Back in the saddle again
There are no more cowboys in our lives.
No, I’m not talking about the Dallas football team. Real cowboys, the he-men of my childhood, have gone the way of buggy whips and Burma Shave signs.
When I was a kid, Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, was one of my heroes. I don’t know why he was my favorite except that he might have been a good father figure in my single parent household. After all, Roy Rogers had Dale, Trigger, and Bullet while Gene had only his sidekick, Champion the Wonderhorse. I sat in the dark theater mesmerized by his songs, his manly looks, and a kind smile. He was honest, good-hearted and stood for all that was right. Plus he was sturdy. I guess I was a teenager before I realized he was getting fat.
I realized recently that my grandchildren know nothing about the whole cowboy schtick, but then again, I’m not sure my children did either. We’ve abandoned the gunfighters and trail riders as heroes. They’re hopelessly old-fashioned given the competition for a child’s imagination these days and frankly, we have politically corrected them out of our everyday society.
Depending on your age, think about Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, the Cisco Kid, Zorro, Roy Rogers, and my Gene. Then came Maverick, Wyatt Earp, Clint Walker and a whole rodeo-full of more names in the early ’60s. By the time Bonanza and finally, Gunsmoke wrapped up, the TV cowboys were all over but the shootin’. I still remember a grizzled John Wayne riding the trail in True Grit.
And yet, there have been occasional western flicks such as Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven that have meritoriously shown us the more serious side of the western frontier. I find the newer “cowboy” films are more steeped in history and more apt to be psychodramas.
But Gene Autry reigned supreme in my childhood. Although I was a girl with the usual dolls and dollhouse, being a tomboy meant I also had a fielder’s mitt and the most coveted toys of all – a holster and gun set. I remember receiving the imitation pearl-handled cap guns for my autumn birthday. I was probably 7 or 8. My mother was progressive – and she listened to my pleas.
That Christmas, Santa brought red cowboy boots . . . be still my heart. Very pointy, they were also a little big which presented a challenge – trying not to kill myself heading down our apartment stairway. Santa knew they would need to fit for a while and the snows of winter gave me some growing time before I headed out to the O.K. Corral.
The cowboy hat, fringed vest, and chaps came later. If you were going to face off against another buckaroo, it was more impressive to be fully rigged out, or so I thought. The boys laughed at me. They simply wore their holsters over their jeans or corduroys and most didn’t even have hats. The most rotten kid in the neighborhood did have a hat – a black one. I knew from Gene’s movies that the black hats were the bad guys so it was easy to hate the creep even more after he showed up in that hat. He teased me about my beloved complete outfit. “None of that’s going to do you any good because girls can’t be real cowboys. You can’t shoot and when the Indians come, they go after the weak ones first and that’ll be you.”
The Indians never came. And when I think about it, no one ever played the Indian role in the schoolyard or the backyard – only at Thanksgiving pageants.
I don’t know what triggered the first generational push away from playing cowboys. Was it our growing sensitivity to guns? That was certainly a factor. World War II or Korea might have been an influence as boys who grew up playing with guns then had to use them for real. And as a culture, we began to realize the injustices committed against the native tribes in our earlier history.
As a child, all I wanted to do with my matching six-guns was shoot my rolls of caps, make as much noise as possible and show the boys that I could hold my own in their cowboy world. We were not, of course, socially conscious.
And then came the space age. Star Wars launched different toys for my children. It took me a while to figure out that the games were the same – just the equipment and the language changed. Space exploration replaced the Wild West, Transformers replaced the horses and wagons and lightsabers replaced the cap guns.
Jump forward a quarter century and the Star Wars resurgence dominates video games. I think Gene Autry would be upset to think that young kids are sitting in their houses with their noses pressed to their cell phone or their trigger fingers moving rapidly over their Xbox controls.
I think he wanted us out on the plains, pretending to save the world from the bad guys and getting to know each other cowpoke to cowpoke, kid to kid.
His theme song still echoes in my mind some days:
“Back in the Saddle again.
Out where a friend is a friend.
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed
Back in the saddle again.”
It was a simpler time. Sigh.
Marcy O’Brien is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. She can be reached at Moby.firstname.lastname@example.org.