This week is now time for what should be the 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Elko, Nev. Who ever would have thought a dangerous virus from the far side of the Pacific could deteriorate our lives and put a halt to an American Cowboy event, but it did. The 2020 event was cancelled and now the 2021 gala will be by a “Stay at Home” video scenario rather than the actual week-long celebration.
Apparently the office staff was going through some old, past performance videos to put on Instagram and they “flipped out” over a 1986 video of me performing and dubbed it, “This Dreamy Cowboy.” It reads:
“– Cowboy Poetry Gathering –
“This Dreamy Cowboy is North Dakotan Bill Lowman, performing at the 1986 gathering with an impeccable style and with a moustache on point. A lot of good stuff can be said about Bill, but today we’ll stick to sharing a juicy little known tidbit with you.
“Bill was once held up by the F.B.I. at the Salt Lake City airport traveling to the gathering. Why you ask? Well, they thought he might be a fugitive – a Top Ten Most Wanted named Claude Dallas. A flight attendant had turned him in before the plane landed and there was big reward money on the line. Pretty sure Bill and his 75 year old father, who was traveling with him, had better days.”
Once or twice in a lifetime somebody will take a picture of you that turns out better than you actually look. In this one, I’m squinting down under my hat brim, probably trying to recall my next line to deliver.
Here’s a little history on the event. Back in the early 1980s at a National Folklorist Convention in Washington, D.C., Montana’s Mike Korn, Arizona’s big Jim Griffith and New Mexico’s Liz Dear were mulling over the culture of the long dormancy of Cowboy Poetry during a Rose Garden Social. This evolved into a state by state study, which to their surprise, still existed on remote ranches at roundups and brandings as well as small town taverns. They then enlisted Hal Cannon from Salt Lake City, who founded the Western Folk Life Center that may have knowledge or connections to possible corporate sponsorship, to put on a poetry gathering at Elko, Nev., which was born in late January of 1985.
Early on they would fly us into Salt Lake City, then charter bus us over to Elko, four hours to the west. In 1987, my third year, I was getting to be an old hand at it and was bringing my father Harold, along as my guest. He had spent his youth working cow camps, mining camps and riding freight trains all over the west, so at 75 he really enjoyed reminiscing at the gathering with more plush living conditions.
The Utah Arts Council was in charge of handling incoming flights and charters out and had rented a large, private lounging room, “The Marietta,” on the second floor of the airport for us to loiter. A lot of us had up to a 10-hour layover waiting for other states to report in.
As we lifted off from a short touch down at Casper, Wyo., on our Bismarck to Salt Lake City flight, this cute little stewardess kept playing eye contact games with me. I always thought it was my American male duty to check out the flight attendants, but I’d catch her checking me out instead. When she got done with her chores, she sauntered over and took an empty seat next to me and immediately made small talk.
“Hi, how are you, where are you going?” and so on. When we lit at Salt Lake, the pilot asked for a lady’s name to come to the front immediately. To my surprise it was the little stewardess. I wrote it off as a personal issue or she wouldn’t have crowded herself past all the paying passengers that were standing up in the aisle.
But as my father and I exited the plane, there she stood, thanking everyone for flying Western Air. A small man in an ugly olive-green suit stood mute by her side. As my dad and I made our way up the tunnel, there he was right behind me and so close he clipped my boot heel with his shoe. As the corridor tunnel turned and steepened, he did it again. It aggravated me to the point that I stopped, turned my back to the side wall and glared down at him. He stopped and glared up at me. I motioned with a head nod for him to go past. He nodded back and passed by as not a word was spoken between us.
As we cleared lobby daylight, a young college-looking guy to my right said, “Mr. Lowman.” I confirmed him, as this was a routine from the past two years that an Arts Council worker would greet you and usher you to the Marietta. As I turned to honor him, a pack of no less than eight or nine guys swarmed me from my left. As I reacted to them, my greeter grabbed me from the right side. The nervous little green-suited man stepped up, flashed a hand folder in my face and said, “F.B.I., we have reason to believe you are a wanted fugitive.”
His original plan was to stay behind me in the tunnel so if I was tipped off he would stop me from running back on the plane where I’d grab the stewardess for a hostage and have the pilots take off again, but he apparently wasn’t used to working with leisure cowboys and had put too much pressure on me and so had to go to plan “B.”
They hustled me across the lobby to a side door, down an alley and into a storage room. They had grabbed my dad and held him in the lobby. They were extremely on edge and nervous as they questioned me. I knew I was innocent, so I tried joking with them – but it was a hard sell. It turned out that the little stewardess’ eyes must have been a little blurry over that $33,000 reward they had out for the apprehension of Claude Lafayette Dallas, Jr., for the slaying of Idaho Game Warden Bill Pauge and his assistant Conley Elms, and had made a mistaken identity.
I asked the Elko staff, “Why did you wait three and one half decades before making me a national “Heart Throb”?
I’m still waiting for an answer.