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Ralph Keyes’s essay, “The People’s Cowboy,” is a story of growing up in a left-wing, socially conscious household. It was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Antioch Review. In it, he recounts how the family’s political proclivities colored even their preferences for cowboys.

Listen to Ralph Keyes read an excerpt from “The People’s Cowboy.”


As a child I did not realize how unique our family was.  What was so odd about discussing the Rosenbergs’ innocence during dinner, singing “Union Maids” after dessert, then being read a book about Ferdinand the bull, who would rather smell flowers than fight toreadors?  Responses to my Antioch Review essay about growing up in a politically charged environment like that reminded me of what a distinctive childhood I’d had.  “Your upbringing could not have been more different from mine,” wrote one reader.  “I came from factory workers and truck drivers who hated just about everything about the country (although they never would accept that characterization) except when somebody criticized it–very confusing.”  Said another, “I had such a ‘normal’ upbringing during the exact same era, that these days I find myself thinking it might have been fun to grow up in the Sedaris family.  Reading this, yours might have sufficed as well.”  And a third: “Nice to know that you were ‘using your head for something besides a hat rack’ (as the nuns used to say) back then.”

I guess we all yearn for what we didn’t have as children.  These readers might rather have been raised by parents like mine who steeped their family in current events from a left perspective.  I might have preferred to grow up in a more conventional environment, one in which I didn’t feel duty-bound to challenge my teachers about the efficacy of civil defense drills, and inform my schoolmates that Douglas MacArthur had dragged us into the Korean War (or so my parents said).

With an upbringing like this even innocent childhood pastimes can take on a political hue.  It wasn’t enough to consider Gene Autry a better cowboy than Roy Rogers.  To me Autry was not only better but more enlightened— “The People’s Cowboy” (as my essay is titled).  And the fact that my brother and I considered American Flyer trains to be far superior to Lionel made us suspect that Lionel was produced by fascists.  Without concurring with this political spin one reader wrote “you’re dead on about American Flyer being far superior to Lionel, and it’s a shame the rest of the world didn’t see it that way!”

Well the rest of the world didn’t see lots of things the way I did, as a “red diaper baby.”  As an adult I prefer, like my American Flyer-loving reader, to be able to assess things such as model trains on their merits, without always considering the political implications.  So do I wish I’d been raised by less left-wing parents?  Not really.  Growing up in a family where political implications were the coin of our realm left a residue of awareness for which I’m grateful.

ralph-at-deskRalph Keyes‘s sixteen books include Euphemania and The Courage to Write. He recently published an e-book titled Second Thoughts: The Power of Positive Regret. His language column “Back Talk,” appears regularly in The American Scholar. For more information see ralphkeyes.com


© 2014 The Antioch Review