AKUBRA HAT, STILL GOING STRONG ATOP A HOUSEBOAT, WORKING ON A STORY FOR THE OUTDOOR PUBLICATION I EDITED FOR ARIZONA GAME AND FISH, MY FIRST CIVIL SERVICE JOB. ONE OF THE STURDIEST HATS I EVER OWNED. MY DAUGHTER ABSCONDED WITH IT.

Arizona was my last writing job. I had never published another book. I moved on to Washington State civil service jobs where I spent my days on the phone or in meetings. The years drifted by. I found myself on more and more out-of-state junkets on state business. When I wound up in Dallas, I was astonished by boot outlets with a wide selection of cowboy boots in my size, 14. Spent what seemed hours trying on different pairs. Plumped for expensive Justins in ring-tailed Mongolian lizard that fit like gloves. Since the convention I was attending had a Western-theme dance night, a hat to match the boots seemed called for. An off-white Bailey’s was close as I could get to Gene Autry’s.

COLORADO JUNKET. NEW BAILEY’S PURCHASED IN DALLAS ON THE SAME TRIP. THE RENTAL CADILLAC WAS A LUCKY ACCIDENT DUE TO CONFUSED RESERVATIONS. HOTEL EMPLOYEES ACT DIFFERENTLY WHEN YOU ARRIVE IN A NEW CADILLAC WEARING FANCY BOOTS AND A BIG HAT. “AH THEY KNOW IT’S RENTED,” GRUMBLED A DETRACTOR AS THEY HUSTLED TO UNLOAD MY LUGGAGE. YEAH BUT ONLY OIL TYCOONS AND CATTLE BARONS RENT THEM, I REPLIED.
SAME BAILEY’S, YEARS LATER IN A NW SNOW STORM AFTER RESCUING STRANDED NEIGHBORS DRIVING MY SON’S BRONCO. THAT HAT TOOK A LICKING. ONCE AT A GAS STATION IT BLEW OFF TO MY FEET UPSIDE DOWN, I JERKED BACK — AND THE GAS NOZZLE FILLED IT BEFORE I COULD RELEASE THE TRIGGER. PROPPED IT ON THE DECK UPSIDE DOWN TO GET RAINED ON FOR TWO WEEKS. DRIED GOOD AS NEW, NO GAS ODOR.

The Bailey’s was my last cowboy hat for a long time. I found an actual Australian at the Puyallup Fair, selling Akubras. Since my daughter still had my original I got another one like it, but in olive drab. Age had caught up with my eyesight and I needed glasses to shoot with. The wide brim of the new Akubra shielded them from rain in a duck blind, did not flare ducks, and fit better than the old Bailey’s. It will likely last longer than me. Year or so later I found the same guy at the fair, and he had Akubras built like real cowboy hats. A white one, not too unlike Gene Autry’s fit as if custom-made. Hasn’t seen a lot of wear this century as various illnesses and disabilities curtail my outdoor time. Same for my cowboy boots, due to swelling in my feet and ankles.

But the pristine white cowboy hat from Australia rests crown-down on the shelf beside my cowboy boots, last thing I see when I go to sleep. First thing I see when I awaken. A symbol of hope not all my races are run, my books written, or my boot- and hat-wearing days behind me.

And that’s my cowboy hat story.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.