Who is Hank? (Part Four)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 | By John

Classic Film Comedies.  My friend Paul Boller introduced me to the classic films of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers.  Before they were widely known to my generation and available on DVD, Boller collected them in a film format known as Super Eight.  Any time he came to visit Kris and me, he brought his projector and a collection of films, and without realizing it, I became a fairly serious student of the old-time comedians.

I suspect that there are traces of Groucho Marx and Oliver Hardy in Hank’s character, and I’m certain that the film classics played a role in shaping the personality of Drover, Hank’s sidekick—a “sawed-off, stub-tailed, chicken-hearted little mutt,” to borrow Hank’s description.  

In the early books, Drover was patterned after a dog I knew on the Ellzey ranch, and I described him just as I saw him.  But as the series went on, Drover’s character became more complex, and now and then, as I was writing a Drover passage, I would find myself thinking of the vacuous expression on the face of Stan Laurel, or of the dreamy, flighty, slightly insane antics of Harpo Marx.  

Cowboy Storytellers.  Electronic media have deadened the storytelling instinct in most white middle-class suburbs and small towns, but I discovered a lively subculture of yarn-spinners when I went to work as a ranch cowboy.

Farm and ranch people have always told stories, and they still do, in spite of the presence of television, radio, home video, audio books, and iPods.  When they gather at prairie fires, weddings, funerals, country dances, farm auctions, brandings, Farm Bureau banquets, and shipping roundups, they tell stories, and most of the time, they are funny.

During the dark days of the Vietnam War, when most Americans had slipped into a somber mood, country folks in the heartland were still telling funny stories and livestock publications were still buying humorous material.  The Cattleman magazine published a number of my humorous stories, and so did Livestock Weekly.  

Published in San Angelo, Texas, LW never lost its sense of humor.  From the first issue in 1949, publisher Stanley Frank gave his readers a steady diet of satire and wry humor, featuring the work of cartoonist Ace Reid, associate editor Elmer Kelton, and a stable of columnists that included Monte Noelke, Doc Blakely, Baxter Black, and, for several years, me.

One of the reasons humor and oral-tradition storytelling have survived in the agricultural subculture is that we live and work with animals on a regular basis:  horses, cattle, sheep, goats, cats, and dogs, as well as coyotes, raccoons, skunks, buzzards, rattlesnakes, and porcupines.  

Animals have their ways of leveling our best plans and teaching us humility, whether we want it or not, and those experiences make funny stories:  a horse that can’t be rode, a cow on the fight, a herd of yearling heifers that scatter like sparrows, and ranch dogs that never figure out that skunks spray, porcupines skewer, and rattlesnakes bite.

During my cowboy career, I had an opportunity to study under some accomplished cowboy storytellers:  Sandy Hagar, Glenn Green, Hobart Hall, Jake Parker, Dave Nicholson, Billy DeArmond, Frankie McWhorter, Jim Bussard, and Lance Bussard. 

I listened to their stories in branding pens, inside pickups, at kitchen tables, and horseback on long cattle drives.  

I studied their timing, delivery, facial expressions, hand gestures, and regional accents, and was especially attentive to their approach to humor:  the dry, subtle, understated humor of the American West.  All those qualities and techniques have cropped out in the Hank stories.

Me?  Young readers sometimes ask, “Are you Hank?”   I always laugh and say, “I hope not.  He’s not very smart, you know.”  I’m sure that Hank and I share a few traits, and have some of the same bad habits, but from the writing of the first story in 1981, I have thought of him as someone else.  I love the character, and when I read the books (I keep a Hank book in the stack beside my bed), I laugh just as hard as any kid in the fourth grade.  

For twenty-nine years, I’ve been working for the dog.  He has bought my groceries and paid off my ranch, but I’m not Hank.

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