The Cowboy Way: If It's Not Right, Don't Do It

My brother has been working on a memoir about my parents moving from Chicago to buy a farm in Wisconsin and our subsequent life growing up there. His work got me thinking about things I hadn’t really given thought to in a long while.

Simply put, I think things were much simpler then; by simpler, I mean that right and wrong seemed to be more vivid, easier to discern. This was confirmed when I recently started watching the 1960s cowboy series, The Virginian, which ran 10 seasons from 1962-71. 

The Virginian, portrayed by actor James Drury, was a mysterious cowboy who never had a name in the series other than the title, The Virginian.  As foreman for the Shiloh ranch, he lived by the motto called “The Cowboy Way;” If it isn’t true, don’t say it; if it’s not yours, don’t take it; if it’s wrong, don’t do it.

Simple; but just think if all people would live by that simple set of rules.

I consider myself a cow boy; I grew up in the country, with cows, as a boy, thus, I was a cow boy. I also grew up watching westerns, including the Virginian, who was one of my early role models. Like most of the TV role models of that time, he was a predominately positive model.

I was the youngest in what essentially amounted to two separate families; my oldest brother and only sister, born four years apart, then my next oldest brother born 11 years after my sister and I was born last, four years after my brother.

The reason for this split plan? Simple, I think.

I have always theorized that our parents planned it that way, though I never got confirmation of that from either of them, though I tried. However, planned or not, it enabled them to remain on the farm for 27 years using what I tongue-in-cheek call “indentured” help, i.e., my siblings and I.

About the time my oldest brother joined the Army and my sister started working at a bank, my brother and I were coming of age to be the new farm hands. We went through our on-the-job training from the time we could walk and by the time we were called to the regulars we were old hands at the 24/7/365 job of operating a dairy farm.

As a cow boy, I learned to live by the Cowboy Way and if I wandered from that path my parents were there to prod me back in line, or teach me, as the situation called for.

I remember once when I was about five or six, my mother had to be at an appointment and there was nobody to watch me, so she left me at a neighbor lady’s with instructions for me not to touch anything unless the lady said I could because I might break something.

So when the lady asked if I could help her clean the house, of course I wanted to because it meant I could touch things. I didn’t break a thing. When we were done, she gave me a nickel for my work, my first pay for a job well done.

However, when my mother got me home and I proudly showed her the nickel, she was very upset, telling me that the neighbor was doing her a favor and that I should march right back down there and give it back. I did it, reluctantly. But I learned that good deeds don’t require compensation or recognition.

Then, a few years later, my dad showed me an alternate way of approaching such a conundrum. 

We had a large, elevated tank of gasoline that we used for our car, tractors and other farm equipment. A gasoline truck would come out periodically and fill it up so we’d always have gas to get the work done.

One day, a man came walking into our yard with an empty gas can in his hand. He said he’d run out of gas along our gravel road on rural route 3 and he saw our gas tank and wondered if he could get some?

My dad didn’t hesitate and let him fill up the five-gallon can. The man held out a $10 bill, more than fair compensation for the amount of gas he had gotten. My dad initially said oh no, you don’t have to pay. But when the man held out the bill again, my dad reached and took it with a humble--but wise--look on his face and gave me a sideways glance with a twinkle in his eye at the same time.

The lesson that has always stayed with me from that incident is be generous, share what you have and don’t demand compensation; however, don’t be stupid and give away what you have worked for. My dad had paid for that gas from the meager proceeds of our milk sales. He really couldn’t afford to give it away. So, he put generosity first, but given the opportunity he placed the needs of his family at the head of the line, with a bit of profit to boot.

Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was learning lessons that formed who I would be as I watched the westerns as well.

The Virginian, Gunsmoke, High Chaparral, the Rifleman, Bonanza--they all had strong male and female lead characters who clearly represented the good in people. They were tempted by the same fates as others, but they stuck to their guns, doing the right thing in the face of all opposition.

Their foils, the villains, were almost always recognizable as the bad guys--the sneering face, the shifty eyes, the lies, the cheating; the plots were simple and you could easily guess the outcome. The good guys almost always won in the end.

In today’s world, things are not presented so clearly cut as right and wrong, good and bad, civilized and uncivilized. Instead of being portrayed as simple and clear, the media constantly swirls those concepts in a kaleidoscope of grays.  

So when things get complicated, when my head is spinning with all the different “spins” on events in the world, I test them against the Cowboy Way. I say to myself; what would the Virginian do?

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, AL; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email