by Johnny Carlton
Copyright 2012 Johnny Giesbrecht
Johnny Carlton is a writer of suspense thrillers available as e-books at www.amazon.com
(I dedicate this essay to the memory of my Mom whose birthday was today, October 11, 1903.)
There was great excitement for me that beautiful sunny morning in 1941. Some real cowboys were driving a herd of cattle down the road past our farm home. My dad had called me to the living room window so I wouldn’t miss out on this event, and now the four of us–Dad, Mom, my nine-year-old sister, and myself–stood watching.
I was five years old and entirely in tune with Western lore–as much as I knew of it. Although I hadn’t yet heard of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and John Wayne, I did have a great cowboy hero, and I dreamed of the day I’d have a horse and saddle of my own. But I knew there was more to being a cowboy than riding a horse; I wanted to be a rancher when I grew up.
My hero was a man named Wilfred Perrin, a real-life ranching cowboy who lived near Bapaume, a town about seven miles from our place. (One of his riding horses, a red roan, had the unusual name, Spider, but I didn’t know about that until some years later.) Hero Number Two was Wilfred’s son, Robert. I had never seen either of them but had heard about their Western style of life, largely from my dad, and was tremendously impressed with the fact that they were the real thing–real cowboys.
Well, that’s where the excitement came in on that bright morning at our farm home in Saskatchewan. It was young Robert Perrin and his dad’s ranch hands who were driving the herd of cattle down the road. Robert Perrin! There he was in person! He was riding a beautiful red roan horse and had a hat and everything, including batwing chaps with a row of silver conchos down the side! How those conchos glinted in the sunlight, and how my heart beat with excitement! Soon the cowboys, horses, and cattle had moved out of sight down the dusty trail, but I had daydream material to last me for months and a boyhood memory to last me a lifetime.
We didn’t stay long on that farm. We had moved there in the spring from a homestead ten miles to the south and we stayed only about a year and a half before we moved again, but it seems longer. Time goes by more slowly for children.
While we were still on that farm, my dad traded off a big work horse for a perky little riding horse so that my sister, Rosella, would be able to ride to school that winter. I didn’t start school until the following autumn. We were fortunate in that the school was only about a mile away, but in thirty-below Fahrenheit even that can be a long walk, so the horse was a good idea.
She was a dark-brown mare, old enough to vote but still full of spunk–and she was wise. If an adult or older child got on her back she would go anywhere at any speed, but when a small child–like myself at five and six–got put up on her, she would slowly walk the short distance of our lane, turn around and walk back, no matter what her small rider did or said to try to make her go farther.
I had a happy normal childhood for that time and place. We had come to the end of the “dirty thirties” but money was still scarce for most people and our friends and neighbors were poor farmers like ourselves. Some still lived in log houses or rough-lumber shacks, while others, ourselves included, had upgraded into regular lumber homes; but even these were shabby by today’s standards. Although there were a few boxy looking cars around, and even an occasional “streamlined” one, stirring up the dust now and then, the horse still figured as an important and completely acceptable means of transportation. Like many other farmers in the area, my dad did not own a car, truck, or tractor. He used horses for all his field work. In summertime we traveled in a horse-drawn wagon, in wintertime in a horse-drawn caboose sleigh (all covered in and with a little stove in it the front to keep us warm).
Another winter came with all its white glory of snow and sleigh bells and frosty horses breathing out huge clouds of vapor. During many long winter evenings there were pleasant times of visiting with relatives and other neighbors. At times someone would haul out an accordion or a fiddle and play some old-time music. We also had battery-powered radios in those days (the battery was a huge dry-cell affair that sat on the floor under or behind the radio) and spring-wound record players, so we weren’t without music. But most of the time the get-togethers were passed in lively conversation, eating, and, for the grownups, drinking coffee. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much of what the grownups talked about, only that they all talked at the same time.
We were just a mile from a little town with the intriguing name of Spiritwood, and it was always exciting to go there with Mom and Dad, shopping for groceries or hauling a wagonload of grain to one of the elevators. There was a movie theatre in Spiritwood and that quickly became the main center of my interest there.
I was fascinated by the magic of the moving images–the moving, talking pictures up there on that big screen. Most films were in black and white in those days, but occasionally there would be one in color. At that time the motion picture screen had not yet been polluted, at least not nearly so much as today, with immorality and irreverence. Films of the thirties and forties were comparatively wholesome for the most part, and viewers could expect to see a clear-cut confrontation between good and evil, with the filmmakers obviously being on the side of good. I’m glad they were like that when I was young and impressionable; but I feel sorry for the kids of today who so often see films with blasphemy and anti-Christian sentiments, and stories in which obnoxious characters are glorified as heroes.
Well, my appreciation of cowboys, horses, and the Western life was intensified by the movies I saw. I can remember in particular watching a wild stampede of cattle across the screen (this was in Billy the Kid, starring Robert Taylor), with cowboys galloping their horses at breakneck speed on all sides, risking their lives to bring the herd to a halt. My mother was sitting beside me, enduring all this, and in the midst of it I told her fervently, “I want to be a cowboy when I grow up!” That went over like a lead kite.
Even though I had seen a few screen cowboys by this time, my greatest hero continued to be Wilfred Perrin, the real-life cowboy and father of Robert, whom I had been privileged to see riding past our place.
One summer day my sister and I were walking to town on a shopping errand for Mom. We had come to the end of the road that led north from our place and were now on the “highway” that would lead us the remainder of the short distance to town. This was the main market road and actually had ditches that you could look down into. It was dirt, unpolluted by gravel, and barely wide enough for two cars to meet and pass, should that unlikely thing have happened.
We heard hoofbeats behind us, quickly turned and saw a lone rider galloping in our direction.
Rosella said, “It must be Wilfred Perrin!” She was probably right; somehow or other the matter seemed to have been later verified. As for myself, I had no doubt about it. I was really going to see Wilfred Perrin at close range. It was too good not to be true!
Wilfred’s horse was moving at a brisk gallop. In a moment horse, rider, thundering hoofbeats, and a cloud of dust were all close to us. Although there was no time to take in a lot of details, I’ll never forget the overall impression I got of my hero’s appearance. Because of the wind created by his fast riding, he had his hat off and was holding it against his chest, and was leaning forward slightly in the saddle. And he looked happy. As he galloped past us he yelled out, “Hi, kids!” And then he was growing smaller on the road ahead of us, and the hoofbeats were growing fainter. I never saw him again, but he had left me with a wonderful childhood memory image that I have never forgotten.
A few years later when I was about eleven and we were living in a little hamlet ninety miles from Spiritwood, my dad bought a beautiful red roan from my Uncle George.
We learned that this had been Wilfred Perrin’s saddle horse, Spider.
I was amazed and thrilled about it; in fact, I pretty much relegated it to the miracle category. And in a year or so my dad gave him to me to be my own horse.
With Spider saddled, and me on his back in hat and batwing chaps with silver conchos, I was possibly one of the happiest kids that ever lived.