David Lauderdale

A tip of the hat to an era of island freedom

Cowboy Bob Coleman's obituary was like his life.

It was a warm ocean breeze in an air-conditioned world. It was the calloused hands of a shrimp boat striker in a world of pond-raised imports. It was a whistled tune in a world of earbuds.

"His nickname came from the cowboy boots and hat he wore while often wearing little else," it read, following his death from cancer at age 62 on June 9.

Many of the 200 people who gathered at Jump and Phil's Bar and Grill for a joyous Sunday afternoon wake told stories about a man who was the life of the party.

He arrived in the late 1960s to visit his mother. When the old swing-span bridge stopped traffic, he got out and peered down at the boat passing beneath. "It was so peaceful, and everybody else in the world was psychotic over Vietnam," he said later. "I just felt like I'd found paradise that day."

Woody Collins, now of Sheldon, gave Cowboy Bob his first job on a shrimp trawler. He says he wishes he'd said this at the wake:

"I want to propose a toast, but not to Cowboy Bob. We've lost someone else, and I'd like to propose a toast to him. It's Bob Coleman, not Cowboy Bob."

He said that was the person who would sit down with his wife, Arlene, for dinner, or sit with friends and just chat.

That was the man with a college degree in art, whose portraits of people and their pets and boats "could hang in any island art gallery with any price tag they put on it and blend right in," Collins said.

Cowboy Bob was a poet, woodworker, sailor, fisherman, musician, cook and shrimp boat striker who represents an era when everyone on Hilton Head knew each other. They worked hard. And they played hard, most fondly at the Golden Rose Park after everything else closed on Saturday night.

"It was a sense of freedom you could only understand if you lived there," said his friend Tommy Tucker, who now lives in Beaufort.

Cowboy Bob wrote a poem for a friend when he died in 2002, but we can see now that he also wrote it for himself:

I could not help but think about you, Pete

as you lay down on your sofa

and began your final sleep.

I hope a youthful smile began to cross your face

As your dying mind replayed your years

Upon this now-lost place.

I hope you smelled the marsh of old

And felt the ocean breeze upon your face.

I hope one last sweet and salty oyster

Came back just for you to taste.

I hope you went back to the Rose

For one more rib and golden night,

With the moon and live oaks dancing

Between the stars and old tail lights.

But most of all I hope you felt the magic

This island gave just for you to take

Until we meet again on an old beach road

When we too escape the rape.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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