I was asked recently what that phrase meant. I have to tell you, it’s a new phrase in Texas phraseology, but it’s an old concept. For one to “cowboy up” –or “cowgirl up” for that matter—one must get tough, determined and face whatever comes with great deal of “grit.” And if you don’t know what “grit” is, just watch John Wayne in “True Grit” (or “The Green Berets”).
To “cowboy up” wasn’t always a nice thing to do, however.
Cowboys were, in the beginning, the undesirables of society. Herding cattle over long distances was dirty, dangerous and expensive. It wasn’t a job for so-called “nice people.”
Behold, the genesis of the cowboy.
Men, usually immigrants with no family, spent weeks and sometimes months on the plains driving cattle from Texas northward to wherever the trains were or the stockyards or both. They slept out in the open, fought off wild animals or other cowboys out to steal their cattle; they endured all kinds of nasty weather. And what little pay they got, they blew immediately once they got to town. They didn’t always survive the post-cattle drive bender, either. Some were killed in shoot-outs. Some ended up in prison.
If you know anything about livestock, then you know that working with cows is a challenge, put mildly. Cattle can be dumb as a box of rocks and about as much fun. If you have experience with dairy cows and hand-milking, you know how often a cow will purposefully kick over a bucket of milk or stand on your foot “accidentally.” And you are intimately aware of just how mean a dairy bull can be.
Longhorns are the meanest of the beef cattle, rivaling the bad attitude of a dairy bull in love. The difference is that longhorns are packing a pair of horns that can be lethal, and they’ll use ‘em on you if they can.
If you don’t know much about cattle, just watch the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. That’s a stampede, folks. And only a total fool would willingly get out in front of a bunch of spooked bulls in the name of proving one’s machismo, regardless of what Ernest Hemingway thought about it.
With all those factors in play, survival required a certain code. Those with a strong moral compass usually fared a whole lot better than those without.
Thus arose the code of the cowboy, made famous by cowboy celebrities such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. There are many such codes purported to be the “true” code of the cowboy, but I’m gonna list Gene Autry’s code, because Autry was my father’s favorite cowboy troubadour. So here goes, folks. Gene Autry’s Code of the Cowboy:
1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage.
2. He must never go back on his word or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress.
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents and his nation’s laws.
10. The Cowboy is a patriot.
Cowboys (and cowgirls) are all these things. And they have a sense of humor, expressed most often in western wisdom. Some of the best cowboy proverbs are:
1. Don’t squat with your spurs on.
2. Don’t name a pig you plan to eat.
3. Country fences need to be horse high, pig tight and bull strong.
4. Life is not about how fast you run, or how high you climb, but how well you bounce.
5. Keep skunks and bankers at a distance.
6. Life is simpler when you plough around the stump.
7. Words that soak into your ears are whispered, not yelled.
8. Meanness don't happen overnight.
9. Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads.
10. Don't sell your mule to buy a plough.
11. Don't corner something meaner than you.
12. It don't take a very big person to carry a grudge.
To “cowgirl up” is the same as “cowboy up” but, obviously, meant for a different gender. If you read my column with regularity (and that doesn’t mean you take it in the bathroom with you, but I’m not offended if you do), then you know what I think of Texas women. To “cowgirl up” is the heart and soul of a Texas woman. It means you deal with what life hands you and you don’t whine or get all “high-maintenance princess” about it.
And by the way, there is no place in Texas for a high-maintenance princess. That kind of girly-girl is just plug useless, so put your big girl britches on and cowgirl up. And for heaven’s sake, learn to read an oil dipstick and a tire pressure gauge, would ya? You can be truly feminine and have at least a rudimentary knowledge of how to maintain your car without the help of a man…but that’s a different soap box for a different day.
To “cowboy” or “cowgirl up,” you have to take a stand. You have to be strong, courageous and willing to make sacrifices. You have to face down danger, stress and quite possibly surly in-laws with grace. You have to be willing to do the right thing, even—or especially—when it’s not the popular thing to do.
Plainly said, to “cowboy up” kind of sums up what it is to be a Soldier or a member of a Soldier’s Family. And that Code of the Cowboy sounds a lot like Army values. So to “cowboy up” is also to “Soldier up.”
Guess we’re not all that different after all.