An Actor from New Mexico (My Improbable Journey) by Ronny Cox

I was fourteen when I got my first job… Oh, I had spent four or five desultory days the previous summer, wandering around a field under a blazing sun, chopping cotton, and I had helped the Porterfields get their hay into the barn when their son broke his arm, but this was a “town” job. On Saturdays, I was the shoeshine boy at Ivan’s Barbershop. I charged 25 cents… 30 cents for boots, and I could make a couple of dollars on a really good day. The shop was just off the corner of the Square… next to the Greyhound Bus Station and across the street from the bank. Sooner or later everyone in town would pass by that corner. I was there at the barbershop the first time I ever saw Mary. Everyone had heard that a new family had moved to Portales (nothing much escapes scrutiny in a small town). She was this weird little girl, eleven years old and she had a paper route. This was 1952… little girls didn’t have paper routes. Whoever heard of such a thing? Every Saturday morning, I’d see her across the street as she trudged catty-corner across the Court House Square to the News Tribune to turn in the money she’d collected and get her money.

So, Mary always claimed that we had known each other since she was eleven and I was fourteen… but let me tell you something… fourteen-year-old boys don’t know any eleven-year-old girls! Oh, I might’ve owned up to knowing her brother John who was a year younger than me, we played on a couple of ball teams together… but an eleven-year-old girl with a paper route… never.

Mary and I started going together when she was fifteen and I was eighteen… I had flunked out of school my first junior year and had joined the Navy and was back in school after not being able to stay in the Navy. ( ***That episode has a story of its own, which I’ll tell another time.)

So, by that time I had repeated the second semester of my Junior year, gone to summer school… I was now senior, Mary a sophomore. Ironically, Mary died fifty years to the day from our first date. Mary was, and probably still is, a legendary student at Portales High. Of course, she was the Valedictorian… made the highest scores on all the state-wide tests… and I can say with absolute honesty she was the most intelligent human being I’ve ever known in my life. Here’s what’s funny about the two of us going together. I was in a Rock’n Roll band… had a reputation of not being the sharpest knife in the drawer… as a matter of fact had been jokingly voted, “most likely to end up in prison”. This no lie…. when Mary and I started going out… teachers would stop her in the hallway and say… ”Mary, you’re breaking your mother’s heart”. Mary was my first and only love. I have never had another girlfriend… had never been on a date before Mary.

Her parents naturally were concerned that we had become “too serious”… she was only fifteen and was such a brilliant student that they took the drastic step of forbidding us to see each other. (Incidentally, they were probably right). For one year, we couldn’t go on dates. I’m not religious at all, but I was allowed to see her in church. So for that year, I went church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and even went on Wednesday night. There’s was one other way we could see each other. Her dad loved to play bridge, so I learned to play and I could go over to their house one night a week and play bridge. After a year, her parents realized we probably weren’t gonna fall out of love, and they lifted the restriction. After Mary’s graduation, they moved to Albuquerque… her dad worked for the paper there… and Mary attended UNM for one year. So we didn’t get to see each other much during that year. Being apart was intolerable, so after her freshman year, Mary and I got married and moved into the Vetville Apartments at ENMU.

A few years ago I was invited to a songwriter’s retreat… actually I was sort of hired along with four or five others, to mentor and encourage aspiring songwriters. There were about sixty or sixty-five of us at a beautiful retreat in upper Michigan. I agreed to do it with a certain amount of dread and trepidation, because I had just gone through a long bout with “writer’s block”. After Mary’s death, I went almost three years without being able to write anything. Nothing seemed worth finishing. Anyway, I talked myself into it… hoping the old cliche: “them that can, do…, them that can’t, teach…”, would pull me through. I was hoping that even if I didn’t write anything that maybe I could offer some encouragement and a couple of ideas to the others. What I didn’t know… was that everyone, faculty included, was supposed to write and perform the song they wrote while they were there.

John Lamb, the director and moving force of the retreat did his homework: He had a long, detailed suggestion sheet for each and every songwriter here. He took the time to find out, not only where we were from, but some interesting facts about our town or state. (some of it we didn’t even know ourselves). He was able to give us tangible things to go to when we were stuck. Each person’s assignment was to write a song based on their town, and each one had specific information to keep us connected. He also encouraged the use of colloquialisms that revealed the essence and rhythm of our town. And he also had several suggestions in case you got stuck and ran into a brick wall. I was impressed. It was so obvious how his process could be extremely helpful to aspiring songwriters. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me.

I’ve always known that I write differently… most writers get an idea for a song and do one of two things: 1. they write a poem and simultaneously write a melody to go with it, or 2. they write the poem and compose the melody later. Either way, the process of writing the song is a fairly well connected whole. With me… a melody comes to me long before anything else. I might have a melody in my head for weeks or months before I figure out what the song is about. Here’s the problem… by this time, I’m in love with this melody that’s endlessly running through my mind, and that means I’m forced to find words that fit EXACTLY. Not the best way to write. Also… I don’t write quickly. Elephants have babies faster than I write songs. So the idea of writing a song in a finite period of time was terrifying to me. All of the wonderful guideposts that John Lamb gave everybody to keep us on the problem at hand worked against me and just… well… paralyzed me.

On the final night of the retreat, we all gathered and performed the songs. Some were fantastic… standing ovation fantastic, and all of them were quite good and affirmed that John Lamb was onto something. That most of us could write a really good song with some guidance and the desire to do it. MOST BUT NOT ALL !!

In the end… I wasn’t able to write a song. I ended up with two lines. It was embarrassing. I just couldn’t do it… everything worked against me. All the information John gave us, which was so helpful to others, just stopped me dead in my tracks. I left the retreat vowing never to attempt to write a song again.

You see, John had found out I was from a small town in New Mexico… Portales, and that we grew peanuts there. “Portales, New Mexico: Peanut Basin of the Nation”. What he didn’t know that some damn visiting professor from Dallas, in his inimitable wit and wisdom had dubbed us “Goober Gulch” and the nickname had stuck, so I had grown up cringing at the name… he also wanted the song to be a “slice of small town life”.. a love story…. he wanted me to work a holiday into the song… and something about the financial circumstance of our hero… anyway, it was just too much stuff… so all I wrote was..”You ain’t got no money… your Visa was declined”… I didn’t get a standing ovation.

About four months later John came out to visit me and was threatening to put the word out that I didn’t live up to my obligations unless I wrote the song. He told me about others who’ve struggled with songwriting. There was one lady… she had gone through some sort of religious experience and would only write about St. Francis of Assisi. John also told me about a football nut who only wanted to talk about the Dallas Cowboys… I hate the Dallas Cowboys! Oddly enough when John told me of the religious lady and the football nut, it helped me… I finally wrote the damn song.

If you’d like to hear Portales…. it’s on my “Lost in the Words, Lost in the Music” CD.

  1. Portales Ronny Cox 4:07

Vilos Cohaagen was a really fun character to play. Paul Verhoeven, the director of RoboCop, and I had gotten along famously when I was playing Dick Jones in Robocop, so naturally I was thrilled when he wanted me to play the “Dictator of Mars” in his next project, Total Recall, which we started shooting in 1988.

Most people don’t know this, but things could easily have worked out much differently with the movie. Total Recall had gone through several different incarnations before Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger became attached to it. First of all, it had been in “development” for fourteen years. Every studio loved the story, but couldn’t figure out how to make the movie and stay within a manageable budget. Several actors, William Hurt and Richard Dreyfuss had, at one time or another, been considered for the lead role and directors like Ridley Scott to film it. I had been told by one of the screenwriters that production had, at one point, actually begun in Australia with Ridley Scott directing and with Patrick Swayze set to star. My understanding is they only shot for a short time before producer Dino De Laurentiis shut down production. So when we started shooting in Mexico City, the film was already six million dollars in debt. By the time I got onboard, Total Recall was fast on its way to becoming the then most expensive production in the history of film.   

After the plug was pulled in Australia, it was decided to shoot the movie at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, clearly as a penny-pinching exercise. Even though, at that time, it was the most expensive film ever with massive sets, the production company tried to cut so many corners they made it feel like the lowest low budget film I’d ever been on. I remember getting a call to ask me, “Ronny, the actors have agreed to fly coach down to Mexico. I know we’re supposed to fly you first class, but would you agree to fly coach too?” Dumbfounded, I replied, “Are you telling me that Arnold Schwarzenegger has agreed to fly coach?” There was a pregnant pause: “Oh, well, not Arnold”… I said: “Well, no – not Ronny!” I also heard the production team actually called some of the actors to say with a wink… “Listen, we’re gong to be shooting on x and x dates. If you happen to be here in Mexico, there’s a good chance we’d hire you.” Actors were literally going down to Mexico on their own dime and they weren’t receiving a per diem – a daily rate – or lodging. And on the days they weren’t working there was no compensation. Talk about cutting corners!

There were certainly no shortcuts for me with this picture. I literally faced the longest commute you could imagine. At the same time we were shooting Total Recall, I was also making Captain America in Yugoslavia. So, I was flying back and forth between Mexico City and Dubrovnik, Croatia. Ironically, in Captain America I played the heroic, honorable, and patriotic President of the United States…(perhaps the nicest man on earth)… while in Total Recall I was the meanest man on Mars… (perhaps in the universe). It sometimes felt like I had to look down and see what I was wearing to remember who I was playing.

My haircut threw an expensive monkey-wrench into the works of their budget. I was called to Mexico a week or so before most of the other cast arrived. They needed me for a couple of days of preliminary shooting: Cohaagen addressing the citizens on Mars TV, and those well-known scenes of him barking out orders on the monitor to Richter… simple scenes that required only me and since they were close-ups, and a very simple background…. not much of a set. Here’s the deal, when we shot those scenes I had a fairly normal hairstyle, not slicked back like, as Mary used to say: “the Lizard King look”, that ended being how I looked in the final version of the movie. And that haircut caused me no small amount or trepidations, which I’ll explain later.

When I returned from Mexico the production wanted Rob Bottin, (the special effects make-up genius) to do a prototype full head mask of me for the film. ***I’m sure you’ve heard of people who have a photographic memory? Rob, has a photographic memory with his hands. He can sit with his pad and paper and draw a photographic likeness of you, or mould an absolute likeness of you in clay***. Arnold and I spent an entire day distorting our faces in every way we could imagine (our face muscles were sore the next day). They were for the scene when Arnold and I were on the surface of Mars (my dramatic death scene at the end of the movie when my eyes pop out of my head). Rob created exact masks of Arnold and me, and from those beginnings he put air bags at strategic spots inside the masks. He could then take our expressions and make them more and more grotesque. Which, on film, paradoxically is both exaggerated and fairly realistic at the same time.

It was a long monotonous and scary process making those masks. They completely covered your face with latex. I’m claustrophobic, it was torturous, being completely closed in with only straws in your nostrils for breathing tubes. I was pretty freaked out. Anyway, they slicked back my hair with gel and Rob took photographs of me to document the project. When I saw the photographs with my hair slicked back , I realized that was what Cohaagen should look like. But there was one big stumbling block: I had already shot two days of scenes in Mexico with normal looking hair.

I didn’t know how best to approach Paul …. as we all know, his reputation for having volcanic temper when things go South is well deserved…. as well as being well documented.. So, you can imagine my dread of how he might to react to my creative suggestion. Particularly in light of the fact that he was under increasing pressure over the budget. But I took a deep breath and said. “Paul, I want to show you something. I know we’d already shot a couple of scenes, but look…….. ,” I showed him Rob’s photograph.

He glared at me for a long time: “I’m angry at you Ronny!… you know why?… “Because I’m going to have to shoot those two days again!” he had an impish smirk .

An interesting sidelight about the look of Cohaagen… when I was at Churubusco for those first couple of days of shooting, I’d walk from the make-up trailer to the set and no one ever paid any attention to me. We had a huge multi-national crew… but most of them were Mexican. There were a gazillion actors, so obviously we were unknown to the crew. But… once Paul had settled on the “Lizard King” look for Cohaagen… whenever I walked from the make-up trailer to the set… all the crew guys would stop as I passed them and make some gesture, nod submissively and say, “El Jefe”…….

In many ways being cast as Dick Jones in RoboCop was as big a break in my career as being cast as Drew in Deliverance. Let me explain: Drew was the good guy, the moral one, and because of that, for the next ten or fifteen years, I was cast in “boy scout” good guy roles. Producers and directors, and studio executives in film business tend to typecast. And since Drew was the sensitive “moral“ one, it became a bit of an albatross for me. You see, if you play a character with “sensitivity”, that nearly always gets equated with weak or soft, so if there was a role with any “balls” I seemed never to get it. It was really frustrating for me. I’ve been an athlete all my life… tennis player, a marathoner and the four of us did all the canoeing in Deliverance. So you can see why I was mystified at being known as a “soft actor”… and why I was thrilled when cast as Dick Jones in RoboCop.

I try to be a good person in my ordinary everyday life, but it’s no fun playing the clean-cut, good guy all the time. Those guys make the right and predictable choice almost every time. Boring!! I liken it to painting: the good guy gets three colors – red, white, and blue. But the bad guy gets the whole palette… and those roles are way more fun to play. The most fascinating characters are nearly always the bad guys.

I have always wanted to play the whole gamut … good guys, bad guys, and everything in between. Some actors like being typecast. There’s comfort in playing a character that’s a slight variation of a guy they’ve played before. That has zero appeal to me…and because of that, the actors I admire most are the guys who play “character” as opposed to persona. I’ve done my damndest to carve out a career without getting pigeonholed. I want to play someone as far removed from me as possible. A lot of actors, when talking about their character, refer to that character as “me”. I’ve heard them say…“I did this or I did that.” That would never occur to me. It’s always he. “He does it,” because his actions have little or nothing to do with me. Oh, sure… eventually, the character moves out of my impulses… but there are a thousand other details that I’m having to deal with, (hitting my mark for the camera crew, being there for my fellow actors, and of always being aware of the rhythm of the scene)…. getting caught up in me, me, me can doom the scene… and, in my estimation, the movie.

I have a small, rustic log cabin in June Lake. And I do mean small… less than a thousand square ft. Mary and I bought it in the mid-eighties. It was really cheap… we got it for a song and only had to sing half of it. Mary was adamant: she wanted a “get-away” place where she didn’t have to worry about housekeeping and other household chores. We had a deal (still do) with a local resident who checked on it every week or two to make sure nothing catastrophic happened to the cabin. Our times there were almost always idyllic. Care-free hikes, napping by a stream with a fishing line bobbing near the bank, driving the eight miles to Lee Vining and the road to Tioga Pass, (Eastern entrance of Yosemite)… and occasionally going further up 395 to the ghost town of Bodie. The cabin was Mary’s favorite place to be. Fifty yards up the trail from the cabin is a huge boulder. It was at least 25 ft high and you needed to use a bit of care to find a safe climbing route to the top. But once you were there you’d have a magnificent view of Carson Peak and the canyons of the Eastern Sierras. We all called it “Mary’s Rock”, and she could spend hours on end there. BTW… Her ashes are spread there.

During that period of my career, I was working a lot… (it seems I was in every movie made there for a while) but typical of the film business, we’d often have a week or at least a long weekend when I wasn’t needed on the set, and if I wasn’t working you could find us at the cabin… which is a roundabout way of getting to this story.

It is about a 5 hr drive from our house to the cabin. Highway 14 to 395, through Mojave, Red Rock Canyon, Lone Pine, (legendary with over 400 films shot there)… Hell, every Western from my childhood. Whenever I drive through Lone Pine, if I look off to the West at those unmistakable rocks of the Alabama Hills, I could cut the nostalgia with a knife. In fact,
there is a wonderful film museum in Lone Pine and anytime we drive through town, I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Death Valley, the Mojave Desert… to Bishop, Tom’s Place, Mammoth and then June Lake.

So, as you can imagine, I know that road like the back of my hand. About 35 or 40 miles after Hwy 14 becomes 395, there’s a wide spot in the road with a small store, service station and a couple of other buildings that didn’t seem to be occupied. I hear it was once called Cowan Station, but by the time Mary and I started going up there regularly, they had changed the name. Above the store in crude hand-painted letters was…“DUNMOVIN”.

Naturally, Mary and I were always curious… and one day, the car was overheating, as it always did driving through the desert, and we needed gas anyway, so we decided to stop. The proprietors were delighted to see us and anxious to talk… I got the feeling they didn’t get a whole lot of customers. It turns out their names were Henry and Henrietta Johnson. They both called each other Henry. We talked for quite a while as Henry made sure the car got checked for anything that could possibly cause it to overheat and, of course, to fill the tank FULL, check the oil and tires, and wonder if I might need a new fan belt. While he was ministering the car, Mary and I asked the other Henry about the sign. This is what she told us.

They were originally from Arkansas and had been married for over 30 years, and when Henry lost his job they packed up and moved to wherever the next job took them. She said they moved 18 times in 13 years… Henry finally ended up working in the mine at Coso Junction, which is only 4 or 5 miles away. When Henrietta heard that the people running this store were leaving and that they were looking for someone to take over the lease, she scraped up all her savings, contacted relatives and sold her soul to the bank to put up the deposit for the property. She said it took her a couple of days to paint the sign… and she was aware that it wasn’t the most professional looking sign, but, “dammit, I wasn’t about to waste the money for a proper sign”. When she finished it… she waited for Henry to come home and when he walked through the door, she said… “You know that service station down the road? Well, we just rented it”. And with that, she removed the bed sheet she had draped over it. He started to speak…. she said…”Henry, Don’t say nothing… I’ve already signed the papers”. He stood there for a minute or two and finally said… “Henry, that’s wonderful.”

I told this story to my friends Greg Edmonson and Ron Boustead… and we wrote a song about it. It’s on my “Cowboy Savant” album if you’d like to hear it.

  1. Done Movin' Ronny Cox 3:10

Typical of my songs… I don’t allow the truth to get in the way of a good story. I wrote a song called Grady that’s a compilation of three different guys in my hometown of Portales. It’s mostly about a man named George but when I was writing it, Grady worked much better for me lyrically. There were aspects of each that I wanted in the song. They were George, Burt, and Grady, but in the song, they’re just one guy. Grady lived two or three miles out of town and he didn’t own a car, so he walked into town just about every day. He wore an old worn out, John Deere baseball cap …. and he wore it backwards. Sure… everybody wears their baseball cap backwards these days, but in 1950 that was considered really weird. That wasn’t the only thing that made him “different”… he also had an almost comical way of walking that was an endless delight to me and the other kids who followed him around town like he was the Pied Piper. In the 50’s people often made fun of that slow, eccentric guy. Looking back, it was often mean, and unthinking. And a lot of the time, it was us kids who could be the most cruel.

Grady was a delight to us as we all ran to greet him… begging for his song. If you gave him a penny or a nickel or a dime, he would sing Woody Guthrie’s song “Oklahoma Hills”. He also had a dance that was the most incomprehensible jumble of gyrations, kicks and random movements that seemed to come out of nowhere, and were in no way connected to the rhythm of the song. It was wonderful and amazing. He would finish with an elaborate flourish… leaving us kids pleading for more. And here’s the thing…. if we gave him another penny or nickel …. he’d do the same song again …it was the only one he knew… ( the dance was always different, though). It was an incredible dance. Sometimes we’d have him do it two or three times.

Anyway, that was the genesis of the song…. it’s on my album
“Songs with Repercussions” if you’d like to hear it.

  1. Grady Ronny Cox 4:01

My brother, Rick, and I were really close as young boys. Rick was diagnosed with polio when he was three. Early on he was 90% paralytic…. and spent 6 months in an Iron Lung. He spent a lot of those early years in the hospital, and because of that, he missed a couple of years of school. So, he and I ended up being in the same grade. Everyone thought we were twins… Rickey and Ronny. And because of that, he and I were naturally together more than any of the other brothers. We teased each other and were always pulling tricks on each other. I complained mightily about having to push him around all the time and he was always saying can’t someone else push me? Why do I have to spend all my time with “Him”….. we were constantly bickering.

I remember once when we were kids… I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. We were going to a movie in town. It was about eight or ten blocks to the theatre. I was pushing him along and we were fussing with each other, as we always did, and when we got to the railroad tracks, I was pissed off at him, and I said “If you mess with me, I’ll leave you on the railroad tracks.” He said, “If you do, you’ll never get out of trouble”! “Oh yeah”, I said…. “Watch this!!” And I left him on the tracks…… , I mean, I was only a few feet away… there wasn’t a train coming, and he was only on the railroad tracks for two minutes, tops. Typical eight or nine-year-old boy crap.

I had forgotten this story until one day when my mom was visiting me out here in California, and we were laughing and reminiscing about the crazy things we did when we were kids. And I told mom the story… she did not think it was funny. She got mad at me, and I mean really, really angry. “How could you leave your brother on the railroad tracks? I am ashamed of you.” I’m not sure I had ever seen her as angry as that.

I said “Mom, I was eight years old, and I didn’t leave him. I was just messing with him.” She was unmollified! As a matter of fact, a couple of years later we were at a family gathering, and Mom brought that story up and was still angry at me for leaving my brother on the railroad tracks. So my advice is to listen to your brother when he says, “You’ll never get out of trouble”… and to be very careful what you tell your mom.

Pat Garrett was the sheriff who killed Billy the Kid: New Mexico’s most famous desperado… and when we were living in Roswell, his family owned a ranch a couple of miles out of town. I don’t know how we got permission, but the owners of the Garrett ranch allowed some of us kids to come out and swim in their irrigation tank. I guess I was six or seven and my mom’s brother, Uncle Bob, took me and my brother Harold, out there. Harold and Uncle Bob were gonna go swimming. I just came along for the ride. I didn’t know how to swim, didn’t even bring a bathing suit.

When we got out there, Harold and Uncle Bob vaulted out of the car and jumped in. I sat on the bank watching as they “horsed around” in the water. When they climbed out, Uncle Bob came rushing at me… grabbed me by the seat of my pants, and threw me into the irrigation tank.

I was terrified and thought I was gonna drown as I sank several times as I flailed and struggled trying to make my way to the bank. Both Uncle Bob and Harold were rolling on the ground laughing at my distress. And then when we got home, he could hardly contain his laughter as he told my folks it in great and exaggerated detail. He said he had decided it was high time I learned to swim…. after all that’s how he learned. I can still remember how panic-stricken I was… I had never been in water over my head… didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to swim. I was fully clothed. It scared the hell out of me and he couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, I finally managed to make it to the bank… coughing and crying, and I didn’t drown… but I’ll tell you something… I’m 80 years old now… I’m still angry at that son of a bitch.

Roosevelt County, New Mexico…where I grew up in the ’50s was a dry county. And here’s something most people don’t realize about dry counties. Bootleggers couldn’t care less if they sell to kids. So… in Portales, if you hadn’t been drunk by the time you were in the eighth grade, you were definitely un-cool. It was just too easy to get booze. All you had to do was go to the nearest phone booth, give a bootlegger a call, and pretty soon he’d bring you a bottle. Another thing that added to the ease of obtaining booze in Portales was that a lot of kids started driving when they were very young. A lot of kids could get early driving permits because they needed to drive a tractor on their dad’s farm. Hell…some kids were driving when they were twelve or thirteen. So… the deal was, you’d find some kid that had a driver’s license, and a bunch of us would chip in and buy a bottle of whiskey and a six-pack of soda pop, and drive the four miles out to the sand dunes.

Once we were safely away from town, we’d sit in a circle, open the bottle, and pass it around. You’d take a swig of whiskey and then chase it with a gulp of coke and you just keep passing it around and around until the bottle was completely gone. And then you jump up and go running around the sandhills screaming “I’m drunk, I’m drunk, I’m drunk!” And then you throw up, and eventually, when someone is sober enough to drive, you go home. I did that once when I was in the eighth grade, and it just seemed so silly… so, even now, I’m basically a non-drinker.

Also in Portales, we didn’t have school-sponsored dances… I think primarily because it was a Baptist, Church of Christ community. So… no Junior-Senior Prom. However, halfway between Clovis, (nineteen miles North of us), and Portales, was the Midway dance hall. You could get booze in the parking lot there pretty easily too. On Saturday nights, when they had the big country barn dance there the place was jumping. (My mom and dad started taking me to dances when I was 10 years old… and to this day, I love it). But in the fifties, a lot of people went for the sole purpose of getting drunk and/or getting in a fight.

A lot of us kids would go out to Midway on Saturday nights and just sit in the parking lot, and watch the fights. The cowboys and farmers hated the guys from Cannon Air Force Base they called “fly jockeys”. The animosity was always bubbling in a way that could explode any minute. So, some of the guys from town would go out and sit in the parking lot and watch the fights. I only ever saw one of those fights, and it was sickening. Extremely violent. It wasn’t like the movies. These weren’t movie fights. These were awful, violent fights.

I remember one night we were at the only 24-hour cafe in Portales. It was on the outskirts of town: “The Truck Stop”. My band had just played a gig and we were getting some breakfast. It was like, one or two o’clock in the morning. Sitting at the counter were two guys, so drunk they could hardly sit up. They were loud and obnoxious and we couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. They were cussing… they had been looking for a fight all night long, and still hadn’t found one. Finally, one of them turned to the other, and said “Well, hell, let’s me and you fight!” And the two of them got up, staggered outside, and had a knockdown drag-out fight in the parking lot.

One last story about the culture in Portales where a whole bunch of guys always seemed to be looking for some kind of macho confrontation. As a way of setting this story up, I need to offer my perceived view of how the people in Portales reacted to my being in movies and tv. In all honesty, they weren’t overly excited that I had been in Deliverance. First of all, you have to remember that in 1972, Deliverance was considered by some people as bordering on pornography. So… my being in a movie didn’t impress them. Starring in a TV series, however, was a very big deal. I still don’t understand that phenomenon. I think it might be because you’re actually in their home and they talk to you and feel like they “know” you. Anyway, I was back in Portales visiting my mom and Rick and Luanne shortly after “Apple’s Way” started airing on CBS. There’s a favorite drive-up burger joint in town. Pat’s Twin Cronies, where you park, go up to the window, order your hamburger and milkshake and then stand around outside for a few minutes waiting for them to call your name. As I was waiting, I noticed a guy sitting in his pickup truck. He was staring at me and after a minute or two, he very pointedly gave me the “finger”. I looked around, wondering if he intended his gesture for someone else. Nope… I was the only one in the vicinity. I didn’t know what else to do, so I walked over… “Can I help you?” as he was getting out of his truck, he stopped and said, “Oh, hell, Ronny,… It’s you.. I thought you was some stranger. I was gonna kick your ass.

As long as I can remember there has been an enduring skeleton in our closet about the dreaded “Cox temper”. I almost never get really, really angry, but I’ve always wondered if that was my way of proving to myself that I didn’t inherit the gene. The one that makes you go into an uncontrollable rage, and blindly and brutally lash out as many of my relatives are rumored to have done. Hitting someone in anger was not only something I heard about but something I experienced as a kid. That “Cox “ trait is, sadly, present in this story.

The first time I heard this story, I was 9 or 10 years old. I heard it from my uncle Pete Mays. Uncle Pete was alternately revered or vilified for his wild… bordering on unbelievable… tall tales. My dad always said not to believe anything your Uncle Pete tells you. He said, “He just makes things up”. True… they were unbelievable but they sure were entertaining… (most of the time) This particular story was always adamantly rejected by dad and my aunts and uncles… obviously, it doesn’t paint the family in a very favorable light. But… If there aren’t snatches of truth in it, then why did my brothers and I keep hearing the details of the story.

In the late 1800s, according to Uncle Pete, my great grandfather came from some unknown place back East to homestead in New Mexico Territory. New Mexico didn’t become a state until 1912. Anyway, as he was on the way to New Mexico, he stopped and spent some time at a reservation and married a Cherokee woman. They settled on the Eastern New Mexico/West Texas border. They had three sons…. I don’t know any of their names. According to Uncle Pete, my grandfather was the middle son. This is where the “Cox Temper” enters the story:

When the youngest son was 18… by this time, the two older boys (my grandfather being one of them) had already left home. Uncle Pete said that my great-grandfather had an argument with his son and flew into an uncontrollable rage. He attacked his younger son… and in the brutal fight between them… the young son killed his father. There was a fairly quick trial, and there were several witnesses who testified that the old man attacked his son and that the son’s actions were clearly self-defense… the verdict was justifiable homicide.

Is the story true??? Uncle Pete always said the reason the relatives didn’t want the story to be told was because of the way the story ends. Even though my great-grandmother and great-grandfather had been married for over 20 years… the citizens of the Territory of New Mexico were not about to let a “squaw” own a house or property…. and she was sent back to “her people”.