Until he came to Oklahoma in 1970, Steve Przelomski had never seen a sunset. The first one he saw made an impression on him that his friends from the old neighborhood in Newark could not understand. Of the four young men who left New Jersey to attend St. Gregory’s College in Shawnee, Steve was the only one who never complained of boredom. His friends, fresh from their familiar landscape of row houses, looked across the open fields and saw only emptiness. They were always starved for entertainment, sometimes desperate for noise. For Steve, there was nothing scary about the stark quiet of the prairie surrounding the abbey. Like the notion of the sun setting, instead of slipping behind an apartment building, the absence of clamor was joy.
On the day we met, Steve sat rocking back and forth on his bunk, still excited about the Oklahoma sunset, describing it’s drama and color so vividly, he changed every sunset I have seen since. Then, without warning, he began to talk about cows as though they were a novelty to the whole world. Not even the Bronx Zoo had a cow. Seizing on his enthusiasm for cows, I told him that I lived on a ranch and had better than a passing acquaintance with cows. He was a little reluctant to believe me at first because, as he was to explain, if I lived on a ranch and had cows, I had to be a cowboy. I asked him what he expected a cowboy to look like. Well, he said, you ought to have cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. A cowboy had to ride a horse. He ought to carry a pistol. A plaid shirt was a good idea.
It is the duty of every real cowboy to make sure a tenderfoot gets the straight dope. First I told Steve a horse can indeed be useful to a cowboy. If a cowboy were to run along behind a cow yelling “Wait for me!” a cow would soon lose respect for him. If the cowboy wishes to consult with a cow on the state of her health or her plans for the future, and he finds her unwilling, it is the simplest thing to get on his horse, catch up to the cow on some open piece of ground and throw a rope around her neck. But, on our ranch, because it was small and well fenced, we had never had to resort to a cavalry charge to capture our cattle. We just lied to them. Every day, during the winter months, we tossed their food off the back of a truck as we drove across the pasture. When we wanted them in the corral in spring, we drove out there and told them we were going to feed them, but drove, instead, into the pens and closed the gate behind them. We never wore cowboy hats because Daddy was too cheap to buy them. He claimed you couldn’t get in and out of a pickup or work stock and keep one of them on your head. His attitude about cowboy boots was about the same. They were too expensive to buy for people who always changing the size of their feet. The old man always maintained that if you were having real trouble with an animal you were much better off in shoes you could run in than ones that made you look like a cowboy. If the cows ever noticed the difference, they never complained to me.
Steve was very curious to know what we did to these cows once we got them shut up in the pens. I compared it to a football game, with the difference that one team gets three players who weigh about a hundred and fifty pounds apiece and the other gets forty to fifty players of anywhere between ninety and two thousand pounds. The saving grace was that the smaller team, outmanned as it was, was usually a little bit smarter than the larger one. On a good day all the cows got wormed, all the calves got branded and earmarked, and the bull calves lost whatever hope they may have had of following in their father’s hoof-prints. On a bad day the cows broke down the fence or stepped on someone’s foot.
If I wasn’t the kind of cowboy Steve Przelomski might have expected, he never held it against me. It was his nature to like surprises, and for him Oklahoma turned out to be full of surprises. As far as I know he is still here.