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Learning the Ropes
My Papaw Shaws dairy barn, Liberty, Mississippi,
1947. Determined to rope calves like Gene Autry,
I had no Champion under me to run them down
and to splatter cow piles with his hooves.
With no instructor in the art of roping, I tried to
remember the ease and grace of the celluloid
cowboys as the rope floated from their gloved
hands like a dove in flight, soaring through the
bright air, caressing the animal to a sudden stop.
Why dont you quit this? Every day from my mother.
All youre doing is collecting cow manure and
skinned places on your arms. I shrugged. I like it.
She washed the jeans; I cleaned the boots.
I learned: forefinger controls the flight of the rope;
no more than three twirls before letting loose;
flick of the wrist and elbow, straight arm is strictly
for football. Nearly every time the loop found its mark.
Boot heels dug into the dark ground, knees bent, arms
and shoulders flexed; I taught them the sudden stop.
Grownups came to the old barn lot to watch me
without being asked; stayed awhile. I never missed,
And then I missed. The loop hit the shoulders, sliding
down over the hindquarters, back legs kicking out.
No thought; before the rope hit the ground, I jerked
hard, pinning the legs together. Stunned calf, down
for the first time. After that I seldom threw for the neck.
That night in the feather bed, warm breeze
and powdery moonlight through the open
window, I thought long about my unexpected
gift in cowboy arts. Then closed my eyes
and drifted into the Old West.
This poem first appeared the Star 82 Review.
Used here with permission.
Robert Funderburk was born by coal oil lamplight in a farmhouse near Liberty, Mississippi. After receiving a B.A. in Sociology from Louisiana State University and serving in the U.S. Air Force, he worked as a parole officer for the Louisiana Welfare Department, where dealing with probation, arrests, and investigations provided inspiration for many novels (17 and counting) to come. Robert lives in Louisiana with his wife and daughter.
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