Gather round the ole campfire, folks. I have a story to tell. It’s about a man who always wanted to be a cowboy. It revolves around an event held in Heber a short time ago, girls, a car, lost love, whiskey, a man sleeping alone while his reputation gets laid and Karl Malone. Yes, these are the makings for a sad country western song. If I had a dog, I bet he’d be dead.
The headline I saw in the newspaper said it all: “Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair.” Events like this, I’ve heard tell, have been held in Elko, Nev., but this recitation of cowboy verse was being held in Salt Lake’s backyard. In Heber.
See, I am a city boy. I don’t know how to make a lasso, shoe a horse or eat pork and beans out of a can. But poetry? Give me a hat that is 10 gallon and a horse called a stallion and I can rhyme every time. Shoot howdy, this poetry event, I reckoned, had the makings to be my entrance into the world of wide-open plains and horses with no names.
As a young colt, I lived on the East Coast. My father was in the military and we moved from subdivision to subdivision. Pre-fab houses were my homestead, strip malls were my mercantile and the nearby 7-11 was my country store. But, when we’d visit our relatives in Utah, the city life became a distant memory and the country life fit like a tight pair of chaps.
Every time we’d visit Salt Lake, we’d stop by the southwest corner of the State Capitol Building and there, on Daughter of the Utah Pioneers memorial No. 356, we’d read about my great, great grandmother, Tora Neilsen Jacobsen Starkie and five other unknown old folks who were said to be some of the original pioneers. The rock monument titled “Lest We Forget” is dedicated to the early Mormons who came to this area and said, “Salt water, crickets, rattlesnakes. Well hell, we’re in paradise. Zion, even. This must be the place.” Tora Neilsen Jacobsen Starkie died in 1961, so I never met her, but her grandchild, my grandfather, lived in Vernal and made turquoise jewelry. I knew him quite well. When we’d visit, he’d say he had a natural-lapidary-jewelry talent because he was part Indian. For hours I would sit and watch him make bracelets, necklaces and earrings, wondering what part of him was Indian. His nose? Mouth? Eyes? Fingers? Or did he have an Indian heart?
For my 13th birthday, my grandpa made an arrowhead necklace. He said the arrowhead was found lodged deep in some bones he’d found out in the desert. Human bones. The arrowhead, he said, had power and would protect me from harm. On vacation in Utah, I wore that necklace every day. An invincible cowboy sheltered from danger. The tan arrowhead accentuated the straw cowboy hat my grandmother had given me.
On the first day back to school in Virginia, the class bully said, “Hey faggot. Nice necklace.” Mr. Peterson, the gym teacher who looked at my necklace like I did deserve an ass-kicking, reluctantly pulled the bully off my back. Apparently, the arrowhead only had jurisdiction in Utah. Because of peer pressure and fear of future bodily harm, I took off my grandpa’s gift and placed it in a junk drawer where it diligently protected the unwanted items of my childhood.
My grandpa wasn’t part Indian, but he was part storyteller. A broken-down truck driver with a hobby. He sat in front of his TV watching baseball and the Price is Right, passing time until he killed himself last year, the day before Utah Pioneer Day. Maybe it was the way he chewed tobacco, played cards or wore his turquoise-studded hat, but I looked up to him and believed every word that came out of his mouth. His grandmother was a Utah pioneer. My grandfather was a cowboy and I wanted to be like him.
There’s not a lot of opportunity to shoe a horse or rope a steer when you live on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., so I cooled the coals of a cowboy life until I moved West, young man.
Even though being a pioneer is in my blood, trying to be a cowboy isn’t easy. The first move was the easiest—getting a mustache. Let me explain; I didn’t mean to grow a mustache. It happened quite by accident and happenstance. You see, I had been sporting a goatee, like every other Tom, Dick and Hairy lip in the USA, for some time. And what is a goatee but a mustache with strings attached?
Then a call came. A friend of mine wanted me to go to the mountains and help him hunt deer. I contemplated whether or not to lecture him on my moral abhorrence to hunting, but with a mouthful of french fries and a quarter-pounder with cheese getting colder by the second, the best I could manage to say was, “What time will you pick me up?”
That night, as I was preparing for the big hunt by preparing to go to bed, I looked in the mirror and saw the face, not of a hunter, but of a man still hoping for grunge music and Kurt Cobain to rise from the dead. I saw a goatee. And a goatee on a deer hunt is like a necktie at a monster truck rally or reading 7 Habits of Highly Effective People while waiting for the wrestling matches to begin.
Gillette razor blade. Edge gel. Goodbye, goatee. Hello, handsome cowboy.
The next morning, I wasn’t ready to hunt, but my face was. The mustache drooped along the corners of my mouth; it was a killer that seemed to say “Sorry Deer—Gone Hunting.” My apparel had me looking like a highway worker: dressed head to toe in orange, with a vacant stare and burning cigarette.
Luckily, hunting is very similar to golf. Granted, instead of hitting a ball you try to hit a deer, but they both involve walking and talking, and not a lot of action. We didn’t get a deer, but I kept the mustache.
It was a joke. “Hey, look at me. I’m a cowboy.” Regardless of what you’ve seen with the porn star Ron Jeremy, mustaches should be taught as a form of birth control in high school sex education classes—because abstinence is essentially guaranteed.
As the transformation from city boy to cowboy was coming along, I realized a true cowboy had to ride a horse. It kind of goes with the open plains and unfenced territory. So I made a phone call to Rockin’ P Stables and for the low, low price of $40, I was able to rent a horse for one hour. Yee-haw!
Clare, the stable owner who looked like he was born under a tumbleweed, asked who was the least experienced rider in the group. I was the only one dressed head to toe in country attire, yet, having never ridden a horse, I had to raise my hand.
“OK then, Roy Rogers,” Clare said to me. “You get Karl Malone’s horse.” He explained that the group who had rented these horses the day before was Karl’s family. And I was getting to ride “Hawse,” Karl’s horse. Our horse (mine and Karl Malone’s) was one equestrienne ball of muscle. I reckoned that Hawse must be the baddest, most ill-tempered beast of the five horses that we were going to ride. A horse of the apocalypse.
Clare, a man with horse sense, explained that only an idiot would give Karl a wild horse. The last thing Clare wanted to be known for was getting Karl bucked off a horse and into the life of Christopher Reeve.
Hawse, as it turns out, was so gentle he was nearly dog food. We ambled along at the back of the pack for the entire ride. By the time our one-hour adventure still had 53 minutes of trail ahead of us, Clare gave me the nickname “Pokin’ in the rear, Roy.” Hawse and I just couldn’t keep up.
But when I realized I had a nickname, I knew I was one step closer to becoming a cowboy. Imagine the faces of my cellmates if I was arrested and tossed into the hoosegow with Billy the Kid or Baby Face Johnson. The fear etched in their eyes when I’d say, “On the outside, they call me ‘Pokin’ in the rear, Roy.’” You know every one of those outlaws would keep their distance and their backs to the wall.
The next step to becoming a cowboy, now that I had one hour of horse time under my belt, was to come up with a cowboy schtick. There had to be a way to set myself apart from the likes and ilk of Waddie Mitchell, Ernie Sites and Don Edwards. These were real “As seen on TV” cowboy poets and performers. They were going to be in Heber. There had to be a way I could participate in the Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair.
Introducing: Cowboy Haiku
He says: Yippee-aye
Get Along Little Doggie
Rusty talks too much
The world of Cowboy Haiku poetry is the least known of all forms of cowboy poetry. Truth be told, I invented it. Not being a student of Japanese haiku, I simplified the idea of haiku down to the basic skeleton. A poem about cowboy life where the first line has five syllables, the second line has seven and the third line is back to five syllables.
Been riding horses (5)
Sure do miss my pretty gal (7)
Bill, please wear this dress (5)
City Weekly, against all better judgment, gave me its press contact in Heber, so I called trying to convince them to let me perform on the Cowboy Poetry bill.
Please Don’t Fence Me In
Give Me Lots of Room to Roam
I’m a Fat Cowboy
The phone number I was given had a 435 area code and was answered by a child or someone with a childlike voice. I asked for Tom Whitaker. The innocent voice said he’d be right with me, and then set the phone next to an answering machine that was playing back messages. “Tom, this is Sally [made up name] from the Daily Press [fictional paper]. I’ve left a few messages trying to get some tickets to your event. Could you please return my call?”
Three more messages from three other media outlets were trying to track down Tom. It appeared he wasn’t easy to reach. But here I was, on hold, ready to introduce Tom to the wonderful world of Cowboy Haiku poetry.
The phone then went dead.
Undaunted, I called Tom back.
He answered, “Hello.”
Before dropping the haiku bombshell, I asked for a couple of tickets to the weekend events because I wanted to cover the story for my paper. Without any problem and general country niceties, he was happy to oblige. Then I said, “Maybe you’ve heard of me. I’m Phil Jacobsen, the Cowboy Haiku-ist.”
“Are you certain you haven’t? I’ve performed my haiku on KRCL. Once again, my name is PHIL JACOBSEN—Cowboy Haiku-ist?”
Now here’s where I must apologize to KRCL. Although I have been a guest DJ on KRCL during the Kicking Judy radio hour on Saturday nights, and I have read Cowboy Haiku during the show, it may have been slightly presumptuous of me to think anyone would have listened to, let alone remembered my name or the poems. Sorry. But, I did donate $50 this year. I’m a member. If you need help during the next radio-a-thon, I will. I owe you.
Cowboy hats I wear
It covers my greasy hair
No shower for me
Tom, ever so polite, explained there wasn’t room on the program for haiku, but he’d leave a couple of tickets at will call. Then, he said he had more calls to return and hung up the phone.
The first night of the poetry gathering, I knew I had two tickets waiting, but I was alone, alone on the range. My girlfriend had recently found greener pastures on the other side of the fence. I wanted someone to come with me, so I dialed my ex-girlfriend’s current number and her best friend, Lisa, answered the phone.
“Sorry, she’s not here.”
“I know. Please, I need a date.”
“OK. But just friends.”
An hour later, I picked Lisa up. She knew we were going to hear Cowboy poetry. She didn’t know I was going to be dressed to impress. My dusty cowboy boots were polished brown; my red, embroidered, pearl-buttoned shirt was pressed; and my cowboy hat curved down across my eyes like the mustache sloped around my lips.
I’ve seen the Wild West
Deadwood and Hole-in-the-Wall
On Cowboy Channel
Driving to Heber, we were running late … then later … then very late. The horsepower under the hood of my Toyota Camry wasn’t galloping up Parleys Canyon. The car clicked along at a slow trot. I had to turn on the emergency flashers and pull into the truck-driving lane.
Although the Buckaroo Fair had been in full western swing for a couple of days, I was only planning on attending the final two days. Tonight, I told Lisa, Waddie Mitchell was going to perform. He’s been on the Tonight Show, Larry King and Good Morning America.
The plan was to get to Heber that night and just get comfortable in the cowboy environment. I had three pages of single-spaced Cowboy Haiku. These I planned to pass out to the performers—you know, in case they needed an opening act for one of their shows.
By the time we coasted down the final hill into Heber, my engine ran with a sputter and we were 35 minutes past show time. As promised, there were two tickets and we were ushered to our seats. If we had taken the two seats we were assigned, seats numbered five and six, it would have meant crawling over the ladies sitting in seats numbered three and four. So we sat in seats numbered one and two, so as not to bother the people who showed up on time. Five minutes later, after much discussion in seats three and four, lady no. 3 left our row. She bothered me.
Ernie Sites was playing his guitar with a buzzing string when lady three returned. The hum of Ernie’s guitar was drowned out by the chatter of three and four. Even though I was late and had little room to school someone on auditorium etiquette, I leaned over to tell them to be quiet. But they quit talking just as my mouth was forming the words, “Shut up, Daisy Mae.”
Hey there old ranch hand
Today the chickens will hatch
With a bock bock here
The performing stage was decorated to look like a western campsite. There was a covered wagon, tumbleweeds, a fence post and a pair of wooden skis. One of the songs Ernie sung said, “I’m a horse lover. I’m a horse aristocrat.” With the reverb and a buzzing string, I thought he was saying, “I’m a whore’s lover. I’m a whore’s aristocrat.” When Ernie finished his set, I figured this guy would appreciate Cowboy Haiku.
He walked off the stage.
I left to use the bathroom.
We met. Urinal.
After draining our respective mules, I met up with Ernie in the hallway. The voice of Waddie Mitchell could be heard reciting his poetry in the auditorium.
“Maybe you’ve heard of me. I’m Phil Jacobsen, the Cowboy Haiku-ist.”
“Are you certain you haven’t? I’ve performed my haiku on KRCL. Once again, my name is PHIL JACOBSEN—Cowboy Haiku-ist.”
Ernie hitched up his pants and eyed my three-page haiku missive with a look that said, “I guess now I have seen everything.”
We stood looking at each other. Silence. What else in the realm of sanity could be said? I returned to seat number one. Three and four kept talking. Maybe I should introduce them to my poetry. Apparently it makes one speechless.
A lone baby cried from the back row while the final chords of “Home on the Range” still echoed through the faux campsite and high school auditorium. Lisa and I left our seats and tried to track down Waddie.
I couldn’t find him. Not in the bathroom or in the hallway. I gave a copy of the haikus to the night’s emcee and he said he’d give them to the “powers that be.”
In all honesty, it was difficult to decide if coming to Heber this night was worth the trouble. The poetry and performances were great, but did I get any closer to becoming a cowboy? In my head, I imagined someone like Ernie Sites would read my first haiku and say, “The show must go on! Get this Cowboy Haiku-est on the stage.” Instead, no connections were made and we drove out of Heber, pausing to take a photo by a motel with a sign that read, “Good Rates Clean and Neat.”
I’m a whore’s lover
I’m a whore’s aristocrat
I’m not a cowboy
The last saloon on the outskirts of Heber, The Other End, called out to my Camry before we hit the road back to Salt Lake. The ladies from seats three and four had beat us to this watering hole. We shared a shot of whiskey with number three and she shared her story with us. She said her husband had just taken her truck and money and left her for another girl. Lisa just got a new tattoo on her back. It’s a beautiful rendition of a broken heart. Lisa is my ex-girlfriend’s best friend. We had another drink with number three.
We stayed at The Other End longer than we planned, in order to sober up, so I could safely drive home. There was two-stepping across the dance floor and I did a poor rendition of trying to swing-dance with a very forgiving partner.
I knew in Heber, the next day, there would be enough events, poetry readings and ‘meet-and-greets’ that I would be able to get a story to my editor by the deadline. This night, though, was a wash, a bust.
But on the drive home, my Camry broke down a few hundred yards from the top of Parleys Canyon.
Cars passing me by
Finger out but no one stops
I’m a hitch haiku
The Samaritan who finally pulled over to help the cowboy in the red, embroidered western wear had a cell phone. I called the only friend I knew with a truck and he got out of bed, came up from the city and towed my car to a mechanic. Then we took Lisa home.
It was late by the time I went to bed, but that didn’t stop the phone from ringing early on Saturday morning. “I heard you got laid last night,” Penny said.
My head was foggy from a night where the only thing I could recall getting laid were the plans of mice and men. Penny said she’d heard rumors from someone who knew someone who was at The Other End. This person didn’t know me well enough to say, “Hello,” but they knew enough to start a chain of gossip jingling through the grapevine. By the time the story reached Penny, I was dancing with a lovely stranger. Waltzing in a way that was dirty, seedy and full of rumors.
I set Penny straight, hung up the phone, then thought about my night. My reputation got laid, but I didn’t. I slept alone. I lost my girl. No one liked my poetry. Maybe that meant no one really likes me. My car’s broken down. I don’t have money to pay the bills. I couldn’t drive to Heber to finish the story. My editor’s going to be mad. I might lose my job.
And when I realized this, I couldn’t have been happier. Or, to roughly quote one of my favorite country western singers, in haiku form:
David Allen Coe
He says, “If that ain’t cowboy
Then I’ll kiss your ass.”