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20th-Century Cowboy

November 13, 1987|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

"I had an uncle named Joe Johnson. He had one eye and he was an ornery critter. He wore a derby hat and mule-ear boots. You ever see those boots with mule ears? on 'em? You know you had to be tough to wear a derby as a cowboy."

Delane Kendall speaks of his late Uncle Joe with all the reverence a VFW member might reserve for Douglas MacArthur. But one fears that if Uncle Joe were still around to see Nephew Delane sitting out on the patio of his Rancho Mission Viejo home--with three TVs inside wired for cable--he might give his whippersnapper nephew a fierce one-eyed look and flog him a bit with his derby.

"This is how you carry on the cowboy tradition?" Uncle Joe might ask.

Well, Uncle Joe, give Delane a break. He's trying.

Never mind that he hasn't slept in a bunkhouse in 10 years or rolled his own cigarette since he was 13. Or that he spends much of his workweek driving around a ranch in a pickup truck with a briefcase on the seat.

He does wear cowboy hats and boots and Levis. And his heart is all cowboy.

That's got to count for something, Uncle Joe. After all, it's not easy being a 20th-Century cowboy just a lariat's throw from several major shopping malls.

"I tell people I'm a cowboy," Kendall says. "Every once in a while, I run into somebody who doesn't believe it. They say, 'Are you for real?' I say, 'I hope so.' "

From high on a ridge in Chiquita Canyon on the 40,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo, Kendall looks out over open range, over territory that looks much as it did 100 years ago when R.J. O'Neill bought it, and sees the present and the future. One can't help but picture the past, too: Indians standing on another ridge a century ago, watching silently as progress assaulted them.

Stretched in front of Kendall is a broad expanse of scrub brush and green valleys that eventually leads into traffic and high-rise condos in the populous heart of Orange County. But from the ridge, where one can see cattle grazing and two-point deer idling under an oak tree, the past is holding down the fort, forestalling the ineluctable onslaught of people and progress.

"The freeway's down over that hump," Kendall says, pointing westward. "Santa Ana's over there. If it were clearer today, all you'd see out there would be houses, houses, houses."

He doesn't say it hatefully. His 60th birthday behind him last summer, Kendall is wise enough to know that people in modern societies need houses. But he can remember a different time--a time fast approaching 50 years ago--when he rolled his own cigarettes on a cattle drive, when he spent nights on the trail between Reed Valley and Lake Hemet in neighboring Riverside County and bathed in icy creek waters, and when he wrote letters home by the light of a Coleman lamp.

Kendall is a cowboy--in all that the word conjures up. He's got the telltale battle scars--the bum right knee that a steer smashed and the fingers gnarled from working the reins and ropes. He also speaks with a cowboy's directness. Why ramble through a complicated sentence when a bit of plain talk will do? Ask him, for example, why he's still a cowboy--one of about a dozen working cowboys left in the county, by his estimate.

"Because I want to. That's the only answer I can give."

He abandoned plans to have his own ranch and settled in 18 years ago as superintendent of the cattle operation at the ranch, still owned by the pioneering O'Neill family. As "cow boss," Kendall supervises three cowboys, performing much of his work in the pickup equipped with a two-way radio. The briefcase is filled with papers and information about the cattle that goes into a computer.

"I've got to be partly businessman," he says. "Some of these younger cowboys wouldn't give a hoot. All they want to do is get up in the morning, saddle a horse and work. As far as sitting down and doing the book work, they could care less. Some of them hate it. But every ranch had a foreman. All through the years, ever since they had cattle ranches, there's got to be someone who wants to sit down and keep track of something."

For Kendall, that means monitoring cattle prices and tending to 1,000 head. When the business day is done, he often retires to his den, where he either flips on the TV or--more likely--dips into a book. His library features Herman Wouk and James Michener but is top-heavy with Western history and Robert Ludlum spy thrillers.

That's not to say Kendall, married and the father of two grown children, doesn't saddle up anymore. He does, but it's no longer a staple of the job. "We're not supposed to go out and sleep in the saddle every night," he says.

Kendall is not one to glorify the cowboy mystique. "Some people love horses," he says. "I never had a horse I loved. Some I liked more than others.

"You'd be surprised," he says, debunking another myth, "how many people I meet who say they'd love to come out and ride with me and be a cowboy. There's always the movies to make it seem so romantic. That's a bunch of bull."

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