I think nearly everybody who grew up when I did wanted to be a cowboy. That exciting notion was fueled by the fact that all three TV networks up and running would broadcast several Western shows every night of the week. The only bad part was that you had to pick which ones to see while others were on at the same time on different channels, and there was no way to record them back in those days of prehistoric technology.

Cap pistols were the must-have toy, and I can still recall the acrid-yet-wonderful smell of popped caps. Some kids had store bought stick horses, complete with plastic reins and yarn manes, while the rest of us tied a string to a nail stuck in the end of a used broom handle, and headed outlaws off at the pass on headless steeds. Either way, it was so real in the minds and imaginations of us young boys, and we had a much clearer understanding of good guys and bad guys than we have today.

There were cowgirls on some of the TV shows we watched, but my buddies and I weren’t about to let any gals play with us. After all, we were still at the age when we believed that girls had cooties, and we couldn’t figure out why cowboys even liked them to begin with. Us cowboys had our horses and shootin’ irons, and plenty of sunsets to ride off into, so who needed them around?

Camping trips made our imaginary Western adventures even more realistic. After all, weren’t we sitting around the fire and eating beans, just like they did on TV? And just beyond the fire’s glow, lurking in the darkness could be outlaws, renegade Apaches, banditos, rattlesnakes, and grizzly bears. We appreciated that possibility, but after hearing scary stories from our dads and uncles, we weren’t about to be venturing out of the light with our cap pistols. We just knew there was always “something out there.”

In the little community of Nocatee where I grew up, our old homeplace sat on 10 acres, surrounded by pastures on all four sides. Seeing cows in all directions and hearing them all the time certainly enhanced the whole cowboy notion for me. I’d lived in a couple of cities when I was younger, but it just never was the same. Whoever heard of cowboys having shootouts while hiding behind fire hydrants and parked cars?

I stayed put after getting grown, and am glad I did, because the cowboy way of life is still a big part of this part of southwest Florida. We have ranches with cattle, a stock market, and folks that saddle up every day to go to work, just like their ancestors did over a century ago. We even have the Arcadia All-Championship Rodeo that’s widely known as “The Granddaddy of ‘em All,” and if you want to experience that, it starts this Thursday.

As for me, I didn’t grow up to be a cowboy. Rode a horse a few times and have some hats, boots, and bandanas, but I never made a living at it. A big part of me will never grow up, and will always be the make-believe cowboy that I once was. That sounds silly, but it’s just part of what makes me me. I still love to catch “Gunsmoke” reruns when I can, and watch Marshal Matt Dillon “slap leather” with the bad guys, so like the old Willie Nelson song says, my heroes have always been cowboys.

I still say “ma’am” a lot and tip my hat to the ladies, and will my eyes open for a good sunset to ride off into.

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