The Old West still is a part of us
Karon has acquired a new addiction: “Gunsmoke.”
No, she hasn’t taken up shooting or Civil War reenacting. I’m talking about the old TV show.
She stumbled across a cable channel that runs a combination of religious shows and old westerns. “Gunsmoke” is just one of the offerings; there are really old ones, like the black-and-white, half-hour version with Chester, the limping deputy, and color, hour-long versions with Festus, the deputy who looked like he never bathed.
They really are pretty good. We’re the kind of couple who actually tries each other’s addictions, so I’ve been watching them and enjoying them too. They also show the original “Lone Ranger,” and I’ve thought the Lone Ranger was way cool since I was a kid. If I’d been born 10 years earlier, I would’ve been a serious fan. (My brother, who was born nine years before me, was into Zorro, who also was cool; we’ve got the era covered.)
Karon is a pretty big western fan, especially John Wayne movies. She grew up watching them. She’s attached to John Wayne westerns the way I’m attached to 1930s monster flicks, which I grew up watching.
Still, I like a good western. In fact, two of my favorite movies — “Tombstone” and “The Long Riders” — are westerns.
Part of it is that the Old West is such a part of America. Most of what people know about it might be myth and/or legend, but they’re the kinds of stories that explain much of the American character. Western movies s how everything that’s good about America (courage, cooperation), as well as everything that’s bad (Native American genocide, greed).
Sometimes, when I’m daydreaming, I imagine Wauneta as it was in the Old West. I, of course, am the editor of the town newspaper, resplendent in sleeve garters and apron.
But in case you haven’t noticed, westerns just aren’t that big a deal any more.
You can tell from Karon’s TV channel there was a time when westerns were much more of a thing, culturally speaking. TV was full of them. Benkelman’s own Ward Bond was a star of one of the most popular, “Wagon Train.” That was a classic show, but I’m betting that these days, about four-fifths of people who hear his name don’t recognize it. If you’re one of those, he also was Bert the cop in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
But aside from the occasional show on HBO, like “Deadwood,” people don’t really make westerns any more, either TV shows or movies. The last western movie I remember is “The Lone Ranger,” which came out in 2013. In was a massive bomb, in part because they cast Johnny Depp as a very weird-looking Tonto.
It would be pretty tough to make a traditional western these days. There’s that whole sticky question of genocide. It’s pretty hard to use Native Americans as the go-to bad guys these days, if you know anything about how horribly they were treated. Let’s just say the Battle of Little Big Horn wasn’t exactly unprovoked.
Maybe it’s purely the distance in time from the modern age that has made westerns fade. The Old West only lasted about 20 years anyway; after that, the frontier was quickly settled by, well, people like us.
But I can’t help feel that we’re losing an important part of our history, even if the way we learned it from the movies and TV wasn’t exactly accurate.
We’ve been losing it for a long time. I remember 15 or 20 years ago being an elementary school music concert at which one of the groups played “The William Tell Overture.” It occurred to me that while every adult in the gym had the same thought (“Hey, the Lone Ranger!”), to the kids playing it was just another piece of classical music, albeit a rather jaunty one. I don’t think I’ve ever felt older than I did at that moment.
And not all of the west’s influence on our culture has been benign. I think a big part of why guns are an issue in this country is because we so associate them with the virtues of cowboy days. But really, the two-guys-on-main-street-shootout was always fictional. Shootouts generally didn’t happen that way, and there weren’t all that many of them. Dodge City averaged less than two murders a year, far fewer than eastern cities of the day and a whole lot fewer than modern cities anywhere in this country.
And Dodge City had the most of any cattle town.
And there’s that whole Native American thing.
But as I said, there are good things too. I’m proud of being a grandchild of immigrants, but it took just as much courage to walk away from your life in the east, board a Conestoga wagon and roll the dice in the American wilderness. And once you got there, building a life and a civilization were both tough gigs.
And some of the good things have hung around. In a town like Wauneta, when somebody is in dire straits, people line up to help. That is a hangover from the old days, when cooperation wasn’t just a good thing, it was necessary. That’s lost in a lot of American places.
In forgetting the west, we also lose a part of the American narrative, skewed though it sometimes was. We’re one of a select few countries that cover an entire continent, and we conquered that continent. I doubt even the Founding Fathers envisioned a country that stretched from one ocean to the other. If you think about it, that was an amazing accomplishment.
We’ll never entirely forget the old west. It’s too much a part of us. But still, culturally, it seems to have ridden off into the sunset. And some of us call after it, like sad children..
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org