My Cowboy Belt

The year was 1967. I was young and fearless – some called it ‘foolish’. On my own for the first time in my young life, I wanted to experience LIFE and my new found freedom and independence. Previously I lived a fairly sheltered middle-class existence that I thought of as ‘limited’. I was living now in a tiny bungalow behind a house in Van Nuys, California, working at some temporary jobs to barely make ends meet, and going to local bars in the evenings when I wanted to be around people. The local bars were what some might call ‘dives’, and there was one in particular that I liked because it had a pool table. I don’t recall how I happened to own my own pool cue, but I did.

There were two things I especially enjoyed about being out at the local bar. One was playing pool – with wild abandon so that I got in some lucky shots that surprised people into thinking I knew what I was doing. Since the other pool players were usually blue-collar macho men of varying ages, I not only stood out like a lovely apparition, but my lucky shots sometimes shook up my opponents who would become determined to not have a young sweet GIRL beat them at the game. This anxiety and stress sometimes threw off the opponents’ game, and then I only had to concentrate and make a few easy shots while my opponents would fall apart and I would win. I did not win often, but sometimes was good enough for me. I found the psychology of the game in my favor, and had fun with it whether I won or lost (I never had any better than a low-average skill).

The second (and main) reason I enjoyed hanging out at the bar was that I was interested in the people. They were rough and tough, and some were hostile, angry and had large chips on their shoulders. But I felt most people were good inside, and my theory was that they wanted what I now refer to as Caring, Acceptance and Respect (CAR) – then I simply thought of it as love from a fellow human.

My experiment was to see the goodness and kindness inside a person, and to try to bring that out – at least in relationship to me – by providing the love I thought was needed. I made some friends and enjoyed the people, and on some rare occasions I found someone I liked enough to become friends with outside of the bar. One such friend was a tall, quiet, strong, slender man called Gene.

Gene drove a small truck for a living, and was not always in town. He lived in Van Nuys with his friend John. I enjoyed Gene’s company, and he treated me with tremendous respect, responding to my caring by being on his best gentlemanly behavior around me. After awhile, Gene became my boyfriend. Having grown up in New York City, I always romanticized the western culture, loved country-western music, etc. Although he did drive a truck and not cattle, Gene was my ‘cowboy’ – complete with boots, jeans, hat, etc. Gene and John took me to the horse races, and even tried to explain the racing form to me. I just enjoyed being out there at Hollywood Park in the great outdoors, with the smell of horses. Gene would give me some money to bet with, and I just bet my hunches, or the horses’ names, and sometimes I even won a little. We had a good time. Gene also took me to some other bars where we danced to country music.

Often we swapped stories from our lives, and shared feelings about things. I was always as interested in his very different world of experiences as he was in mine. We knew we were culturally different, but that was part of the excitement for us both – learning about each other’s lives. I admired what I called his ‘cowboy’ belt, which was engraved leather with a slab of silver – engraved with a saddle – as the buckle. Because I liked it, and it fit me, Gene gave it to me.

One day Gene sat me down seriously to share an important event in his past that he usually kept to himself. He told me the story and then took out an old newspaper clipping from his wallet for me to read. He wanted me to know that he had killed a man. He was very upset about it, and although it was in self-defense (a knife fight in a bar), he was ashamed of it. He wanted to make sure I heard it from him first, just in case someone else might tell me. I am not sure whether he had run away from this, but I think he did.

Gene and I had some good times together, and although he was not always in town, our relationship continued for many months. Eventually he got an apartment by himself, and I think he and his friend John may have had a falling out. We drifted apart, but remained friends, and Gene sometimes called to chat when he was in town. I remember joining him someplace one night to meet his younger brother who was passing through.

I guess I had been out of touch with Gene for about a year or more, when I got a phone call in the middle of the night from John. It took me awhile to figure out what he was saying, and what he wanted from me. John was trying to get my agreement to testify on his behalf that Gene was a murderer and that John therefore had every reason to believe his life was in danger when he shot Gene. John was not at all coherent, but I finally understood that John climbed into Gene’s bedroom window and shot and killed Gene. John was claiming that he believed Gene pointed a gun at him -–while he was climbing through the window – and that is when John shot Gene. John wanted to claim self-defense. He figured I knew about the old bar-fight in the past when Gene killed a man, but neither Gene nor I ever told John that I knew about it. I said I did not know what he was talking about and that I could not help him.

I never got a reasonable answer about why John was climbing through Gene’s window, and I never knew what the disagreements were that Gene and John might have had. I believed Gene when he explained about the old bar-fight, and that he killed in self-defense. Gene trusted me to keep his secret.

So this is how I found out about my friend Gene’s death. John was telling me that he killed Gene, and was calling me in the middle of the night – from jail – to ask me to testify that Gene was a dangerous murderer and that John had reason to fear for his own life when he shot Gene. Even after I hung up the phone, and even these many years later, I cannot believe this straw John was grasping at – and the audacity of his calling me with this request.

I loved my friend Gene, and I knew him to be a gentle soul in a very UN-gentle world. I still have my ‘cowboy’ belt, although it is now a bit small for me, and cannot be worn through airport security because of the silver buckle. But I keep the belt to remind me of how violent and difficult, and how painful life and death can be for some – and how grateful I am to have known Gene and his gentleness.

By BobiJo