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The Winter I Planned to Steal a Horse and Go Out West

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The Queen of the West cannot be dead. Dale Evans was the stuff of dreams for little girls growing up in the 1950s, but to a child in the depressed coal-fields of West Virginia, hers was a life to yearn for. The clean-cut, happy, singing cowboys and cowgirls in the movies were a sharp contrast to the dusty miners, bitter wives, and scrawny kids that populated my world. For a little girl who longed for escape from a myriad of sticky situations, the dependable rescues in the Roy Rogers adventures offered a kind of security and hope.

Bad guys wore black hats, good guys wore white ones. Ranch houses were clean and spacious, unlike the familiar cramped, gray coal-town houses. Good always won over evil, and Dale, Roy, and their friends were always well and happily singing at the end of every episode. A tidy life and I wanted it.

I started planning to steal a horse and go Out West when I was seven. My family lived on a knoll with a good view of the hills, roads, coal tipple, and river surrounding us. From our front porch, I could see a lone horse grazing in a distant field. While it was hard to be sure at that distance, I imagined a sleek, shining palomino with flowing mane and tail, fast as the wind and smart enough to answer questions with a pawing hoof.

I made discreet inquiries of my mom and dad: "How long do you think it would take to ride a horse Out West? Are there still wild Indians? How about cattle rustlers? Do you think Dale and Roy have any extra rooms in their ranch house?" None of their answers discouraged me, so I began making plans.

That was the year I learned to read and write, and I made a list of everything necessary for a ride Out West. I wouldn't need a saddle -- I could just leap onto my horse and ride it bareback. I'd take my favorite food -- cans of Campbell's chicken noodle soup, a pillow, blanket, pots and pans, matches to light the campfire, apples and hay for the palomino, a flashlight, a jug of water, Kool-Aid, a bag of sugar for the Kool-Aid, candy, cookies, a few toys. I already knew all the words to "Happy Trails To You," and I had a cap pistol and holster. That left only one other necessity -- a cowgirl outfit.

The problem was, in a community with a population of around 500 and one general store that sold groceries, furniture, dry goods, gasoline, guns, Bibles, and served as the post office, how do you get the perfect cowgirl attire a la Dale Evans? Where could I find the fringed skirt and vest, checkered shirt with bolo tie, boots, and a white hat to wear hanging down my back the way Dale wore hers?

Months went by with no solution to my problem until the Christmas catalog arrived.

There was no overestimating the importance of this book in my life. Looking back, I see my childhood in shades of coal dust gray with a single splash of color brightening every year -- the arrival of the Sears and Roebuck winter catalog. I learned to read and add columns of numbers at a young age with this book as my text. My early dreams and fantasies were fueled by its pages, and the disappointments of earlier Christmases did little to dull the excitement of its arrival.

The winter I planned to steal a horse and go Out West, I quickly turned the pages past the clothing, furniture, bedding, appliances, and livestock and found the toy section.

Flipping right through the dolls and train sets, I came to the dress-up clothes. There, among the costumes and tutus, was a photograph of Dusty Rogers, Roy's little boy, dressed in cowboy hat, vest, checkered shirt, bolo tie, guns, chaps, boots and spurs -- everything a cowboy needed. The little girl of the 50s didn't entertain even the possibility of owning a boy's toy, and my heart had begun to sink when I saw the smaller picture of a little girl on the same page. She was wearing a genuine cowgirl outfit, the hat hanging just the way Dale liked it. She had a little fringed vest and skirt and perfect little cowgirl boots.

I had found my cowgirl outfit, but the problem was far from solved. Trying to look casual, I sat at the kitchen table and opened the catalog.

"Look at this, Mom. This is pretty nice, isn't it?"

She barely looked. "Too expensive. We don't have that kind of money." She had long ago explained that Santa had to be paid by someone.

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