There is a boy in a wheelchair at the Texas Book Festival. He is wearing a brown T-shirt that says, “Can’t STOP me” and a helmet. He is wearing this helmet inside a building, where he is waiting to hear the author of the Hank the Cowdog books, John R. Erickson.
While he waits, the boy reads the newest book in the series, No. 52, “The Quest for the Great White Quail.” As soon as the session empties, the boy’s mother wheels him inside to a spot near the front. She hangs his helmet on his wheelchair; he won’t need it when Hank, the Head of Ranch Security, is around.
For those of you unfamiliar with Hank, well, he’s a cowdog and he isn’t the brightest bulb in the lampshade. He swallows fishhooks, he loses arguments with raccoons, and he foolishly attacks porcupines. I have loved Hank since I read his first adventure shortly after I saw Erickson perform at Baylor in 2004. When I heard he would be at the Texas Book Festival, I rearranged my schedule to attend.
As the room fills, I see cowboy hats and baseball caps, old folks and teenagers. Children of all races clutch Hank books. And then, there is that boy in the wheelchair, sitting in front of me. I hear his mother say that her son is newly 11 and that he has a Hank poster on his bedroom door. I catch the words “rare” and “neurological.” They traveled all the way from Michigan to see the creator of his hero.
Then John Erickson enters: book peddler, dog handler, Panhandle rancher and banjo picker. He is dressed for the occasion in black Wranglers and boots, a white cowboy shirt, a gray wool vest and a red kerchief tie. Erickson looks as out of place in the capital of Texas as this boy in the wheelchair from the Midwest. No matter. He plays one note on his banjo and sings the word, “chickens.” The audience roars with laughter. With one note and one word, Erickson’s got ’em, as if that banjo were a lasso.
He sings three songs, each from the point of view of a different character in the series. The first records Hank’s yearning to eat the chickens he should be protecting. The next, “Alas and Alack,” details the bachelor cowboy Slim’s experience at the circus. The final song is a ballad sung by buzzards, “A Pox, A Pox on Emily Post.”
Unlike other children’s presenters, Erickson does not pontificate on the subject of writing. He’s there to entertain. The banjo only disappears long enough for him to read a passage from No. 50, “The Case of the Most Ancient Bone.” The story concerns a girl dog from Austin named Saffron, and Hank’s misguided efforts to woo her.
While Erickson reads, the boy in the wheelchair is practically howling with laughter. He leans back in his chair and makes a peculiar sound, but there is no mistaking the emotion on his face.
Erickson takes the banjo again and plays more songs. He doesn’t strum the banjo but uses fingerpicks, playing the strings almost like a classical guitarist. The sound is part country, part bluegrass, all entertainment.
When he asks for questions, the audience responds with song requests. Someone calls out for “Me Just a Worthless Coyote.” Erickson reminds the audience that the song has no tune, since it was written by worthless coyotes. Nevertheless, he gives it a shot, and everyone sings along, off-key. In such a rowdy environment the fact that the boy in the wheelchair sings a bit too slowly is unimportant. Erickson closes with another popular coyote song, “We Don’t Give A Hoot.”
Erickson bows and the boy gives loud, oversized claps. Most of the audience files downstairs to wait for Erickson’s autograph, but a few head straight for the author-cowboy. The boy’s mother wheels him right to the front; some people know when to cut in line. Erickson removes his pen as they approach. He signs the boy’s book, then hugs the mother. He signs no other autographs upstairs.
When Erickson published his first Hank stories in The Cattleman, a ranching magazine, he had had no idea the power this ol’ cowdog would wield. When Hank started getting his own letters from children, Erickson borrowed $2,000 to start his own publishing company. He sold out his first Hank book in six weeks, hawking it from the back of his pickup at rodeos and cattle auctions. Hank just turned 25. I believe that’s 175 in dog years.
Thanks, Mr. Erickson, for creating a hero who isn’t smart or strong or even particularly effective as the Head of Ranch Security. Hank is a hero because he lifts our spirits. Like a certain boy in a wheelchair, he just can’t be stopped.