The Cowboy Way
Seeing the Elephant
Classic cowboy, barber and circus rope-trick performer, Deming's Darrell Hawkins has lassoed life for 85 years.
by Paul Hoylen
They say you can tell a cowboy by the way he walks and the get-up he wears. Well, I reckon Darrell Hawkins is the real deal in his cowboy hat and boots and his distinct bow-legged gait — "the result of a horse wreck," he offers.
"I never worked a day in my life; I play all the time, seven days a week," Hawkins brags as he sets his electric train in motion inside his Deming bunkhouse. "Choo, choo!" Hawkins hollers over the engine's whistle. Next to the circus posters on the wall is an anonymous motivational message that advises, "Go after life as if it's something that has to be roped in a hurry before it gets away." Hawkins has grabbed life by the horns and never let go. He recently turned 85, and still enjoys life with great gusto. Over the years he has sought adventures and challenges, chasing them like wild stallions across the open range.
Those adventures have included a few film appearances and a lengthy third career — after cowboying and barbering — as a trick roper in the circus, which he ran off to join just shy of his 60th birthday.
Work, play and fun have all been integral parts of Hawkins' character. He was born August 19, 1928, in Emporia, Kansas, a water stop for cattle driven up from Texas and Oklahoma. Boyhood chores included dehorning cattle, milking cows and dipping and shearing sheep. He fondly recalls the pony his dad gave him on his 11th birthday. Another great gift was seeing the Bud Anderson Circus, which winter-quartered in Emporia in 1939. The circus included Western movie legend Tom Mix, who performed fancy shooting tricks, and Anderson himself, who did rope tricks astride a big white horse — and left a lasting impression on young Darrell Hawkins. Anderson literally showed Hawkins the ropes. The youngster was quick to learn rope tricks, which he practiced on his pony before showing off to his friends at school.
Hawkins defines freedom as "not being tied to one place." A self-described "drifter," he epitomizes the self-reliant, independent streak of the cowboys from the Old West. "When you're a drifter, you don't make much money, but you sure as hell have a lot of fun," Hawkins admits.
Not one to stay home on the range, this cowboy — emphasis on "boy" — moseyed from ranch to ranch working around animals. "Have pony, will travel," he describes his youth. In his wanderings, he wound up in Wyoming at age 18. It was there at Cheyenne's famed Frontier Days that this buckaroo rode bulls for $5 a ride at the rodeo. Then he took his earnings on over to Arizona and hired on to pack mules and take tourists to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Don't believe any of Hawkins' "Aw, shucks, that was nothin'" asides. The truth is that big things happened to this little man who stands at five-foot-three without cowboy hat or boots.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Hawkins cowboyed in the Bootheel of New Mexico, participating in round-ups at the U-Bar Ranch at Hachita and the Diamond A range at the Gray Ranch. A round-up consisted of tough, gritty, down and dirty work sorting, counting and branding 400-pound steers. Round-up cowboys put in 14-hour days, seven days a week over a three-month period in the fall. A 30-60-foot lariat was used to lasso a steer's horns or hooves. No doubt the rope tricks Hawkins learned from Bud Anderson stood him in good stead.
Darrell Hawkins in 1949 on the Open Diamond Ranch, 30 miles northeast of Deming.
Hawkins will never forget a harrowing incident that occurred in 1950. While returning to the Gray Ranch, a bolt of lightning struck so close that his horse was knocked to its knees; horse and rider high-tailed it to the ranch at lightning speed.
On another occasion, a hungry Hawkins and his partner stumbled on a promising-looking hog when they were suddenly confronted by a wild boar. The boar charged Hawkins. When the cowboy tripped, the boar's tusks slashed his jeans and damaged his pride. Needless to say, these cowpokes did not bring home the bacon that day.
This rugged cowboy way of life was captured in the 1954 documentary film, The Cowboys, directed by Elmo Williams. Williams also directed The Tall Texan, starring Lloyd Bridges, after being film editor for High Noon. The Cowboys is an important American artifact because it records on film a vanishing way of life. The movie was narrated by singing cowboy Tex Ritter, who dedicated it to "the cowboys whose hearts are as big as the country they ride."
Shot in and around Luna County, the film features interviews with working cowboys including Riley George, whose grandfather rode with cattle boss Charlie Goodnight of Goodnight-Loving Trail fame. Other cowboys involved were Ross May, Johnny Crawford, Boug Thomas and Darrell Hawkins. He is recorded on film saying in his typical self-deprecating and laconic manner, "My part was very small, but I had a good time."
Hawkins had bit parts in other movies. At one point he played an Arab in an obscure film. Along the way, he met up with William Boyd ("Hopalong Cassidy"), Clayton Moore (the original TV "Lone Ranger"), Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, along with cowboy-turned-actor Ben Johnson, whom Hawkins describes affectionately as a "good ol' boy."
Hawkins continued cowboying around southern New Mexico until he sold his cattle in 1963. It was the end of an era for the 34-year-old cowboy.
Not letting any grass grow under his feet, Hawkins went to barber school in the cowtown capital of Fort Worth, Texas, figuring cutting hair couldn't be much different than shearing sheep. Returning to Deming, Hawkins worked at the Elite Barber Shop for a barber with the improbable name of George Shear. Hawkins enjoyed giving close-cropped crew cuts to his customers, many of whom were fellow cowboys. Eventually, he bought Deming's Star Barber Shop, which he ran for more than 20 years.
Although he was about to turn 60, 1988 was a huge year for Hawkins. For Hawkins, it's never too late to have a happy life. A favorite saying of his is, "Some day I'm gonna be just like you, but still a kid." Hawkins' second childhood came in early 1988 when the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus, run by Robert "Red" Johnson, came to Deming. The circus magic still magnetized him, and the big top conjured up happy images of the rope tricks he'd learned at the hands of Bud Anderson so many years ago.
Without telling anyone, Hawkins put up a "Gone Fishing" sign on the Star Barber Shop and ran away with the circus, never to look back. "Red" Johnson put word out that he needed a four-minute act and so this old cowboy joined the fire eater, the strong man, the tight-rope walker and other circus performers to go on the road 233 days a year, seven days a week across 14 states in the West and Midwest.
Among the many rope tricks was one called the wedding ring. Here he stood inside a 20-foot loop, which was then lifted smoothly off the floor, and repeatedly spun around the waist and over the head. The 20-foot loop fit nicely inside the 33-foot circus ring.
Another trick was twirling the loop and making it move like a dance partner. Hawkins added to the fun by jumping back and forth through the wide loop. One of the more difficult tricks was simultaneously spinning three ropes using both wrists and his teeth. Not bad for a little man under a big top. Hawkins also performed rope tricks atop a horse, harkening back to the acts cowboys excelled at in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show a hundred years earlier.
"Seeing the elephant" was an expression Old West cowboys used to refer to the wild and woolly wonders they experienced in the wide-open "zoos" of Dodge City and Ellsworth, Kansas, the Sodom and Gomorrah of their day. But Hawkins really did see an elephant. Buffalo Bill would have been proud of him flawlessly executing the "wedding ring" atop a three-year-old circus elephant named Barbara. "I'd do anything to show off," the roper recalls fondly.
Besides performing fancy rope tricks, Hawkins also did an unsupported ladder trick. This act involved him standing on an eight-foot ladder and walking it across the floor.
Hawkins roped a widow named Deloris Ruebush in Deming on Mother's Day in 1991. Deloris became Hawkins' partner, sidekick and soul mate, joining him in performing rope tricks at the circus. The hopeless romantic finally slipped the ring on her finger in 2006, and they've been at each other's side ever since.
Hawkins has done other circuses over the years. In 1994, Dave Twoomy of Happy Time Circus flew Hawkins to Alaska for the rope spinning and unsupported ladder acts, which he performed three times a day for the Alaska State Fair. In May 2000, the Howdy Fowler Circus put on two Wild West shows in Deming in which Hawkins showed off his roping skills to a new generation of fans.
But Hawkins' favorite circus has always been Culpepper and Merriweather. In 1996, at the age of 68, he set out on his farewell tour with that venerable circus, then retired after completing the full season.
Never bored, Hawkins hired on to do special shows. His rope tricks were featured as half-time entertainment during NMSU basketball games. He also had gigs at Big Nose Kate's Saloon in Tombstone, Ariz., where he did rope tricks for beer. In Dodge City, Hawkins wowed greenhorn tourists at Wild West shows.
In February 2011, he and Deloris ran away to the circus again; Hawkins was 82 at the time. The dynamic duo was hired by the Kelly Miller Circus to do two shows a day, 180 shows in 90 days — five and a half-minute acts for each show. The circus traveled from Brownsville, Texas, to Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
To his dismay, however, Hawkins found that he didn't have the energy he once had; at the same time, he didn't want to let the Kelly Miller Circus down. Fortunately for everyone, Hawkins found a young whippersnapper in the form of Joel Faulk who could crack a whip as quick as throw a rope. "Joel took over my circus act and we left the show on May 3, 2011 — a great way to end my circus days," Hawkins says, relieved.
This old cowboy is not quite ready to ride off into the sunset just yet, though. He still performs now and then, but declines most offers due to a "stove-up leg."
Deloris Hawkins says that there are only three days in the circus world: yesterday, today and tomorrow. Hawkins says that he has no regrets about yesterday, enjoys today, and looks ahead to tomorrow.
When Hawkins visits Branson, Mo., he and Deloris are given front-row seats where they watch youngsters, some of whom he taught, perform rope tricks. "Shucks, they're better ropers than I ever was," he says modestly. "Now it's my turn to sit back and enjoy the show."
Deming author and artist Paul Hoylen was profiled himself in
our December 2012 issue ("Comic Anthropologist").