When I was a Texas farm boy, back in the late thirties and early forties, one of my daily chores was to round up the cows for evening milkings. Never mind that I rode bareback on a swaybacked, half-blind old horse through limited stretches of scrub oak and mesquite shinnery in search of four docile, dehorned critters with pet names like Olive Oyl and Daisy: I turned such bucolic expeditions into dangerous trail drives, shooting marauding Indians or cattle rustlers on the run, issuing cowboy yodels meant to soothe my spooked “herd” to avoid the inevitable stampede when lightening flashed and thunder crackled. Most of the time we were tracked by hungry wolves and cutthroat bandoleras.
Sometimes I rode away from my bovine responsibilities to rescue a certain country princess who occupied my heart from fourth through seventh grades. When I caught up with her dastardly kidnappers, I merely beat them up if the princess appeared unharmed; had they so much as mussed her precious brown hair, I resorted to six-gun justice. Best not to mess with ol’ Tex King in them days, especially if he was fresh from the Palace Theater in Cisco, where for 9 cents he likely had learned $1 million worth of code-of-the-West punishments from Buck Jones, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Bob Steele.
The rootin’-tootin’ Texas that Hollywood exported via the Palace Theater somehow seemed more authentically Texan than did the flesh-and-blood Texas where I picked cotton, slopped hogs, or joined pickup football games on corn-stubble fields; it seemed so because I wished it so, the magic of fantasy being ever so much more satisfying than life’s mundane drudgeries. I think I willed myself to believe that Eastland and Callahan counties lay too far east to qualify for cowboy magic but that just beyond Abilene, maybe — out there around Sweetwater or surely in the far reaches of El Paso County — Texas Rangers and stern marshals were, indeed, shootin’ and ropin’ two-legged varmints ‘round the clock.
Visiting my Uncle Raymond’s Bar-T-Bar Ranch just west of Putnam, I was chagrined to learn that his cowboys wore no guns and drove cars to their homes at night instead of sleeping under the stars by their horses after drinking boiled coffee around lonely campfires. Having never once witnessed a fistfight, a six-gun showdown, or a single cattle rustler twisting in the wind from a Bar-T-Bar tree limb, I concluded that Uncle Raymond didn’t know beans about ranching; no wonder he could attract only dull cowboys content to mend fences, kick out salt blocks, and castrate little calves!
As a beardless soldier among fellow GIs from all over, I soon realized that not only dreaming Texas farm boys took their cues from Hollywood. Everybody called me Tex; my family name inspired many to ask whether I might be connected to the famed King Ranch, an honor that I found increasingly difficult to disclaim. But playing Tex had its downside: Fellow soldiers scoffed when I shot only marksmen scores on the Fort Dix rifle