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June 17, 2012

On Cowboys

Charles Martin earned his B.A. in English from Florida State University, and his M.A. in Journalism and Ph.D. in Communication from Regent University. He served one year at Hampton University as an adjunct professor in the English department and as a doctoral fellow at Regent. In 1999, he left a career in business to pursue his writing. He and his wife, Christy, live a stone's throw from the St. John's River in Jacksonville, Florida, with their three boys: Charlie, John T. and Rives.
About year and a half ago, I poked my dad in the shoulder. “Dad, I need to go on
a ‘Research’ trip to Texas.”
He stood up and ran his fingers along the inside of his belt. “When’re we leaving?”
My dad grew up the son of a Texas barber. To find and keep steady work following
the Depression, my dad’s parents stayed close to military bases in and around west Texas.
That meant that my dad grew up working the oil fields and playing football on dusty
stretches of pasture. Which meant I grew up listening to stories about Texas.
As a kid, all I ever wanted to be was a cowboy. Some of my earliest memories
include me wearing boots, a hat, and a two holster belt. My favorite book was THE BRAVE COWBOY followed closely by Louis La’Mour and The Sacketts. Movies followed soon after.
I remember watching Rio Lobo with a bucket of popcorn on my lap in the San Marco
theatre. I cried the first time I saw John Wayne die in The Cowboys and when the
bartender shot him in the back in The Shootist, I sobbed so hard I couldn’t catch my
breath. As a teenager, I teared up when Josey Wales rode off into the sunset with blood
dripping off his boot. And as a freshman in college, I skipped class to watch the
conclusion of Lonesome Dove and, yes, I cried then, too.
Cowboys with their stubborn notions and their slow-moving ways weren’t just a
passing fancy at my house and if you think this affection has left me...Last year, when Jeff
Bridges starred in the remake of True Grit, my boys and I were sitting in the first showing
opening night.
This upbringing has bred in me a certain affection: I love the hundred and eighty-
three men who died at the Alamo; the fact that she was once a Republic and could be
again, the Brazos, the Llano Estacado; the hill country; farm-to-market roads; men who tip
their hats, boys who value a farmers tan and crew cut; brisket you can cut with a fork; the
Fort Worth stockyards, smell of a good saddle, sound of a rodeo, starched jeans,
handmade boots; Black Baldies; a sea of Bluebonnets. There’s more, but truth is, I just
love Texas.
With this as the context, Dad and I drove west on I-10 out of Florida, through
Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, then on into Texas, through Dallas, Fort Worth, and finally
onto old Highway 180 which took us through map dots like Weatherford, Mineral Wells,
Palo Pinto, Caddo, Snyder and then up to Post and Fluvana. We drove slowly, took our
time, and stopped at every historical marker we saw. I quit counting after fifty. The further
into Texas we drove, the more stories I heard. We passed the great Fort Worth Stockyards,
the small building where my grandfather had his barber shop and where I --- in the
recesses of my mind --- can remember sitting in his chair while he stropped his razor and
then rubbed that warm cream on my neck. We drove past towns and fields where dad
had played football, dated girls and survived a car wreck caused by a drunk man on a
We detoured south to Waco and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame. Then San Antone
and the Alamo where I remembered my first visit there as a kid when I stared out across
that little wall, standing alongside Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston as Santa
Anna and all of Mexico bore down on us.
Several days into our trip, somewhere out Hwy 180, in a section of highway known
only to deer and God, we stopped to read an historical marker at a fallen down windmill
and an upturned piece of stone. Shrub brush, tumbleweeds, barbed wire and the smell of
cows. Sat up on a small rise, Texas stretching out for sixty miles in either direction. Turns
out that watering hole was once a stop on the Pony Express. The Pony Express! I
remember tipping my hat, staring east, then west and imagining a lone rider, armed with
little more than a couple of pistols and a rifle, maybe a days’ rations, dust swirling behind
him, a girl somewhere waiting for him --- the wind tugging at a yellow ribbon in her hair. I
remember hearing the echo of Tennyson: Fill the can and fill the cup, all the windy ways of
man are but dust, that rises up and is lightly laid again. Then I remember taking off my hat,
wiping sweat of my brow and thinking, “This right here --- this is Texas.”
When my dad and I got to Fluvana, he began looking out the window and then
said, “Slow down.” From there I followed his finger. “Pull off.” We drove up a narrow,
red dirt road barricaded by rusty, slow-moving oil derricks. Silent sentinels. Dad nodded.
“We built that one. And that one.” I took his picture. A few hundred yards later, he
pointed below the truck. “After work, I’d put on my cleats and run wind sprints right
here.” (Dad later earned a scholarship to the University of Florida --- which explains why
I’m writing this from Florida and not Texas) Out the windshield, the Llano Estacado, the
southern tip of the Great Plains, rose up like a giant wall climbing several hundred vertical
feet in the air. Around the next turn, a dilapidated, white bunk house, sat concealed and
flaking in the brush. A well, outhouse and windmill off to one side. Dad smiled.
Back in Fort Worth --- on what happened to be the night of the historic Fort Worth
Rodeo --- we starched our Wranglers, polished our boots, pulled our hats down tight, ate a
steak and clanked our beer bottles at the Stockyards Hotel bar before hitching a ride
downtown to the same coliseum where my dad fought in the golden gloves sixty years
In two weeks, we put over four thousand magical miles on my truck.
As a kid, I placed the cowboy on a pedestal for the same reasons that all of us did ---
he caught the bad guys and got the girl. As an adult driving across Texas, I began
articulating a question that had been on the tip of my tongue for the better part of a
decade: what good is it if he (the cowboy) is real good at fighting with his hands but can’t
hit the broad side of barn with his heart? I operate on the fundamental assumption that
the most powerful weapon in the universe is not a man with a gun, or a tank, or a nuclear
bomb, but that pumping thing in the center of our chest.
Battles might be won with weaponry, but wars are won with heart.
So, driving east on I-10, Texas in my rear view, I got to thinking --- What if I could
write about a guy who is wrestling with that very idea. Who sees his own weakness.
Who, due to his professionalism and proficiency and training, knows that even if he
arrested every bad man in Texas, he is, at best, half a man living out of half his heart with
the constant ache and knowledge that he is only half alive. And hence, half-dead. If this
is true, the question then becomes how does he live, how far does he go back to start over,
what changes, why, what good is it and maybe most importantly, what’s at stake.
THUNDER AND RAIN is my answer.
You might find my romantic notions a bit corny, but it’s out of that romance that
THUNDER AND RAIN grew. It’s wrapped around my DNA. Unwind it and you might as
well take the words out of the book --- leaving you with a sketchpad.
For those of you that I’ve turned off with the knowledge that I’ve written a book
about a cowboy, don’t worry. Christy liked it and she’s a tougher critic than most of you.
(Note: I said, ‘most.’)
The cowboy, both the real one and the idealized one inside my head, spoke
something my insides needed to hear. Something about good and evil, how to fight it with
your whole heart, just what that really looks like and what happens if we don’t. It’s a story
that’s been bubbling in me, well...a long, long time. Readers routinely ask me, ‘What’s
your favorite book?‘ You might as well line up my three boys and ask me who I love the
most. Can’t do it. But, let me say this --- THUNDER AND RAIN did something deep in me
that no book, of mine, has ever done.