I broke a six year abstinence last week when I bought a television. I’d like to say it was the hunger for PBS and documentaries that triggered my purchase but honesty demands I tell the truth. I was eager to watch the Red Carpet for the Academy Awards show. Yes, I know they are totally shallow and over-hyped, and the program itself too long and too boring – but I was hungry to see the ‘glossy’ people, who they are with and how they are dressed, definitely a show in themselves.
I did stop short of getting cable and in the days that followed, I investigated regular programming. I am watching this 21st century television with a $5 rabbit ears antenna. I get ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, plus a handful of foreign language and shopping networks, and, most importantly three or four local tv stations. These local stations have accomplished the impossible. They are time machines and have taken me back sixty years. I am now watching the same tv programs I watched as a child on our first, refrigerator-sized television.
For example, I can watch Wagon Train, Bonanza, My Little Margie, Hogan’s Heroes, Perry Mason, Gilligan’s Island, I Married Joan, Ozzie & Harriette, and many other hits of the 50’s and 60’s. Most importantly, on Saturday afternoon I am able to watch Gaby Hayes’ Western Theater. This was my favorite show of childhood. It came on a 4 o’clock, just after I got home from school and just before Howdy Doody and dinnertime.
Gaby’s show featured the grade B westerns of the 30’s and 40’s with stars such as Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Smiley Burnette, Harry Carey, Andy Devine, Sunset Carson, Hoot Gibson, Tim Holt, Lash LaRue, Slim Pickens and Tex Ritter. Of the scores of cowboys featured on the screen there were only a handful of women, foremost among them being Dale Evans.
As I watched Gaby this weekend I realized how important these westerns had been to my upbringing. The westerns, along with my weekly hour in catechism as St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church, had poured the foundation of my ethics and morality. The cowboy movies always showed the good guys and the bad guys, and in case you got confused you could always identify who was who by the color of their hats or shirts. The bad guys invariably wore black hats.
Cowboys were my heroes and for many years I longed to be a boy if only to be able to ride a horse and be a sheriff. In fact, I had a cowboy costume with cowboy boots and hat – not to mention a black Hopalong Cassidy bike with a cap gun holster near the handlebars. My favorite song (to which I knew all the words) was “Don’t Fence Me In.” Here’s a great version by Gene Autry:
What did cowboy movies teach me? I had the certainty that by the end of the story, the good guys would win – after some hard knocks and/or gun fights- and that justice would be served, the bad guys would end up dead or in jail. Goodness always triumphed. Indeed, the westerns were the modern version of the morality plays performed in church courtyards in the Middle Ages. While church and catechism gave me the philosophic and spiritual lenses through which to view the world, the westerns provided me with hands-on, practical, how-to information.
Cowboy movies taught me the need to have courage even through you were surrounded by hostile Indians or bandits; to stand up for what you believed in especially if it involved barb wire fences, squatters or water rights; to sit with your back to the wall and your eye on the saloon door; that women and children were to be protected and respected; that the only thing worse than a coward was a traitor; that truth was more important than winning; that modesty and purity, especially for women, was more important than beauty; that a horse is the best friend you could ever have; and finally, that every trail has an end and if you rode out into the sunset there was a chance for a new beginning. All in all, not a bad list of guidelines for living life.
The black and white innocence and unquestioning righteousness of the cowboy movies gave a lot of security to my world view as a child. These years were the 50’s, the time of the rise of the middle class, suburbs, tv dinners, and highways across the nation. One of these highways eventually led me to the very land where all those westerns were made, California, the sunset at the end of my personal trail.