Ragtime Cowboy Joe

Summer was always the same in my house.  One by one, we children would go off to camp, two weeks at a time, until summer was passed.  The kids still at home would hang out with Grandma, spend time at local playgrounds. We’d sleep outside when the weather was good, eat popsicles and wait when it wasn’t.   Then, there’d be a vacation- the whole family on odd years, just mom and dad on even. It was fine.

Then suddenly, two weeks of hot fun in the summertime seemed meant for kids from privilege, kids who couldn’t make their own fun. My parents thought it might’ve been a waste of time- that perhaps we’d be too spoiled by adult led fun and games. Camp was cancelled, and we children went crazy.

“What do you mean you “need” summer camp?” My father cried.  “Know what Jan and I did for summer vacation?  We went to Rock Island.  We played stick ball, and read comic books.  That’s summer camp.”

“We went to Louisiana.”  My mother chimed in.  “One week with Mamma’s people, one week with Daddy’s.  It was plenty fun.”

It was settled. No camp for us.

He always sings

Ragtime music to his cattle

as he swings

Back and forward in the saddle

Of his horse

(a pretty good horse!)

A syncopated gaiter

Such a funny meter

To the roar of his repeater.

How they run


When they see old Joe a-comin’

cuz the western folks all know

(what do they know?)

He’s a high falutin’, rootin’-tootin’

Son of a gun from Arizona

Ragtime Cowboy

Talkin’ ‘bout a cowboy

Ragtime Cowboy Joe!

It was my brother’s theme song that summer there was no camp.  He learned it the summer before, when camp was allowed.  It was written in 1912, and he had no idea that it was corny, finding it inspiring for a brisk bike ride.   He taught his friends the tune, and they sang it together as they rode around the neighborhood on their imaginary horses, which were really bikes, playing Cowboys and Indians.

The Indians, by the way, were always the good guys in our neighborhood.  I didn’t even meet anyone who played with cowboys as good guys until I was thirty.

Anyway, I imagine they were singing Cowboy Joe right up until the moment that he took a header over his loose handlebars and split open his forehead. Either that or the theme song from Starsky and Hutch. He walked back to the house with his friend pushing his broken bike, informed us that he probably needed to go to the Emergency Room, and waited for us to stop screaming to get help.

This was a couple of weeks after my sister tried to make biscuits, and started a grease fire.  Ms. Drier from next door came over, and dumped baking soda on it after the fire department was called.  Little brother answered the phone for my dad’s midday check in and stated, “Can’t talk now dad.  The firemen just got here.”  Then, he hung up.

Dad got home in what seemed like seconds later and told us we’d have to have fun in a way that no one got hurt.  And if we couldn’t handle staying alone for a few hours each day, we’d be grounded.


A few days later, I was pretending to be a drum major of a marching band. No one was getting hurt this time because there was no fire, no outdoor stunt man clowning around.  No one gets hurt when it’s just your imagination, right?  I spun a yard stick from the basement, stomping all around the house while I hummed Stars And Stripes Forever.  For my finale, I threw the stick high in the air and did the splits.  The yard stick crashed into an oil painting my uncle Jimmy had just sent from his studio for my mother’s birthday present.

This trashed painting hangs in my office to guilt me into avoiding distraction

This trashed painting hangs in my office to guilt me into avoiding distraction

Dad got home from work, and said, “Sit down somewhere.”  My sister ran for a chair, my brother and I just sat down where we’d been walking.  There was no time to find a seat when he took that tone.

“You’re destroying our property, marring your bodies and ruining perfectly good food. Worse yet, you are pissing off my wife.”

“At least they are creative.”  Mom said in our defense.

“I think they’re just dense.” He said to her. And to us he said, “Do. Not. Piss off my wife.”

“They’re smart enough to know how to get back to camp.” Mom told him. And she was right.

The next year, we went back to camp:   My sister took a scuba diving exploration in the lake, my brother went back to YMCA camp, and I went with the Girl Scouts. All at the same time.

And no one had to run when they saw us a-coming.

About thanks amen

Michelle is an artist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin whose professional experience spans working as an educator, nonprofit executive, and consultant. She has a fear of clowns and pecans, and works every day to listen at least twice as much as she talks.
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1 Response to Ragtime Cowboy Joe

  1. Lula Green says:

    GREAT memories….wish I could go back in time some days, there are conversations that I want to have with some of my Camp friends

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