A Seagoing Cowboy Song and a Poem

An email “in box” often brings surprises when one is considered an expert on a topic. Usually, a request for information. However, a little over three months ago I received an email that made my day. Mennonite singer-songwriter Tim Shue wrote, “Someone gave me a poem by a Willard L. Bontrager entitled ‘An Ode to Thirty-Two Cowboys’ in hopes that I would eventually write a song about it.” Some 12 years later, the deed has been accomplished.

The song, “Cowboys at Sea,” sung by Tim, appears on the recently released CD* of the Honeytown band of which Tim is a part. Tim has generously granted me permission to share it on my website. Click here to listen to this song, inspired by Bontrager’s poem below.

Willard L. Bontrager traveled to Trieste, Italy, on the S. S. Morgantown Victory with a load of horses for Yugoslavia, departing Newport News, Virginia, December 2, 1946.

The S. S. Morgantown Victory loading in Newport News, Virginia, December 1946. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

Thirty of the thirty-two cowboys on the S. S. Morgantown Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Vernon Yoder.

Cowboy foreman Willard Evans and cowboy Willard Bontrager, December 1946. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

An Ode to Thirty-Two Cowboys
By Willard Bontrager
All names are purely fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The Author.
1
Thirty-two cowboys sailed the seas;
Started out brave as ever you please
These brave cowboys hit the sack,
With nary a tho’t of turning back
2
Thirty-two cowboys got up the next morn,
Sorry that they had ever been born.
These brave cowboys lined the rail
Heaving too much for that little rail.
3
Thirty-two cowboys now morbid and weak
Went to their work very quiet and meek;
They watered their stock and pulled their hay,
Then went to work putting slings on a bay.

Morgantown Victory cowboys pulling up hay. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

4
Thirty-two cowboys sailed into the Med.
Found it not as they had read.
This inland sea–this nice smooth sea
Was lashed by wind–rough as could be.
5
Thirty-two cowboys hit the port
Acted as if they should have escort.
Most searched the town for Souvenir;
A few went to the bar for a drink of beer.
6
Thirty-two cowboys back at sea
Getting homesick as they could be,
Spent Christmas Day out in the deep,
Dreamt of home while fast asleep.
7
Thirty-two cowboys led by Gene.
His special we found was not so clean.
Roused his foremen at half past ten
To work on horses he needed men.
8
Thirty-two cowboys–two nite watch
When not sea sick, they were top notch.
They called the foremen out of bed
After the horses were nearly dead.
9
Thirty-two cowboys loved to mock
The man who called himself a doc.
In Number Four he made a bad guess,
Gave a dead horse a sling to caress.
10
Thirty-two cowboys massaging legs
Grumbling do what the doctor begs.
Pares Shreiner, our best Masseur,
Massaged the legs but couldn’t cure.
11
Thirty-two cowboys and their wild horse;
She was from the west and couldn’t have been worse.
She was in a sling for many a day,
Until found one morning full of decay.

Disposing of a dead horse from the Morgantown Victory, December 1946. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

12
Thirty-two cowboys–one was young Shantz
Just grew out of his knee-length pants.
He was our mess man’s pride and joy.
He found him a very understanding young boy.
13
Thirty-two cowboys with sleepy Paul
Who “Eggs Up” for supper did call.
He had just risen from his bunk,
And must have been feeling pretty punk.
14
Thirty-two cowboys lost 93 head
Which was not the fault of Kansas “Red”,
He was a good man with that lasso of his
And really knew that cowboy Biz.
15
Thirty-two cowboys–not one a poet
This isn’t good and don’t we know it!
But we tried to tell of our trials and woes
Of which we had plenty as each of us knows.

 

*Anyone wishing to purchase the Honeytown CD, “Good Enough,” can contact Tim Shue at 330-857-1115 or timmydshue (at) gmail (dot) com. Other songs on the album include “Strings Alive!,” “I Can’t Stand Up Alone,” “To Think Like a Tree,” etc.

A Seagoing Cowboy Christmas

The following is an excerpt from an article titled “Cowboys at Christmas” that I wrote for Heifer International’s World Ark magazine.

Thirty-two cowboys back at sea,

Getting homesick as they could be,

Spent Christmas Day out on the deep,

And dreamt of home while fast asleep.

So wrote twenty-three-year old Willard Bontrager in “An Ode to Thirty-two Cowboys,” a poem he presented to his crew at their Christmas program on the SS Morgantown Victory December 25, 1946….

Morgantown Victory crew, 1946

Willard Bontrager’s crew on the SS Morgantown Victory delivered horses to Yugoslavia. Photo courtesy of Hartzel Schmidt

About 7,000 men of all ages, religions, colors, and walks of life responded to the call for “seagoing cowboys” during the years 1945 and 1946. A number of these cowboys found themselves away from home over the holidays, many for the first time. As Bontrager’s ode suggests, this affected some more than others.

Cowboy Al Guyer of the SS Mexican had already been to Poland in 1945. There he had seen and smelled the rubble of war and experienced the hospitality of grateful Heifer Project recipients in the village of Suchy Dab. That Christmas Eve found him on his way home off the coast of Norway, where the SS Mexican was sitting out a storm. “I hunkered down on the side of the ship where the wind was not blowing and I was so homesick,” Guyer said. “I could look out and see that shore of rocks and waves, imagining being thrown on the rocks.”

SS Mexican crew, December 1945

The seagoing cowboys of the SS Mexican delivered heifers and horses to Poland in December 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser

But the storm didn’t stop the festivities Christmas Day. Guyer’s shipmate Calvert Petre noted in his journal, “[J]ust when they had the tables set for the feast they sent word down to watch the tables. No one took them serious enough and when the storm hit us broadside, what a roll!!! It slid oranges, apples, candy, plates, and boys all on a pile….” They reset the tables and soon were digging into a duck dinner with all the trimmings.

Each cowboy crew had its own personality, as did their Christmas celebrations. To read more of their Christmas stories, the full article can be accessed online at this link: http://www.heifer.org/join-the-conversation/magazine/2014/holiday/cowboys-at-christmas.html

That’s it for 2014! I wish all my readers a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and abundant blessings in the New Year!

Next post: January 9, 2015