A Man Called Cowboy

Larry Elder
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Posted: May 03, 2007 12:01 AM

He wore a big Stetson hat and a bolo (a Western tie). People called him "Cowboy."

I was at a funeral when I met this tall, handsome, 50-something black man. I asked Cowboy what he did for a living, and he said that he distributed beer. I told him I never developed a taste for the stuff, and he laughed and said, "Neither have I." He chuckled at the oddity of someone who disliked beer becoming one of the most successful distributors in his territory -- with several people "under him."

I asked what he did before the distribution job. Without hesitation, he said, "Prison -- seven-and-a-half years." He said he grew up with an angry, mean father. His mother and father fought constantly and openly in front of him. His violent, ill-tempered father repeatedly yelled at him for real and imagined misdeeds, big and small. "I was just a mean young man," Cowboy said. "I was mean because my Dad was mean."

He began committing crimes, but, interestingly, not crimes of theft. "I just attacked people. Sometimes I might be in a park with a group of friends, and a buddy might dare me to hit some guy who was just walking by. So I'd do it -- walk right up to a stranger and knock him down." A particularly hideous assault landed Cowboy behind bars for seven-and-a-half years.

"It was probably the best thing that happened to me," he said. "It gave me time to re-examine my life. I realized that I had to stop blaming my anger on my father. My father did not pick up a rock and hit an innocent person --

I did. My father didn't strike that man with a weapon -- I did." Cowboy read everything he could get his hands on behind bars, especially psychology, and he put his own life under a microscope.

When he got out of prison, no employer wanted to take a chance on him. He finally approached a beer company, willing to accept any job. They offered one -- as a floor sweeper, which he eagerly accepted. He impressed his employer with his willingness to do anything at anytime with enthusiasm and without complaint. They gave him more and more responsibilities, finally promoting him to salesman. He quickly became the top seller in his area, after which he received larger territorial responsibility.

As he spoke, with his soft, pleasant voice, I thought of the dramatic contrast between the former angry young man and the middle-aged man who calmly and confidently stood before me telling this story. Mourners constantly interrupted our talk, as people streamed by to greet him. He would smile, hug and shed tears -- this was his sister's funeral -- and provide words of encouragement to mourner after mourner.

Cowboy introduced me to his wife and said he has two kids -- one a daughter from his wife's previous marriage. His daughter, Cowboy said, had the same attitude as he did at that age. He convinced his daughter that life follows attitude, and told her to take personal responsibility. His daughter, he happily said, got the message.

Cowboy's teenage son, however, began running around with a "bad crowd." "My daughter turned her life around, but my son doesn't get it -- yet. I tell him the decisions he makes today affect his life tomorrow, but so far . . . " Cowboy's voice trails off.

"Doesn't your son get it," I asked, "by understanding your experiences?"

"You would think that after what I went through, it would inspire him to avoid making the same mistakes. But one of the many things I have learned is that you can have the best of intentions, but if someone does not want to listen, they won't -- at least not yet. But sooner or later . . . " Again Cowboy's voice trailed off, and for one brief moment he lost his smile.

"Life is good," he said. "It is never too late to learn that, but some people learn it later than others."

"Why not write about your life," I suggested, "and tell your story to others, since so many young people have no father, or in your case, a bad relationship with him?"

"Lots of people have suggested that," he said, "and someday I might get around to doing it."

I asked permission to write a column about his life. "Who knows the number of people you might touch. After all," I told him, "you've just inspired me." Cowboy smiled, and turned and hugged yet another mourner while whispering words of encouragement in her ear.