Times were hard for me back when Bob Dylan once sang, ‘ you’re all alone and you’re out on your own like a rolling stone’….I was in Cincinnati working in a small factory for minimum wage and lucky to get that. I was looking at life and almost terrified of the future. When a man, or perhaps a woman, is young a year seems like a life time. Anyone over thirty is ancient history and should be praised for living so long. Living in the YMCA downtown Cincy my only advantage was my Pennsylvania driver’s license, that stub of an IBM card printed with graphite instead of ink. Take a razor and gently scrape away the graphite and use a number four pencil to change that last digit of the year of my birth. Viola, I was twenty two, drinking age for all that it was worth. I could buy real beer not that 3.2 crap. When you’re new in town friends are difficult to make. I mean, where do you go who do you meet. I could take a hike toward the University of Cincinnati and find some beer bar and dance hall that catered to students, that was good for a night of dancing with the coeds but none of them were going to ask you back to their dorm. I couldn’t afford a television set, things cost too much back then. No, I was just breaking even at my rate of pay and no promise of milk and honey in the future.
But I did by chance meet the old man of the “Y”, well as far as I knew he might have been a hundred or thirty five for all I knew. He lived in the “Y” for many years as far as I could find out. The staff called him the Old Timer. As such, he never seemed to have much money on him and always trying to mooch off the others, new strangers were his targets. I guess he figured I had more money than sense. He guessed wrong for a man can part with what he doesn’t have. I think I said that right. But I could buy a couple of cans of Colt 45 malt liquor every Saturday and I didn’t mind sharing. So I’d go to his room and we would talk. Actually he did most of the talking. Loquacious is what it’s called and he was very. I think though his world was more dream that reality. Still, it was worth the can of malt liquor just to hear him talk. I remember the first time he circumlocuted his way through that vast mine of memories. The nuggets he pulled out were huge and sparkled like gold in the noonday sun to a youth of little experience.
“Bill, my heroes have always been cowboys. I remember as a young kid going down to the Bijou and handing over my nikel to the woman in the cage in front of the theater just so I could see Tom Mix on that big silver screen. Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard were larger than any men I ever knew.” His face would brighten some as his eyes became slightly moist. “You know they never drew down on a man first and never shot a man in the back. No sir, never. They were true to the code of the cowboy. Yes sir re bob.” Then he’d take another sip from the can, pause in thought for a moment, then look far off into the distance, far beyond the walls of his room, perhaps as far away as Hollywood. “My how them fellas could ride and shoot. All real good shots too. You got to time it just right when you shoot from the saddle. I just knew that was the life for me. A man’s word is his honor, Bill, don’t you forget that.” I said I wouldn’t, yes, I would be truthful. I thought he was an old fool. Never saw him go off to work or do much of anything. Just a old man down on his luck. He’d been kicked out of the television room and I can guess why. The set would only show two channels and most people wanted to watch sitcoms or cop shows. The few times that anyone was foolish enough to turn on a western that old man would be talking over the volume. He’d be expounding about everything western, from horses to bunkhouses. Might as well turn the set off.
Another sip and more reflections. I listened. For a couple of hours I was halfway entertained. The only other thing I could do was to walk about the city for a couple of hours wishing I had friends and a nice place to live and a girlfriend. At least I could sit and drink a little, smoke my cigarettes and hope the old timer had something interesting to say. “Now we lived in New Jersey in Camden. Never saw a horse in my life until I left home and headed west. No sir, weren’t no horses in that city. It was the Depression, Bill, when I left home. My father was out of work and my mother had to take in washing and ironing just to get by. Me and my brother, John, well, there just wasn’t any work for us. So we left. I quit school like my older brother cause I knew my mother was working herself to death trying to make ends meet. You got to do what’s right in life, Bill. Come hell or high water, you got to do what’s right.” His voice trailed off, almost as if he was watching the past on those big screen eyes of his. Another sip, man he had it down pat, how to milk the liquid out of a can of beer, make it last for hours. He wasn’t as successful with his money. Don’t know where he got that little pittance of his. I only know there was too much month left after he paid for his room and weekly meal ticket. The only life he seemed to have was his memories. But I was young and callow and absorbed in my own lack of success.
“I rode the rails then. Rode them all over this country. Sometimes the bulls would get you and you might do a month on the farm. Then out you go, run out of town and not even a nickel in your pocket. I wanted work, but nobody was hiring. Even in Montana and Wyoming, there I thought I could get work as a cowboy, you know. They all laughed at me, call me a goll dern tenderfoot. Well, that’s part of the code, telling the truth. I was a tenderfoot. What did I know about riding a horse?” He took another sip and settled into that stare of his. It always left me hanging until he would start again. Perhaps he was teaching me a little bit about patience. How to let a man tell his life’s story with out interruption. “Never speak ill of any man, even if you’ve got a grudge. Go walk in his boots first. Yes sir, you’ve got to be gentle and kind to women and children and animals. Especially animals cause they cant speak for themselves. No sir, never harm anyone or anything less’n you have to. You know, protect yourself. It’s the Cowboy Code, Bill, and a darn good one. Yes, a darn good one.” His voice trailed off again into that stare of his. Another sip and some more thought. You know, I made it to Los Angeles in ’36, Hollywood is near by there. I tried to get work in the studios. I though I could be a cowboy or a stunt man or extra. They all just laughed at me. Sent me packing. I’d sneak onto those sets, find the ones where they was doing a western, you know. Eventually they got so used to seeing me that I became one of the prop men. Me, in Hollywood.” He showed that sense of surprise at that thought. His eyes moisten slightly and he held his head a little higher. “All I did was stand around and move props when they told me. Couldn’t do nothing else. They wouldn’t even let me be an extra, said I had to join a union for that. We didn’t make much, a dollar a day and that’s more than the extras could do seeing as how their work wasn’t steady. It was the depression, you know. I was grateful for any work.”
Another sip and another thought appeared on his brow. “The war came, Bill. Being patriotic is a cowboy’s duty, so I went down to enlist. The gave me all sorts of tests and then said they couldn’t use me. Imagine that, Bill. They said they couldn’t use me. Well the pay got better for us set workers and I use to volunteer at those canteens for the service men. And every year I’d go down and try to enlist. But is was always the same answer. We don’t need you. We don’t need you.” Another stare into the wall, then another sip and another thought. “Anyway, I got hurt in an accident on one of the sound stages, couldn’t work no more. They pensioned me off, said they couldn’t use me anymore. Just like that, they couldn’t use me any more.” I could hear the pain in his voice. I could not understand it then as I do now. Most of his life had been full of pain. Yet his cowboy code bade him to bear it without complaint. It became just another sip. Months later I’d be in the service, seems they needed me.