The Last Cowboy Rides into the Sunset

June 21, 1994|By TIM WARREN

Among Robert James Waller's pretentions is the belief that he represents ''the last of the cowboys.'' That doesn't mean he's the only fellow left ropin' dogies and sleeping under the stars; it is hard to believe that this former business-school dean did much cowpunching at any time of his life, let alone since ''The Bridges of Madison County'' was published and he's made a ton of money. No pork and beans heated in a No. 10 can for this buckaroo's dinner, we can be sure.

Rather, what Mr. Waller tells interviewers is that as the last cowboy, he still believes in rugged individualism and the ramblin' life. It's a comforting image, I guess. But I'm not worried about preserving individualism. It's the cowboys I'm thinking about.

For the cowboy culture is fading fast. You may hear every so often about how the release of two Westerns simultaneously represents a comeback for the cowboy movie, or that cowboy boots or hats are back in fashion. But where this most American of phenomenons needs to be strongest -- among the young -- the cowboy has become another historical oddity. He has lost out to the ninja.

I have two boys, ages 7 and 4. In my generation -- in the late 1950s and early '60s -- they would have been prime cowboy candidates. They would have had the hats, the boots, the belts and, especially, the guns. They would have watched dozens of cowboy shows on TV and gone to Saturday matinees featuring cowboys.

They would have learned about all aspects of cowboy culture. What a lariat is, and a box canyon. That no crime in the West was worse than cattle rustling, and that the bad guys always had unshaven faces and dark outfits, and sneered a lot. How to see if the man you shot is dead (you raise his hand; if it flops back to earth, he is). How -- and this is important -- to twirl a pistol on your index finger and then slip it back effortlessly into the holster.

My kids know nothing of these important bits of lore. For they have been ninja-ized. They aren't watching ''The Rifleman'' or ''Wagon Train'' or Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. Rather, their frame of reference includes ''Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,'' ''The Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles'' and the ''Three Ninja'' movies. They have become experts in the Ninja Way.

They may not know what a Colt .45 was, but they sure are familiar with bo-staffs, nunchakus, kitana swords and other martial-arts weapons. I thought it was a great achievement to remember which Ninja Turtle wore which color headband (Donatello purple, Raphael red, Leonardo blue, Michelangelo orange). That took only a few months. But I could never recall who fought with which weapon until the younger boy, then 3, patiently walked me through the details.

I can remember when, as kids watching a TV show, we were impressed if a cowboy could flip his antagonist during a bar fight. That's small change now. My boys are experts at various kicks, rolls and spins, all accompanied with startling sound effects.

Nicky, the younger one, does a terrific approximation of the sound that kitana swords make as they slash through the air (whuuup-whuuup-whuuup). I don't know of a single boy his age who can't scream ''hi-yaaaah'' as he leaps from the sofa toward his opponent.

Matt, my older boy, once asked if I could duplicate a side kick he had just executed.

I said I couldn't.

''Is it because you're too old?'' he asked, and he was not being unkind. He had heard that reason before.

No, I answered. I wasn't too old -- just not coordinated enough.

When we played cowboys, you never had to worry about being a martial-arts whiz. You didn't have to be some kind of aerobic wonder, leaping from one end of the room to the other. You merely had to know how to handle a six-gun and make good gun sounds.

Doing an approximation of a gun being fired was tricky: You started with a hard, explosive ''p'' and then sort of whistled through your top teeth. Thus, you got not only the initial sound of gunfire but also the effect of a bullet traveling through the air and even, if you were good enough, the sound it might make upon hitting a boulder. (TV cowboys were always hitting boulders.)

About two years ago, I promised Matt a gun and holster set, just like one his dad had as a child. Was I passing on part of my youth? Perpetuating a piece of beloved culture? Matt seemed mildly interested in getting his cowboy outfit -- what kid would pass up a new toy? -- but certainly his father was more excited about the whole thing than he was.

I went to three toy stores -- and none of them had a gun and holster set. They sold all sorts of toy police paraphernalia. High-powered Army hardware. Ninja outfits. Super Soakers that would douse half of Baltimore County. But good, old-fashioned cowboy gear? Forget it.

If Westerns come on TV these days, my boys usually watch them for a few minutes. But they get bored easily, and I understand why. Compared to the warp-speed goings-on in standard ninja fare, a cowboy show seems hopelessly out of date. There isn't much technology or flash, and everything moves so slowly. It's like playing Mortal Kombat at the video arcade and then trying to play one of those old Pong games, which were much less sophisticated and challenging.

So I've accepted that cowboy culture probably will never take hold with my kids, and they may never learn what a sidewinder is, or a greenhorn or a varmint. We do have to move on. But if cowboys finally do dwindle to that final, solitary one, please don't let it be a guy who writes sappy novels and gives his pickup truck names like George. Somehow I don't think that's what the Old West was all about.

Tim Warren is The Sun's book editor.

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