Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Hey Boy!"

Often it seems I escape the horrors of today by escaping into the horrors of yesterday.  And not the personal yesterday, but the imagined one of days beyond my natal year.  As a youngster, imagination propelled me into a future yet to come.  But as a frightened oldster, it is sometimes easier to get one's bearing in the future arrived, by measuring it to an historic and romanticized past.  And being a transplanted Westerner, that can often encompass a Wild, Wild West.
I was never overawed by the Western genre.  Its domain always seemed too primitive, lowbrow, violent and counter productive.  Westerns were the province of land barons and macho men.  It was not surprising to find Western actors were mostly Republicans.  War wagons and dead injuns.  Texas 1863 didn't change much a hundred years later.  Brains gunned down in the street.  A Nightmare on Elm Street.
So as a child, science fiction, fantasy, gothic horror, comedy and girls predominated.  War and Westerns came in last, though they did make an appearance now and then.  As mentioned somewhere here, I read the DC war comics as a kid.  OUR ARMY AT WAR.  G.I. COMBAT.  STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES and those types.  The RAT-A-TAT visuals probably caught my attention.  I remember trying to draw those kind of pictures in elementary school.  Bullets flying everywhere, with no understanding of the consequences.  Black and white obedience.  Naïve and obedient.  Like John McCain or Ben Carson.
I can't remember any real overwhelming enthusiasm for Westerns as a kid.  I know I owned a Hopalong Cassidy red metal radio.  Why?  I'm not sure.  Somewhere I enjoyed HAVE GUN - WILL TRAVEL.  I think I had a Paladin gun holster set.  I remember cap guns.  One set had these plastic bullet tips that actually fired off with the caps blasting on the ends of the casings.  I'm surprised more eyes were not taken out with those.
THE LONE RANGER didn't do much for me.  In fact, I hated that reruns of the show dominated Saturday morning TV.  Time that could have been spent running SPACE PATROL or other sci-fi films.  SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE came on frequently, but I often found that the opening of spinning laboratory equipment was more exciting than the shows themselves.  Give me RODAN blowing away a papier-mâché Tokyo any day.  That caught the parents attention.
ZORRO pulled me in, I think.  I remember playing a 45 record of the theme more than the actual shows.  My turntable speed was off, but I played it to death.  Still, over the years, I find the world of Don Diego de la Vega haunts me in subtle ways.  It could do a lot with the mythos of living in California.  Especially my 28 years being in Santa Barbara.  For that entire time, my home was walking distance from the Mission.  Red tile roofs, tiled floors, wrought iron railings and adobe.  This was the land of Zorro.

Yet while living there, these trappings were maybe too close, too familiar and easy targets for my cynical wit.  One has to get out of town to appreciate the view.  It is easier now to finish reading a book like Isabel Allende's take on ZORRO.  "Go West, young man!"  Not so young, but more comfortable to escape into that mythic Spanish California, that untamed West, the Spirit of '49, a railroad built by the Chinese.  "Wire Paladin, San Francisco."

So Westerns are like a certain food, Mexican more often than not.  Tasty when you have it.  Those taste buds may cause a Summer's viewing of all 34 episodes of YANCY DERRINGER, a HAVE GUN - WILL TRAVEL imitation, set primarily in New Orleans.  Or buying sets of ZORRO comics from different periods.  Or watching a random episode of CIMMARON STRIP with my old tie cutting buddy, Stuart Whitman.  Or watching B-movie westerns on Hugh Tube.  If you look beyond the sepia tones, you can compare the villains of old with those today.  DEADWOOD is more modern than you know.
Recently come into my possession has been a collection of autographed photos from Western actors of the '40s and '50s.  Dick Foran (who made thrillers and horror movies as well) to Roy Rogers. 

I still have a fondness for Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH, except for the fact that he was stark raving mad and had no respect for living creatures.  John Wayne was not my cowboy hero.  Obviously, he was an uber conservative, who ironically contracted cancer from nuclear tests in Utah.  I wish him no ill will.  The symbol of what he was supposed to be and what he really was has not escaped me.  When he was sick and paid his respect to incoming liberal President Jimmy Carter, I thought that had dignity.  Jimmy Stewart was also a Reagan Republican and buddy, but I liked more of his films.  His radio program, THE SIX SHOOTER, was one of the best Westerns on the wireless.  So was John Dehner in the airwave version of HAVE GUN - WILL TRAVEL and a show called FRONTIER GENTLEMAN.  I also spent many a late night listening to SGT. PRESTON OF THE YUKON.
Probably my most treasured radio premium is a compass and magnifying glass from TOM MIX.  Gold, with the Ralston Purina logo branded on the back, it belonged to my Mother in the '30s.
If we are talking radio, can we mention SPACE PIRATE RADIO and its love for the Western genre?  A ZORRO parody (lovingly, of course) was a regular feature on the show, late '80s, early '90s.  And an original character I was very fond of was RIP RAW, ROUGH RIDER.  This cantankerous hero of the desert, with his faithful Indian companion Thunderbuns and wacky Hispanic girlfriend Lupe.  Those campfire adventures bring a smile to my knees.