Hollywood the Hard Way: A Cowboy's Journeyby Patti Dickinson
A fifteen-hundred-mile horseback ride to win a bet, to prove a point, to honor tradition? It sounds like a tale straight out of the Wild West: a man, a horse, a grueling ride halfway across the country. The bet is between Jimmy Wakely, Hollywood singing cowboy, and Rolla Goodnight, Oklahoma cattle rancher and cousin of legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight. Frank “Pistol Pete” Eaton, Rolla’s lifelong friend, provides the Osage Indian pony and a Colt .45. Rolla’s twenty-year-old grandson, Jerry Van Meter, is the man they are betting on. Jerry must ride from Guthrie, Oklahoma, to Hollywood, California, in fifty days, taking only what he can carry on his horse. He sets out on May 4, 1946, bound for Hollywood—the hard way. Unfolding against the backdrop of a changing postwar America, this true tale of adventure takes you back to a different time on a journey you will not soon forget.
- University of Nebraska Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.58(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.51(d)
Read an Excerpt
Enid Morning News, September 17,1945 // Thousands Line Enid Streets for Colorful Parade // Jimmy Wakely, Monogram Star, Heads Cherokee Strip Entertainment // Goodnight and Eaton End Chisholm Trail Ride to Kick Off 52nd Annual Festival
Jerry Van Meter let Buster have free rein. The quarter horse knew the trails around the ranch as well as his rider did. Jerry never tired of this countryside, the rolling hills, the creeks that snaked their way across the Oklahoma prairie, the windblown trees that dotted the horizon. All were as familiar as his own reflection. Family roots, cherished memories, and generations of stories made this landscape home.
Bright after the night's storm, the moonlight danced across the top & fields of golden grass bent by the breeze. Crickets, coyotes, hoot owls, and lowing cattle filled the air with their sounds. Departing clouds scurried southeast toward Arkansas, scattering life-giving rain as they went. Up ahead, porch lights from the Bar R Ranch sent pale slivers of light out across the yard.
The Bar R's five thousand acres sat smack in the middle of the prairie between Enid and Marshall in northwest Oklahoma. Home to Jerry and his grandfather, Rolla Goodnight, the ranch also contained a dozen or so draft and quarter horses, two or three milk cows, numerous cats, dogs, and chickens, eight hundred head of Herefords, and five ranch hands. A good part of the time Rolla's life-long friend, Frank "Pistol Pete" Eaton, lived at the Bar R as well. Everyone said even a blind man could follow the worntrail between Frank's home in nearby Perkins and the Bar R.
As he neared the house Jerry spotted Frank's oversized cowboy hat and Rolla's six-foot-two-inch frame silhouetted against the house's exterior white siding. The two of them were talking to someone. Buster slowed to a walk and took his own sweet time getting to the gate, finally stopping in front of the house. Jerry recognized the third figure as Jimmy Wakely, another long-time friend of his grandfather's.
Jimmy Wakely, the Hollywood movie cowboy and Monogram Pictures star, and his band had been the main entertainment at the Fifty-Second Annual Cherokee Strip Celebration. The three days of festivities held in Enid in mid-September every year commemorate the 1893 land rush that led pioneers to home- stead more than six and a half million acres of former Cherokee tribal hunting grounds in Oklahoma. Clearly the main attrac- tion of the huge event, Wakely had ridden his movie horse, Lucky, at the head of the biggest parade in Enid's history earlier in the day.
Wakely had traded the fancy cowboy clothes he'd worn in the parade for faded jeans and shirt and scuffed boots. He rose as Jerry walked up on the porch. "Nice to see you, Jerry. You've grown up since I last saw you."
Jimmy Wakely and Bing Crosby could have been brothers - similar in height and build, the same handsome face and smooth crooner's voice. At Saturday night's dance Wakely had brought the house down singing "You Can't Break the Chains of Love," his latest Decca release. Afterward he invited everyone, in his easy "I'm just one of you folks" style to see Saddle Ser- enade, his new movie due to come out in two weeks. The appre- ciative crowd kept him singing on stage for another half hour.
"Your granddad invited me to spend my last night in Okla- homa at a real cattle ranch," Jimmy said, and offered his hand.
"Glad you could make it, Mr. Wakely." Jerry shook his hand. "Sure enjoyed your music at the dance. I didn't think the crowd was ever going to let you quit."
"Call me Jimmy, would you? 'Mister' sounds too formal. Rolla tells me you're the foreman here at the Bar R."
Wakely smiled. "Sir. That's right, you've been in the ser- vice, haven't you? What branch?"
"The navy," Jerry said softly and looked down at his boots. "Not very long, though. I ah... I didn't get to fin..." Jerry glanced at his grandfather. "I wasn't in long enough to do any good."
"Well, no need to call me sir, either, Jerry. Just plain old Jimmy will do."
Jerry straightened up and looked at Wakely. "Okay, Jimmy it is. I'd better take care of Buster and get to bed. After camp- ing out for two weeks with these guys on the Chisholm Trail plus three days of celebrating in town, my work is stacked up. Tomorrow's gonna be a big day." Jerry gathered up Buster's reins and started for the barn.
Wakely called after him. "Lucky is in the barn. Would you mind checking on him when you take care of Buster?"
"Be glad to. 'Night everybody."
Better See If Hell's Froze Over
Enid Daily Eagle, September 17, 1945 // Storm Drops .38" of Rain, Drought Continues // Eisenhower Promises 2.4 Million Troops Home by Christmas // Millions of Vets Expected to Apply for Funds under New GI Bill
Rolla watched as his grandson disappeared into the barn. Neither Jimmy nor Frank had noticed Jerry's embarrassment at the mention of the navy. Yet every time the subject of being in the service came up Jerry reacted the same way. Rolla vividly remembered Jerry's arrival at the Bar R right after his discharge. The shock of seeing him that way still hurt. He came in the dead of winter, thin and drawn and pale as a ghost. Sweat had broken out on his forehead when he struggled up the three steps to the porch and into the house. Trussed in a back brace and in obvious pain, he glanced at his grandfather. "From a baseball game," Jerry half-whispered. He never spoke of it again.
A gust of wind rattled the porch windows. Rolla pushed the painful memory from his mind and breathed deeply the earth's damp fragrance. The autumn evening, interrupted by a fast-moving rainstorm, had given way to air crackling with freshness. Rain clung to the leaves on the big cottonwood near the house, the drops shimmering like twinkling Christmas lights.
Wakely sighed. "Mmmh, you can't buy a perfume as good as the prairie right after a rain." He closed his eyes and smiled. "Plus I can still smell a little bit of fried chicken. You and Frank did a good job on supper. That's the best meal I've had since I left California." A coyote howled in the distance and was soon joined by a chorus. "And I haven't heard coyotes that weren't part of a script in a coon's age. This is heaven, you know that?" Jimmy said, slapping at insects that buzzed around him.
"Won't argue that," Rolla said. "I feel sorry for you, having to go back to California tomorrow."
"Right this minute so do I. It's good to be back home. These folks are sure salt-of-the-earth people."
"They love you, that's for sure," Frank said.
"That's because they think I'm a real cowboy. They're confusing what they see on the screen with guys like you." Wakely drained his glass of iced tea and gestured at the moonlit vista. "What a beautiful sight. Too bad it's disappearing."
Rolla glanced at Jimmy, expecting to see a smile accompany the joke. "What do you mean? What's disappearing?"
"Ranches like this. Dyed-in-the-wool cowboys like you. This whole way of life," Jimmy said.
Surprise also registered on Frank's lined face. "Whoa, partner. You're joshin' us, right?"
"No, Frank, I wish I were," Jimmy said with a shake of his head. "The days of cattle barons are long gone. So are the days of cowhands driving big herds thousands of miles. The only way you're going to see that anymore is if you go to the movies." Wakely poured himself another glass of tea from the pitcher next to his chair. "Like Cheyenne Roundup and The Old Chisholm Trail I made with Johnny Mack Brown and Tex Ritter, remember?"
"Yeah, but " Frank's brow furrowed.
"They're all we have left to show what those days were like. I'm sorry to say it, but I believe your way of life at the Bar R is going the same way." Wakely turned to Rolla. "Can you name me one cattleman today in Oklahoma or Texas who's anything like your cousin, Charlie Goodnight?"
Rolla thought for a moment. "Well ... not right off hand," he said, rubbing his chin. "I'll admit men were a might different in the old days. Charlie was a renegade, reckless as all get out, but smarter 'n a whip. He was to cattle in the 1800s what Frank Phillips was to oil in the 1900s." Rolla pictured Charlie and chuckled. "He sure loved to joke. One time somebody took his photograph standing by a buffalo, their heads right together. When he saw the picture he cussed up a blue streak, the gist of which was that the damn thing was near as good looking as him. Charlie taught me everything I know about the cattle business," Rolla said. "I never would have made it through the Depression and hung onto the Bar R if it wasn't for him. I used everything he taught me."
Jerry called out from the dimly lit bunkhouse across the yard, "Lucky seems right at home, Jimmy. See y'all in the morning."
Rolla acknowledged his grandson's call with a wave. He turned to Wakely. "When I was fourteen I left my folks in Kansas and rode to the Palo Duro, Charlie's ranch in the Texas Panhandle. I wanted to be a cowboy just like him. And he taught me good. Being a rancher and a cowboy is all I know. If what you're saying is true, what's that say about my life? Frank's, too."
"It says you and Frank are a special breed of men which you damn sure are and you've lived a period of history that won't ever be again." Wakely pointed to the landscape. "This country is changing fast now that the war is over. My band and I travel all over, so I see it. Big change. Soldiers already home are getting married and moving to cities so they can go to college under the new GI Bill. Building is booming. Families are selling their farms right and left, moving to the city. And this is just the beginning."
"The beginning of what?" Frank asked.
"The future, Frank. Seems like the United States is beginning to wake up from a long sleep first the Depression, then four years of sacrifice waiting until we finished with the war. Now that it's over people don't want things to go back to the way they were. They want a better life. I'm telling you, when the rest of the troops get home they're going to do the same thing kiss farm life goodbye and move to Oklahoma City, Tulsa, or Muskogee. They're going to get factory jobs, maybe build a house and buy a new car. It's already happening in California. People are flocking into L.A. all of southern California -- like moths to a flame. Cities everywhere are exploding overnight." Wakely's expression, at first grim, turned to a smile. "I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but before long it's going to happen here, too. Then you'll have to go to the theater in Enid and pay money to see me or Gene Autry or Roy Rogers doing the stuff you've been doing all your lives."
Frank gazed at Wakely, his amusement barely concealed. "Funny, you got a smile on your face but you don't sound like you're joshin'."
An Australian shepherd appeared out of the darkness, ambled up onto the porch then went to each man looking to be petted. The dog settled down at Rolla's feet. "I got a crew of five good young cowboys," Rolla said. "I don't see them hoppin' up and down to leave."
Wakely reached over and scratched the dog's neck. "You know as well as I do they're not near the caliber of cowboy you and Frank are."
Rolla wanted very much to dismiss what Jimmy said, but he knew better. At least once a month the Enid or Guthrie papers carried a story about Jimmy Wakely and his band playing in some city around the country. He's in a better position than me to see change taking place. And Jimmy's not one to say something important like that if he didn't believe it. Rolla suddenly wished their conversation hadn't taken this turn; it gave him an uneasy feeling.
Jimmy insisted. "Be honest now. Are you telling me your cowboys would know how to pull a cow out of quicksand or stop a stampede in the middle of a norther'? Could they stand eating beans and bacon three meals a day for three months? You know very well they couldn't. And not a one of them could sit in the saddle for fifteen hundred miles like you guys did."
"You paint a sorry picture, Jimmy, but when you talk cowboy you're talking Charlie Goodnight. One of a kind, that man," Frank said, his handlebar mustache shifting angles as he spoke. "Always thunderin' around on them bow legs, cussin' up a storm. He could cuss better 'n any man I ever knew. 'Course when you own a million acres and run a hundred thousand head of cattle on your ranch you can purty much talk like you want."
"I didn't know you knew him, Frank," Jimmy said.
"I surely did. My uncle, Nick Eaton, had a spread on Running Water Creek in Texas. He and Charlie was friends. Remember, Rolla, that time we rode with Nick and Charlie and Deaf Smith to Caldwell, Kansas? Charlie rode right along, wrangling like one of us. He was a tough old bugger. I run across lots of men in my time lawmen, good Indians, bad Indians, and a whole passel of gunfighters 'n thieves. Colt Younger and his bunch and Belle Starr, I knew all of them. Every one of 'em robbed for a livin', even Belle."
Jimmy slapped his thigh. "I'll be damned. You knew them?"
"Sure 'nuf. You couldn't call one of them people a legend except maybe Pat Garrett. He was the finest lawman I ever run into. Killed Billy the Kid, you know. But Charlie Goodnight, now we're talkin' legend. Yessiree. The things I learned from him saved my hide more than once."
Lightning flashed off in the distance, its retreating light briefly illuminating the contour of the prairie. Frank went into the house and returned with three mugs of coffee. He handed one to Rolla and another to Wakely.
"Thanks," Jimmy said. "You lived with him, Rolla, what was Charlie like? I've read about some of the things he did, but what kind of man was he?"
Rolla sipped his coffee thoughtfully. "Fearless. Charlie wasn't afraid of nothing or nobody. He was a Texas Ranger when he was young. And Charlie never got tired like an ordinary man. Even as a kid I had a hard time keeping up with him. He was a cattleman through and through. That's all he thought about. He ate, drank, and slept cattle. When we weren't riding he read about cattle or talked to me about the cattle business, always trying to improve the herd. And Charlie was as practical as they come. You know those chuck wagons you use in the movies?"
Wakely nodded. "Sure. They come with a cantankerous cook like Gabby Hayes who dishes out make-believe grub and medicine and gives advice whether you want it or not."
"Well, ever-practical Charlie Goodnight invented the chuck wagon. He took a military supply wagon and changed it around, then equipped it for cookin' so they could use it on long cattle drives."
"Well I never knew that," Jimmy said.
"I ain't sure we'll ever see a man like him again," Frank said and then downed the last of his coffee.
Rolla raised his mug in a toast. "Charlie Goodnight was bigger than life: tough, bull-headed, always ready for adventure. He loved ranchin' more 'n anything. I'm proud to say I'm part of that tradition. It's something I'd like to pass on to my grandson. I'm not crazy about hearing the way of life I've spent seventy-five years livin' is damned near gone."
"I said I didn't like being the one to tell you," Jimmy shrugged.
"Wait a minute. Are you saying cowboyin' is dead all together?" Frank asked. The dog raised his head at Frank's sharp voice.
"Not just cowboyin', Frank," Jimmy said. He gestured at the Bar R. "Family ranching, this whole way of life. There just aren't any men around like you guys anymore ..."
Frank stood up and pointed his gnarled finger at Wakely. "Nosiree bob. People are always gonna eat steak. And if you're runnin' cattle you need horses. Horses have to have cowboys ridin' 'em. That ain't gonna change and that's all I got to say." Muttering something about needing more coffee, Frank disappeared into the house with a slap of the screen door.
Rolla decided he'd heard enough. "Now you listen, Mr. Hollywood. I got somebody working for me that's as good a cowboy as me 'n Frank ever was my grandson, Jerry. He can ride from here to hell and gone, break a horse, ride a bull, and rope a cow with the best of 'em."
Frank returned with the coffee pot and started to fill Rolla's mug. "Hold that danged thing still or I'm gonna pour this down your boot," he said. Frank refilled their mugs and set down the pot. "I heard what Rolla said about Jerry and he's right. Old-time cowboys like us got nothin' on that boy."
Wakely laughed. "Glory be. Rolla Goodnight and Frank Eaton agreeing on something? You're only saying that because he's your grandson, Rolla. Jerry's awfully young. I don't see how he could be that good."
Rolla stood up to his full height, punctuating the air with his forefinger as he spoke. "I am not saying it because he's my grandson, I am saying it because it is the truth," he said hotly. "You don't know what that boy's been through. He's tough as they come. And not only that, he's got Goodnight blood runnin' in his veins. He learned cowboyin' from Frank 'n me from the time he could walk. Why, he took to it like a duck to water. Jerry is a cowboy clean through." Rolla leaned over, locking eyes with Jimmy, his voice measured. "I am willing to put my money where my mouth is. Are you?"
"Hot damn, I'm likin' this now," Frank said, slapping his thigh.
Wakely whistled. "I can't believe it, a Goodnight making a bet? I'd better check to see if hell's froze over." Jimmy was still chuckling as he and Rolla shook hands. "What kinda money are we talking about, Rolla?"
Meet the Author
Patti Dickinson, a freelance writer and a native of Oklahoma, lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
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