What Strength Really Means — A Story of Two Cowboys
Personal Note: In the coming days, I’ll be posting stories of people and incidents that have inspired me. Hopefully, these special people will inspire you, as well.
How would you define strength?
Ponder this question for a moment.
How is strength best defined? Take a moment and consider the possibilities.
Okay, so perhaps you have an answer. Now, permit me to have a go at this. Perhaps by the end of this essay, you may want to re-think your answer and consider alternative ways that strength is revealed in our society.
Here’s my take.
Strength isn’t manifested in achieving superiority, nor by making others inferior. Strength isn’t exhibited in anger or intimidation.
To the contrary. Real strength is embodied in personal sacrifice. It’s going out of one’s way to help a fellow human being. It’s putting another person’s comfort above your own. It’s dealing with the bad breaks in life and making the most out of them. That’s real strength.
I still have a lot to learn. I have a long way to go. No doubt, I have inner demons to conquer. But life has taught me it’s the small things that really matter. It’s the small things in life that bring joy and nourish optimism. Small things, like a glass of vintage wine, a meaningful conversation with family or friends, a comfortable resting place beside a warm fireplace, hearing your favorite Christmas carol, or watching a golden sunset.
Each of those things might not seem exceptional. But they are! They are indubitably rewarding. When we look back at our lives, I think most of us remember the simpler things we have done and experienced that brought us the most happiness.
It’s also the small things that often provide us with the most profound lessons. A seemingly trivial moment in the middle of the day can reveal a great deal about what’s really important. Our values stem not so much from formal education or access to the most learned academics. Life’s most meaningful lessons are taught in the classroom of daily life and come directly from one’s own experiences and observations. Our values are challenged and often reaffirmed by things that happen to us every single day.
The National Finals Rodeo is in town this week. Every December for the past 27 years, thousands of rodeo cowboys and cowgirls come to Las Vegas from all over the country — indeed from all over the world — to watch and participate in the national championship finals rodeo. Up and down the Vegas Strip, it’s backed up bumper to bumper with pick-up trucks and horse trailers — with license plates from Oklahoma, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Manitoba, Texas, and all points in between. Cowboy hats are everywhere — whether it’s elegant Venetian or down-home Sam’s Town. Almost every visitor has shiny new belt buckle and wears a pair of blue jeans or coveralls. An “invasion” of cowboys would not be too strong a word.
I confess that I have never cared for the cowboy look or the Old West lifestyle. Growing up part of my life in Dallas, I kinda’ resented the old-fashioned image of Texans as hat-wearing, pick-up driving, tobacco chewing hicks. In fact, I hated that. The ridiculous image — so popular outside the state — just isn’t an accurate reflection or reality. Then, there was that idiotic TV show several years ago where some character named “J.R.” always wore a cowboy hat and lived on a ranch. I lived in Dallas for twenty years. No one I knew ever wore a cowboy hat. No one in Texas drinks Lone Star beer. It’s a stereotype, folks. No more true than all the men in Scotland wear plaid skirts and play bagpipes.
Over the years, I’ve changed just a bit. I’ve mellowed out. Perhaps, I’ve even become a little bit wiser. I’ve gradually come to realize that the West is America’s true cultural heritage. Not heavy industry and factories in the rust belt. Not colonial New England. Not the Old South. THE WEST — that’s the real America.
What defines us as a nation and represents us as a people can best be summed up by the cowboys and the rugged frontiersmen who first blazed a trail, tamed the lands, and who still feed us and cloth us with their labor as framers and ranchers. The American character is not defined so much by George Washington or Ben Franklin, but by the nameless, faceless stream of courageous families who pushed across the Great Plains, the Rockies, the Desert, and ultimately conquered a whole continent (at the expense of Indians, I might add).
Next time you drive across the United States take a closer look at the terrain. Look really close. Rocks. Rivers. Sand. Mountains. Think about what it must have been like to move across the dusty land in a covered wagon (no paved roads, no gas stations, no rest stops, no fast food joints) — with all of your belongings in search of a better life. You think it’s tough to drive across Colorado or Utah or North Dakota or Wyoming? Try spending four months crossing the terrain with every possession loaded into a covered wagon. Talk about risk and sacrifice.
That’s America. To me — the West is the real America. It’s one of the reasons that of all the places I could chose to live, I opt to reside in the West.
Each day at approximately 3 in the afternoon, I used to eat lunch at the Gold Coast Casino. The Gold Coast is located just off the Strip, on Flamingo Blvd. It’s across the street from the Rio and the Palms. Frankly, the Gold Coast is a second-rate “locals” casino. That’s precisely why I like it there. I like the Gold Coast because it is not big and fancy like the other hotels. It’s what Las Vegas once was before the corporations changed everything. It’s a nice friendly place without pretense. I feel comfortable at the Gold Coast. I eat there, I listen to music there, and I bet a lot of sports there.
I used to eat in the Magnolia Room. And this is where our story begins. It’s a story that I hope and trust will illustrate the real meaning of personal strength.
This day started off much like any other.
That is, until two cowboys came in to the restaurant.
The cowboys were both big men. They were what you think of when you say the word “cowboy.” They were dressed in heavy plaid shirts. Their shirts were checkered with those fancy snaps on the pockets. They wore pressed blue jeans — you know, the kind with the crease steamed in, held up by silver belt buckles and leather belts. Their hats were impeccably adorned.
These two cowboys did not intend to draw attention to themselves on this fine day, nor would they capture my interest at all, except for one thing that made this odd pair stand out from the crowd.
One of the cowboys was in a wheelchair.
The first cowboy with a big handlebar mustache pushed the other cowboy to a table in the middle of the dining room that was directly in front of me. My eyes were drawn to the day’s sporting events, but since I was looking straight ahead I couldn’t help but notice the sight that was to come.
As I sat and studied the paper, the two cowboys struck up a conversation with the waitress. They ordered two t-bone steaks. The Gold Coast runs a daily special — $7.95 for a huge 16 ounce steak, baked potato, and a garden salad. What a bargain!
When the salad was served a few minutes later, the first cowboy rose and stood from the table. He walked over to the wheelchair, then placed an olive colored napkin on his companion’s shirt. He then proceeded to help his friend feed himself.
One bite at a time.
He stabbed the salad, then lifted the fork to the mouth of his friend. This ritual was repeated over and over until the salad was finished. It became apparent that the wheelchair-bound cowboy was quadropelagic — which means he had no ability to use his arms and legs.
As the man fed his friend, the two men talked about some of the things that they were going to do while visiting Las Vegas. I could not help but overhear them talking about seeing some of the local shows. They were deliberating about which music to go hear.
A few minutes later, the t-bone steaks were served. The able-bodied man once again got up from his seat and cut his friends steak into several small bite-sized portions. Then, he proceeded to help his friend eat and enjoy his meal. Meanwhile, it was apparent that the other man’s steak sat there on the table and got cold. It was a selfless act. The man put his friend’s comfort before his own. He made certain that his friend was able to enjoy his meal.
There’s nothing unusual about helping a handicapped person or seeing two friends going out to lunch. I suppose had this been any other person other than a rugged-looking cowboy in the wheelchair perhaps in the company of a nurse or personal assistant, I wouldn’t have given the matter two seconds of thought. But this was a display, albeit a private one, which had a much deeper impact on those who were witnesses. Two “cowboys” out to lunch — one helping his friend and sacrificing his own comfort to make this other man’s life livable.
The able-boded cowboy saw me reading the newspaper and asked if I was a local. He then asked some advice about what to see around town. I obliged him with what little advice I could offer.
From our conversation, I learned the two men come to the rodeo together each and every year. They have been friends since high school. They were both from Alexandria, Louisiana. Although it never came up in our conversation — it became obvious that they were not going to let something like a man’s handicap stop them from doing what they wanted to do, from traveling across the country, going to Las Vegas, visiting a casino, and seeing the rodeo. They weren’t going to let physical disadvantages dictate what they could do or who they were. A petty inconvenience like a wheelchair could not stop them from being who they really are and what defined them as people. Yes, they were real cowboys.
The notion of one man helping his friend might not seem significant in a day filled with worldly problems and crisis. It might be overlooked in a world full of so many distractions. It might not seem like something from which there is anything to be learned. But the sight is something that has stayed with me for several days since and caused me to ponder. It reminds one of the true meaning of uncommon virtues, “strength” and “courage.”
Alas. Back to the question which started today’s essay.
Strength is not revealed by demonstrating ones superiority, nor is it proving another’s inferiority. Strength is not manifested in anger nor intimidation. Real STRENGTH is personal sacrifice, going out of one’s way to help a fellow human being. It’s putting another person’s comfort above your own. It’s dealing with the bad breaks in life and making the most out of them. That’s strength.
Neither is courage necessarily weighed by medals earned on battlefields. Real COURAGE happens every minute of each and everyday, but is rarely seen. Courage is assisting the needy — when there are “better” things to do. Courage is feeding a hungry child, helping an elderly man carry his belongings, holding someone’s hand in a time of need, or comforting a sick and dying patient in the final stages of life. Courage is volunteering at a nursing home. It’s reading to a child. It’s comforting a person who needs a touch. That’s courage.
Indeed, it’s the little things in life that really matter most. Courage and strength are manifested in the small things, and are virtues that we should all try to make part of our lives. Although I seriously doubt they will ever see this, nor will they know they may have inspired others to do good deeds, two rodeo cowboys at the Gold Coast taught me a valuable lesson.
Something to think about during the holiday season and as we all strive to make and adhere to a New Year full of resolutions.
Writer’s Note: This incident took place in December 2002. A similar version of this story appeared at another website I contributed to at the time.