“Calf-rope”…Or The Lost Art of Losing

Calf-rope -- Boys fighting

YOUTHFUL BOUTS to determine superior strength, speed and skills have been a central element in Western–especially American–culture since the beginning of that culture. Adults usually try to stop a fight when they see one, but probably more often the battle doesn’t end until one of the boys yelps “uncle” or “calf-rope”. Just as often, perhaps, the boys are not angry when they are tussling (especially while wrestling); they are just testing their physical and psychical strengths with friends. These two, however, look pretty serious.

PHOTO CREDIT: Microsoft Office Images/Illustrations
TEXT: © 1979, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: This is another of those “worthy of re-printing” columns I pulled out of my little stash of old gems. It dates from November 1979, just a few weeks after I became editor  of the Monahans News. I think it is pretty clear and still timely as it stands, so I won’t take up space and time with a longer explanatory preface, except to inform our non-cowboy readers that the literal meaning of “calf-rope” — alternatively called a “piggin string” — is a piece of rope six-to-seven feet long used to bind three of a calf’s legs after he has been roped for branding, medicating, tagging, castrating, or just as part of a rodeo contest. Enjoy!!!

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

When I was a pre-teen there was a traditional mode of admitting defeat in a fight between boys: “uncle”.  That meant that you saw you were in a position where you couldn’t move and you recognized that the fellow who had you down had nothing left to do except pulverize your face or sit on top of you until one or the other decided eternity was too long.

What you were doing when you said “uncle” was to admit that you were defeated irrevocably and that, if your opponent would just let you up, you guaranteed him you would not attempt retaliation. It was what used to be known as a “gentlemen’s agreement” back when the world still contained gentlemen, even among small boys.

I always wondered what “uncle” denoted in such a context, but I did not imagine there was any immediate way of finding out. It must be just another of those nonsense syllables which become coined to be expressive in a peculiar situation, I supposed.

One day in Dallas, just before coming down here, I was discussing this old word with a friend of mine who is associate chaplain at SMU. “We always used ‘calf-rope’ out in Crowell,” my friend said. (Crowell is a farming community in the Texas Panhandle.)

“That makes a lot more sense to me than ‘uncle’”, I replied.

At that juncture one of my friend’s three sons, a high school senior, came into the room; and we asked him what the current term was for surrender. “There isn’t one,” he said. “I think they don’t want you to give up.They want to kill you.”

The young man’s comment slightly shocked me at first, but then I recollected that the older we get the less likely we are to forget even the smallest slights. Pre-pubescent boys—of my generation at least—can (or could) fight lustily one day and join each other in play the next day. Men, however, have to be very thoughtful of how much they are willing to risk when they get physical with others. I have read news accounts, for instance, of bar-bouncers ejecting misbehaving fellows from their establishments only to see the sore losers return armed—with a shotgun in one instance, with a pistol in another—and blow the bouncers away.

I mused over that a while and then forgot the subject for the time being.  However, I was reminded of it while staying with some friends in Clarendon.  We were talking about a local man who had originally opposed the construction of Clarendon College.  “He fought it with everything he had, even hired lawyers,” one of my friends told me. “But, after he lost the fight and the college was built, he turned right around and supported it just as fervently as he had opposed it. He’ll cuss them out if they don’t do things the way he thinks they ought to be done, but he also contributes to their scholarship fund.”

Now, I thought, that’s a good loser. That man knows the true meaning of “calf-rope”.

Again, just recently, I was reading an article about special interest groups who are so determined to win they have forgotten all about compromise and the political process.  If they lose on an issue fight one year they form strange alliances with groups whose only common concern with their own is the political jugular vein of the senator or representative who did not vote the way they wanted him to.

Morris Udall and John Glenn are just two of several national politicians who have recently been buffeted, though finally unsuccessfully, by special interest groups. Other politicians are terrified of such coalitions, and this terror is bound to have a diluting impact on the quality of congressional decision-making.

President Carter and some others have grown to favor the idea of single six-year terms, not solely out of fear of special interests either. Another element in their reasoning is that political offices should not become careers.

I’ll go along with that. I would like to see politicians performing their tasks with the only consideration in the back of their minds the welfare of the nation, not the winning of their next term. Let them learn to say “calf-rope” with a grin and mean it.

— The Monahans News, November 15, 1979

An interesting postscript for this topic is the “Tarzan” comic strip of January 28, this year, in which Tarzan defeats an ape and forces him to utter the ape-language word for surrender: “kagoda”. I am placing the URL for that day’s strip here, but it likely won’t lead to the strip three months from now because, for whatever reason, specific URL’s are discontinued after a while:   http://www.gocomics.com/tarzan/2015/01/28.
— BL


NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.


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