The Cowboy Way
The other night, I was sealed in the Barcalounger, about half-conscious, hazing in and out, just about to quit fightin' my eyelids for the night. I decided to cycle the remote one last time, just in case there was anything on worth watching, then call it. Three channels before the surf turned to turf, I hit a strange sight. The screen was framed in black, but there was blinding light coming through a doorway. And standing in that doorway was the shadow of a man. He is standing on the outside looking in, holding his arm with his other hand, and his head drops a little as the door blows shut, fading the screen into black.
Recognize the scene? It happens in the last two minutes of a movie called The Searchers, one of the best Westerns ever made. As the screen went black, I turned off the TV. That two-minute film clip threw me into a flood of memories about the genre known as the Western, the only genre that Hollywood can take total credit for inventing.
My grandfather, Poppa Billy, sat me down to watch my first western. No singing good guy like Roy or Gene, though. I watched Stagecoach, sitting on Poppa Billy's lap, surrounded by the aromas of pipe tobacco and homemade buttered popcorn. We were on the sofa, staring at the black and white screen. Poppa Billy answered every question I had, like "Why'd he have to shoot that man?" and "Is she gonna be all right?" He never lost his patience, and he set me up for hundreds of weekends to come.
Poppa Billy walked me through the beauty of Monument Valley in California, as seen through the eyes of John Ford and Howard Hawks. He taught me how to yodel along with Roy and Gene, and, my personal favorite, Rex Allen. He showed me how, like The Lone Ranger, I was supposed to shoot the gun out of a man's hand rather than hurt him. It was the way of The Cowboy.
As I grew up, I started finding out that cowboys were a little more complex than I thought. Liberty Valance taught me that you couldn't always believe the legends. The Cowboys taught me that, yes, even a good guy could get bit by the bullet sometimes. McClintock taught me that the West could be pretty dang funny at times. I learned that, sometimes, you just have to stand up for what you believe in as I sat through The Magnificent Seven. And, my first inkling of racism in society came from the aforementioned masterpiece that is John Ford's The Searchers.
One hot June day, Poppa Billy came by the house to take me for a ride. We stopped at the Carver Point Drug Store & Soda Stand. Over ice cream, Poppa Billy broke the news to me that John Wayne had died. And I noticed that, while I felt like I'd lost a good friend, Poppa Billy sounded like he'd lost a brother. The first image that came into my head as I sat there in silence with Poppa Billy was that scene in The Searchers. Like in the movie, the outsider looking in had turned to leave, and the door had blown shut behind him.
I shook myself out of that late night daze after a wistful spell. It was three o'clock in the morning, but, suddenly, I wasn't sleepy any more. I went over to my desk and found a pipe that Poppa Billy had given me a long time ago. I loaded it with some cherry blend tobacco. I walked to the rack of tapes on the wall and pulled out my copy of The Searchers.
I lit the pipe, punched play, and Orson and I watched a classic as the sun came up, surrounded in a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke and memories of cowboys, stagecoaches, horses, and Poppa Billy.
Get "reel" soon,
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