Huckaby: Finding new enjoyment from old Westerns

In a former life I taught Advanced Placement US History to very bright 11th graders. It was fun.

Some units were more fun than others, of course. One of the topics I really enjoyed teaching — back in the day, when we had time to teach — was the closing of the Frontier, the settling of the West. I always began that unit the same way. I would stand in front of the class and tell my students to begin writing on “Go,” and to list every word that came to mind when I said the term …. wait for it … Old West—Go!”

I would give them about a minute and then we would list on the board the things they had written down. Year after year, the list seldom changed.

Cowboys, Indians, saloon girls, guns, horses, bank robbers, tumbleweeds, John Wayne, bullets, cows, coyotes, and on and on and on.

The next question was always the same, too. “Where do your images of the Old West actually come from?” Yeah, I ended the sentence with a preposition. I end lots of sentences with prepositions. To try and do otherwise is nonsense, up with which I shall not put.

That answer was universal, too. Movies and old television shows.

That’s right. Most of what we know — or think we know — about the Old West we learned from watching television.

Today’s kids don’t see as many Western movies as my generation did. They know about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dancing with Wolves, True Grit, Open Range and 3:10 to Yuma. A few have watched all the John Wayne movies with their fathers, but not many.

As for modern westerns on TV —well, that train has, apparently, done run. There are none on the main broadcast channels.

But I have learned something in retirement. Westerns are alive and well on cable television. It has been way too cold over the past few days — and practically this entire winter — to spend much time outside. Honesty compels me to admit that I have spent more than my fair share of time in front of the television and a fair part of most of my days is spent watching cowboys, shoot ‘em up, bang bang.

Almost all of the shows I watched growing up are available each and every day and they haven’t lost much over time, either. I never was a big fan of Gunsmoke coming up, but I watch Marshal Dillon and Miss Kitty and Doc and Festus and Chester and the gang several times a day now, when I am home. The episode I saw this very afternoon featured Matt and Kitty trying to get out of town for a vacation in St. Louis, their first trip out of Dodge together in18 years. Made me wonder why Matthew never made an honest woman out of Kitty after all those years. I also wish I knew how many people the good marshal killed during his tenure on television. Must have been at least one an episode. They all needed killing though.

Bonanza is on quite frequently, too. Now that was my very favorite. It started out on Saturday night but soon moved to Sunday, and I still haven’t quit being mad about the moon landing pre-empting Hoss and Adam and Little Joe’s shenanigans, even though it was summer and my daddy assured me that Bonanza would have been a re-run if it had come on that historic night.

Nowadays I question a few things on Bonanza, like how old was Ben when he sired Adam? Pernell Roberts was born in 1928 in Waycross, Ga., and Lorne Greene was born in Canada only 13 years earlier. I wonder how Ben avoided getting in trouble with the law over having a kid at only 13. And Dan Blocker, who played Hoss, was born in 1928, too, just like the Roberts, who played brother Adam.

Of course, according to the Bonanza story line, Adam and Hoss had different mamas, so I guess that’s not such a big deal, but that Ben was a mischievous little teenager, I’ll tell you that.

Another great show was the Rifleman, starring Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, a widower who was trying his best to eke a living out of a small ranch while raising his son Mark. Chuck Connors was 6 feet 6 inches tall and played basketball for the Boston Celtics and baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears, but never found time to suit up in the NFL. Too busy shooting people with that fancy rifle he had rigged up, I suppose.

And people thought Deion Sanders was versatile.

Bat Masterson still comes on, as does Wyatt Earp and Paladin (Have Gun will Travel), and if you search the dial long enough you can find occasional episodes of Wagon Train and Tales of Well Fargo. I’m still searching for my Saturday morning favorite, however.

“Out of the blue of the Western sky comes ‘Sky King!’”

“Penny to songbird, Penny to Songbird.”

One day Hollywood will figure out that people still like cowboy movies and that will be the next big new thing.

Until then, if you are looking for me this winter, I’ll be in the house watching Matt Dillon and Ben Cartwright and his sons.