COWBOYS HEROES OF YESTERYEAR
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
I was heartened recently to learn that Disney has released a new Lone Ranger movie. Back in the forties and fifties, every boy knew that a cowboy’s best friend was his horse. We knew the names of all the cowboys and all their horses. There was Red Ryder, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Straight Arrow, the Cisco Kid, Lash Larue, Monte Hale, Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger and Tonto and, far to the north, Sergeant Preston of the RCMP with his great dog Yukon King. The horses were legendary: Champion, Trigger, Fury, Topper, Tony, Diablo, Silver, Scout, and all the others.
The good guys were easily distinguished from the bad guys because they were clean-shaven, wore white hats and rode beautiful white horses or palominos. The good guys drank sarsaparilla, while the bad guys choked down whiskey. Good guys didn’t smoke or cuss, and they toted ivory-handled six shooters. Bad guys were scruffy and scratchy-looking, wore black hats and rode dirty horses. They were usually hired hands of a smirking villain who rode around in his Sunday best. We grew up against a background of thundering hooves, blaring bugles of the U.S. Cavalry, “six shooters” remarkably capable of firing hundreds of rounds without being reloaded, and thrilling background music, like the William Tell Overture.
When we saw a preview for an upcoming Roy Rogers flick, we positively levitated from our seats at the old Downtown Theater in Ashland, Ohio. Walking home from school, we would hold lengthy, learned discussions over who was the greatest cowboy, Gene Autry or the King of the Cowboys himself. To our young minds, these were serious matters. We thrilled equally to the adventures of the great Comanche warrior Straight Arrow, with his great palomino stallion Fury and his gold tipped arrowheads, as he galloped out of his secret cave to do battle with the bad guys.
We acquired wonderful treasures by mailing in box tops from tortured breakfast cereals. I still have my Hopalong Cassidy pocket knife, and I have collected those Straight Arrow “Injun-uity” cards from Nabisco Shredded Wheat, with instructions on how to construct a lean-to, build a campfire, ride a horse, send smoke signals and identify poisonous reptiles. I wonder whatever became of my Tom Mix U.S. Marshal’s badge with its whistle, signal mirror and compartment for holding secret messages or my Rin-Tin-Tin Fighting Blue Devils U.S. Cavalry flag.
We vowed to live by the tenets of the Lone Ranger’s Creed, Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code, Roy Rogers’ Rider’s Rules, the Texas Rangers Deputy Ranger Oath, or Hopalong Cassidy’s Creed for American Boys and Girls. The rule about helping those weaker than oneself could well be resurrected in today’s climate of school bullying. The emphasis upon clean, healthful living would preclude the use of narcotics. We all promised to tell the truth, keep our word, work and study hard, obey our parents, reject racism and bigotry, and be kind to animals. One hears echoes of the Boy Scout Law and the Medieval Code of Chivalry.
The violence was well choreographed and totally improbable. There was never any blood spatter or mangled corpses. Roy Rogers never shot anyone in all his movies and TV shows. Rather, he managed to shoot the guns out of the hands of malefactors, a feat I have yet to see repeated in real life. In an interview a few years before his passing, he said movies had become so risqué that he refused to allow Trigger to watch them.
The cowboy adventures took place in an Old West that existed only in the imagination. Many today wax nostalgic over the forties and fifties, a time of simplicity and innocence that also exists only in the imagination.
And yet, I find myself electrified anew by the promise that the Lone Ranger is about to ride again!