The Survivors Catalog Their Collective Knowledge

Since it was his idea, the cowboy poet volunteered. He was the only one who’d taken paper and pens into the fallout shelter, along with three black shirts, three pairs of black pants, a black cowboy hat, and black cowboy boots.

Being a large animal veterinarian in addition to being a cowboy poet, he was sure that he’d be needed. But, when they opened the shelter door, and discovered they could breathe the air, and nobody vomited blood or went blind, they did some exploring. All the horses and cows and other large animals in a five-mile radius were dead. His skills were useless, aside from his cowboy poetry.

He knew that the others were in despair, and so he told them that recording the information would be useful as they rebuilt their lives. The task started as a diversion but, as often happens with diversions, something significant surfaced. A realization was dawning upon the cowboy poet.

He twisted an end of his handlebar mustache pensively as he finished with another member of the group. A professor of Urban Studies. Following the cowboy poet’s excited questions, the professor admitted that he didn’t know anything about planning a city. He said he couldn’t even plan a one-horse town. This, the cowboy poet assumed, was yet another underhanded jibe at all the bragging he’d done in the fallout shelter about his large animal veterinary skills.

“You see,” the professor offered, “my specialty was urban sprawl.” He described everything he knew about sprawl, and the cowboy poet wrote it down as best he could. It took two hours and forty-seven minutes. The professor assured him that what he had was an abridged version.

Prior to the Urban Studies professor, there’d been a divorce attorney, a professional golfer, a video game designer, and a senior data processor. Like the professor, they spoke at length about what they knew. They were happy to talk and talk, even when the cowboy poet would interject a “Dang, this ain’t good at all,” from time to time.

The next man took a seat across from the cowboy poet.

“What did ya do before everything was a blown to tarnation?”

“I was a gardener.”

The cowboy poet imagined the first green tops of vegetables breaking the nuclear-winterized soil. “Well, thank Gawd,” he said, smiling.

The gardener blushed.

The cowboy poet stood up and swung his arm out toward the stretch of suffering land all around them. “So tell me, Green Thumbs, what vegetables do ya reckon we’ll put in the ground around here?”

The gardener looked about and then shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Vegetables were not my specialty.”

The cowboy poet reached up under his hat and scratched his head. He smiled again. “Okay. Nothing to get ornery about. We’ll just have ya cover this place in flowers. Prettify things. Turn this place into a second gawd damn Eden.” He looked at the others still slumped about the entrance of the shelter. Some flowers might just lift their spirits.

“I don’t really have a green thumb for flowers, either. You might say I have more of a black thumb.” The gardener smiled. “You see, I was a weed man.”

“Wacky Tabacky!” the cowboy poet boomed in his deep voice.

“No. No. Weed elimination.”

“Ya just killed weeds?”

“Just?” The gardener looked offended. “I worked for some of the wealthiest people in the Hamptons. Do you have any idea how many types of weeds can invade a lawn?”

The cowboy poet admitted that he didn’t.

The gardener began reciting weeds, holding up a finger dramatically with each name. “Well, there are bur clover, wild onion, oxalis, spurges, creeping charlie, toadflax, heartleaf drymary, curly dock, false dandelion, pennywort, henbit, purs—”

The cowboy poet punched the gardener in the jaw. “Damn Flannelmouth … Don’t any of you sonsabitches know nothing?” he yelled. “Ain’t any of you something, like a carpenter, or a hunter, or a farmer?”

Stupefied, they looked toward him with mushroom-clouded eyes.

Finally, a gray-haired man stood up. “I’m a farmer.”

The cowboy poet stepped over the gardener. “Well, thank Gawd. Put us to work, Farmer Brown. Y’alls the new sheriff in this here town, and we’re your deputies.”

Arms akimbo, the farmer surveyed the land. “Well, we’re going to need a couple hundred thousand dollars, at least.”

“What in tarnation for?”

“Equipment. I can’t do anything without the right machinery. I’ll need a dehuller and—”


“Wait,” the farmer said, raising a finger. “I’ll need to make sure this soil has the right drainage to plant sunflowers before we start anything.”

“Sunflowers! What in the Sam Hill—”

“You see, I worked on a corporate farm in Ohio. We supplied sunflower seeds for birdfeed companies all over Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.”

The cowboy poet looked off toward the real sun setting in the west. “Dang, this ain’t good,” he whispered to himself.

Lines of melancholy verse started to take shape in his mind and he wrote them down. Later, he read the poem aloud to anyone who would listen. He recited and recited until he saw the tears in their eyes. He had nothing else. That’s what cowboy poets do.

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