The Cowboys: Learning Life on the Job

There’s plenty of fretting about children. They’re obese, mentally weak, lack ambition, feel entitled, and must have instant gratification. This is all the result of walling off children from adults with child labor laws and an increasing minimum wage. Now with ObamaCare, children can remain on their parent’s health care plan until age 26, further expanding the definition of childhood.

Kids want to grow up and become adults as soon as possible. There shouldn’t be an age requirement. But adults keep them them cooped up in school for more than a decade to hang around other kids, learning to move at the sound of intermittent bells like Pavlov’s dogs. If any knowledge is transmitted it is purely by happenstance.

Then at the end of the schooling sentence the not-so-young person is deemed fit for employment, despite having never functioned in the real world.  My umpteenth viewing of “The Cowboys” brought this all to mind on Christmas Day.

The movie was based on a novel of the same title written by William Dale Jennings, who was more famous as a gay activist and founding member of the Mattachine Society, a group formed to protect and improve the rights of homosexuals.

John Wayne plays Will Andersen an aging rancher who needs to drive his cattle from Montana to Belle Fourche, South Dakota before winter sets in.

Gold fever has attracted all the possible trail hands and Andersen is forced to recruit school boys. “A fool comes to town with a fistful of gold dust, and every jackass from 50 miles around lights out after him,” Andersen grouses.

Hiring kids wouldn’t be an option today. The current oil and natural gas gold rush is also beckoning all available workers with eyes on making six-figure salaries with no college degree. This has forced even McDonalds to pay signing bonuses and WalMart to pay $17.50 an hour for cashiers, double what they pay in other locations.

A business person requiring labor to move his or her product to be sold would be out of luck if the only workers available were under 16. The government would rather the product go to waste than young people being “exploited.”

Many of Andersen’s crew are barely big enough to get on a horse and of course safety helmets were nowhere to be found.  Rivalries develop quickly and are sorted out with flying fists and rolling in the dust. In the end the two older Alpha males (Slim and Cimarron) earn each other’s respect. All the boys learn to work together and have each other’s back.

The trail hands are promised 50 silver dollars each when the drive is done and cattle are sold. They are thrilled at the prospect of earning their own money. Andersen paid what he thought was fair. No government was needed to intervene on the boy’s behalf.

Cowboys don’t punch a clock working a cattle drive. Andersen gets the boys up at 3 am, shouting in the dark that they “are burning daylight.” Someone always has to stand watch through the night to watch the herd. It’s grueling work for a healthy reward at the end. But the cattle must be delivered.

When one of the boy’s stuttering kept him from alerting Andersen to the drowning Slim, the trail boss berates the boy in what today would be considered politically incorrect fashion. These days, merely trying is viewed as paramount. Trophies in little league are distributed for just showing up.

Andersen tells him he almost drowned his friend and that if he wanted to stop stuttering he would just stop. Wilson, the stuttering boy, says he tried, to which Andersen says, “trying don’t get it done.” The boy proceeds to call Andersen a “god-damned, mean son-of-a-bitch.” The rancher makes him repeat it until the furious Wilson forgets his anxiety and the words began to flow.

Young people who don’t work early on never learn to work alongside adults and others who are different from them. When Andersen’s expected trail cook sends Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne) in his place, Andersen and the boys, none of whom had ever seen a black man, are confronted with working alongside and trusting someone seemingly very different from them.

Nightlinger is one of the best characters of any Wayne movie. The eloquent Browne brings Shakespearean chops to the chuckwagon, providing as much gravitas to the movie as the Duke. When Cimarron and one of the other boys stumbles upon a wagon full of working girls, the exchange between madam Kate Collingwood (Colleen Dewhurst) and Nightlinger is priceless.

Collingwood asks the cook if he would be interested in their services, to which Nightlinger replies in rich baritone, “Well, I have the inclination, the maturity, and the wherewithal… but unfortunately, I don’t have the time.”

As the boys become accomplished trail hands, earning the respect of Andersen and Nightlinger, they begin to identify with the two adults and the two men are reminded of their childhoods. It isn’t long before the boys discover Nightlinger’s liquor bottle and the boys get rip-roaring drunk while the cook and trail boss watch from the bushes.  In the morning the boys pay the piper, choking down Nightlinger’s hangover medicine. Another lesson learned.

The movie illustrates the learning curve all new employees go through. In this case the boys learn the basics, riding and roping, but also nuances like not running the cattle too fast and hard. “Running the tallow off of them costs me money,” Andersen tells one of his young charges. There is nothing more satisfying than becoming accomplished at a task, and director Mark Rydell has the boys looking more and more confident as the movie progresses.

Mr. Andersen had the opportunity to hire older hand Asa (Long Hair) Watts (Bruce Dern) and his gang. However, the uncious Watts is tested by the wily cattleman as to where he’d worked and Andersen catches him in a lie. As bad as the rancher needed experienced hands, he wouldn’t work with liars.

Watts and his gang follow the herd and ultimately Dern’s character not only shoots Andersen in the back, but kills the actor’s career. Now 77, Dern–who Jack Nicholson called the best actor of his generation–is up for a Golden Globe for his role in “Nebraska” and will likely be nominated for an Oscar. However, this acclaim didn’t seem possible forty years ago after “The Cowboys” was released.

Writing for the Calgary Herald, Jamie Portman explains, “Dern wasn’t mincing words: Accepting the role of the slimy, slack-jawed Long Hair in The Cowboys was the worst career choice he ever made, because he ended up messing around with the John Wayne mythology and the Duke’s image of invincibility.”

Dern says on the day the offending scene was shot, Wayne, totally in the bag via Wild Turkey, sidled up to him, and said. “Oh, they’re gonna hate you for this.”

Andersen’s demise is turned into triumph by the boys, who, with the help of Nightlinger, steal back the herd and ride tall as they funnel the livestock through the streets of Belle Fourche with the townspeople whispering, “they’re only kids.”

They may have looked like kids and a few weeks before they had been. However, by the time they herded those cows into the buyer’s stable, they, while still in their teens, were men.  That’s what on-the-job training will do, when minimum wage and child labor laws don’t stand in the way.

One Response to “The Cowboys: Learning Life on the Job”

  1. Bry says:

    When will real life begin to mimic this kind of fantasy?

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