Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tall Tales of the Old West: Nebraska Neil

Nebraska Neil: Superhero
Copyright © 2012 Jacquie Rogers
Tall tales aren't anything new. The structure has been around for millenia, and many follow the same structure as the Greek myths. So from Ancient Greece, let's climb into the time-machine and step into 19th Century America. The wild country and isolation of the North American west where each day brought a new battle with nature, was fertile ground where some pretty entertaining stories sprouted.
Let's sit around the campfire or the family hearth and chew the fat about a few of these tales. 

John Henry

What do Paul Bunyan and John Henry have in common? They're seemingly ordinary men in ordinary jobs, average Joes, really, except these men have extraordinary abilities. 19th Century superheroes, you might say. They run into a problem, something we all relate to, only their problem is escalated. Not to fear, though, because they also have a solution—something a normal person would never have thought of.
  • Seemingly ordinary man in every day circumstances
  • Finds himself in a pickle
  • Uses extraordinary powers as a solution
Most of the stories were (and are) funny because of the imagery, metaphors, and exaggeration. Here's S.E. Schlosser's interpretation of Pecos Bill Rides a Tornado, which explains in just a few short paragraphs how the Grand Canyon and Death Valley came into existence, as well as the creation of rodeo. Quite a tall order, I'd say!

Exaggeration is the key. A tall tale just isn't tall without stretching the truth a bit—sometimes a good bit. Like my grandpa always said, "A little embellishment always makes a good story better." His brother took that to heart when he wrote Can Farm Boys Be Cow Boys (with original, and I mean original spelling: the version below is cleaned up a bit).

Can Farm Boys Be Cow Boys
by Raymond R. Walker
This is a poem written by my great-uncle about three brothers, Ray (who wrote it), Roy, and Neil (the oldest of the brothers and my grandfather). By the sound of things, I’m lucky to be here! ~~Jacquie

When I was thirteen Dad bought a ranch to raise cattle to feed out on the farm,
He wanted to keep three boys busy, and out of harm;
Sand burrs were thick, and so hot in the summer you would nearly bake,
On the ranch we raised turkeys, hogs, cattle, quite a difference I'd say;
Some cow boys and girls rode in wearing high heeled boots, Levis, and cow boy hats,
There I stood wearing work shoes, bib overalls and a socklegging cap;
I rode to town, I couldn't afford boots, so I bought Levis and a cow boy hat,
My billfold was flat. I was going to be a cow boy right off the bat;
Now cow boys gotta rope and ride any thing that bucks, they are sure tough,
Three farm boys starting to be cow boys found out it was kinda rough;
We started out riding cattle, Neil says lets put a saddle on a cow,
Roy, Neil, & Ray Walker
Five years later, Easter Sunday

So we saddled up a big tall cow, we were going to find out right now;
We tied the saddle strings under her tail to keep the saddle from going over her head,
If you get in that saddle you are out of your head (Roy said);
I looked at that saddle, and it was kinda leaning down hill,
I says no way will I put my butt in that saddle, Neil says I will;
When we let the cow loose, she went up like she was goin to jump over the moon,
Come down bucking and boiling, Roy an I thought Neil would jump off soon;
We both stood there with our mouths open like we were catching flies,
The trouncin' Neil was getting we couldn't believe our eyes;
We heard a rip and a tear, Neil flew off landing on his head,
He just layed thar in the manure like he was dead;
Roy wiped Neil's skinned up face and Neil opened one eye,

Cover model:
Kyle Walker
Neil's great-grandson
 All he said was, that saddle horn run thru the buttons in my fly;
When Roy an I found out why he didn't jump off we had to laugh,
Neil wasn't in shape right then, or he would of broke us both in half;
His new Levis were tore half off, we asked him where he hurt,
His shirt was ripped, he says where do you damn fools suppose I hurt?
Neil went over to the tank and washed his hands and skinned up face,
Getting bucked off a cow that bucked like that sure wasn't no disgrace;
Roy an I had a mad cow to unsaddle, she would look at that saddle on her back,
Then look at us, she was ready to fight becouse her eyes were black;
If she wants to take us when we turn her loose, make a run for the gate,
Roy was first, I was almost too late;
I was running but when that cow started rubbing her head on my ass,
Brother that's when I really turned on the gas;
Three Walker boys liked to wrastle and box and fight. We were tough,
We decided we could run a ranch without all that cow boy stuff.
This happened on the ranch [Gibbon, Nebraska] in 1920

Now, if my great-uncle's story had taken place in about 1868, with cowpunchers sitting around the campfire eating sourdough biscuits and beans, you can just imagine how this story could grow with each telling. Pretty soon, Nebraska Neil would be there right beside Pecos Bill, riding a tornado or using a river to rope a lightning bolt.

The Greeks had Herakles and Perseus, the Spanish had El Cid, we have Superman and the Green Hornet, so it's no wonder that the cowboys came up with Pecos Bill, Bigfoot Wallace, and Sal Fink, the Mississippi Screamer.

And we're not done telling tall tales yet!

Tune in tomorrow for the Hippie Chicks Valentine's Day Party!


  1. See, this is one of the things that I think fascinates people about the Old West - the larger than life characters. I guess here in the UK we have our Arthurian legends, and then the likes of Jack the Ripper (says a lot about us, I think) but you guys have some truly cool figures.

    1. Arthurian is good. I reincarnated Merlin as mule for my next short story. You're right about the Old West, though--we seem to have fewer boundaries, and that can make for some colorful characters and stories.

  2. Great story/ poem. Thanks for keeping history alive! I believe you cleaned up Ray's spellun a bitt.

  3. Thanks for sharing the fun poem. MUCH ADO ABOUT MARSHALS is one of my favorite books. What a hero!

    1. Thanks, Caroline! At least Cole didn't have to contend with a saddlehorn ripping through his fly. Yowch.

  4. Oh, I love it. I could totally see the Walker boys during the entire poem. I hadn't read that one so thanks for sharing it.

    1. I thought it was pretty good characterization for a 15-year-old who didn't have the patience to stay in school.

  5. I love it I think I have a copy of that somewhere that you emailed me... gotta love the Walkers!!

    1. Yes, I sent it to you. This has always been my favorite poem of his.

  6. Thanks for sharing that great poem. I love how you were able to tie the post to your personal history.

    1. Ally, part of this post is actually a retread, and when I decided to post it here at Romancing The West, it just seemed like this poem had all the makin's of a tall tale. These three brothers led very long and interesting lives. I've always been fascinated by people who were born in the horse-and-buggy days and lived to see women's suffrage, cars, airplanes, space travel, and iPhones. Amazing.

  7. Replies
    1. Thanks, Anne. And we're all making up more tall tales. :)


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