A mediation on the difference between men of action and men of ideas.
When I was young, I thought I would marry a cowboy.
In West Texas, you see, this is still a thing you can do.
It wasn’t so much a conscious thought; when I made up those lists little girls make about the qualities their husband will have and will be, it didn’t even show up.
It was just an understood idea, in the back of my mind, unarticulated. If not a cowboy, than at the very least a man connected to the natural cycle of things. A man with a sense of fair play and justice. A man who was truly fine, the way my Mama said it.
When I was sixteen, I was tying a compatriot’s necktie for a theatre show.
“I’ve got to learn how to do this better,” I mumbled.
“Why do you need to know how to tie a tie?” my theatre instructor baited.
“For when I get married,” I said, starting over with my tying.
“Your husband will know how to tie his own tie, Haley.”
“He might not,” I shot back. “What if I marry a man like a farmer, who never has occasion to wear a tie?”
And he actually smirked at me and said, “Women like you do not marry farmers.”
It’s been nearly fifteen years, and I’m still offended by that statement.
Our second summer of marriage found Luke and me on a grand adventure, traversing from Ohio to Maine by car. Luke has this obsession with visiting all fifty states, and we wanted to knock out New England.
Somewhere in Vermont, we spotted a farmhouse on a hill with llamas in the sloping dooryard. Luke pulled into the long farm driveway.
“Luke, this is someone’s property. You can’t just pull up on someone’s road like this. We’re going to be shot.”
Northerners, I’ve found, don’t have the same concept of private and public property that Texans do.
“LLAMAS” was the only reply.
“Louis Clayborn, do not get out of this car.”
Too late. He was already standing at the fence, wielding his iPhone camera, by the time I finished the sentence.
“Luke, llamas are not necessarily — “
I was going to say gentle creatures, but then the llama sort of…charged us.
I’m not going to say there was screaming, but his butt was quickly back in the car.
Two days later, in Maine, I wanted to go riding.
“I’ve never been horseback riding,” said Luke, tapping the brochure.
“…never?” I said, a bit incredulous. I took this to mean that he was rusty.
“Well. Once I rode a very small pony at a state fair when I was six.”
Okay, not so much…rusty.
Once we were out on the trail, I called back: “How are you doing?”
“I THINK MY HORSE IS TRYING TO EAT ME,” was his genuine response.
Afterwards, as we settled back in the car, I asked him what he thought, and he answered earnestly:
“I think that was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.”
Marry a cowboy, I did not.
I was supposed to inherit an oil-field service company: my parents ran a stuck-pipe recovery service for a living.
For those of you who did not grow up in the oilfield, here’s what that means:
When a drilling company drills for oil, they use a series of pipes. Sometimes those pipes can get “stuck” — meaning they can’t come out or go into the drilling hole any longer, and you have to cease operations, which means the drilling company begins hemorrhage money, to the tune of $50K a day.
Enter my father, an engineer, who’s job it was to go in any time, day or night, with a wireline truck and a crew and back off a stuck pipe, sometimes using explosives to cut through the pipe.
It’s not for the faint-hearted, even at the best of times; at the worst of times, there’s an oil recession and work ceases to exist entirely for long periods.
My father ran the trucks, my mother ran the books, and I spent most of childhood galloping (pretty joyously) back-and-forth between the wireline shop and Mom’s office, drinking Coke out of glass bottles.
When I was about twelve, my parents had an argument about getting my father “off a truck”.
Being the man to go out in the field meant that he was spending a lot of time driving back and forth in a two-ton wireline truck, navigating by geographical landmarks and county maps to roads without names across Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and of course all over Texas, usually in the middle of the night.
Wireline service men don’t sleep in hotels, for the most part—unless they’re waiting on the company to make a decision, they stay in the field and sleep in their trucks.
They also stand around in every possible kind of weather, from blizzards to 115-degree heat waves.
It’ll age a man fast, and my mother was tapping her foot, wanting to know when my Dad was going to quit going out in the field.
But he couldn’t let it go. He was one of the best. I’ve run into people all over the United States who know my father and his company, named after our last name. In different West Texas towns, I’ve had strangers ask me out of the blue, “You Mike Elkins’ daughter?” because the resemblance is unmistakable.
“Are you just going to do this until you drop dead?” my mother demanded.
“Of course not,” my father shot back. “When Haley’s old enough, she’ll go to college, and then she’ll come back and run things.”
Y’all…you should have seen the look on my mother’s face. Equal parts amusement and fury.
“She sure as hell won’t. She’s going to get the hell out of here. She’s not going to do what we’ve done.”
“I’m going to teach English!” I piped up from the couch, trusty glass bottle of Coke in hand.
I did not end up teaching English, but I didn’t end up running an oil-field service company, either. I would have been one of the first women to do so, my own mother ironically notwithstanding.
I became an artist, instead.
Sometimes it’s hard to admit that we want better for our children, because better implies that what we’re doing ourselves is not good enough, even invalid. While this isn’t precisely true, it’s also not un-true, either. It’s a difficult concept to explore.
John Adams is often quoted as having said:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
My grandfather was a sailor, then a roughneck, then an oilfield man. My father was first a policeman, then a narcotics and homicide detective, then an oilfield man. I am a writer with a degree in English literature and feminist theory.
My husband’s great-grandfather was a soldier, then a postmaster. His grandfather was a WWII medic. His father was a cardiologist. Luke has two degrees, one in philosophy, and another in French, a decadent combination to have almost no practical application.
We were both expected to be something else if we were to follow in the footsteps of our fathers, but I became a full-time writer and Luke became a community organizer.
I do hold down the home-front and keep the fires burning. And Luke is out-and-about, canvasing with volunteers, organizing phone banks, editing materials, and dashing between a whole spectrum of acronyms: LULAC, GLSEN, the NAACP, and on and on.
And he has had occasion to wear a tie. I have not been the one to tie it.
When we settle in at night, I watch him smile as he talks, easily and unafraid, about all the ways he’s going to help people, make the world better.
And I think to myself:
I married a cowboy after all.
Photo by discography