Saturday, June 04, 2011

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

James Arness died yesterday -- this was originally published in 2006, and republished in 2010 when Fess Parker died. I think the only one left now is Clint Walker. R.I.P., Matt Dillon.
This has been a heavy week for nostalgia. For one thing I’ve been polishing up the last short story for my collection My Last Romance and Other Passions. It is called “Treat Yourself to the Best” and, of all the fiction I’ve ever written, it is the closest to my life. In it there is a lot about making smoked sausage which set off my ramblings about soltz and sauerkraut and growing up the way I did.

There is also a conversation about 50s-era TV cowboys in which one character talks about the cowboys he loved as a kid. It is ironic that in the midst of that two popular 50s-era TV deputies should die, Don Knotts and Dennis Weaver — “Barney” and “Chester”. Reading about them brought back a lot of memories.

If you grew up in the 50s — especially with a fairly macho father and three brothers — you watched a lot of cowboys on TV. TV was loaded with cowboys back then and they were great. I loved them. I didn’t know this then but cowboys are the great American icon. They symbolized everything that a young America represented — freedom, independence, nobility, being good and doing the right thing. That was a long time ago. I’m not big on confusing the magic with the magician. I’m perfectly happy to revel in the magic and not worry about the private lives of the magicians. Frankly, I think we need more of that attitude. The cowboys I loved were heroes, good guys who could be counted on to show up when you needed them, fight the good fight, and not whine if they happened to get winged in the process.

Clint Walker was my favorite cowboy actor back then. Damn but he was fine! Cheyenne Bodie was everything you wanted in a hero, brave and shy and noble and self-effacing and strong and .... well, he was pretty gorgeous, too. I still have a movie poster from
Yellowstone Kelly hanging over my desk. Clint Walker represented something special to me and I like keeping the reminder of that handy.

Ben Johnson was more of a movie actor but the thing about it was he was a real cowboy, too. Not just an actor. When he wasn’t acting he competed in rodeos and you just knew his Texas accent was for real.

James Arness was Matt Dillon in
Gunsmoke for the entire duration of my childhood. I don’t know how long Gunsmoke ran but it seemed like something that was just a regular part of life. Matt Dillon was just the best, a good man who tried his best to do the right thing and even when he did have to shoot a bad guy you knew he felt bad about it. Plus he had his “friendship” with Miss Kitty whom I adored. She was my first real heroine. She drank whiskey out of shot glasses and wore beautiful clothes but wasn’t afraid of taking matters into her own hands (“Sam, give me the gun.”) and a couple times she rescued Matt back. Now that’s love!

Ward Bond was a little older when he was on
Wagon Train but he was the kind of guy that you knew you could put your trust in if you were going to spend half a dozen weekly episodes crossing the prairies to a better life. And Fess Parker, well, since he played both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone — I mean, come on! This was a hero's hero!

I think heroes are good things. They are archetypes that show how a human can be. I think it is unfair to expect heroes to always be perfect, the ancients knew that. The gods and heroes of their myths were flawed but heroic anyway and we need to appreciate that. It makes them more accessible. The archetype of the American Cowboy peaked in a time more innocent than now but that doesn’t make them any less valuable. For me, at least, they represented something that I, as a kid, identified as valuable — strength, nobility, honor.

With all the talk about cowboys lately because of the movie
Brokeback Mountain, I’ve been thinking about cowboys as heroes. I haven’t seen the movie — I’ll wait for the DVD. But I’ve been thinking about a retro version — Brokeback Mountian 1955. Starring John Wayne and Ben Johnson............. Noooope, sorry, folks, my mind just won’t go there.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Oh my gosh, thank you so much for this post! I can't tell you what great memories it brought back and all those handsome faces are so good to see again! Boy, they sure were good looking, weren't they? All of them were so tall, too. I wonder how many are still alive.

  2. Thanks, Linda. I can't tell you how much fun this was to write. After I read your post I looked them up and it looks like James Arness, Clint Walker and Fess Parker are all going strong. Fess Parker now owns a winery! You are right, they sure were tall! Arness, 6'7", Walker, 6'6", Parker, 6'5", and Bond and Johnson were each 6'3". Wow!

    By the way, while looking for this information I found James Arness' web site on which he writes a beautiful tribute to his good friend Dennis Weaver:

  3. Great post and great memories! "Gunsmoke" came on every Saturday night while my mom was rolling my hair up on those nasty metal curlers for Sunday school the next morning. (Boy, was that torture for a frizzy reward!)

    My faves were Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the LR and Tonto and The Cisco Kid. Later, Hugh O'Brien (Wyatt Earp) and who couldn't love Maverick (James Garner)!? Do you remember "Have Gun Will Travel" with Richard Boone as Paladin? Yeah....all that. Now I'll be singing the theme songs all day!

  4. I am awash in nostalgia. I loved the TV Westerns of my youth. My Netflix queue is full of the 3rd season of Have Gun Will Travel. Watching seasons 1 and 2 were highlights of a mostly bad 2005. Coming in a close second would be any Maverick episode with James Garner. For some reason I was more drawn to the characters who used their brains before their guns. "Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam..."

  5. How wonderful to see those faces again. I loved all those programs.My favorite was Bronco Lane. Does anyone remembere him? Rawhide, too, with Clint Eastwood. What a nice thing to think about today. Thanks.

  6. i haven't commented in awhile but i read all the time and i wanted to say how much i love this post. i wanted to marry fess parker when i grew up what a great picture of him

  7. All that cowboy talk and no mention of Turk McGurk? (I sure do hope I am remembering that correctly.)
    And speaking of Ben Johnson, one of my favorites too. I really liked him in the John Ford/John Wayne cavalry trilogy as Trooper later Sergeant Tyree. And in the Wild Bunch. You see what you have done, distracted me from my many chores with cowboy thoughts.

  8. Good blog, Kathleen. Loved all those guys. Bonanza, The Virginian, The Rifleman, sure don't make em like that any more.

  9. Ray, I'm glad you posted the line from the HGWT theme---I couldn't remember what came after

    Have gun will travel reads the card of a man
    A knight without armor in a savage land...

    I think that's it, right? You have the episodes!?!? Wow! The 3rd season is the one where Lisa Lu played Hey Girl, right? Lisa of Joy Luck Club fame (An Mei)?

  10. Seasons One Two and Three of Have Gun Will Travel are out on DVD. I got them through Netflix. Well, 1 and 2. Season 3 arrives soon. I am not sure about when Hey Girl arrives but I guess if it is season three, then I will know soon enough. Besides being more cerebrally interesting than the other cowboys, there were lots of guest stars who later became someone more noteworthy. Charles Bronson, June Lockhart, Denver Pyle, Jack Lord, to name just a few.

  11. cowboy in my mind7:29 PM, March 03, 2006

    Man, talk about a trip. When the page opened and I scrolled down and saw those faces I thought I know those guys then I realized who they were. Cool. I remember all of them and a lot more. Think I'll go out and rent the Wild Bunch and the Dirty Dozen for the weekend.

  12. I'm really enjoying everyone's comments! Seems like a lot of us have fond memories! I never watched Palladin as a kid because my Mom didn't like him. She thought the whole idea of a hired killer being the star of a show was sort of awful. I guess she only approved of sheriffs doing the killing.

    Yes, James Garner as Brett Maverick was the best. I remember that Jack Kelly played his brother Bart but can't remember who the third brother was. I still remember the episode where Brett was supposed to do something --- I don't remember what --- and he just sat in a chair whittling and whenever anyone asked him about it he'd say "I'm working on it" while Bart ran around like maniac working things out.

    Was the third brother Brent? Who played him?

  13. I don't remember a third brother but they had an English cousin named Beau who showed up in the third year. Bet you can't guess who played him? Roger Moore long before James Bond. We had never heard an English accent like that before and my sister and I were nuts about him.

  14. When I was a little girl I liked Rowdy on Rawhide - Clint Eastwood. I remember telling my dad I would marry him when I grew up.

  15. Yeah, Rowdy Yates was a hottie!

    Linda, I remember Beau Maverick. I didn't realize that was who played him though. Yum.

  16. I might be a LITTLE more cynical than you most days--those cowboys represented a lot that wasn't so great in terms of territorial expansion, order, settling things with guns, etc. But not today since I'm remembering Fess Parker so fondly. Thanks, Kathleen.....

  17. I was never much of a Gunsmoke fan (but I certainly felt a huge loss nevertheless, as I did when his brother Peter Graves passed last year), but I did love many of the others you brought up. Indeed, the wife and I are just finishing up the last few episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel via streaming through Netflix, and I still watch episodes of The Rifleman when I find them being broadcast.

    Thanks for the memories.


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