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Last updateMon, 27 Nov 2017 12am

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Head ’em up, move ’em out

My favorite apps (excuse me, applications) on my Apple iPhone, which yes, also doubles as a cell phone, is Youtube and the video clip I visit the most is the opening to a long ago western TV series called “Rawhide.” The show, whose cast included Clint Eastwood, follows the adventures of cowboys on a cattle drive. The first line of the theme song is “head ‘em up, move ‘em out.” At heart I am convinced I am a cowboy. And yes, I even own a cowboy hat (or “wide brimmed” hat as they call it out west) and

I also have at quarter horse.
I don’t know if I would have been any good at being a cowboy. Shooting rattlesnakes, sitting in the saddle for 12 hours a day, herding cattle and getting into bar fights isn’t really in my make-up. However, the image of the cowboy, something akin to medieval knight on his horse, has been a part of our American identity for over 150 years. Some of our cowboy heritage is true, some of its legend, but that image of the cowboy and the American west found its way into our culture through stories, western novels, movies and TV shows. To much of the world the cowboy is still an American icon.
But, sadly, in modern America, the cowboy and the western have faded into the background. The “wild west,” according to an obscure demographic report, came to an end, at least statistically, in 1894 when the west was at least technically settled. Some would argue it lasted quite a bit longer. That was a long time ago. Today, we look for heroes in other places. But not me, and to my delight, the western, if only in reruns of old TV shows and movies, lives on.
In the mid-1960’s, when I was a boy, half of the American network prime time television shows were westerns. My father and I were committed devotees of a show starring James Garner called “Maverick.” He was a gambler. He was glib, funny, could handle himself in a fight, and while always claiming to be out for himself, always seemed to be a good guy. Occasionally, to this day, quoting Bret Maverick’s signature line, I will still say, “…as my old pappy used to tell me.” There was also “Bonanza,” the “High Chaparral,” “Have gun will travel” and the “Wild Wild West.” Then, of course, no listing of favorites is complete without “Gunsmoke.” This was one of TV’s longest running shows. Sheriff Matt Dillon, Festus, Kitty and Doc are charming memories. And Matt, while a good Sheriff, and always the good guy, wasn’t much into Miranda Rights. He was quick with a six gun.
These shows, unless you buy a DVD set, are hard to find these days. But fortunately, some of the classic western movies are still on cable. I have watched John Wayne and Dean Martin in the “Sons of Katie Elder” at least twenty times. Maybe more. I would include the “Magnificent Seven” and “El Dorado” in that list too. And if the “Man who Shot Liberty Valance,” a Jimmy Stuart and John Wayne pairing is on I will drop everything to watch it. In one of its closing scenes the lead character, who goes on to become a U.S. Senator after supposedly shooting a notorious outlaw years before reveals to a newspaperman that he didn’t shoot the villain. This is followed by the reporter’s comment, as he rips ups his notes from the interview, “Senator, when the truth becomes the legend, print the legend.” It’s been a tag line that’s lasted for years.
Westerns started early in America. Stories about Davy Crockett and his exploits in what was then the west (still on the eastern side of Mississippi) were in print long before he was killed at the Alamo. After the Civil War, the western novels, “dime novels” as they were called, were everywhere. 19th century America, particularly people in the big cities consumed these tales as fast as they were printed.
However, it was Hollywood, better than anyone, who understood the western. Movie makers made thousands of western serials (shown mostly to children on Saturday mornings before the main feature), movies, and later, TV shows. It’s not well known, but during the silent era, one the early production advisers, working with western star Tom Mix, was a product of the old west himself – Wyatt Earp of “Shootout at the OK Corral” fame.
The cowboy and the western – with its hosts of characters – has been a backdrop for stories of all kinds. There was the classic drama of good versus evil and often a story about one person, facing a moral dilemma, trying to do the right thing. With the west’s collection of lawmen, villains, virtuous and not so virtuous frontier women, Indians, cattlemen, gun slingers and outlaws the number of tales was endless. And when it came to the cowboy, I’ve often thought, with apologies to Sir Walter Scott, he was “Ivanhoe with a wide brimmed hat, a horse and a revolver.” He was a lonely knight on a horse. The cowboy and the western are a part of the American culture, and to this day, I can’t get enough of them.
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